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[This story includes major spoilers from season four, Volume 1 of Stranger Things.]
This is Sadie Sink’s Stranger Things season.
The actress, who joined Netflix’s sci-fi coming-of-age series in its second year as Max Mayfield, has become an integral part of the show, especially so in its most recent run, which found her cursed by Jamie Campbell Bower’s Upside Down villain Vecna and only narrowly escaping.
At the beginning of Volume 1, it wasn’t clear what was going on with Max. It was obvious she wasn’t fully herself, but her behavior could have been chalked up to dealing with the grief and guilt of losing her brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Viewers quickly found out, however, there was much more going on beneath the eye’s surface.
In the penultimate season’s fourth episode, “Dear Billy,” directed by Shawn Levy, Max goes toe-to-toe with season four’s big bad, Vecna, who preys on teens’ trauma, exposing the fears and guilt of his victims in order to get inside their minds, torment and kill them. When Max is set to become his latest victim, her friends play Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” finding the musical key to re-open a portal from Venca’s Mind Lair back to the real world, showing her an escape route as they try to revive her in front of Billy’s headstone.
“To be in a position where her life is on the line, but to see her friends showing up for her and choosing to fight was a really powerful moment for her,” Sink tells The Hollywood Reporter about that scene. “The heart of the season and the entire show is based upon the idea that friendship is stronger than fear. That really comes to play in that moment for Max.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Sink opened up about how she prepared for Max’s darker season four journey, why she was genuinely terrified by scene partner Bower on set, how she views Max’s fate and who she thinks is Vecna’s next victim heading into the final two episodes of the season.
How did you prepare for Max’s intense scenes this season?
There’s really no real way to prepare yourself. When I’m on set, that’s usually when it all sets in and intuition kind of kicks in. But, for this year, I thought it was important to really understand Max’s innermost thoughts — because she’s definitely not an open book. So it’s hard for her friends, her family and the audience members to really know what’s going on up there. I thought it was important that, in my own time, I did some daydreaming, journaling, whatever; just some internal thought and reflection on everything that she’s been through, and everything going on up there to bring some colors to the table. Not everyone has to know what [is going through her head], but I did that for my own sense of security and to feel like I’m in touch with the character as much as I can.
You and Dacre Montgomery had a scene in “Dear Billy,” but you didn’t actually film together since he was unable to leave Australia due to COVID. What was it like to film the scene without physically being with him?
That was definitely the most challenging [scene] I think I’ve ever had to do on Stranger Things, just because so much of Max and Billy’s relationship comes from the onscreen chemistry that me and Dacre have. Being used to working with him and reading with him for two seasons now, and then having to do a really important scene with him but not have him there, was definitely very tricky. I definitely did get a little frustrated when I was on set, but I think I kind of channeled it into the scene as much as I could and ended up getting, I think, a pretty good result — and obviously, the visual effects team really stepped in and made it look as realistic as possible.
In a previous interview with THR, Jamie Campbell Bower revealed that the actors who had close scenes with him were genuinely terrified. How did that inform the scenes you shot with Vecna, primarily the one in the Mind Lair?
Well, I think two things come into play when it comes to the believability of Vecna. The first just being the prosthetics and having it be mostly practical effects was really helpful. We’re so used to working with stunt guys and stunt-women in green bodies and tennis balls in their hands, or something like that, so having Jamie actually there was very helpful because he was genuinely just horrifying. It’s just not normal what you’re looking at, so you’re kind of tricking your mind in a way, and it makes stepping into Max’s shoes that much easier.
But also, I think the biggest part is that you can put anyone in that costume and they can be scary, but with Jamie, he was so in it all the time, not only when the cameras were rolling. He liked to kind of stay in character a lot, and there would be times and longer setups and stuff where he would filter in and out of it, but for a lot of the Mind Lair stuff, there was not a lot of talking going on between us. It was mostly just him as Vecna, standing in the corner and like growling or something like that, and he was just very, very, in it. And he would kind of talk in that voice a lot. So, to have someone as committed as Jamie in a role like that, just made it really believable. I think that was probably the key.
Vecna preys on trauma and exposes the fears of his victims, making this season much darker to watch. The Duffer Brothers said of leaning into the psychological horror that the show is growing up along with the actors. What was it like to play this out, did it bring up anything personal for you and how do you compare it to previous seasons?
This season was definitely the most emotional weight that I’ve ever had to carry on this show. So, to have the Duffer Brothers just kind of trust us with that — not only me but just everyone on the show — as the show matures, they begin to dig deeper into the darker stuff that I think they’ve been wanting to explore for a really long time. So, finally having us at that age and also I think, collectively, at the right skillset, too, to carry this plot, it was satisfying for us all to watch and also just kind of emotional, looking back at how young we were and how far we’ve all come as actors and as human beings; it’s incredible.
