The Stranger Things actor has officially snatched the elusive “breakout star” label—but what does that really mean?
GLAMOUR – To quote Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a TV series in possession of 40 million viewers and a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes must be in want of a Breakout Star. And for Stranger Things‘ season three, that chosen one is Maya Hawke. As Robin, the witty Scoops Ahoy coworker of Steve (Joe Keery) and the first openly queer character of the series, Hawke stands out—not an easy feat in a cast that includes David Harbour (who plays Jim Hopper), Winona Ryder (Joyce Byers), and Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven).
Another truth: The internet couldn’t have picked a better queen. Hawke, the 21-year-old daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, has the kind of coolness only someone who grew up in Manhattan with celebrity parents could embody. While that might manifest as intimidating or cold in others, Hawke is surprisingly approachable and energetic. And for her, being labeled the latest It girl or a breakout star is not an achievement worth putting stock into—which, of course, only makes her cooler.
“I really haven’t been paying attention to the headlines,” she tells me on the set of her Glamour shoot. “I was so scared of the fact that Stranger Things has such a wide audience that I’ve tried to duck out of paying attention to people’s reactions. The chance of people hating me in that show was just as high as people liking me in it, so I just thought I didn’t need to receive the ego boost or the ego destruction.”
Even so, she says, people who were connected to the Netflix phenom, cocreated by Matt and Ross Duffer, tried to warn her about the effect of its mass appeal. “People kept telling me, ‘You don’t know what you’re in for. You have no idea what’s going to happen when this comes out,’” she says. “Honestly, it was always really overwhelming and kind of out of context for me. I didn’t like the hype. I just wanted to work on doing my best job at playing the character.”
Besides, she grew up in a public-facing family well aware of what life in the spotlight requires. “I didn’t decide to be in Stranger Things because it was a big deal,” she explains. “I decided to be in Stranger Things because I love Stranger Things and the Duffer brothers. It wasn’t a vehicle to stardom. That part of it was never interesting to me—if anything, it was overwhelming, scary, and a deterrent.”
The day Stranger Things premiered, Hawke deleted her Instagram and traveled from Paris (she was there for a fashion show) to her family’s home in Woodstock, New York. There she focused on hanging out with her mom and brothers. It helped that the house is blissfully free of cell service. “I just didn’t want to be bombarded with the reaction,” she says. “I figure I’ll go back to Instagram when it’s all calmed down in a little while.”
If Hawke were to pay attention to the response, she’d see headlines like “Robin and Steve on Stranger Things Is the Queer-Straight Friendship We Need” and “An Ode to Robin, Stranger Things’ Best New Character” flooding our newsfeeds. On Twitter the response is just as positive. “I—and I cannot stress this enough—would crawl through a tiny air vent and risk my life for Robin if she asked,” one enthusiastic fan wrote. My favorite tweet reads, “If I am killed by Maya Hawke DO NOT prosecute her, cause SHE caught me SLIPPING. That’s on ME.”
Her costar Keery is a fan of course. “It’s awesome when someone is brought in and adds something so different to the energy on set,” he tells Glamour. “She really brought her own thing, and I think the show really benefited from that.”
Hawke signed onto the project having read only two scenes, one of which was later cut. The character was written as funny, sarcastic, and maybe “a little uncomfortable in her own skin, in a way that anyone who makes fun of other people is.” Going in, she says Ally Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club was a big inspiration for her.
But then, over time and through long conversations with the Duffer brothers, Hawke started to see the character morph into someone more like herself. “I was really confused [at first] because the description of the character I’d gotten when I was first auditioning was tough, sarcastic, dry, bored, disinterested,” she says. “And I’m the opposite of that person. I’m so excitable and passionate and hyper.”
Hawke says she felt the character start to change as the Duffer brothers got to know her better. “I would be like, ‘Wait, I don’t understand. Am I supposed to be this person I thought I was auditioning to be? Or am I supposed to be myself?’” The answer: Robin had become what she describes as a “beautifully created” amalgamation of both. Hawke sees it as the journey of someone putting her mask down, opening up, and embracing her true self.
A big part of that involves Robin’s coming out. After Steve confesses his feelings for Robin, she reveals her own truth: She was obsessed with him in high school—because the girl she liked had a crush on him. Steve accepts Robin warmly; by the season’s end, they’ve become best friends. “You know, there’s probably not a lot of people coming out in high school in Indiana in the 1980s,” Hawke says. “I think the reason she comes out is because she loves Steve and wants him to understand why she has to reject him and doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. It’s to preserve their friendship, and I think she wants to be her whole self with him.”
Hawke says the decision to make Robin gay came after a lot of conversations with the Duffer brothers. “We were trying to decide if that was the right thing for her, if it was natural, if it felt like who she was supposed to be,” she explains. “We just wanted to make sure nothing about it was forced.”
