Bustle Exclusive

The Perks & Perils Of Fan Culture, According To Sadie Sink

In her new psychological thriller, the Stranger Things actor wrestles with groupthink.

Sadie Sink talks to Bustle about Stranger Things, Taylor Swift's All Too Well music video, and her n...

There are throngs of fans outside Sadie Sink’s hotel. The actor is in Paris, where she has just attended the Chanel Haute Couture show. And while she’s well-acquainted with mass adoration, this particular circus is not for her. “I think there’s some kind of band staying here as well,” Sink, who’s 22, tells Bustle. “It’s crazy, but it’s also a beautiful thing.”

After three seasons playing Max Mayfield, Stranger Things’ spiky, monster-battling emotional epicenter, her own fans are legion — and obsessed. Among them is Taylor Swift, who hand-picked the actor to star in her All Too Well short film, which has 99 million YouTube views. “It is true that most of the time that I was at the monitor watching Sadie perform, I was physically clutching my chest,” Swift has said about Sink, whose family of seven relocated from Texas to New Jersey so she could star as Annie on Broadway at age 10.

As she came of age playing these high-profile roles, she’s learned to separate herself from the ensuing attention for the sake of her own stability. She only dabbles in online discourse about herself once a year, on her birthday, and otherwise stays off social media.

“You think about fan culture, and it’s a real loneliness reliever,” says Sink, who’s low-key also an incredible singer. “You’re able to connect with people around the world who share your interests and give you that sense of community that everyone craves. But is that a beautiful thing, or is it further pushing you into isolation, begging the question of what’s real and what’s not? And are you losing all presence in your everyday life?”

Sink with Eric Bana in A Sacrifice.

She grapples with these ideas in her latest film, the psychological thriller A Sacrifice, in which she plays Mazzy, a troubled student who’s lured into the web of a death cult that masquerades as a wellness group. Like her role in 2022’s Oscar-winning drama The Whale, Mazzy’s strained relationship with her father leads her into self-destructive waters. It’s all rich material for someone so clear-eyed about self-preservation.

“I used to crave people’s feedback, but now I think if I open that door a little bit, I risk opening it completely and getting consumed with social media and losing that grip on reality,” she says. “I’m someone who, just for my own sanity, needs to focus on what’s right in front of me.”

Below, Sink discusses leaving the upside down behind, rejecting perfectionism, and the Swiftian art of turning pain into poetry.

“For a while, I could only find a sense of true fulfillment and belonging if I was performing.”

You’re currently filming the final season of Stranger Things, Season 5. How are you feeling about the show ending?

It’s bittersweet. It’s going to be exciting to move on from it, but I’m definitely going to cry. It’s completely shaped who I am. The years I spent on the show were such crucial, formative years in finding my own identity.

For A Sacrifice, did you research the psychology of cults?

My research wasn’t necessarily about cults, but rather how one finds themself in that situation, and the type of people that fall victim to them. I had a very casual fascination with the subject beforehand — just your typical YouTube rabbit hole, midnight to 2 a.m. situation. But once I started diving in, what I found is that, yes, there is a certain naïveté or vulnerability that comes with victims, but it can also happen to very self-aware, smart people.

What makes something have a cult following, or what makes it an actual cult? There’s a lot of scary stuff out there. The idea of wellness centers and retreats that are painted as “health and wellness journeys” or a “self-discovery trip,” they have cultlike qualities, [even if] we don’t realize it.

The movie explores how groupthink can be dangerous, but on the other hand, you’ve been involved in wonderful projects, like with Taylor Swift or Stranger Things, that have very devoted fandoms, which sometimes function almost like a hive mind.

Totally. Fan culture is such a beautiful thing, all these people meeting each other and finding community. But there are two ends of the spectrum. [On one hand,] it’s just a joyous hobby you can celebrate with others. But then the wrong people will feed off of that need for belonging and [turn it into] a self-indulgent, malicious scheme of some sort.

The cast of Stranger Things.Steve Granitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Have you dabbled in any of the fandom’s responses to your work?

I used to, definitely. If I’m super proud of something and poured a lot of myself into it, then I might be curious if a performance means something to people in the way it did for me. But recently I’ve stayed out of it. Sometimes, I’ll get the craving to see what people are talking about, but most times, it just kind of scares me and I’d rather leave it be.

What scares you about it? Does it mess with your sense of reality?

For sure. It’s tricky. I want to put certain aspects of myself out there because there are really beautiful people, [like] devoted fans who make art. There’s a craving to stay in touch because it is so special and can make me feel really good. But I find, more often than not, even if people are saying kind things, there’s always going to be something you don’t want to see.

The last straw was that I would get really anxious if I saw a photo of me taken without my permission. [I didn’t have to be] doing anything, just sitting or being out and about. But anytime I would see it, it would make me really, really nervous and [make me] not want to leave the house. By not having access to social media, I don’t know if someone took a photo of me while I was getting coffee in the morning. Therefore it doesn’t bother me. Therefore I can get up the next morning and do it again.

I want to talk about All Too Well. Taylor Swift said that if you had turned down the film, she wouldn’t have made it. How do you wrap your mind around that?

