It’s a rainy day in New York City, and Maya Hawke is telling me about her short-lived attempt to call her father ‘Ethan’ on the set of their new film, “Wildcat.” We’re escaping the downpour at a cozy neighborhood restaurant in Chelsea, and sitting across from the striking father-daughter duo is like having a front-row seat to the royal family of art-house cinema.
“I started using his name — ‘Ethan’ — to be like, ‘I’m a professional,’” the 25-year-old “Stranger Things” actress says. “And then I realized it was actually more distracting to people. They’d be like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ So I mostly called him ‘Dad.’”
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Such is life when you’re a Gen Z “It” girl whose father is a Gen X icon. But there’s very little celebrity polish to the pair when we meet in the dog days of August. Maya, who has modeled for Calvin Klein and been a fixture on red carpets, is dressed down. She’s draped in a scarf and wearing a T-shirt designed by her younger sister at sleepaway camp, with her hair tied back in a bun and dramatic bangs neatly in place. She’s the personification of that old high school biology concept the Punnett square: There’s no mistaking that she’s a combination of her father, Ethan Hawke, today dressed in jeans and a trucker hat from a thrift store, and her mother, Uma Thurman. Her parents got married after meeting on the set of 1997’s dystopian sci-fi thriller “Gattaca.” They had two kids before separating in 2003 and divorcing in 2005. (Maya’s younger brother, Levon, 21, also is an actor.)
“We’re like the boring, indie Kardashians,” Maya jokes.
The dynamic is playful. In Maya, there’s no trace of an eye-rolling 20-something embarrassed by her dad. (Although it probably helps when the dad in question has epitomized arty cool since the ’90s, is friends with Pedro Pascal and Gwyneth Paltrow and has the game to publicly flirt with Rihanna courtside at Madison Square Garden.) Instead, this meeting feels like catching up with old friends who share remarkably similar tastes, looks, senses of humor and sensibilities as artists. Throughout our conversation, the two often finish each other’s sentences and stories. And Ethan, like a proud dad, frequently validates Maya’s answers with a heartfelt “Well said.”
As we’re getting settled at the table, the waiter brings an Arnold Palmer for Ethan and a green juice for Maya. “I’ve been so good with my vegetarianism this summer,” the older Hawke says as he looks over the menu. The younger declares the same, before promptly ordering a round of oysters and hamburgers. Maya assembles her meal with precision, laying french fries dipped in ketchup on her medium-rare burger, while Ethan discards the bun and pops chunks of meat in his mouth with his bare hands. They have to approach the discussion about their careers with a certain delicacy, since many topics, like the fifth and final season of “Stranger Things,” are off limits because of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike.
As they tell it, the idea for “Wildcat,” which premieres at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and takes a kaleidoscopic look at the life and work of a young Flannery O’Connor, came from Maya, who has a longtime fascination with the Southern Gothic writer.
She was first introduced to the author in 10th grade as a student at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, but she didn’t start mining O’Connor’s work for inspiration until later. For her Juilliard audition, Maya wrote a monologue based on O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal.” She also sent a copy of the original text to her dad, who was filming Antoine Fuqua’s remake of “The Magnificent Seven” in Louisiana at the time. “He helped coach me, and the idea kept floating around,” Maya says.
The monologue got her accepted to Juilliard. (“Famous parents can help you get an audition, but they’re not going to get you in,” Ethan says.) Though she dropped out of school a year later to make her acting debut in the 2017 BBC adaptation of “Little Women,” she never lost her interest in O’Connor and the Bible thumpers, hucksters and grotesques at the center of her work.
It’s a testament to her effortless, cool vibe that Maya can make a wonky thesis about a long-dead short-story writer seem like a great idea for a movie. She successfully pitched the passion project to her dad’s production company, Under the Influence; she felt that Ethan’s recent work as a producer and director of “The Good Lord Bird,” an offbeat look at abolitionist John Brown, as well as the Blaze Foley biopic “Blaze,” shared themes with O’Connor’s life story. Also, she admits, “I don’t know anyone else that interested in art, faith and America.”
