PASADENA, Calif. – Actor Maya Hawke loves reading and storytelling and acting, but she’s dyslexic. For someone who has to execute cold readings and master acres of dialogue, that can be a serious problem.
“I really struggled growing up with reading and writing,” she said. “But I was really passionate about storytelling and about books. I loved being read aloud to. I loved audio books. My relationship to the page, to reading language, was an antagonistic one, a real challenge for me.
“And so when I discovered that, through acting, you can speak a beautiful language aloud and have a relationship to language that isn’t one that’s just eyes-to-page, pen-to-page — it’s one that’s full-bodied, full-voiced, full-heart — it really opened my heart and made me feel like I could be a storyteller.”
Hawke, 19, has good reason for an open heart. In her very first professional role, she is starring as Jo March in the miniseries “Little Women,” premiering Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1869 novel, the two-part drama features Hawke as the tomboyish and bookish sibling of three sisters who must struggle during the deprivations of the Civil War, passing into womanhood.
She admits she was terrified to take on the task. “I had to make a lot of big choices to take the part. I had to leave school. [She was studying at Juilliard.] I was really scared about making that choice, and I’m really scared about having chosen not to finish my education and creating my own structure, my own learning, and be responsible for my own education.”
She sighed. “That’s a very easy ball to drop, and I really don’t want to drop it. And I won’t.”
Hawke is the daughter of actors Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, who divorced in 2005. (They also have a son, Levon Roan Thurman-Hawke, 16.) Her parents warned her about her choice, she said.
“They both really love what they do, but it’s a hard life. And I think, in a lot of ways, they wish for me to have chosen a more simple, more structured lifestyle.
“But there’s a reason they both do it. They both know what’s wonderful about it. If you have the bug, you have the bug, and if you’re a performer, you’re a performer. And there’s nothing you can really do about it. They said, ‘If you can do anything else, you should.’ But I think they knew I couldn’t.”
Even though it’s her first professional part, she thinks she’s prepared. “I’ve been A) in the public eye my whole life and B) acting my whole life and developing a relationship to acting. I feel ready.”
For three years, Hawke went to a school designed to teach young dyslexic kids how to read. “I’m very slow at it,” she said. “And so I often print things on blue paper, which is really helpful if you’re dyslexic. And I often just take my time.
“What I learned is you have to be forgiving with yourself. You have to be willing to take your time, and you can’t expect things from yourself that you can’t deliver.”
Every night, inspired by satirist David Sedaris, she scribbles out in cryptic cursive the day’s experiences in her diary. “Every morning I transcribe the night’s diary into my computer so I can read it,” she said, grinning.
“I want to be a writer, too, and I think writing down the things you hear during the day, funny things that people say, and filling these books up, it brings me a lot of satisfaction, a lot of joy.”