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Sadie Sink on Her Stranger Things Season From Hell

Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Spoilers for Stranger Things 4 below.

Have you been thinking about what Stranger Things 4 scene Sadie Sink should use for her Emmys reel? There’s an overabundance of options, really. Perhaps it’s the obvious choice, in episode four, when freshman tomboy Max Mayfield tearfully hauls her ass out of Vecna’s trance while Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” plays in the background to accompany her breakthrough. Or maybe it’s the finale, when — limbs cracked, eyes dripping with blood — Max tries to make her own deal with God to stay alive, only to die for over a minute before Eleven’s powers get her heart beating again. Pick a monologue, any monologue. (We’re partial to the penultimate episode, when she realizes the full extent of Vecna’s curse and rallies the group with, “no more music, no more games.”) But also, the faces she makes when Dustin rambles on about Dungeons & Dragons nonsense? Pure artistry.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Sink’s role defined Stranger Things’ long and dark fourth season, which found Max doing a whole lot of running, proverbially and emotionally, as Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) tried to use her traumatic memories against her. But even with all of her strength — and she had a lot of it — Vecna was able to make Max the fourth sacrifice (or “chosen one,” in villain-speak) he needed to open his Upside-Down gates in Hawkins, and we leave the season with Max comatose in a hospital bed with too many body casts. But at least it’s better than death. On a recent phone call, Sink cheerfully discussed her hellishly fulfilling season of acting work.

Earlier this season, Max worried that she might get tired of listening to Kate Bush on loop. Did that ever happen to you?
It really didn’t. I have such an emotional and personal connection to “Running Up That Hill” and it really lended itself to tapping into the character. Every time I listen to it, I’m transported back to set, being around my favorite people and making my favorite show. I see that song a lot on my TikTok feed. It’s probably gotten a little excessive with the amount of videos I find that use the song in the background. But it’s a really good thing, because it means that people are watching the show and now listening to Kate Bush. As they should.

Kate Bush herself said the scene was created “with such heart,” which is such a lovely compliment.
Absolutely. The amount of times that I’ve listened to her music over the past two years is ridiculous. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I’ve created her in my head. I need to reach out in some way. I would love to write her a letter or something, because she played such a big role in Max’s journey. I owe her so much.

Okay, let’s get a message out to Kate right now. Sadie, what would you tell her?
A giant thank you. Not only from me, but from the character of Max and from Stranger Things in general, because she’s added so much heart to the show and her music has made such an impact on season four. It’s so wonderful knowing she thought my scene had so much heart, because I think she really played the biggest role in that.

Besides “Running Up That Hill,” what were the other Kate songs you had on rotation the past two years?
Hounds of Love, the whole album, is incredible. The “Hounds of Love” song is great, but I think my favorites are “Wuthering Heights” and “Cloudbusting.” Those were the two. I had them both on cassettes.

Do you know her duet with Peter Gabriel? It seems appropriate for Max this season.
Wait, I haven’t heard of it. Which one is that?

It’s called “Don’t Give Up.”
I’m adding that to the queue right now.

All of my questions are just … really depressing. You went through the wringer this season, emotionally and physically. Max drew her strength from happy memories with friends; where did you find yours to prepare for these scenes with Vecna?
I think, while filming, I pull from the character more than myself. All my strength really came from Max’s strength in that moment, especially for the episode four sequence when she’s seeing her friends show up for her in that way. It also helps that the actors themselves, who are playing Max’s friends, are close friends of mine and have been for years now. It’s not too far off from reality in that way.

I did love that Max never stopped calling Vecna an “asshole,” up until their last meeting.
She’s so sure of herself and so confident. Even when put in those situations, she knows who she is and she’s not going to let go of that.

“Dear Billy” is a triumph of acting for you. It’s been a month since that episode aired, and I’d argue that your scene — starting at Billy’s grave and ending with you escaping Vecna’s trance — has become the most definable moment in the show’s history. How has it been, seeing the massive level of public reaction?
It’s been very rewarding, especially since I came on as a new character in season two. I was very young and very insecure at the time. To be at this point on the show where I was lucky enough to have this plotline and have a character with such great development, and to see fans reacting to that in such a positive way, has been very rewarding. I mean, I always felt like the new kid. To have this for Max, showing where her strength is and her perseverance, was a proud moment for me and something I didn’t realize would happen while I was filming it. It’s been a whirlwind. Think of it this way: It’s such a big ensemble show. You never know what you’re going to get in the script, or what skills as an actor you’re going to be able to showcase each season. I was happy that the Duffers trusted me with this material for season four. I wanted to do the best job I could for them and do justice for Max.