Shawn Levy said that for “Dear Billy” you needed to dig deeper and go places that you hadn’t gone before as an actor, and those aren’t exactly easy places to go. There’s no rulebook for how to do that and find the more fragile, wounded parts of yourself. Where did you go to find what you needed to do in those scenes?
Before we had shot that scene, I worked on another movie where there was a lot of emotional work, and that was something that I had only tapped into a little bit. But on that movie, I really unlocked something and kind of just discovered the different ways and what I need to kind of get to that emotional state and that level of vulnerability. So I kind of pulled from everything I learned from that set and applied it to Max, as a totally different character, but to her and her circumstances. I really just think about the character and especially for a character like Max that I’ve been with for a while, it’s easy for me to get into that mindset.
For “Dear Billy,” I couldn’t wait to film those scenes because I was so ready to have that release for Max, since she’s never had a scene like that. She’s never had a moment like that to herself. So, to film that was therapeutic in a way, as an actress, I guess, but mostly just me as Max, feeling her open up in that way — it’s been ruined by Vecna — but that fleeting moment of reflection is such a release for her.
In that same interview, Levy said season four is very much a Max season. How did it feel to carry that weight?
I was definitely excited. It wasn’t until we were filming, or at least until I saw the final cut, that I realized how intense some of these scenes were going to play out. I didn’t know what they were doing in California. I didn’t know what they were doing in Russia. There are so many plots going on, the most you can do is just focus on your own and hope it all turns out well in the end. So, I think as the season was forming, I was definitely aware that Max’s storyline this year was carrying a lot of the emotional weight of the show and a lot of the heart of the show, too. But that really didn’t click until I was watching it, and I was like, “Oh, wow, this is intense.”
What did Max write in her letters to her friends and family?
I hope we get to read a few of them because, maybe this is just me, but I would love to see what Max has to say about people when she’s not worried about coming across as yucky and sentimental — her worst nightmare. What does she really think about these people? And, what is she dying to tell them that she can’t in person? I’ve definitely thought about it a lot. I have a pretty good idea of what she would say to a few key characters. I pretty much know everything she would say to Lucas. But I don’t know about the others. What does her letter to Steve say? I would love to crack open those letters eventually at some point in the series.
What would she say to Lucas, then?
With Max and Lucas, it’s so tricky because they both just really care about each other, but the love and care that Lucas has for Max terrifies her, and the love and care that she has for Lucas terrifies her, so she would never say anything to that extent in person. So, I think throughout this letter, hypothetically, she would probably express some of that care and love that she has for him in a really genuine and vulnerable way. Or maybe she’s not letting go of her values even when she’s dead, and it’s just writing on paper.
At the end of Volume 1, Max is safe, for the most part, but she still escaped Vecna, and I have a feeling he’s not going to let that go. What can you tell us about Max’s journey in Volume 2?
Max’s journey in Volume 2, I think, is about how she has to make some really brave choices. And she has already, but I think she has to really step up and be braver than she’s ever been before. So, that was a nice side of her to see; taking charge of her own life, her own fate and kind of taking a stand, which she’s always been good at, but this is to the extreme. So, it’s nice to see that fiercer side of her, which we caught kind of a glimpse of through the last bit of episode four when she’s choosing to fight. So I guess just a little bit more of that.
What do you know about Max’s involvement in season five, have you had those conversations?
Honestly, I do not know anything about season five. They keep it very locked in a way and don’t let any of the cast know. I think a few cast members know what’s going to happen, but I have not received any information whatsoever. Maybe I should work on that because I’m dying to know as well.
How do you imagine the events of season four will change Max moving forward?
Well, if she hasn’t already gone through enough trauma in her first two seasons, this is just adding more to the plate. But I think the biggest realization that Max has is in episode four: She has that letter. She has that interaction with Vecna/Billy, where he’s kind of vocalizing to her the darkest thoughts that she’s been having throughout the past few months, scary thoughts of her thinking that she wants to give up and thinking it’s all her fault and that everything she touches just is destroyed. So, to have that right in front of her and then uncovering all of the deepest, darkest, most vulnerable thoughts that she has, and then to be in a position where her life is on the line, but to see her friends showing up to her and choosing to fight, I think was a really powerful moment for her. The heart of the season and the entire show is based upon the idea that friendship is stronger than fear. So, I think that really comes to play in that moment for Max. Throughout every season of the show, it all comes back to friendship being stronger than fear, and I think she realizes that for herself in that moment.
I watched the scene of Max running away from Vecna a couple of times and got emotional every time.
They really do us dirty with the flashbacks. I was watching with my family, and seeing younger me, I was like, “Oh my god, I know what happens, and I’m kind of getting emotional watching this.”
Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” has topped all the charts since Volume 1 dropped. How does it feel to be a part of that?
