Sadie Sink and Maxine Mayfield could not be more different. Where Maxine, the character Sink portrays, is defined by her tomboyish personality and gruff exterior—“Nobody calls me Maxine. It’s Max,” she grunts in her first appearance on Netflix’s sci-fi horror series Stranger Things—Sink is soft-spoken and considerate, dialling in early for our virtual conversation from her parents’ place in New Jersey.
“I love it here,” she says sweetly, once I ask how she feels being at home with her family, especially after having lived alone and with roommates in the past. “Being an actress, I feel like I’m always travelling and jumping around from place to place. It’s nice to have a family home to come back to.”
“Max and I can be pretty closed off at times—maybe slightly emotionally unavailable”
Nineteen-year-old Sink may be close with her family, but Max is decidedly not. In fact, a pivotal element in the spunky middle-schooler’s backstory is her fractured relationship with her stepbrother Billy Hargrove, played by Australian actor Dacre Montgomery. The siblings are seen butting heads from the moment they are introduced, and their relationship only devolves further due to Billy’s violent and emotionally abusive tendencies.
In a tense scene from season two, Billy forcefully grabs Max’s wrist during a heated argument in the car. Though visibly shaken, Max holds her red-hot glower steady at Billy before he lets go and she melts into her seat, face pinched stubbornly to stop the tears that have welled up in her eyes from spilling over.
It’s one of many sequences that prove just how powerful an actor Sink is, a fact that at her age (she would have been just 13 at the time of filming that particular scene) might be easy to overlook. But the nuanced performances she delivers throughout the show are hard to miss, especially when she explores the complicated love-hate relationship she has with her brother, who dies in the season three finale.
In another on-the-nose example of the discrepancies between Sink and her character, Billy and Max never see eye to eye, whereas Sink shares far more in common with her real-life older brother Mitchell—who is the reason she got into acting in the first place. The two had become fascinated by the world of Broadway as young children, and eventually ventured into community theatre hand-in-hand.
“We were born into a pretty sports-oriented family and none of us were exposed to the acting industry growing up. But for some reason, Mitchell and I had this gravitation towards performing arts—musical theatre, specifically. We could always be found in the back room streaming Broadway bootlegs on YouTube or watching Tony performances. It was just this weird obsession that we shared,” Sink says fondly.
As far as aha moments go, Sink shares an adorable one from a time when she was just seven. Stepping onto stage for the first time in a small production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in her hometown of Brenham, Texas, she keenly remembers the magic she felt. “I was in the baby angel ensemble and I only had one line, so I was kind of just standing there,” she laughs. “But I remember loving it like nothing else.”
Then came her first lead role. “There was a production of The Secret Garden at a community theatre close to where I lived. I was too young to audition, but I begged my mum on the car ride there to ask them to let me try out.” Long story short, she got the part. “It was then that I decided that I wanted to stick with this, and do it properly,” Sink reminisces.
From there, it was whirlwind of Broadway roles (which saw Sink’s family—like the true cheerleaders they are—relocating to New York City for a while) that led up to her big break: joining the main cast of Stranger Things in the second season. I let on that I’ve already seen the first two episodes of the fourth and newest installation, which is set to launch in May, and Sink squeals before admitting that she has peeked too. “It’s just so exciting. I can’t wait to see more, even though I already know what happens,” she giggles.
Sink’s unbridled anticipation is hardly surprising. Beyond its cinematic (read: gruesome) horror and mind-boggling sci-fi plotline, Stranger Things is known best for its genre-bending twists and turns that viewers can never seem to untangle. Six years on, it has become nothing short of a full-blown cultural phenomenon, and has brought along the cast members who grew up on set along with it.
“The bond that we have… you can’t describe it. We’ve grown up together and we’ve always had each other to lean on.”
Sink counts Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Noah Schnapp in the group of her co-stars of a similar age. “They still call us kids on set, even though most of us are turning 20 at this point,” she laughs.
Having first been introduced to the world as children in 2016, the now-young adults have been propelled to household-name fame thanks to the show. But for Sink, they are simply her best friends. “The bond that we have… you can’t describe it. We’ve grown up together in this really unique situation and we’ve always had each other to lean on and talk to. We understand each other in a different way.”
Sink’s Instagram posts—sparing as they are—are reflective of the kinship she shares with her co-stars. And while she enjoys sharing these snapshots with her fans, she chooses to take a calibrated approach with social media, sometimes spending months without having the apps on her phone. “From time to time, I’ll download them again. I could post a million times in a month or not at all. I’m not anti-social media or anything. I just believe in moderation and not giving it too much importance.”
In some ways, this sums up Sink’s balanced relationship with fame. She enjoys the limelight and the opportunities as they roll in, but also wants to experience having an ordinary life. “After my last Broadway role, I decided to go to school for a while because I wanted to interact with kids my age and feel normal. I got to do that for a year or two right before the audition for Stranger Things came in.”
“Being a normal kid”, as Sink describes it, is something that the children on the show never get a a chance to do. Max, for example, is entering the fourth season grappling with the graphic death of her stepbrother, which she witnessed up-close. Even for a tough-as-nails kid like her, it is likely too much to handle.
Sink concurs. “Max is in a dark place this season. When she’s been rude or sarcastic in the past, it was always a coping mechanism for her family life, but she was starting to settle into Hawkins and was generally happy. Now, I feel like she’s just stopped trying.”
And yet, despite the innumerable ways Sink and Max’s lives are different, what strikes me most are the ways in which they are similar. “It’s weird because our personalities are poles apart,” Sink ruminates, “but the deepest part of myself really connects to Max. With her, what you see is what you get. I’m not necessarily like her outwardly, but I value loyalty, and she’s incredibly loyal.”
“I also think Max and I can be pretty closed off at times, maybe slightly emotionally unavailable. But she has a soft heart. So it’s fun to dig deeper and tap into the more vulnerable part of myself when I play her. And honestly? I just really want to see her happy.”
Volume 1 of Stranger Things 4 is streaming on Netflix from 27 May.