How many days did it take to film that “Running Up That Hill” sequence? And how long did you actually have to run for, mileage wise?
I should’ve kept some kind of step-count for myself. [Laughs.] Because I’m not sure. There definitely was a lot of running this season but for that final sequence it wasn’t as much as you would think. I was in this giant shallow pool of water that was a little over 25 yards or so. It wasn’t very long. I was running so fast in the moment — the camera would only be rolling for four seconds each time. But then I did it again, and again, and again. I think they just combined a bunch of clips of me running in the takes that we did, in order to make it look like I’d been running a much longer distance than I actually was.

What preparation did you and Jamie do for your scenes together? I imagine it required a lot of vulnerability between you two.
I had met Jamie briefly during a table read, but it was probably a year and a half before we started filming together because of COVID and other story lines that filmed first. So at that point, let’s say by “Dear Billy,” I didn’t know what he was supposed to look like or who he was until we started filming together. There was no rehearsal or prep between the two of us — we just showed up on the day. I had no idea what Vecna was going to look like until I saw him for the first time. Jamie was so convincing and believable that I forgot there was a human in there. I was looking at Vecna and I remember meeting Jamie in person, out of his Vecna costume. I heard his voice before I saw his face. And I was like, Oh my God, is that Jamie? Is this a sick joke? Then I realized that’s what he looked like underneath all of that. It’s crazy. There’s an actual human person underneath.

How did you react when you first saw him in his full costume, walking toward you?
Well, it’s certainly not something you see every day. [Laughs.] When I first saw him, I started laughing uncontrollably. Just total laughter. I didn’t know what I was looking at, you know? I was scared, but fascinated, and feeling such a weird array of emotions that it just came out as laughter. But once we started filming, I wasn’t laughing anymore, that’s for sure.

I’m not usually one to memorize villainous monologues, but Vecna said something to Max in “Dear Billy” that’s still stuck in my mind: “You’ve broken everything.” I’m wondering how you interpret that, or if there were any other quotes from Vecna that gave you pause.
It’s an interesting phrase. With Vecna, what he’s saying to Max isn’t necessarily the truth — but it is Max’s truth and everything Max thinks about herself. So, everything he’s saying is exactly what Max has been thinking in the darkest parts of her mind. When he says “you’ve broken everything,” I interpreted it as something Max truly believed and knew and had told herself in terms of the situation with Billy, how that’s affected her family, and her life in general. She feels so hopeless and out of control; she has no one to blame but herself at this point, and with Vecna cornering his victims in this way, when he says those thoughts out loud to Max it puts her in a place where she truly believes it. That’s how he attacks: He targets the most vulnerable people and makes them even more vulnerable. He can kill them and get on with his evil and manipulative master plan of ending the world. Personally, Vecna’s monologue helped me figure out exactly what Max was thinking. Because if she’s not going to say it out loud, Vecna sees all and knows all, and is able to say it out loud to her.

Tell me more about what you think was in Max’s mind, especially in the last two episodes.
Billy was someone who caused Max so much pain in her life and she would have really dark thoughts about him. She talks in episode nine about how she would pray for him to disappear and pray for something awful to happen to him. So when it actually did, even though it had nothing to do with what she was thinking, she still didn’t have the proper outlet for her grief. The blame and guilt that she felt, she put it all on herself. If she weren’t so guarded and was able to open up a little bit more, and seek out some more help from someone like Lucas — who’s willing to be there for her in that way — it would’ve alleviated some of that guilt she placed on herself. But that’s not who she is. So all of this — the death of Billy and everything that followed in her life with her mom and her living situation in the trailer park — reached this breaking point where she felt stuck and hopeless. Of course, that made her the perfect victim.

I want to get more of your perspective on Max and Billy’s relationship, since it buoyed a lot of this season’s trauma. Max reads that lovely letter to him in “Dear Billy,” and then in the finale tells Vecna that she “didn’t know if he deserved to be saved.” I know Max was meant to provoke Vecna in that moment, but there were elements of her words that rang true to me.
Season four complicated their relationship because there was no closure before he died. Billy was someone who entered Max’s life and she didn’t ask for it, but all of a sudden she was dealing with this monster of a human being for no reason. When Max talks about how she didn’t know if he deserved to be saved, I think that’s something she convinced herself after his death. Thinking back to the moment he died … when you’re grieving, you ask yourself a lot of questions about your part in what happened, even if you had no control over the situation. You still want to know how things could be different or if you would’ve done something different. So for Max, the one thing she can pinpoint is how she sat, watched, and did nothing, even though she had no power over what was happening. It’s her way to make sense of the confusion, grief, and anger she was feeling, or even help her cope.

