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Cinderella was a common thread in Maya Hawke’s development as an actor and musician, and the classic fairy tale just so happens to set the stage for Hawke’s new film, Mainstream. In Gia Coppola’s long-awaited follow-up to 2013’s Palo Alto, Hawke plays an L.A. bartender named Frankie who’s struggling to find her way until she forms an unlikely YouTube collaboration with a mysterious vagabond named Link (Andrew Garfield). Along the way, Frankie must reconcile her own personal tragedy, and decide if her ever-changing relationship with Link is truly right for her.
“It’s about following a glass slipper, you know? I think that the fairy tale module is a very powerful tool because it can become kind of a microcosm or a synecdoche for a larger story,” Hawke tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And I think that, in many, many ways, Mainstream is a fairy tale about making art in the modern world. It tells an extreme, horrific, colorful and romantic version of a really true thing, and I think that’s what fairy tales are supposed to do. So I like that Gia used [Cinderella] to wink at the fairytaleness of this story.”
When the entertainment industry resumed production mid-pandemic, there was a common refrain from all those involved about feeling comfortable amid the new guidelines and protocols. But Hawke, who returned to the Stranger Things season four set last September, is refreshingly candid about her state of mind during pandemic production.
“I got a vaccine about a month ago, and it took until then for it to feel totally comfortable,” Hawke shares. “Everyone was working so hard to be so safe … but it’s such an exposed job. You’re on set and fluid has to come out of your face. So I was very afraid. But I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was just afraid of being on set, doing a scene with screaming and having a piece of my spit go flying. If I somehow had picked up the wrong thing at the grocery store — and I had some particle in me — I was afraid that I would kill somebody. I was just really scared. But that noise in my head of ‘ah!’ has softened since I’ve been vaccinated.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Hawke also discusses her celebrated bathroom scene from Stranger Things season three, as well as the on-set environment of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
So I know that you worked with Sofia first, but did you and Gia Coppola ever cross paths way back when? Or did you meet during the lead-up to Mainstream?
So we met twice. I was a huge fan of Palo Alto, and I asked if I could meet with her as soon as I started working. That was one of the first general meetings I wanted to have because I just wanted to kind of fangirl out on her. So we had a general meeting, and then a couple years went by. She must’ve not liked me very much or something, I don’t know. (Laughs.) We have a mutual friend of [fashion designer] Zac Posen in common, and Zac asked me to do a photo shoot for him and his collection. And Gia was going to take the pictures. I was so psyched because I wanted to meet her again, work with her and have a second chance. (Laughs.) So we worked together on that, and I just fell so in love with the way that she took pictures and the way that she was interested in being a photographer of human beings, not of just beauty. She wasn’t looking for beauty as much as she was looking for humanness and character. So I think that she probably liked me because I was willing to be a human being on camera; I was willing to be ugly or weird or awkward or silly or myself. I don’t know; you’d have to ask her, but we hit it off in that experience. And then this script came around, and there was a read-through with her, Andrew [Garfield] and a lot of other amazing people. So I came in with my hands shaking and my voice cracking, all nervous and freaked out at her house in L.A. Nat [Wolff] was there, too, and we did a read-through of the script. And then she called me that night and told me that I could do this movie. I just flat out fell on my face crying because I was so happy. So that’s kind of the long and short of it.
Mainstream will probably be viewed as a rebuke toward a certain brand of YouTuber and social media influencer. Was that your takeaway as well, or did you latch on to something else?
To me, this movie is more about making art than it is about YouTube or even social media. To me, this movie is about what happens when you make something that people like and the pressure that is then put on you to keep making things that people like. And the first thing you made that people like came exactly from your soul. It’s what people say about second albums, right? If you had a hit first album, that first album was a hit by coincidence. You made it exactly the way that you wanted to make it, and then it happened to attract this kind of attention. And once people start liking what you do, it’s very hard not to start making art so that people will like it, rather than making it from the same original location of soul spirit that the first thing came from that people liked. And to me, this movie is more about noticing the danger of that and how to keep yourself from becoming your own algorithm. Or your own person who’s like, “Oh, people like it when I’m funny. People like it when I’m smart. People like it when I cry. People like it when I comment on how much I hate social media.” Whatever it is. And then you start only doing that until people get bored of you, and then you have to come up with a new thing. If you’re engaging as an artist only as a reflector of what other people want from you, it’s very hard to keep a hold on your own personal compass. So to me, this movie is more about that than it is even about YouTube or anything. But YouTube, Instagram and social media has become a really interesting portal with which to explore this idea; it’s a tale as old as time in a lot of ways. But because we have technology at our fingertips and it’s so easy to make things now, there’s a lot more people who are making things and going through the experience of being famous than ever before. Or they’re being liked in this deeply public way that isn’t exactly them.
Even though you and Frankie both left school under very different circumstances, did you use that detail as your way into the character?