Pretty incredible. I love the song so much. It was obviously a script, and [I knew it was] going to be very important this season. So, I was listening to it, and listening to all of Kate Bush’s music, and I was a big fan; but it was kind of like my own little secret. Obviously, people know who Kate Bush is, she’s a legend. But having that song kind of to myself before the world had it and the world knew that it was Max’s song. I didn’t know how big it was going to be because of the show, like how much the song would just completely take over for a month or so. I think it wasn’t until I was scrolling on Tik Tok and every single video had that song that I was like, “My god, this is really taking off.”
You hadn’t heard the song before filming this season, but now that you have, what does it mean to you?
Honestly, I am not sick of it. I genuinely am not, and I’ve listened to it an insane amount of times. While we’re filming, I was listening to it. And in my own time, I would want to listen to it also, because it’s one of those songs that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Every time I listen to it, it just kind of emotes the same feelings that I’ve had since the first time that I listened to it. I don’t know what it is about the song that just resonates with Max so much, but everything from the lyrics down to like every little synth note and the entire production of it just feels like her, and I can’t articulate why, really. But it just does. I think the Duffers just nailed it with that one.
This season a lot of the main cast was split up, but you had a lot of the core crew with you in Hawkins. What was it like being separated from Millie, Noah, Finn, Winona, David, etc.?
It was kind of weird. I love the Hawkins group. We have the best time together, and we all just continue to become closer and closer with every season, which, at this point, we didn’t think was possible, but we stand corrected as the season goes on. But with the other cast members and the other plotlines and locations, it was so weird at first not having everyone together, but then we kind of got used to it to the point where it’s just like, “Oh, yeah, there’s an entire other plotline being filmed right now. There’s an entire unit happening in Lithuania and New Mexico.” But it made it all the more exciting to watch the show because I had no idea beyond the first few scripts what was going on in California and Russia.
Max is dealing with her grief about losing Billy, but a lot of the other characters have a fair amount of grief, too. When Volume 1 ends, we find out that Nancy is also being cursed by Vecna, which makes sense with the loss of Barb. Based on what you know about other characters, who do you think would be Vecna’s next victim?
Oh my god, this is such a good question. I mean, it really is interesting because all of these characters have gone through so much. They’ve had these joint experiences together and so all of them have trauma, but I think they all cope in different ways or move on in different ways or have better outlets than others. I would say, I mean, Eleven is kind of an easy target, and so is Will, but I feel like Will has already been possessed, and I feel like Eleven is impossible to possess. So, besides them, maybe Joyce? Joyce has been through a lot. I worry about her sometimes, but yeah, I would probably say Joyce or Hopper, maybe.
Winona Ryder has said you’re the next Meryl Streep. What’s it like receiving that praise from such a veteran actor?
I can’t accept it. It’s too big of a comparison. That was a lot. I don’t know. She told me that, and then I read that. It feels really nice to have her say that because she’s such a protector of all of us kids and has so much wisdom and advice when it comes to being a young actor in this industry. She’s someone that I look up to so much and to have her say those kind words, it was really, really sweet of her.
How was it reuniting with Shawn Levy as a director after starring alongside him in All Too Well the Short Film?
That was kind of like a random one-day cameo that he made, but it was super fun. He worked with both me and Dylan on separate projects, so having him there was a fun moment. That entire experience, really, it was just such a dream. I feel really fortunate to have worked with Taylor [Swift] in that way because she’s such a gifted director.
Taylor Swift did say she wanted to direct a feature film. Would you want to work with her again?
If she would have me I would, absolutely. I would encourage her to do a feature film because I think she really, really could have a future as a director beyond short films, a full feature film would amazing to see. She should absolutely do it.
Caleb McLaughlin told us on the carpet that you and Gaten crush Broadway karaoke. Now, Gaten is returning to Broadway. Would you ever want to pursue a career in music or potentially have another Broadway stint?
Oh, I don’t think I would ever do anything in the music industry. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So, I wouldn’t do that. Broadway though, I definitely would love to go back to. I don’t know about musicals, but I’m not going to speak too soon, we’ll see what happens, I guess. It is so demanding. The vocal stamina that it requires is on another level. I’m very impressed and happy for Gaten because it’s all he’s wanted for a really, really long time to do that. It was like a proud sister moment.
What would be your song to escape from Vecna?
Oh, it changes all the time. I was just listening to this last night with my brother, and it’s kind of been my consistent answer, so I’m going to stick to it, but “August” by Taylor Swift. I could listen to it on repeat forever, and it definitely would save me from that Vecna’s curse.
Max has gone through trauma and is finding her own ways to cope. What do you hope viewers who can relate to Max take away from her this season?
I think her resilience throughout the entire season — and especially after the circumstances that she’s been given — just how she continues to fight and push forward, even when she’s at her lowest point, I hope they can take that away. Also recognizing the power of friendship and how that can help you by opening up to your friends; I think that’s what ultimately saved Max. Having a solid support group and people to encourage you, but also to have that fight for yourself and within yourself, is hopefully what people take away.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Volume 1 of Stranger Things 4 is now streaming on Netflix, with Volume 2 releasing July 1.
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