ELLE – “In a lot of ways, I have been preparing for this character my entire life,” says Maya Hawke, who plays the tenacious, theatrical Jo March in the PBS miniseries adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 classic, Little Women (which will air May 13). Indeed, the 19-year-old actress seems as earnest and impassioned over vegan matcha lattes in a Brooklyn coffee shop as her Jo does, say, when rejecting a dear friend’s romantic advances onscreen.
Hawke’s preparations began when Hawke was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child; Little Women was one of the first books she read by herself. “Jo was a big inspiration to me,” she says, “as far as having the drive and the passion to pursue my love for reading and writing, even when it was challenging.” Hawke, who grew up in New York, ended up attending Saint Ann’s, an arts-oriented private school in Brooklyn, where she explored and nurtured her love of literature and theater.
Until just under a year ago, Hawke was deeply entrenched in her first year of Juilliard’s prestigious drama program. While she starred in campaigns for AllSaints and Calvin Klein in 2016 and 2017, until very recently she was still a relative unknown. But she made the decision to drop out of Juilliard at the end of her second semester so that she might spend four months in Ireland filming Little Women. Since then, she has moved into her first apartment, gone on a road trip from New Mexico to Los Angeles—she was, in her own typically exuberant words, “overwhelmed by the beauty and the majesty of this nation”—and shot her first movie, a female-driven indie called Ladyworld about a group of teenage girls at a truly hellish sleepover birthday party. This spring, she sat front row at Tom Ford’s Fall 2018 show and was immediately dubbed New York Fashion Week’s “breakout beauty star.”
Hawke might have left drama school to play this role, but she got to work alongside such dramatic heavyweights as Emily Watson and Angela Lansbury as Marmee and a hilarious Aunt March, respectively. While she’s incredibly proud of the series, it left her thinking about Juilliard. “One thing about leaving your training early,” she notes, “is that it leaves you with all the tools with which to criticize yourself, without the skills to be able to implement the things that you know you’re supposed to be doing.”
Nevertheless, she says that acting has always felt natural, “like swimming or breathing or kissing.” This is unsurprising, since talent may literally be in her genes (and here is the other way that life has prepared her): Hawke’s parents are Hollywood luminaries Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, whose respective curriculum vitae include Academy Award nominations; writing, directing, and producing credits; and starring roles in cult classics including Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, the Before trilogy, and The Dead Poets Society.< Some of Hawke’s earliest memories are from various movie sets, including when the family moved to China for six months while Thurman filmed Kill Bill. Hawke was four years old, and would “watch my mom get the shit kicked out of her while I ate gummy bears” (a statement that, in the light of Thurman’s February New York Times op-ed, takes on a startlingly sad dimension). In 2009, she hung out backstage while her father rehearsed and performed Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, an observational position many a young actor might pay to inhabit. “I would sit and watch the dress rehearsal, I would watch them get notes,” she says. “I’ve always been kind of a voyeur.”
Growing up with parents who frequently made headlines—primarily for their notable performances, but also for their much talked about divorce in the early aughts—Hawke has been privy to the positives and negatives that come with fame: “The world of celebrity that comes with the world of art is not particularly interesting to me.” I ask whether she’s tired, yet, of being asked about her parents. “There’s not that much that I can say,” she replies. “I love my family, we have a very rich, complicated relationship. But it’s not a question that I really answer, so I get tired of not answering it.” She will say that her father has served as an important mentor, and for his part, Ethan Hawke told People, “She didn’t do a good job, she did a great job [in Little Women]. To see your child thrive, and to see her thrive at a profession that you have a lot of respect for, that I’ve dedicated my life to, I was so proud of her.”
Though having the support of two parents in the business certainly has its perks—“It’s a very hard industry to get into, and if you grow up in it, it’s a lot easier,” she acknowledges—it also comes with the baggage of comparison and expectation. To that end, Hawke strives to prove herself through her hard work and her acting, and while, she clarifies, “there’s no world in which I’d go hungry,” she does feel the pressure of maintaining financial independence while balancing her desire to do projects that define “the kind of artist/actor/person that I want to be.” Hawke has a few movies in the pipeline, including a starring role in the indie film Charlotte XVI, which portrays female sexuality through the separate lenses of a sixteen-year-old girl and her mother, and is slated to start filming this summer. She hopes to land a theater role. She’s writing both a book of poems and a screenplay, which she sometimes works on in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s vast Temple of Dendur. To supplement her acting income, she’s been accepting requests for paid appearances at industry parties. “I’ll go to parties, I’ll talk to people,” she says, wryly. “And if you pay me a little extra, I’ll vomit.”
At the end of our hour, as I thank her and turn off the recorder and start getting up to pay, she stays seated, pensively, and so I sit back down too, and we end up talking for an hour off the record about her family, celebrity crushes, current dating life, old relationships—the kind of intimate fodder over which tabloids and future fans would slaver. The only thing that differentiates the conversation from one I’d have with, say, an old girlfriend from college, is that she reiterates several times that everything she’s saying now is, indeed, off the record.
There are a few ways to read this. The cynical magazine writer in me pegs it as a pro move: Hawke comes across as incredibly open without any of the media consequences. Perhaps this kind of discrete, controlled vulnerability might be just what it takes to navigate the strange world of celebrity she’s heading into. It also might be a certain naiveté, since a different kind of publication might throw ethics to the wind and print the whole juicy conversation. The simplest explanation (which, they say, is often the right one) is that she just felt like talking. She’d already spent the morning cleaning her apartment; the movie she planned to see that afternoon didn’t start for a few hours.
No matter what drove it, it’s clear that she’s a thoughtful woman on the brink of a new kind of scrutiny, and she’s figuring out how to tell her story. “Your whole childhood is just absent of choices,” she mused early on in our conversation. “And then you become an adult, and every choice you make, you open some doors, and close others. And that’s fucking terrifying. The moment you decide to go to an acting school you close a thousand doors. The moment you decide to leave one, you close a hundred doors. The moment you choose to do Little Women, you open 10 doors and you close 5. It’s like this endless journey of making decisions about who you’re going to be in your minimal time on this earth,” she says. “That’s scary.”
Styled by Anatolli Smith (hair by Yoichi Tomizawa at Art Department for Bumble and bumble; makeup by Campbell Ritchie for Lancôme; manicure by Ada Yeung at Bridge Artists for Dior)
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of ELLE.