Max had a horrible relationship with her stepbrother, but experiencing something that traumatic and having so many unanswered questions about their relationship will always occupy her mind. Was he a good person? Did he deserve to be saved? Should she be feeling angry over this situation? Should she not be grieving over his death? It all festered and turned into this immense amount of pain and guilt that she placed on herself.

I, and I have to assume plenty of other viewers felt this way, thought Max was dead after Vecna put her in his trance in the finale. Was there any version of the script where Max actually died in that scene?
I remember getting a call from the Duffers right after they had sent the ninth episode for us to read. They warned me what was coming. They were like, Okay, so you’re going to die. The script says you die, but just keep reading. It’s all very much up in the air, just a warning for what’s coming! I knew in advance, but even when I was watching the episode, you fully think she’s dead. You think Max is gone. She’s definitely not back in the way she once was, but there’s still a small glimmer of hope. But then again, Eleven is searching for her in the void and can’t find her. So who knows where she is and what state she’s in.

Were you expecting Max to die this season?
Oh, totally. You never know when you’re going to be next, but the thing about the Duffers and their vision for the show is they’re never going to kill someone off for the sake of getting a gasp from the audience. They’re not going to do something like that. They’re only going to have a death on the show occur when it’s essential in terms of moving the plot along. There’s security in knowing that. When you’re on a show like this, your fate is always up in the air. You never know what these brothers are going to come up with.

In fear of sounding crass, do you think the season would’ve been more impactful if Max did indeed die?
I know what you mean. When I was watching the scene between me and Caleb, it was like … the reactions in that moment were exactly what they would’ve been if Max died, because she did die. Obviously it would’ve been a bit more impactful if she was gone, but just not in the ways you would’ve wanted. I think the decision to put her in a comatose state is interesting, because we’re not really sure what’s going on with her. We’re not sure where she is or what’s happening, and it’s probably for the best. She definitely drew the short straw in the situation, but at least she’s not fully gone.

Your reading of “I don’t want to die, I’m not ready” was brutal. Caleb and you did a great job with that scene. Can you tell me more about what it was like to film that?
I’ve known Caleb for what feels like my whole life at this point. We have so much chemistry and trust each other as actors, as people, and as the characters. We felt very prepared and there was security in that. It’s definitely not hard to do that kind of scene with a friend like that — you’re rooting for it. And you’re looking forward to their movie date on Friday and it’s not going to happen! There’s many things to unpack there, but yeah, I was very proud of Caleb because I’d never seen him do work like that on the show. It was really rewarding for me to have that experience with him, as tragic as it may be.

Did you get to keep the doodle you drew of him and Max at the movies?
I didn’t! There were so many rough drafts of that doodle. I’m not an artist in any way, as you can see from that stick figure drawing. [Laughs.] Maybe I’ll recreate it and frame it on my wall one day.

What was a stranger sensation: Levitating in the air, or touching all of the Vecna prosthetics? You rip one of his neck tentacles off!
Weirdly, the floating I got used to by the end of the season. It felt like I never took that harness off. There were weeks of harness work. But I really loved being in the air! It was harder to do the limbs-breaking scene, because it required me to be up there for a very long time and contort my body and muscles in different directions — it required a greater physical effort. Touching Vecna’s prosthetics? [Groans.] It just doesn’t feel right. It’s slimy and it’s fragile. The scene where I rip off one of the vine-tentacles, I actually couldn’t pull anything away with me, because then I would break the prosthetics and they would have to stop and reset all of it. So it was a very delicate dance. It’s definitely a weird feeling.

It reminds me of the show’s weird caption choices. “Vecna moves wetly.” “Bats squelch wetly.” “Tentacles pulsate wetly.”
It’s funny, I’ve seen a lot of stuff about the captions this season. It scares me, but what other way are you going to describe it? That’s the way he moves! [Laughs.] If that’s the way the bones sound when they’re cracking, that’s what you gotta do.

Where do you find hope with Max going into the final season?
I think she’s at a place where she now really wants to fight. In episode nine, when she gave that monologue, she was ready to go and she was ready to make that ultimate sacrifice. I mean, she said that she just wanted to disappear. It almost felt like she was giving up, even though she was telling her friends if she’s made it out before, then she can make it out again. She knew that there was no way she was going to make it out alive, but the fact that she was willing to make that sacrifice was brutal and heartbreaking. If she’s still out there, she definitely has a lot of rage and a lot of fight in her. So that’s where my hope lies in Max for season five.

Sadie Sink on Her Stranger Things Season From Hell