Not at all. I mean, I don’t think I even remember that Frankie left school. It’s been a long since I did the movie and a long time since I saw it. (Laughs.) But the detail that I latched on to with Frankie is that I’m very scared of my own shyness. I’m very scared of my own introversion and of the part of me that is so vulnerable and so sensitive to criticism or anger. I’m very scared of that part of me that doesn’t want to express myself and doesn’t want to say my ideas. And I cover that person in this kind of hard, extroverted, gregarious shell, but that person is my true self. And what drew and connected me to Frankie was experimenting with trying to expose that true self to myself, live in her for a little while, and see what it would be like to be her in a room without that hard, extroverted, gregarious shell. And I’ll tell you, I’m very grateful for my hard shell. I didn’t like it very much. (Laughs.)
The title cards at the beginning reference Cinderella, which is not only your favorite Disney movie, but it’s also a stage persona of yours. What was your first reaction to seeing another recurrence of Cinderella in your life?
Well, first of all, great reporting work. That is true that I have made both of those comments, and I’m impressed that you have collected them.
I have this condition where I try too hard.
(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s OK. So do I, but you did a really good job. So I’m celebrating you and I’m rewarding your condition. But yeah, I really like that that’s brought up in the cards. All those different things I said about Cinderella are slightly disconnected, but maybe they’re connected in some deep way that I don’t really totally understand. It’s about following a glass slipper, you know? It’s finding something of a person that intrigues you, like pulling out a loose string on a sweater and unraveling the sweater. It’s a pretty great way to start a story because there’s a lot to be discovered there, following that string. So I think that the fairy tale module is a very powerful tool because it can become kind of a microcosm or a synecdoche for a larger story. And I think that, in many, many ways, Mainstream is a fairy tale about making art in the modern world. It tells an extreme, horrific, colorful and romantic version of a really true thing, and I think that’s what fairy tales are supposed to do. So I like that Gia used that to wink at the fairytaleness of this story.
Every actor has their own technique and way of working. How quickly did you and Andrew find a groove in terms of the way you both work?
Pretty quickly. My instinct there was that everything that I needed to figure out how to be Frankie was in Andrew. I knew that if I listened to him and if I basically abided by the way in which he wanted the room to be run, that the dynamic between Frankie and Link would be right. I knew that the right thing for me to do on this movie, to be the character that I needed to be, was to give up control. So that’s what I did, and we found it pretty quickly — not that I even could’ve had any hope to have any control in the first place, nor would I want any. I would have been the wrong person to have control; he was the right person. He’s such an unbelievable actor and such a powerful force of a human being, so all I could hope for is to learn from him. So everything kind of wonderfully mirrored and connected itself where I wanted to learn from him. It was right for our characters for him to be very powerful, and him having power made me a better actor. I got to just react to him, listen to him and move with him. So that was unbelievably fun.
[The following question contains a mild spoiler in terms of character development.]
When you factor the scar on her face and the picture of her deceased father in front of a sports car, did you treat her “secret guilt” as survivor’s guilt?
Yeah, that’s pretty spot on. I have a really good friend who had a similar experience to Frankie. But I think guilt might be the wrong word; I wouldn’t have called it secret guilt. I would’ve talked about it like confusion and mystery and anger and a feeling of injustice. But it definitely feels like an unresolved and unhealed wound that is still percolating and moving through Frankie. She feels like she can’t build her own identity without having this peace, and because of the way that death works, she cannot get that peace back. Therefore, she feels like she has no identity. So I think her journey through this movie is realizing that she can give herself that peace. It’s a very painful realization, but it’s one that she makes and is stronger for it.
That baby costume was terrifying. Of all the things you thought you’d do in this business, dressing up as an adult-sized baby probably wasn’t one of them, right?
You’d be surprised. I really love mask work, actually, and in drama school, you do a lot of mask work. Freeing yourself from the confines of your own face is a deeply liberating thing as an actor. You can change your walk, you can change the way you talk and you can do all these things to be another character, but your face is your face. And actors explore changing their face all the time, whether it’s Brando putting cotton in his cheeks, Orson Welles wearing a fake nose in every project that he did, or whatever it is that you do to change yourself so that you don’t recognize yourself and can build a different human being in your own skin. It’s always really exciting. So if you would’ve asked me five years ago if I thought I’d be in a movie wearing a baby face, I’d go, “Yeah, probably.”
We’ve now reached the obligatory, “How’s Stranger Things season four going?” part of the interview.
(Laughs.) Here’s my obligatory, “Great! Can’t tell you anything.”
Once you resumed shooting Stranger Things 4 mid-pandemic, how long did it take for you to feel comfortable on set?
I went and waited outside the vaccination clinics, hoping there would be one of the ones they were going to throw away in a spare. And eventually there was. So I got a vaccine about a month ago, and it took until then for it to feel totally comfortable. Everyone was working so hard to be so safe and to wear masks and to protect each other and to quarantine and to do checks. And all of that was great, but it’s such an exposed job. You’re on set and fluid has to come out of your face. You’ve got to cry, scream and spit, and no matter what you want, you can’t wear a mask doing that. You can’t wear a mask on camera telling a story about the ‘80s. So I was very afraid. I was super intense about my quarantining and making sure I was safe and doing my testing and all of that stuff. But I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was just afraid of being on set, doing a scene with screaming and having a piece of my spit go flying. If I somehow had picked up the wrong thing at the grocery store — and I had some particle in me — I was afraid that I would kill somebody. I was just really scared. It’s still up for grabs about whether or not you can still give people COVID when you’re vaccinated, and so I’m still legitimately intense about my quarantining. But that noise in my head of, “ah!” has softened since I’ve been vaccinated.
