Having broken through with the zeitgeist-defining classroom drama Sex Education, the actor Emma Mackey is cracking open the history textbooks to revisit forgotten women of the past.
It’s no secret that Emma Mackey has a knack for playing complex female characters. In fact, they’re kind of her personal brand. When she first caught the public’s eye it was as Sex Education’s pink-haired, Riot Grrrl-loving Maeve, who battles slut-shaming in her school and a turbulent family life with nothing more than an acerbic tongue and “fuck the world” demeanour. When it first aired in 2019, the series became an instant classic, exploring issues that had rarely been seen on screen before, from revenge porn to queer coming of age, with nuance and integrity.
Speaking over the phone, Mackey is quick to acknowledge the impact that Maeve has had – both on audiences and, personally, for her as an actor. “It’s a gift to play that kind of character,” she says. “I think there’s something very powerful about her and I’m only sort of realising now, with a little bit of a distance, how much of an impact she has had on people.” Not only did playing Maeve lead to Mackey receiving her first Bafta nomination, it placed her in the middle of cultural conversations, with her character’s experience of unwanted pregnancy opening up new ways of thinking about how abortion should be depicted on screen.
Bookish and introverted, Mackey isn’t the big personality you would expect from a trailblazing actor, but she has something else going for her: the quiet power of someone who doesn’t need to be the loudest in the room to get noticed. Thoughtful and sincere in conversation, she offers up honest answers rather than reaching for platitudes, and is unafraid to delve into stickier, more complex emotional territory – including her mixed feelings about Sex Education. For all the positivity that the show has added to her life, Mackey is grappling with the series’ inevitable sell-by date as she stares down her late twenties. “It’s a complicated thing to me. Sex Education is so momentous as a concept, as a show, and the cast are phenomenal. I genuinely care about them all a lot and I made lifelong friends. We’ve kind of grown up together,” she says. “But the bittersweet nature of it is that I also can’t be 17 my whole life.”
No one can, which is why Mackey has already begun to look at life, and empowered heroines, beyond Moordale High. In the years since the show debuted, she has crossed over into cinema, appearing in the moody Irish thriller The Winter Lake and signing up for forthcoming projects including the Agatha Christie romp Death on the Nile and Emily, in which she plays Victorian novelist Emily Brontë. With Death on the Nile set in the 1930s and Emily taking place in the 1800s, what is it that attracts Mackey to women of the past? Well, as it turns out, these roles are something of a personal feminist mission for her. “We don’t learn enough about women in history and often, when you read history books, the only facts and figures you have about [women] are who they married and how many children they had or didn’t have. That’s really sad – you’re chipping away whole identities and whole lives from the history books,” she says. “It’s quite nice to be in a position to be able to reinvent and reimagine and actually flesh someone out who really existed.”
For Mackey, acting is serious business – not in the sense that she’s biting my hand off to talk about her process. Rather, she is keen to speak about the importance of “transmission and transmitting something” through her work. In practice, what this translates to is choosing roles that bring more knowledge to viewers: whether it’s about the lives of history’s forgotten women or the progressive sex education embodied by her breakthrough role. “There is a huge dimension of acting that is about legacy. Most of us want to leave a mark – hopefully, a good mark – and use our time well, because that’s the only currency we have control over,” she says. “[When choosing a role] I think, ‘What is it that you want to give your time to and is it going to bring joy to people or help people?’ Not that I’m a missionary or anything.”
When we speak, she’s preparing to show a new side of herself with her next period piece: the French-language film Eiffel, released on the other side of the channel later in the year. Revolving around the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the love life of its visionary engineer, it’s as emblematically French as they come. For Mackey, who was raised in Le Mans, it represents a chance to reintroduce herself to her country people. “I was definitely at a point where I really wanted to kind of reconnect with that [French] side of myself and it felt like the Frenchest film possible,” she laughs. “It’s a very Romanesque and romantic story about the Eiffel Tower, which is a symbol of Paris and France across the world.”
This will also be the first time that many French viewers hear Mackey’s real voice, what with her Sex Education character having been dubbed for the French market by someone else. “I was really angry,” she says, uncharacteristically forthright as she discusses the moment of realisation that another actor would be voicing her translated French dialogue. “I spoke to [the Sex Education team] as well. I was like, ‘You know I can do this.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure,’ then dubbed the voice. I’ve always been really upset about that, but it’s just one of those things.” For an individual who is so creatively and intellectually curious, it seems like the acting job description – essentially bringing someone else’s vision to life – might be beginning to grate. “When you’re an actor, you don’t really have that much of a creative stake in what you do, which is quite an odd thing,” Mackey says. “I’ve sort of realised that you’re a vessel for someone else’s dream.”
This creative frustration is, perhaps, why Mackey’s long-term ambitions aren’t necessarily in front of the screen. Looking ahead, she vaguely mentions a pivot to farming: “I’m not prescribing a future for myself, but I’ve always loved [the idea of] moving to the countryside. I just want to grow vegetables and work with the land.” Shorter term, she mentions that the idea of becoming a writer or director is, “starting to creep into my thought process”, before modestly qualifying that: “I know I’m not quite ready for it.” It’s clear, however, from the passion with which she speaks, that this is a dream that Mackey would readily dedicate herself to if she were given the chance. “I’m very attracted and seduced by the idea of writing a film and conceiving something, being there at the conception of a story, working at it, seeing it through and then choosing a team,” she enthuses. “I think there’s something so amazing about creating a community of people to tell a story. It is literally getting a town together.”
Constantly drinking in knowledge around her and taking new chances to learn, Mackey’s approach to life is one of constant self education – just like for the characters in Sex Education and the audiences learning through them. Unlike many young actors in an industry obsessed with looks and youth, she’s not afraid of ageing and growing older, instead seeing it as an opportunity to become more herself. “I’m actually quite looking forward to it,” she says. “Having read more, having more knowledge, being more confident and just being more grounded. Do you know what I mean?” Yes, we do. And whether it’s as an actor or, in future, as a filmmaker, it’s clear that Mackey is only just getting started.
Sex Education season three debuts 17 September on Netflix. This interview is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here.