TV Performance of the Year: Maya Hawke Set a New Standard for the Alternative Girl

The breakout star reflects on Stranger Things, her music, and her exciting future

Maya Hawke, Stranger Things 3, Robin, TV Performance of the Year
Maya Hawke as Robin in Stranger Things 3

In a crowded and cutthroat TV landscape, few series have managed to achieve the universal love and popularity as Netflix’s Stranger Things. Even fewer have delivered such a rich tapestry of memorable characters. From bad boy turned America’s sweetheart Steve “The Hair” Harrington to the psychokinetic Eleven, and everyone in between, viewers tune in to hang out with the residents of Hawkins, Indiana, just as much as they do for the mysteries of the Upside Down. All of which to say that it’s a daunting task to be introduced as a new character multiple seasons into a series and command attention, let alone steal the season, especially among this talented cast.

Yet Robin Buckley did just that…

stranger things 3 robin 2 TV Performance of the Year: Maya Hawke Set a New Standard for the Alternative Girl

Maya Hawke’s Robin is introduced to us in Stranger Things third season as Steve’s coworker at Scoops Ahoy in the Starcourt Mall. Despite her Scoops Ahoy uniform, she bears all the tell-tale signs of an Alternative Girl. She clings tight to her sarcastic attitude, open disdain for popular convention, chain chokers and jewelry, and aloof appearance as social armor. The season slowly breaks her guards down as she’s assimilated into the Scoops Troop team, comprising of Steve, Dustin, and Lucas’s little sister Erica. Together, with Robin’s cool intelligence leading the charge, the team cracks a Russian transmission and discovers a secret facility under the Starcourt Mall, where a new door to the Upside Down is being opened. Through her budding friendships, she exposes her true self in a beautiful moment of confessional vulnerability, one that leaves her with newfound confidence.

It wasn’t just that Robin was part of the season’s most fun — and funniest — scenes, or that her camaraderie with fan-favorite Steve delivered some of the best chemistry of the series that made her a breakout character. It was Hawke’s soulful performance, full of affecting honesty, cool wit, and alt-girl perfection. Hawke has a clear comfortability with the camera, which alone makes her star-worthy. Through her performance and Robin’s tremendous character arc throughout the season, she feels vital to the story, both narratively and emotionally.

Consequence of Sound spoke with Hawke on that triumphant scene between Robin and Steve, the integral role music plays both on and offscreen, and exploring TV’s definitive breakout character of 2019.

Stranger Things 3 was still being written when you auditioned for Robin. What did you know about her, and what was it about the show that appealed to you?

I knew she was funny and tough and smart and independent. That’s pretty much it. The chemistry of the cast and the world the Duffer brothers built. It’s very unusual in today’s day and age that anything has style, and the Duffer brothers have style. They build a world that works. It has its own rules, and it has its own personality and flavor. It’s really original of the Duffer brothers, even in the way that it’s referential and connected to the history of sci-fi and film. It’s nostalgic, but it’s still original and that’s just a very unusual, uncommon special thing.

What point during the production did you learn what they had in mind for Robin, and that big moment that happened in episode seven?

You know, I honestly don’t remember. I remember we were always in constant dialogue. The Duffer brothers are very intuitive and intelligent, emotional men who shaped the characters of the show, and their journey as the show goes on based on the performance that the actors are giving and where their imaginations are taking them as they’re creating the show. There were always conversations about Robin and what her future was and her end was and who she was.

At some point, I think around when we got the scripts for episodes five and six, they were like, “You’re going to be so excited. Robin has an amazing moment and amazing opportunity for humanity, to show herself and to be herself within the structure of this crazy sci-fi, magical universe.” And I was like, “Yes, I am going to be excited!” So, I don’t remember exactly when, but something like that.

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Do you think that knowing that component of her character, and her emotional confession, from the beginning would’ve changed your approach to player her?

