A strange alchemy is at work when Maya Hawke comes on screen as a young Victorian lady in PBS’ miniseries “Little Women.” Although this is her professional acting debut and therefore technically presents a fresh new face, there’s something familiar about her. It could be that she’s portraying Jo March, a much-beloved literary figure whose struggles are readily recognizable across generations. It could also be that despite wearing a corset and petticoats, the character speaks with such a modern voice that she feels as if we know her.
Even after a cursory Google search turns up what must be the answer — that she’s the grown daughter of actors Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke — that still doesn’t seem sufficient. It’s only when speaking to her that it becomes apparent the feeling of familiarity, of knowing, stems from Hawke herself. Whether it’s acting for the camera, waxing poetic about parrots on a panel, or fielding questions by phone, Hawke has the unerring ability to connect. With William Tell-like accuracy, she conveys both meaning and spirit straight to whoever her audience might be. This creates an instant link, however temporary it is.
“You want to put out good vibes for the viewers even if so many stories that have to be told and that need to be told have a lot of darkness in them because the world has a lot of darkness in it. And ‘Little Women’ tells the truth. You have to express that,” she said in an interview with IndieWire.
“These people are very noble and are really trying to be their best selves. They have a lot of wonderful spirituality and hope that they add to the world. Every time I watch the ‘Little Women’ movies or read the book, I would always feel really hopeful about myself and about the world, and I hope that when people watch this they’re infused with that feeling too.”
Being able to create that strong emotional bridge is pretty heady stuff for an actress just starting her career, but that would explain why the first two gigs she landed would be impressive on any resume. “Little Women” is an international production of a classic novel that also boasts the likes of Angela Lansbury, Emily Watson, and Michael Gambon. But as the fictional alter ego of author Louisa May Alcott, Jo is the one whose point of view drives the story.
“What was important to find was a freshness and an energy and a sort of freedom, a sort of spirit that would captivate. When we saw Maya Hawke … there was a certain instant mischief and energy to her that was just utterly enchanting,” executive producer Colin Callender said about casting her.
“The fact that it was her first role was particularly exciting for us. It’s a risk, but it was the right sort of risk,” he said. “I loved the fact that she would come to the screen and the audience wouldn’t know her, rather than finding an actress that the audience knew from something else. So the idea that Maya came to the screen with no baggage — people didn’t have a sense of her in any other role meant that they were seeing her fresh and seeing Jo fresh — that was very exciting.”
As a follow-up to the prestigious period drama, Hawke landed a role in the upcoming season of one of Netflix’s most popular series, “Stranger Things.” Not much is known about her role except that she plays an “alternative girl” named Robin who is bored with her job. Naturally, the strange things afoot in Hawkins, Ind., will help cure her ennui.
Going from Victorian-era virtuosity to the sci-fi horror of the ‘80s may not seem like the most obvious career trajectory, but Hawke’s own sensibilities fall somewhere in between. That’s because the pop culture touchstones that speak to her are far older than one would expect.
The Making of a Little Woman
Hawke has the blood of Tennessee Williams and a Buddhist scholar in her DNA. Not that either necessarily determined her path in life, but they do hint at the values important to her family. Obviously, with two actors as parents, the desire to perform was unavoidable, even when she was a wee child.
“I was always doing plays,” she said. “In my living room, I was always playing guitar and writing songs and singing them. My dad and I would always sing together — only for friends and family, but always since I was a little girl.”
School productions legitimized what had been merely a fun family pastime before. “I was Jenny in ‘Jenny and the School for Cats’ when I was five years old. That was my first big break. Then I got to play the Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver Twist,’ and that was the most fun I’ve ever had,” she said.
“But really, the first role that I was given that made me feel like somebody believes in me, in a real way, and I had something to offer this part was I played Agave in my high school production of ‘The Bacchae,” she continued. “I was old, I was 16. But that was a moment where I felt myself as an individual, and where I felt like myself a woman and where I felt capable for probably one of the first times in my life. That was probably the biggest moment for me in that way.”
From classical Greek plays to classic Hollywood films, Hawke found most of her acting inspirations in performers in the era before her parents’ time.
“I love Katharine Hepburn. I love Liesl in ‘The Sound of Music.’ I love Julie Andrews. I love Audrey Hepburn,” she said. “I fell in love with the people that, with the women who people have been falling in love with for the last 60 years. I grew up going to the video store on 21st and 9th and picking up a movie a week. So, I fell in love with those people first and then, as I got older, I got more and more in touch with my own generation, which I’m still working on.”
Working through dyslexia as a child, Hawke first dug into “Little Women” when she as in eighth grade.
“The first thing that meant a lot to me was Jo’s bravery and how much she insisted upon being herself and not making herself small and how eventually, over time, people learned to love her for that and respect her for it,” she said. “It really inspired me, that if I kept insisting on being myself from then people would catch on.
“I didn’t grow up in a nuclear home, and the way that the family lived was really interesting to me. Marmee and Father were really smart parents and really generous and really try to help their daughters actualize themselves. It was an interesting thing to get to read about, how different families can work, also functioning families, also positive families, but different ones. And also I’ve always been a real history nerd, and Massachusetts and the Civil War and the transcendentalist movement were always really curious and inspiring to me. The book helped fill out my imagination in that way also.”