Sadie Sink Is Ready for Her Next Act

With Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale, the Stranger Things actress goes from plucky child star to a major Oscar contender.

A portrait of Sadie at the premiere of 'The Whale' in fall of 2022
Photograph by Getty; image treatment by Ashley Peña

Sadie Sink’s brother, Mitchell, spent weeks helping her learn lines for The Whale. Before arriving on set for rehearsals, director Darren Aronofsky requested the actress memorize the script from start to finish—and so Sink enlisted Mitchell, one of four siblings who cultivated a love for acting alongside the Stranger Things star early on (as children, they watched performances from the Tonys on YouTube, along with whatever bootleg Broadway musicals they could find online). Naturally, Mitchell became intimately familiar with the material in the A24 film, which stars Brendan Fraser in a career-reviving turn as Charlie, a morbidly obese online literature teacher trying to save his relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, played by Sink. But the 20-year-old actress says that her brother still wasn’t emotionally prepared for the film when he watched it for the first time at its premiere in New York City on November 29.

“He was sobbing,” Sink tells me over Zoom a few days later. “My whole family was there, and they were a wreck, too. They’ve never seen me in something like this.”

Indeed, The Whale (out December 21 nationwide), is the first time most audiences are seeing Sink in such a role. You might recognize her as the sassy, angsty Max from Stranger Things, whose fiery red hair trails behind her wherever she goes. But The Whale marks Sink’s departure from the popular Netflix show with a rabid fandom—which will film its final season next year—and a move into Cinéma with a capital C.

Mostly regarded as a plucky child actress up until this point, Sink is experiencing her breakout moment into the world of arthouse films with big names and character acting. The shift is part of a narrative that’s been circling entertainment media since The Whale premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in September (where it received a six-minute standing ovation that left Fraser in tears). According to Sink, it’s also an accurate depiction of the last year, which has seen her acting career filled with milestones—including starring in Taylor Swift’s first short film, All Too Well.

“Being a child actor, there’s an understanding that your job is to come in, stand on your mark, know your lines, take direction, and beyond that, nothing else,” Sink says. “That’s the space I was coming from—for the most part, you’re there to just kind of be a puppet. With Stranger Things, that was different, but I still felt some hesitation in terms of having ideas or asking for another take to try something different.” But all that changed with The Whale, Sink says. “I had conversations and all sorts of ideas about Ellie with Darren. By the end of it, for those big, emotional scenes, you feel so comfortable with your character and the text, with the people in the room, that you can fully lean into it. I don’t know if I could have done that a year ago.

“I never stepped into this side of the film industry before, but I was really eager for it,” she continues. “To have this opportunity and a role like this…I’m not sure there will ever be another as special as this one, at least for a while.”

Sadie Sink as Ellie in The Whale.

Courtesy of A24

In many ways, The Whale does feel like lightning in a bottle, a film that could not have been created outside of its very special circumstances. Aronofsky, Fraser, Sink, and costars Hong Chau and Ty Simpkins filmed the entire thing in “a random town in upstate New York” Sink recalls, during the height of the pandemic in 2020. “It was fate that we filmed it when we filmed it,” she says. “Covid precautions were really strict. But those precautions contributed to the performances and the movie as a whole. There were no outside distractions. We couldn’t go anywhere. We’d only see other people when we were on set, we had to be alone.

“And even though it was an Aronofsky film, it just felt so tiny,” she adds. “We were a small cast, a small crew. To go from that to, two years later, touring this film around the world, it was like a huge zero to 100, real quick.”

Based on the 2012 Samuel D. Hunter play of the same name, the film has a distinctly theatric feel. Each scene takes place inside Charlie’s home, where he is bound by his health struggles and visited daily by best friend Liz (Chau), wandering LDS missionary Thomas (Simpkins), and ultimately, Charlie’s daughter Ellie (Sink), with whom he shares a strained relationship after leaving her and her mother behind for another man. When Ellie shows up at his house nearly a decade after he left, Charlie has gained hundreds of pounds and Liz, who is a nurse, insists he will die soon. Ellie, filled with rage and resentment, stomps around his home, crackling with hostility and hurt. She teases him cruelly for his appearance (which was created by a fat suit and prosthetics) and torments the missionary, who hopes to save Charlie. To capture Ellie’s pain, Sink and Aronofsky nerded out on acting fundamentals—experimenting with blocking, the character’s way of moving through the apartment, and the different forms in which her anger manifested.

“During the three weeks of rehearsals, we were in a warehouse space in the shape of the apartment, with tape on the ground,” Sink says. “When we got to set, I was like, man—this is gonna be fun. This is Ellie’s playground.”

It would be easy to write Ellie off as an angsty teen—perhaps one no different from Sink’s other well-known character on Stranger Things, Max. But the actress says she was painstaking in her attempts to separate the two teenagers.

“If you read Ellie a certain way, you assume she’s just a brat,” she adds. “I didn’t want to fall into that. It was definitely a conscious effort to never bring Max into it. They do share a certain wit, or sarcasm, but Ellie’s a whole other beast.”

Brendan Fraser, Samuel D. Hunter, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, and director Darren Aronofsky attend The Whale red carpet at the 79th Annual Venice International Film Festival on September 4, 2022.

Photo by Stefania D'Alessandro/WireImage

Whether Ellie is a good or bad person is a constant question throughout the film (for his part, Charlie utterly dotes upon his daughter, calling her “an amazing person”). “I went back and forth with it while I was filming, and I think Darren did, too,” Sink says. “We’d try different takes: a pure evil version and then one with a little bit more empathy.” The final scene of The Whale, a dramatic, heartstring-tugging interaction between Ellie and Charlie, left Sink emotionally spent. “That scene took over three days,” she says. “I remember after that third day, I went home and I was so emotional because that was it.” Clearly, those efforts have paid off, as Sink is currently in the conversation for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

But the career milestones of the actress’s big moment are not overshadowed by the lessons she’s taking into her real life, and the next projects she’ll pursue, including the drama Berlin Nobody alongside Eric Bana. She points to learning about speaking up from being on The Whale set, putting forth her ideas and contributing notes. Sink also mentions filming All Too Well with Swift, who taught her that being free on set is key to conjuring a beautiful performance. “It felt so strange to have the room and move wherever; but it was a fun acting exercise, one that she fully encouraged,” Sink says. “Just being spontaneous, doing whatever. It can be messy and you can improvise an entire scene and she may or may not use it. That’s something about her creative process I'll probably take with me.”

Taylor Swift and Sadie Sink attend “In Conversation With... Taylor Swift” during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2022.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Another lesson from the Midnights musician: find the people who are going to lift you up and keep them around. Sink says she received advice from Swift about a personal relationship she needed help figuring out.

“It’s tricky, navigating friendships when your world is constantly changing and you’re never in the same place for too long,” she says. “It’s important to have friends that are real and only want to be around you for the right reasons. People who actually have your best interests at heart can be really hard to find, and that’s something everyone in my position—in Taylor’s, or any of the cast members on Stranger Things—goes through.”

The lessons will, no doubt, continue streaming in as Sink’s career takes off even further. But when contemplating her banner year, the actress prefers to zoom out, all the way back to those early days on YouTube with her brother. “It feels like everything actually happened gradually,” she says. “I look at everything I’ve done and it’s all been so fulfilling. So as long as I continue to just chase that, I know I’ll still like it.”