Ethan was flattered that Maya thought of him. He was approaching 50 at the time and had his own reasons for taking on the film, beyond the chance to create art with his daughter. He envisioned the movie about O’Connor, a deeply religious Catholic, as a way to answer an ever-nagging question: Is human creativity an act of faith?
It would be easy to dismiss the Hawkes’ collaboration as an example of nepotism in an industry where who you know is more important than how talented you are. And both father and daughter are sensitive to the way that sort of thing can be characterized in today’s world. But Ethan reiterates that “Wildcat” was all Maya’s idea.
“Put simply, I’m a nepo dad!” Ethan jokes. “And I’m not embarrassed about it.” The look on Maya’s face suggests she’s instantly concerned about how that declaration will resonate.
She’s not wrong. The conversation about nepo babies — the children of celebrities and the advantages they enjoy — has been a recent obsession of the internet. When Anjelica and John Huston collaborated on “Prizzi’s Honors,” they didn’t have to endure the wrath of Twitter. In a time when simply pursuing the same career as your famous relatives is enough to provoke outrage, starring in a movie directed by your father is basically a declaration of war.
“I had moments of insecurity about it while we were shooting the movie,” admits Maya, who was also a producer. ”But the internet doesn’t have a lot of nuances. My dad has been a massive teacher for me, and we want to work together. We like being with each other.”
Ethan adds, “If someone wants to criticize us for working together, that’s totally fair. You have to let people have their opinion. You just have to try to do a good job when you’re onstage.”
(“Wildcat,” it should be noted, does not have the commercial appeal of “Barbie.” It’s a low-budget 1950s period piece filmed over 25 days in Kentucky. It’s such an indie affair, in fact, that it’s one of the few projects allowed to do press during the strike because it has a SAG-AFTRA interim agreement.)
Laura Linney, who made her Broadway debut with Ethan in 1992’s “The Seagull” and stars as O’Connor’s mother, Regina, saw “Wildcat” as a way for Maya and Ethan “to advance their skill and contribute to the world in an artistic way.” She adds, “The production’s demands were high. It wasn’t a cute father-daughter thing.”
Still, everyone cautioned them about mixing family and business. “Before we started,” Maya remembers, “everyone was asking me, ‘Are you nervous to work with your dad?’ I hadn’t thought to be.”
Ethan kept hearing the same warning about working with his daughter. “I started thinking, ‘What am I not seeing? What am I missing?’” he says. “But this is our safe place …”
“… making art together,” Maya says.
“I mean, Thanksgiving?” he adds with a laugh. “That’s not so safe.”
There was a moment when Ethan realized that Maya, a preteen at the time, was going to join the family business. It was 2009 and Sam Mendes was directing him in a stage production of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”
“I didn’t have a babysitter for Maya, so I brought her to the tech rehearsal, which is insanely boring,” he says. “We do the whole play, stopping and starting as they adjust the lights, not in costume.”
He planned to send Maya home in a taxi while he and the rest of the cast ran through the show a second time. But she wanted to stay.
“Maya was like, ‘Can I please watch it again?’” Ethan remembers. “It’s a three-hour play. It’s Shakespeare. I went, ‘Wow. It’s on.’ If you want to watch a Shakespeare play dress rehearsal two times in a row when you are 12 …”
“… you have some serious issues,” Maya cracks.
“… that’s what you’re going to do with your life,” Ethan counters.
At home, it wasn’t all about the Bard. Maya was raised on a balanced diet of “Hannah Montana” and Robert Altman’s 1975 classic “Nashville.” Despite her famous parents, she describes a relatively ordinary upbringing. “I’ve met kids who grew up in entertainment industry families and didn’t get to go to Disney World,” she says. That wasn’t the case for the Hawkes, who never worried about being recognized at the grocery store or the movie theater. “The worst-case scenario is you have to take a picture with someone,” Maya says. “That’s a way more normal event than you not interacting with society at all.”
Ethan didn’t try to dissuade his kids from becoming actors, but he was honest about the perils of fame.