It was wildly confusing at first, because I never thought of myself as someone who would even reach her desk. But I grew up on her music and was such a fan. She’s been such a huge part of my life. If a song of hers reminded me of a character, I would use it to get into a role. She had always been a little voice in my head, so it was super surreal.

Looking back, I think she has some kind of Spidey sense where she’s just able to recognize someone who understands the assignment, because I knew that song so well and I knew the history behind it. It was amazing that she recognized that in me somehow, that I would understand the song, the message, the story she was trying to tell.

How she was able to see that without even meeting me beforehand, and just offering it to me right off the bat… Well, she’s got good intuition.

Sink and actor Dylan O’Brien with Taylor Swift at the All Too Well premiere.ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

That fight scene in the kitchen. That was largely improvised?

Yeah, I was really scared to watch the video [initially]. When she told me she kept that scene, I was like, “What are you talking about?” It was completely on the fly; I don’t remember anything I said; we only did one take.

I remember they attached microphones to us, and I was like, “Why are they making us wear a mic?” I thought they were just capturing our mouths moving and we were going to visualize a fight in the kitchen [with music playing over it]. I just went with whatever came up in the moment. It was a crazy, fun acting game, and it happened to be in the final cut.

But what’s so cool and realistic about it is that in a fight, it’s not supposed to be completely well thought-out. If you feel anger, your immediate response — if you can’t control it — is to start talking about what’s making you angry. It doesn’t have to be fully formed, coherent sentences. You may say the same thing over and over, but that’s real, and that’s natural. You don’t see a lot of natural dialogue in films. So for her to allow us the space to improvise and interact in a way that we would if we were actually having a fight with our partner, just really served the song and the story well.

You’re clearly a dazzling collaborator. You brought so much to your relationship with Brendan Fraser in The Whale, so that when he won the Oscar, I feel like it was your win, too.

I mean, I couldn’t do it without Brendan. The prosthetics were really complicated to sit in, so it was hard for him to stay still. He would need to take a lot of breaks. For that final scene [because he had stepped away], they had me look at a mark and deliver my lines. It was emotional, so it was obviously hard to look at a piece of tape and react to it. But I was like, “No, I can do it. I work on Stranger Things. We react to things that aren’t there all the time. I’ve got this.” But the emotions weren’t coming. So Darren [Aronofsky, the director] immediately said, “Stop what you’re doing. Bring Brendan back in.” And then from the first take, it was like, “Oh, it’s there.”

That alone is a testament to how much you need your scene partner. It’s not as simple as just saying the words and acting like you’re crying. You have to feel it. And in order to feel it, you need to have that human connection. That’s what the film was all about, having a strong relationship and being there for each other. I’m always going to treasure what we made together.

Talking about that character, Ellie, you’ve said that sometimes when we suffer immense pain, we become self-destructive or just destructive, period. What led you to that analysis?

It was just so obvious to me. The characters all have self-destructive coping mechanisms, which they resort to for comfort or safety. Ellie’s anger is a result of pain, and she’s lashing out. You see it in Charlie with his eating habits and self-loathing. That’s a coping mechanism for pain he’s experienced in life. [As a viewer,] you’re asking yourself, “Why is this person doing this?” They don’t really know either! When you’re in pain, it’s so much easier to be mad at the world than to step out of it.

The question at the end of the film is, now knowing her father as someone who truly sees her, does she take that new pain and let it inspire her? Or does she take that pain and add it as fuel to the fire?

The cast and creative team of The Whale.Stefania D'Alessandro/WireImage/Getty Images

I listened to the song “The Manuscript” from The Tortured Poets Department.


It’s about turning pain into art. I wonder if you share that perception.

Yeah, for sure. It’s such a beautiful thing to be a creative person. I think we feel things more intensely. We’re more in touch with our emotions. Little things that someone else would brush aside, we internalize. But even if we feel more pain, we hopefully turn it into something a lot of people can relate to. It fuels our art.

These themes in your work about isolation and the need for connection, how do you find that sense of belonging in your own life?

It’s interesting. For a while, I could only find a sense of true fulfillment and belonging if I was performing. And even then, I was doing it to serve a director’s vision or to please everyone on set, to make everyone else’s jobs easier. I’ve definitely started to realize “Oh, no, I’m a huge part of this as well.” Even though there are lots of people involved in bringing a character to life, at the end of the day, it still all comes down to the voice I give her.

So it’s been hugely fulfilling to approach acting from a more adult place in my life. I feel like I’ve gained enough experience to feel comfortable on any set. I know what I need to perform at my best.

Starting out on Annie, it was so fun and everything I wanted. But it was also very limiting, in the sense that every night had to be the same. As a child, that pressure to be 100% every night maybe set me back in some areas that I recently had to shake. Am I acting for someone else, or am I putting myself into it and making myself feel good? It’s taking the pressure off of being perfect, and [instead focusing on] just being human. That’s the root of any character, to make them feel as real as possible. And you can’t do that if you’re so stressed about being perfect. Humans aren’t perfect.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.