No. I think that the amazing thing about Robin and her sexuality, and the way that it is a part of the show, is that it’s not. Her journey through her sexuality is her own important journey of her own life and herself, but it doesn’t really matter in her relationship with Steve. Her journey is about actively saving the world, and it doesn’t matter if she like boys or she likes girls. She’s smart and she’s funny; she’s brave and she’s loyal. Those are emotional characteristics, and I think those are the beginning. If the show was about sexuality or sex, then it would be very important in the beginning to know that information.

But what I liked about it is she’s not the gay character. She’s Robin, who is smart and funny and brave and loyal, and also happens to like girls, and is associated with that complication in the 1980s where it’s even less acceptable than it is now. Much less then. But that’s not the point of her character. That’s what I think is so radical about Robin’s character, the way that the Duffers wrote it.

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Robin has such a tremendous character arc over the course of the season. From someone very guarded and aloof to open and warm, and from reluctant helper to active member of the group. Can you speak to what that arc has meant to you, and what your favorite part of that journey has been?

For me, I was experimenting when the show started with what it would be like to hide parts of yourself. Even though I didn’t know about her sexuality, I had a feeling that she wasn’t comfortable in the environment she was in.

She didn’t like Hawkins, Indiana. She doesn’t like working in the ice cream store. She didn’t feel comfortable with Steve; she didn’t know him. And so, she was a person out of her comfort zone. I think a lot of what Robin’s journey is in the show is we’re all often out of our comfort zone. That’s how we grow and learn, and she’s out of her comfort zone all the time.

Every time she starts to get comfortable, the zone changes again. She starts to get comfortable with Steve at the ice cream shop, and then the Russians attack. She starts to get comfortable learning that there are Russians under the mall, and then she finds out there’s also this whole other magical darkness that’s involved in the story. So, she’s always being surprised, always being caught off guard.

The thing is, when we’re really caught off guard, when we’re put out of our comfort zone, our true self is exposed. Our fight or flight reaction, how little we are, how honest we are, how driven we are. When we’re tested, all those things are exposed. And so, I think once you’re exposed both to other people and yourself, if you shine, you can gain real confidence because you’re like, “Wow, I was tested and I survived. And I treated other people with kindness and respect. And that makes me like myself.”

So, I think the combination of that journey towards self-acceptance, both in her ability to accomplish things and to survive this strange situation, and also in her ability to see her true self with Steve. To make a true friend who really knows her, who she doesn’t have secrets from. I don’t know, I’m rambling but I think her journey is one of self-acceptance. Or not self-acceptance, but the first step to self-acceptance. And, of course, that brings confidence. I don’t know. The whole thing was really fun for me.

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

You mentioned that the Duffer brothers tend to evolve and tailor their characters based on their actors and their performances, that it’s very collaborative in building a character. Would you say how open and alive Robin is by the season’s end is more reflective of your personality?

That sounds exactly right. Yes. Where she started, she’s me trying to self-moderate, and I have a different kind of social anxiety. Mine goes extroverted. Mine, I talk too much. I laugh too loud and I get too excited, and that’s how my social anxiety comes out. Hers is a more introverted anxiety. Then, by the end, when we’re more relaxed, we’re pretty similar, I think.

I wanted to touch on Robin’s costume this season. Robin and Steve spend the season in their Scoops Ahoy uniform, but you get an inkling of Robin’s personality through her accessories. Is that something that you collaborated on at all when developing who she is?

Yeah. I just had a feeling, I said to the costume team, and I think they already had this idea, but when I was reading even just the first couple scenes of hers, I told them, “I think she loves Madonna.” So, we picked a couple accessories that would reflect that. One of her earrings is a cross earring, a wink at her loving inspiration of Madonna. The reason I thought she loved Madonna is because Madonna has this kind of extroverted, confident sexuality that isn’t for anybody, but her.

