Film & TV

Emma Mackey is Starting a Conversation on 'Sex Education'

The actress gets real about her rise to fame, her upcoming Agatha Christie film, and what she hopes her hit Netflix show teaches viewers about their sexuality.
Reading time 6 minutes

Photography by Guen Fiore

Styling by Vanessa Bellugeon

 

With bleached pink hair, a miniskirt, Dr. Martens, and a black bomber jacket, Emma Mackey entered the school courtyard of Netflix's Sex Education last year and almost instantly became a household name. On the show, she plays Maeve Wiley, a complex and rebellious teen who rejects all emotional ties and all authority, ultimately hiding a deep sense of empathy and a lot of injuries. Upon the recent release of season 2, Mackey has become more than a hopeful actress, but an overnight anomaly that spent barely two years in drama school before scoring a lead role in a series that's highly acclaimed by the public and critics alike. Shortly after filming seasons of the Netflix hit, she immediately went on to shoot with British director and actor Kenneth Branagh, who entrusted her with the enormous role of Jacqueline de Bellefort in the new adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, in which she'll star alongside Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer next fall. But for now, Mackey is once again taking a spotlight as Maeve, who could not be more different than the actress herself, who arrived on set relaxed but concentrated, with a gleam in her eyes and an infectious energy.

Contrary to what one might think when hearing her voice in Sex Education, Mackey was born and raised in Sarthe, France with a French father and an English mother, creating a bilingual and bicultural universe. “My British family is full of big music lovers who are very into the theater," the actress says of how her childhood has shaped her. "As a child, I played characters I saw in media; I dressed up. [Acting] has always been a part of me and my education. My dream as a teenager was the Royal Shakespeare Company. I went there at 16 for the first time to see a production of Much Ado About Nothing with my parents, and I said to myself, 'That's what I want.' But it took my education at the University of Leeds, to study literature, before I understood that it was possible to make a career out of it. In the first semester, I staged a play, and then I met people who had the same passion and I started auditioning.”

On Sex Education, Mackey encounters this same collaborative spirit on set, in a very rural setting in the Wye Valley between Wales and England: “[During shooting] We lived in a bubble: we saw each other, we worked very hard every day on a campus, and it lasted four months," she says. "The chemistry you see on the screen comes from that environment. A troupe where everyone adores and supports each other, it is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

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Following the success of Skins and running alongside the likes of hits like Euphoria, Sex Education showcases a range of endearing characters. Gillian Anderson of The X-Files plays Jean Milburn, a seductive sexologist who has a son named Otis (Asa Butterfield, who has worked with Scorsese and Tim Burton), a teenager who doesn't quite fit in but confesses to Maeve that he's secretly become a bit of a sex-ed expert, prompting the duo to start an underground sex therapy clinic. Other main characters include Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Otis' extroverted best friend, and Adam (Connor Swindells). Maeve is the only young adult in the group living on her own and paying the rent.

Though it's a creative challenge, Mackey loves the ambivalence of her character. This season is a little darker and more in-depth. We see everyone growing up, becoming emancipated and I find it beautiful, sometimes even heartbreaking," she says. "It broke my heart to shoot certain scenes between Maeve and her mother, but it's a challenge that I love. I live for that.” The success of Sex Education is due in part to how it highlights a range of identities (sexual, societal, and otherwise) without condemnation, but with humor and honesty. Taking a page from the legendary Nobody's Perfect, one could say that Sex Education demonstrates that perfect sexuality does not exist. With an air of lightness, the show is able to speak to a Gen-Z audience who sees themselves directly in the characters, but also to many more. “We created singular characters but it is nevertheless a tool," Mackey adds. "We are not there to tell a specific true story, but instead to give a point of support to open discussion on sexuality.”

Radically changing the scene, a few months after finishing the second season and taking some much needed time off at home in London, Mackey found herself in Agatha Christie's luxurious but lethal world alongside a star-studded cast in Egypt. But she has not fully adjusted to her newfound success and is still stunned by this experience: “During these two surreal months, I woke up in the morning as if on a spring: it was a joy from start to finish.” Branagh, a filmmaker, actor, and theater connoisseur, always identifies actors with unparalleled flair. An excellent sign to him was seeing the passion Mackey had for Shakespeare.

“Being guided and instructed by him, to create my character and to refine it in a very technical and fairly conservatory way, it was extraordinary," Mackey says of her experience working with Branagh. "For Jacqueline, I took voice and choreography lessons. There was a fantastic atmosphere, very sensual with magnificent costumes and lighting. Even if I was a bit the 'baby' of the group, I felt like a grown woman for the first time in this film.” At only 24, Mackey has had a truly impressive year in the spotlight, and we can't wait to see where her star will lead her.

Hair Walter Armano

Makeup Megumi Itano

Photo Assistant Francesco Zinno

Styling Assistant Gabriela Cambero

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