Eventually, though, it became clear: “It was the only true thing. When I go back and watch the episodes I shot before we made that decision, it seems so obvious to me that’s what was meant to happen.”
Hawke is grateful the scene was handled with “the most care.” If it has a greater cultural impact, all the better. “There’s a difference between having diversity in television and having diversity in hit TV shows, the shows that are in everyone’s living room,” she says. “You can get right into their heart by getting into their home, and having empathy for characters and stories can broaden one’s empathy for people in the world. There were conversations about how that could be important or impactful, but really the decision came down to what was right for Robin.”
Of course, Steve isn’t the only new friend Robin makes. The whole Scoops Troop, which includes Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica (Priah Ferguson), became a pseudo family on- and offscreen. Says Ferguson of working with Hawke, “She was really nice and gave me good advice. She told me to always stay kind. I learned a lot from her.”
Since the two were the Troop’s newest additions to Stranger Things, Hawke says she couldn’t help but share some advice with Ferguson. As she explains, she grew up seeing her family navigate the pressure of being in the public eye—and seeing how to avoid it.
“There’s a reason I waited until I graduated high school to start acting professionally,” she says. “Priah is so smart, capable, and talented. I just couldn’t help myself but to share a little bit of what I’ve heard and know from people in my life who have been through being a child actor about how to stay grounded and calm and not let it take over your life or take away your childhood. I tried to share a little bit of what my parents shared with me. But it’s totally not my place—I didn’t have those experiences, because I stayed out of it a bit—but I’m glad she found it helpful.”
Hawke may not have been a child actor herself, but the desire to perform was there from an early age. “There was no need to try to work professionally when I was a kid,” she says. “My family was financially sound, and I could act as much as I wanted in school and at camp. I just loved acting and wanted to do it everywhere and all the time as much as I could. I love telling stories; I just didn’t really feel a need to tell them publicly. I wanted to work and practice and get better in private, and I had the luxury to do so.”
And so Hawke waited until after high school to pursue it as a career. The decision to really go for it came her junior year. While her classmates were applying for colleges, Hawke only wanted to do the school play. “I didn’t want to practice my SAT, I didn’t want to write those essays. I just wanted to work and play,” she says. “It was the only environment where I really felt like myself, where I felt even sort of vaguely capable or like I had any potential. It made me happy, and all that other stuff made me sad. So I decided I wanted to pursue the things that made me happy.”
One of her first big auditions was for a live-action version of The Little Mermaid; Sofia Coppola was attached to direct. That project didn’t move forward—Coppola reportedly quit when the studio wouldn’t agree to Hawke, her pick for Ariel, as the lead—but it gave Hawke the confidence to keep going. She got accepted to Juilliard but dropped out a year later when she landed the role of Jo in PBS’s 2018 adaptation of Little Women.
“Though I didn’t finish Juilliard,” she says, “having gotten in it at all is the thing I’m probably proudest of.” But she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play Jo. “It would have changed my whole experience of school to know I’d passed that up.”
That experience is one she still cites as one of the best times of her life. “I made wonderful friends. It felt like what I’d wanted college to feel like. I just felt like I’d found my people, and I was doing the thing I wanted to be doing. It was freeing.”
And then came Stranger Things. What’s an It girl to do after she’s starred in the buzziest role of the summer? Hopefully, another season. While Netflix hasn’t confirmed or denied that the show will continue, it seems inevitable. “Of course I want to be a part of season four,” she says. “I think it’s so exciting to see how the Duffer brothers are developing the mythology of the series. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”
Hawke has some plans for Robin—if she’s in season four, that is. “I’d love to see her continue to expand and explore and become more of herself and find more of her own people,” she says. Maybe that could even lead to a career in the arts for the character. “I think video stores, which is where we leave Robin, are such a crucial part of the relationship to wanting to be in the arts and make movies in the ’80s. Quentin [Tarantino] worked at a video store—everybody worked at a video store if you wanted to make movies and you lived in the ’80s.”
No matter what happens with Stranger Things, you’ll see Hawke next in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was her first time working with Tarantino, a family friend. “I’m in a tiny part, like one scene, but it’s a fun scene,” she says. “It’s just amazing working with Quentin. I mean, I’ve known him my whole life, but he’s so smart and passionate about making movies. He’s so excited on set and so obsessed with getting the best version of the scene as possible. It’s a really inspiring and motivating environment to work on. It was great.”
It’s a step in what should be a long career. “I want to do everything,” she says. “I want to do comedy. I want to do drama. I like period pieces. I want to play dumb women and smart women, brave women and weak women, gay women and straight women.
“I want to be as versatile and experimental as I possibly can and keep working on my craft, even if now it has to be in the public eye,” Hawke continues. “I just want to keep practicing and making mistakes and trying things.”