That always really inspired me when I was a kid, and even now it inspires me. I watched her perform live when I was, I don’t know, 14 or 12, even. I could tell she was expressing her sexuality. She was experimenting with being sexy, being beautiful, being powerful, but it wasn’t to please anybody else; it was because that was who she was. It wasn’t for men; it wasn’t for fans. It was for her. That is powerful. I bet Robin would think so too.

Music sounds very important to you. Is it on the same wavelength as acting as far as creative outlets or passions?

You know, for me, it’s all about words. I love freaking poetry with every bone in my body. The reason I fell in love with acting is because you’re breathing life into language, and music is really different for a lot of other people. For me, what music is about is breathing life into language. It’s finding the most powerful way to express words, so that their meaning and their feeling becomes the most universal, the most empathetic, brings up the most feeling. So, they’re really similar for me.

You’ve dropped two singles over the summer, and the full album is on the way?

Yeah. And dropped those two singles totally independently. Just me and my friend Jesse [Harris] who write together, just released them on our own. Then we signed with a record label and then we were going to release the album on our own too, but then we started with the label and that kind of lengthened the process of the release. But yeah, definitely mid 2020 I’m releasing an album with Jesse.

The singles have a soothing, folksy sound. Is that the style of the album, and do you want to experiment stylistically?

I think that the album has, the core of it is folksy. The core of the people who’ve inspired me are Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Neil Young. But then I’ve also been really inspired by Wilco, Frank Ocean, Phoebe Bridgers, and Tom Petty. I think you’ll find on the full record a lot of simple, stripped back, folk songs, some more rock tunes. Then some places where I experiment more in Indie rock. Kind of a more modern direction. So, more experimental or modern. I think there’s a little bit of everything, but I hope it has a cohesive feel.

Music is very important to Robin, too; she even refers to herself as a “band dweeb.” Was that already in the script, or were you imbuing her with your musicality?

I’m musical, but I’m definitely not a band dweeb. Robin is so much smarter than me and more talented than I am. I like poetry and I love to sing, but I think Robin, that was just something for Robin; it’s like a great cellist or something. Robin has a real technical ability. She’s a real hyper intelligent the way that she understands languages and can translate. She’s got a very mathematical mind. I do not.

stranger things 3 robin 3 TV Performance of the Year: Maya Hawke Set a New Standard for the Alternative Girl

Have you gone back and watched the season? And if so, is there anything that stood out for you that maybe you wanted to explore further?

My own journey into womanhood has been a lot about getting confidence in my body. I think a big part of feminism, for me, is seeing your body as something that’s capable of doing things. Like it’s about what your body can do not how your body looks.

I’ve always had a lot of awkwardness physically, and a big part of having confidence in myself and growing up has been in getting stronger and feeling more capable; feeling like I can run faster and feeling strong. So, I think that I want to see her find strength, grace, and confidence. I think that that comes also through exploring. She uses her mind a lot this season, and I want to see her use her body.

I want to see her run away or beat somebody up. I want to see her kick some ass. I definitely have gained a lot of confidence through karate and kickboxing, now feeling strong in my body, and I’d love to see that happen for her too. She’s strong, too.

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

At what point did you know that she’d become so widely embraced by audiences? What was the pivotal moment?

I think I still don’t know. I don’t read social media comments or reviews. I try to let the work be the work, and then not really worry too much about how it’s perceived because I’m a pit of anxiety. Adding any fuel to that fire is just unnecessary. The potential reward of getting compliments is not worth the risk of reading hatred. So, I don’t feel like I even have a full picture of how widely embraced she has been, but people tell me that and it’s really exciting.

I know that there’s probably not a lot you can say for Strangers Things season four, but as your first season was mostly spent with Steve, who would you like to play off of or do scenes with?

Everyone in the cast is so talented and so exciting, and the amazing thing about acting is that it’s just not something you can do alone. It’s all about who you’re interacting with. So much of what I did with Robin last year was about Joe [Keery] and how funny he is and how smart, and the language that we found together. It’s very exciting to me to see. I hope that I’ll get to play off as many people as possible in this coming season.