“It wasn’t a punishing thing of ‘You should do this or you shouldn’t do that,’” Maya recalls. “When a young person would get nominated for an Oscar, he’d say, ‘The best thing that person can do is go to a monastery for a year and not take the next 10 jobs that are about to come their way.’ I picked up on that philosophy over time.”
Ethan had a very personal experience with the darker side of celebrity. “My first scene partner in acting was River Phoenix,” he says of his “Explorers” co-star and friend, who died in 1993 from a drug overdose at age 23. “He had such a passion for music, and I think it would have helped him to go deeper with that. But there’s a feeling like you can’t get off the treadmill. ‘I’m kind of a famous actor so I have to do this.’ No, you don’t.”
For his part, Ethan believes he’s lucky in the level of attention he’s received. “I was always successful enough to work, but I didn’t ever hit that celebrity plane where it’s uncomfortable,” he says.
He began acting as a teenager, turning heads as a preppie high schooler in “Dead Poets Society” and starring in a Disney adaptation of “White Fang” before “Reality Bites” made him the poster child for a certain type of disaffected hipster. Until a recent appearance in the Marvel television series “Moon Knight,” Ethan has veered away from big-budget fare, once rejecting an offer to play the Dark Knight in “Batman Forever.” After his Oscar-nominated turn in “Training Day,” as well as Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” trilogy and “Boyhood,” he kept showing his range, moving seamlessly between playing a priest struggling with a crisis of faith in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” to a sadistic child killer in the dark thriller “The Black Phone.”
“From a very young age, he never wanted to be put in a box or be seen as one kind of actor,” says Ethan’s longtime friend Vincent D’Onofrio, who appears in “Wildcat.”
Maya often thinks about the kind of stardom she’s striving for. This question is further complicated by the fact that she’s also a musician with two albums — 2020’s “Blush” and 2022’s “Moss.” But right now, she says, “I don’t have an answer for you. All I want is another chance to make art. All I want for my second album is to get permission to make a third.”
As she figures that out, she’s trying her hand at a variety of projects. She became known to a wider audience after joining the cast of Netflix’s popular sci-fi series “Stranger Things” in its third season, meshing with the other misfit teens in Hawkins, Indiana. And she’s learning from auteurs, working with Quentin Tarantino in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Wes Anderson in “Asteroid City,” while endearing herself to her peers with the Netflix comedy “Do Revenge,” a campy teen movie co-starring “Riverdale” actress Camila Mendes.
This year, she’ll also appear in Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” and again work with family — this time, her mom — in the witty heist thriller “The Kill Room,” starring Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson. “I’m so excited for people to get to see my mom be funny,” she says. “In the last couple of years, she’s done independent comedies that, for whatever reason, haven’t seen the light of day. She’s the funniest person I know.”
It took these experiences for Maya to gain the confidence to lead a movie that’s being directed by her father. “As a teenager,” she says, “I wouldn’t have been in the place to have enough confidence to do it publicly …”
Suddenly, Ethan interrupts her: “I’m sorry to cut you off …”
“But you know exactly what I’m saying,” Maya says.
“You’re saying we could have done this earlier,” Ethan elaborates, “but the temperature in the room changed because Maya now has every right to be the lead of something. It’s different than if she were 17. This movie is being financed because she’s in it, not because I’m directing.”
”Well …,” Maya says, pushing back on the idea, “a little bit of both.”
In “Wildcat,” Flannery O’Connor is a caustic, antisocial nerd, so convinced of her genius that she has no patience for superficial niceties. At one point, she tells her book editor: “I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do.” In short, she’s not the kind of person you’d want to go to brunch with.
“She’s pretty upfront with her setbacks, faults and limitations,” Maya says. “She was rude to people she likes.”
“I grew up watching Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino do that,” Ethan says. “I’ve been able to do it my whole career, playing people who do gross things. But you still can kind of like them. Young actresses very rarely get that opportunity to be brilliant, complicated, mean, sexual, asexual. Making movies about imperfect women is hard.”
