Over breakfast of poached eggs in TriBeCa, Maya Hawke is recalling a recent conversation with a friend about something she’s rarely experienced — catcalling, or random men yelling out comments about her looks as she walks down the street.
“It's a terrible experience for so many people and it shouldn't happen. But I was commenting on the fact that I don't feel like I get looked at on the street,” said the actress. I was, like, ‘It never happens to me. Why doesn't it happen to me? Is it because I dress like a farmer?’”
Her friend had another perspective, said Hawke, who is the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman: “My friend was, like, ‘No. You've just been having people look at you your whole life. So you don't even see it happening.’ I was, like, ‘Oh that's so true.’ I've become a little immune to the gazes of strangers because it's been a part of my life for so long.”
Hawke should probably brace herself for more attention. The 19-year-old is making her professional acting debut in the two-part “Little Women,” which premiered May 13 on PBS and concludes on May 20. Even for an actress who grew up surrounded by the business and trained for a year at Juilliard, the “Masterpiece” adaptation represents a major leap.
She not only portrays Jo March, a literary heroine as beloved as Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Shirley. She also had the responsibility of being first on the call sheet for a three-hour miniseries that features veterans Emily Watson, Michael Gambon and Angela Lansbury — all while acting on camera for the first time.
But filming for three months in Ireland was a joy, she says. “I got to act in really hard scenes every day. Twelve hours a day for three months. Right out of acting school too, which was very fortunate.”
Although she looks and sounds strikingly like her mother, with the same wide-set eyes and throaty voice, Hawke seems to share her father’s restless artistic temperament and verbose earnestness. In addition to acting, she writes, performs music, and hopes to direct one day. She speaks not just with her hands but with her entire upper body, clutching at her heart or closing her eyes when saying something especially meaningful.
Raised in New York by her famous parents, who divorced in 2005, Hawke grew up dimly aware that her family was different — “we got to just go into places and cut lines,” she recalls — but didn’t necessarily know why.
“I began to understand later — how privileged I was and also how vulnerable, so it was a journey,” she adds. “ Like the first time you go to school and someone's, like, ‘I saw your mommy on television," and you're, like, "Weird. I didn't.’ Or, like, "I saw your mom's boobs,’ and you're, like, ‘Whoa. Cool. I don't have any.’ You have no idea what people would say.”
As a result of her upbringing, Hawke has an unusually clear-eyed understanding of the pitfalls of fame, like “too much self-googling” or the way the perks of celebrity can get in the way of being an artist.
“Sometimes the world will tell you that you do what you do for a different reason than your reason,” she says. “And if you let them convince you that that's your reason, it will become your reason, and you will lose track of yourself. You can take the gifts that it can bring, like reservations at restaurants. But remember to give back and remember to stay in tune with the fact that you didn't go into it to get your picture taken.”
And, so far at least, she seems to have little interest in the glamorous trappings of the business. Although she’s chosen a chichi hotel for the interview — the kind of place where paparazzi linger outside the lobby waiting to snap photos of sashaying celebrities — she’s dressed in leggings, sneakers and a jokey black T-shirt with the slogan “got qi?” — a play on the “got milk?” campaign.
She looks, if not exactly like a farmer, then a normal, slightly artsy teenager, an impression heightened by the words “STAY GOLD” scrawled in pink ink on the knuckles of her left hand. (Hawke, who is dyslexic, explains that she writes on her left hand in order to tell one side from the other.)
In school, Hawke was always drawn to drama, playing the Artful Dodger in “Oliver Twist” and Olivia in “Twelfth Night.” For a time, she resisted pursuing the craft seriously because she was so aware of the job’s downsides. But, she says: “Eventually I realized that there was only so much that I could put in the way of my happiness, and acting made me happier than anything else.”
Hawke enrolled in the drama program at Juilliard, but when the “Little Women” offer came along, she had to choose between school and work. (The school does not allow students to miss class for professional opportunities.) Never what she calls a “super-institutional gal,” Hawke chose the latter.
The offer coincided with “a really intense desire for independence,” she recalls. “I was living at home mostly, and I was itching to find myself and to start experimenting and being in the world. I love this book, and I love that character, and it felt like to say no to it would break my heart.”
Hawke connected to Jo on a profound level. “I'm a tomboy. I love reading and writing. I am clumsy. I am all these things that are attributed to her character are just things that felt very real for me, and so it wasn't hard to just be her. I hope I get to transform in the future, but in this part, I did not have to transform. I just let out the things that sometimes I even hold in as a person.”
Heidi Thomas, who wrote the three-hour adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel and also created the popular PBS series “Call the Midwife,” was struck by Hawke’s sincerity. “I’ve never worked with an actor who was more straightforward, who plays her role with more meaning and more directness and more purity of intent,” she says by phone from London.
As the newbie on set, Hawke says she learned from her seasoned costars, especially Watson and Lansbury, who helped her figure out how to “take space for myself as an actor” without “being a diva about it.”
She also bonded with her onscreen siblings, who were all holed up at a once-grand seaside hotel in the Dublin suburb of Dún Laoghaire. “We all had these balconies that we could walk out on and yell at each other, like, Are you still awake? I want to run lines!”
The actress and Kathryn Newton, who plays bratty youngest sister Amy, secretly took a trip to Paris, where they wandered around listening to the audiobook of “A Moveable Feast” and visited Shakespeare and Company, the famed bookstore where Hawke worked for a summer a few years ago (and figures prominently in “Before Sunset,” which stars her father).
After breakfast Hawke plans to work out, something she’s been doing to prepare for a just-announced role in the third season of Netflix’s nostalgic hit “Stranger Things” — not to look thin, mind you, but because “you feel better in your body as an actor if you're strong and if you're confident,” she says.
“I think valuing what your body can do, over how your body looks, is the No. 1 advice I would give to young women about how to have healthy body image. It's not, ‘Do these pants fit?’ it's ‘Can I do a split?’” Hawke continues. Connecting the conversation back to “Little Women,” she notes that “so much of the way that women have been deprived of their power has been in limiting what their bodies can do, from corsetry and shoes you can't walk in, and long nails that make you not be able to hold things, there's been a tremendous obstacle in women's way. … I think a big feminist act is loving your body, and learning about what it can do biologically, and what it can do physically. So I'm on that journey every day.”
A priority for the younger Hawke is figuring out a way to work with her father, whom she calls “one of my best friends and a great teacher of mine. He's published books, and he's directed movies, and he's acted with success. So he really inspires me.”
For now she is trying to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground, despite the flurry of attention — and 40,000 or so additional Instagram followers — she’s garnered in the days since her guest role in “Stranger Things” was announced.
“There's an adjustment period that I'm still in, but I hope to stay humble and stay true to myself,” she says. “And still dress like a farmer.”
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)