Little readers have long embraced “Little Women” and found inspiration in the character of Jo March, a headstrong young writer out to conquer the world.
Maya Hawke counts herself among the latest generation of fans of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel. But the lucky Hawke takes it one step further: She stars as Jo in a new version of “Little Women,” airing consecutive Sundays, May 13 and May 20, on PBS’ “Masterpiece” showcase (7 p.m. Sunday, PBS/Channel 7).
Lucky viewers, as well. The 19-year-old Hawke plays Jo with a coltish vibrancy that suits the role, and with an easy confidence that belies her resume: The drama is her first screen credit, with a part in the next season of “Stranger Things” following close behind.
“Little Women” held such appeal for Hawke that she left New York’s Juilliard School for it, a move that runs in the family: Her parents, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, both interrupted their studies when the professional world beckoned.
“This story spoke to me. ... I love novels, and the script was really well-written, because the book is well-written, and I wanted to get to speak those words,” Maya Hawke said in an interview. “I didn’t know if I was going to get to play it again, if ever, so I had to jump on it.”
The project was a draw for another reason. Jo’s literary passion helped Hawke in her struggle with dyslexia.
“Her drive and her love of language and storytelling really sparked my interest, and really inspired me to overcome the obstacles that were in my way, which were much more personal and less societal than hers, and follow my dreams and pursue what I love,” Hawke said.
She quickly adds: “But not at the expense of my family and my relationships. And that balance between relationships, obligations, family, friends, love and passion and work is a very important thing to have come together.”
Hawke’s answers, candid and delivered in flowing sentences, reveal a young woman who has pondered how to approach life and her place in the world. She doesn’t balk at discussing any topic — including following her successful parents (who divorced when she was a child) into acting.
“I understand the advantages that come from having parents in the industry. I understand the disadvantages,” she said. “I know that I’m really lucky. And I appreciate that luck and I hope to use that luck to do as well as I can and then to share it with as many people as possible. That’s my real goal.”
She does take issue with the notion that the offspring of people in the arts mimic their relatives’ careers just because they can.
“I love acting and storytelling more than most people in their right mind, and I’m only doing it because I’m (expletive) crazy about it, and couldn’t do anything else and care more about it than I should,” Hawke said.
Asked about her other loves, she reels off animals, travel, the visual arts and, especially, writing: “I keep a journal. I write poetry. I work on plays. ... It’s a really good way to keep working on your creativity during your downtime as an actor,” she said.
Hawke has dabbled in high-fashion modeling (which kicked off her mom’s career), but tackled a day of promotion for “Little Women” dressed down in a black sweater and pants topped by a jeans jacket, and wearing just a trace of makeup.
The fledgling actress made a good impression on co-star Emily Watson, who plays the March family matriarch, Marmee.
“She’s so bright. She’s very aware of how the business works, obviously, because of her parents,” Watson said, but sought guidance on the unfamiliar technical aspects of filming.
“It was lovely to have somebody so hungry to learn. ... She was really, really genuinely humble about the experience she was having. Very passionate,” said the two-time Oscar nominee.
The New York-based Hawke, who attended Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn and took part in summer studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, is learning to navigate the post-academic world.
“I’m slowly but surely starting to build a community of other people who are in a similar place as me. ... Who went to school for a while and left or who are sort of in the arts and forging their own path. And that’s a really exciting thing, because there was a while where I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m the only person in the whole world making this choice.’”
But the advantages are becoming clear, she said.
“It’s hopping onto the road less traveled by. And then you spend a little time on the road less traveled by and you look around and there’s a lot of good company there.”