Maya embraces the challenge in a performance that is utterly without glamour. It’s a chameleonic deep dive that required her to wear outsized prosthetic teeth, don a mousy hairdo and use wooden crutches. In the film, she portrays not only O’Connor but six characters from the young author’s short stories. (D’Onofrio, Steve Zahn, Liam Neeson, Cooper Hoffman and Rafael Casal each have cameos.)
“Ethan and Maya have spent a lifetime discussing art with each other,” says Casal, who also worked with the Hawkes on “The Good Lord Bird.” “If anything, them being family allows them to skip past the usual trappings of strangers and get right to the honest moments.”
When Ethan told a writer friend who knew O’Connor that he was working on a movie about her, the friend said, “Well, that is going to be the most boring movie ever made.” This still makes him laugh.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot of material to mine about O’Connor, who died from lupus at 39 and spent the bulk of her life confined to her mother’s living room. Maya and Ethan asked themselves often, “How do you tell the story of a person whose imagination is more interesting than her life experiences?”
O’Connor was born in Georgia in 1925 and spent her life living on the white side of the segregated South. That makes her a complicated figure — one who has been accused of being racist because of some questionable early correspondence made public in 2014 and because the N-word appears in her work. Father and daughter had frank discussions about whether a movie about O’Connor should exist at all.
“She’s not a clear-cut hero by any stretch of the imagination,” Maya says. “She benefited from a lot of the privilege of whiteness, while being deprived of a lot of the privilege of maleness. Can you make a movie about someone without hero-worshipping them?”
Having made the decision to go ahead with the film, the Hawkes aspired to show that people who are interesting are not necessarily “good.” “But in all of their faults,” Maya says, “they are worth studying as a way of understanding the history of this country.”
What initially endeared O’Connor to Maya, she recalls, is the internal conflict that’s depicted in “A Prayer Journal.” “This clearly talented, smart young woman was very worried that she was bad,” she says, “when she wanted to be great.” Maya pauses and then adds that in her own life, “I wanted to be great, and I was so afraid that I was terrible at the things I loved.”
Ethan has his own ideas about his daughter’s connection to O’Connor. “You were impressed with somebody whose whole life was not about a man,” he says.
Apart from a crush on the poet Robert Lowell, her professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, O’Connor doesn’t have a love interest in the film. But in one sequence — a snippet from the short story “Good Country People” — her character, a young woman with a wooden leg, goes at it with a Bible salesman (Hoffman) on the floor of a hayloft. Another character — this one from O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back” — gets felt up by a ne’er-do-well (Casal) in the cab of his pickup truck. These may have been embarrassing days on set for other fathers and daughters, but the two insist there wasn’t any awkwardness.
“We needed to take care of Rafael and Cooper,” Ethan says with a laugh. “I think it was weird for them.” He turns to Maya. “We were so comfortable with it. I couldn’t care less.”
Maya says, “We made sure to have an intimacy coordinator on set for them. So that they felt safe and comfortable and not like they were being spied on …”
“… by some creepy dad,” Ethan says.
DP for Heather Hazzan: Grayson Kohs; Styling: Alex Badia; Women’s Market Editor: Emily Mercer; Senior Market Editor, Accessories: Thomas Waller; Men’s Market: Ari Stark; Makeup (Maya): Mary Wiles/Walter Schupfer; Hair (Maya): Peter Butler/Tracey Mattingly; Grooming (Ethan): Amy Komorowski/The Wall Group; Look 1 (Video Camera Setup): Ethan: Jacket and Pants: Todd Snyder; T-shirt: Urban Outfitters; Belt: Brunello Cucinelli; Sneakers: Adidas; Maya: Jacket, sweater, pants, shoes and jewelry: Prada; Look 2 (Denim): Ethan: Jacket: Tom Ford; Shirt: Gap; Jeans: Mother; Sneakers: Adidas; Belt: Ethan’s own; Maya: Jacket: Alaia; Jeans: Khaite; Top: With Jéan x Weins; Shoes: Khaite; Ring: Prada; Cover Look: Ethan: Jacket: Polo Ralph Lauren; Turtleneck: Sunspot; Pants and boots: Tods; Maya: Sweater: Khaite; Pants: Stella McCartney; Shoes: Khaite: Ring: Prada
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