When I meet Sadie Sink on a cold Thursday afternoon in January, I am also fortunate enough to meet Leo, ‘our very, very old cat’, who is jumping all over her. In blue jeans and black T-shirt featuring Link from Zelda — Sadie, that is, not Leo — she looks relaxed and happy. Tomorrow it’s back to her place in Manhattan and some time after that back to work, not least on the final season of Stranger Things. But right now she is in the Sink home in New Jersey, where she will later today celebrate her younger sister Jacey’s birthday with her family (the second of five siblings; Sink also has three older brothers).
‘It’s been pretty nonstop for the past few months,’ she smiles. ‘So it’s nice, over the holidays, to have two weeks when I know I’m going to be in the same place. Every once in a while there’s something. But I don’t have to get on a plane, which is good.’
Those past few months have been ‘really intense’ because Sink is the co-star of The Whale: one of those films that, as awards season kicks into gear, everyone is talking about. You may not yet have watched it — it’s not out in the UK until next Friday — but you likely will have seen images of its leading man, Brendan Fraser, playing the morbidly obese Charlie: a role for which he had to wear a 300lb prosthetic suit filled with airsoft pellets, dried beans and marbles. ‘I think I had seen some kind of mock-up drawing of what it would look like,’ Sink says, when I ask her what it was like seeing him made up for the first time. ‘But the whole thing was kind of kept a mystery, especially from me. I did not get to see him until right before we shot the very first scene.’
How does she feel about the criticism that the film has come in for in some quarters? That maybe the role of an obese man should be played by an obese man? ‘I think it’s good that people are on edge about this kind of stuff because this is a topic that hasn’t been handled in the right way by Hollywood in the past,’ she says. ‘The use of prosthetics… usually, it’s in a comedic way and it’s not empathetic or real, and it’s harmful. But for this, hopefully, by the end of it, they’ll know what the message truly is, and know that Charlie was created with a great deal of care and research. The story itself, by Sam Hunter, the playwright, is told from personal experience. It’s not a universal story, it’s very specific. So hopefully people will watch it and get a better idea of it.’
‘It’s kind of a bizarre story,’ she tells me. ‘I need to write out an actual timeline of events that transpired because it’s hard to look back and think: how did we get to this point?’
Born in Brenham, Texas, two-and-a-bit decades ago (she turns 21 on 16 April) Sink began acting at ‘seven or eight years old’. Her mother, a maths teacher, saw an advert in the paper asking for kids to audition for a community theatre production. ‘She was like to me and my brother, “You guys like to act and sing, you should go audition for this.” That was the first thing. Then we just kept on doing theatre at a community level, then a regional level. Then eventually we were both on Broadway.’ The first show she was in was Annie. ‘I was about 10, 11 at the time. I don’t remember every single detail of that experience, but I think starting out in theatre was the best for me because it kind of engraves a certain training into your system, into your bones.’
Sink’s talent was such that her parents (her father is a football coach) moved the family to the New Jersey home she is now sitting in so their daughter could be closer to New York’s theatres. A good move, because by 2015 she was acting opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience. ‘That was the first moment when something switched for me,’ she says, ‘and I saw acting as something that I really, really wanted to do for the rest of my life, just watching a pro like Helen.’ Her role was — talk about starting with a bang — as the younger self of Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II. ‘I think I probably knew more about her at that time than a lot of my friends maybe did, so playing her and researching her life, from the age of 12, 13 gave me a lot of insight into everything that she’s done. She was a big part of my childhood.’ I wonder how she feels about Harry and Meghan’s recent… escapades? ‘I know the documentary series just came out, I haven’t watched it yet so… it’s hard for me to form an opinion.’
There is — ‘Somewhere, not online and never to be released!’ — a video of the 14-year-old Sink taking the call from the producers of Stranger Things, telling her she would be joining the cast of season two. ‘I think I’m sitting on the phone and I’m just a little speechless,’ she says, ‘because with that kind of call it’s like, “Your life is going to look a lot different now.” All our family members when that happened were like, “Oh, okay. Here we go. This is happening.”’
She and her brother recently went back and watched some of her first scenes in the show, ‘and it’s just so crazy. It’s like this time capsule where there’s this much younger, smaller me on Netflix.’
How did it make her feel? ‘I looked at myself in that moment and I knew how excited I was to be there, and how hard I’d worked to be there, but also how scared I was. I was like, “Oh my God, you have no idea of the seasons that are to come.” If that girl knew where her character would be ending, like in season four, it would be impossible to believe. But yeah, it is crazy to see me at a time before [season two] was released and the masses knew this character.’
Now, of course, the masses — season four of Stranger Things alone has clocked well over one billion hours of viewing time — very much do know Max Mayfield, and are waiting with baited breath to see how her story plays out. Does Sink know yet? ‘No,’ comes the definitive answer. Really? She hasn’t seen a script yet? ‘No, I haven’t. But they posted a picture of… I don’t know if you saw this, but Stranger Things or Netflix posted a picture of the cover of one of the scripts for season five, and I was texting all my castmates, like, “Did anybody get it!?” It was posted about on Instagram, but we don’t even know what’s inside of it.’
The cast, she says, are as close as you’d expect a cast who have grown up together to be. Is there a WhatsApp group? ‘There used to be a group chat, there probably still is. It’s not very active, though. When we’re all filming, we’re together literally for 15, 16, sometimes 17 hours a day. So on our time off, we really take some time off.’ She does say that there is ‘a really nice dynamic between all of us. We really care about each other and check in on each other a lot.
The end of Stranger Things was scary for all the kids. We all always talked about it, like ‘Oh my God, what happens next’
‘It’s like family in the sense that even if you’re not with each other all the time, live in different places or you go a little while without talking and you’re doing your own thing, at the end of the day no one knows what that bond is like, what that experience is like, except for these family members. We always have each other to rely on or vent to when things get complicated or frustrating. So I think hopefully, beyond Stranger Things, we will always continue to have that and make the effort to see each other, when we don’t have that security of knowing that we’re going back for another season.’
Soon of course that will no longer be the case. ‘I think that was always so scary for all the kids, just thinking about the end of the show. We always talked about it like, “Oh, my God, what are we going to do next? What happens next?” As we inch closer to it I think I feel like it’s going to bring on an exciting new chapter. And I’m really looking forward to maybe stepping more into the film space. A TV show takes up a lot of your time, so I think I want to bounce around and experiment a little bit.’
In terms of stepping in to the film space, The Whale is certainly going to help. ‘Especially for an actor my age, you don’t find a lot of projects like this, and a lot of complex characters like this. And even though you can kind of fall into that angsty teen trope, she’s so much more than that and it’s a lot more complex.’
Portraying Ellie, she says, has made her ‘set a new standard for myself in terms of characters I want to play, writers I want to work with, directors I want to work with. I’m gonna be so lucky, I guess, but it’s just so much more fulfilling to play characters that feel like they’re actually living and breathing off the page and off the screen, and you could know them in real life rather than having this one layer. When you’re acting in those roles, it feels just a little dull and inauthentic. So playing someone who did feel authentic, I felt so fulfilled by and like I was doing work that I was proud of. That’s something I’ll definitely look for, moving forward.’
One suspects that Sink won’t have to look very hard. The writers, the directors, the roles will likely soon be coming to her. In all likelihood, 2023 will be the year that she says goodbye to the TV show that made her famous and hello to being a film star.
But before all that, a birthday party…
‘The Whale’ opens in cinemas nationwide on 3 Feb