I was surprised to learn that you didn’t know where things were headed in Stranger Things 3. In hindsight, are you glad that you didn’t know Robin’s bathroom scene reveal ahead of time? Or do you wish you could have known in order to leave a couple more breadcrumbs along the way?
Well, if you’d asked me before the show came out, before I saw the season, I would’ve said that I wish I could’ve left a couple breadcrumbs and that I wish I would’ve known. Now that I’ve seen the season, I think that I did leave breadcrumbs, whether I knew or didn’t know. And I think that has a lot to do with the Duffer brothers just wanting me to be myself. So I was myself, and it’s sort of impossible for me not to have left some breadcrumbs in that case.
Once you were cast in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, did you only receive the sides for your sequence?
The second scene where your character books it out of there was shot on the real Cielo Drive. Did it feel eerie being there, especially in that context?
No, it felt so unbelievably fun. Quentin is such an exciting person to be directed by. Just period, point blank. He loves movies so much and his love for movies just really makes it not feel like work. It just feels important. He thinks movies are important; I think movies are important, but I don’t know if I think movies are important enough to make other people think movies are important. If someone was like, “Are movies important?” I’d be like, “Probably not that important. There’s a lot more important things that are going on, that people are doing, that matter way more. It’s just what I like doing.” But Quentin thinks movies are important enough to make other people feel they are important. And that set was just so injected with this love of acting, this love of film, this love of camerawork, this love of sound people, this love of grips, this love of stunt people and this love of set design. When all the pieces come together, he just has so much respect for it. There’s a love of it all. And nothing is accidental, nothing doesn’t matter, everything matters, everything is on purpose. And it’s just a super exhilarating environment to be in.
Did they let you drive that beastly Ford Galaxie away?
God no. I don’t even have my license.
When you played Jo March in BBC One/PBS’ Little Women, did you revisit previous takes on her in order to find a unique way to separate your version? Or is that a slippery slope?
I definitely didn’t try to make her unique. I did watch the old movies again, but I’d seen them so many times that it wasn’t like, “Oh no, I didn’t know that Winona did this and so now I can’t do that.” They were already in my blood. I love that story so much, and I didn’t want to try to be different. I just wanted to try to be as her as I could be. And so I watched the movies because I love the movies and it was fun to watch the movies. And then I just went back to the book, and I think that’s always the answer in terms of when you tell another story again. People get all worked up; they’re like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to play Hamlet. Did you see Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet? I can’t do better than that.” It’s like, “Don’t worry about Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet. Worry about Hamlet. You probably can’t play Hamlet anyway because Hamlet’s a freaking impossible character. But don’t worry about being as good as someone else. Just worry about the script.” And that’s what I tried to do.
You’re also a musician. Does the creative high of acting feel the same as a musical performance? Or do they hit you differently?
They hit you differently. What’s fun about acting is disappearing. I love to disappear into a character. I love to not be myself. And the terrifying thing about music is that — at least in the way that I do it, the way that I know how to do it — is that you have to be yourself. Acting is super vulnerable in its own way because you have to explore all these parts of yourself that you don’t want to look at, but music is really vulnerable because you have to take things that matter to you, whether they’re parts of you that you want to look at or not, and share them with other people without the guise or mask. And we’re back to masks. Look at this, this is a great interview. And so that’s probably a big difference for me.
Did you ever go through a period where you rejected the family business?
Totally. A part of me wanted to reject it because I didn’t want to spend my life talking about my family. (Laughs.) But that was my teen angst version and I got over that. I’m grateful for my family. I love my family. But I just loved acting so much. I mean, I’m sure you can tell in this interview that I love it so much. I love movies. I love acting. I love it so much more than to resist it, and it felt totally authentic to me, whether it looks like that way to anyone else. My dad [Ethan Hawke] was doing a play, A Winter’s Tale, and not only did I want to come and watch them rehearse, I wanted to come and sit there all day and watch them rehearse. And then I wanted to stay and watch them do it again that night. I was obsessed. I wanted to be on set, and I wanted to be sitting on the chair with headphones on next to the director, watching the screen and watching somebody do the same take 50 times from four different angles. That felt really normal to me and it felt like what everyone would want to do. And once I got a little older and started inviting my friends to my sets, I was like, “Oh, that’s not what everyone wants to do.” I mean, that’s not even what some actors want to do, which is watch other people do takes over and over again. So, yes, there were moments in which I resisted wanting to go into the family business. It feels like a family business, but it mostly just feels like the thing I love the most in the world.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Mainstream opens in select theaters, on digital platforms and VOD on May 7.
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