talking about sex with emma mackey
Emma Mackey is the breakout star of Netflix’s hit comedy-drama 'Sex Education'. She talks Maeve, season 2, and what it feels like to be beamed into the homes of 130 million people worldwide.
Photography Vicki King. Styling Victoria Young. Coat Vintage Kool Kats Ltd. Dress Coach 1941.
This story originally appeared in i-D's The Homegrown Issue, no. 355, Spring 2019.
In the space of just one week, Emma Mackey went from complete unknown to Literal Famous Person™, star of her own TV show and beamed into the homes of 130 million people around the world.
The show in question was, of course, Sex Education, the hit comedy-drama launched by streaming giant Netflix at the start of this year. Following the story of Otis (Asa Butterfield), a teenage boy raised by his sex-therapist mother Jean (the frankly incredible Gillian Anderson), Sex Education manages to tap into the same heightened yet honest coming-of-age territory that made British series Skins such a colossal smash when it first aired back in 2007. Like Skins, where the most interesting characters were the ones with their own stories, Sex Education’s biggest breakout has been reserved for Emma, the French-born actor playing the show’s female centre, Maeve Wiley.
Maeve is a bad girl torn straight from the John Hughes handbook of bad girls. Living alone in a caravan she can hardly pay for, her scary persona hides a fierce intellect, one she uses to run a homework-writing business from an abandoned toilet block at school. When she discovers that Otis is blessed with the gift (and occasional curse) of incredible sexual understanding, Maeve converts the skill into opportunity, starting a sex clinic through which the pair treat their carnally-challenged peers. “I like that Maeve is her own person and she doesn’t rely on anyone else to… She doesn’t rely on anyone else full stop, actually!” Emma says, when we meet at a Hackney photography studio, a million miles away from the rolling hills of Wales’ Wye valley where the series is filmed. “She’s got this tough exterior that is very recognisable, but even in her hardest moments, she’s able to show humanity and put other people first. You can tell she cares for people and that her bad girl image is just a facade.”
The role is, quite amazingly, Emma’s first, something that she describes as “insane, very exciting and overwhelming” all in the same breath. Born in Le Mans, France, to a French father and a British mother, Emma spent the first seventeen years of her life in the town of Sablé-sur-Sarthe, before moving to the UK to study English Language and Literature at Leeds University. It was there that she developed a love of theatre, performing in and directing several productions, before making the decision to move to London and apply to drama school the day before graduating. She got an agent a year later, and the role in Sex Education six months after that.
“I was completely oblivious throughout the whole audition period,” Emma says. “Even when it got to chemistry reads and I was the only Maeve there that day, I still hadn’t clocked that I was in with a chance. In my head, I was like, this is a Netflix show, they’re going to need someone with profile. I still don’t have headshots!” (“We should talk about that!” interjects her agent from across the room).
What attracted Emma to the role was the chance to play a “lead female character who isn’t a satellite” – Emma describes Maeve’s story as being every bit as “thrilling and heartbreaking and funny” as her male counterparts. “She’s unapologetic, and drives her own story forward as well as others,” she says. “I felt like she was a very important character and I was immediately drawn to her. I was like, Maeve needs to be protected and I just want to hold her and bring her to life.” While Emma admits to being thrown in the deep end a little (“It was my first job, so there were nerves at the beginning”), she describes how the cast and crew created an atmosphere that ensured she remained comfortable at all times – a point of great importance when you consider some of the more intimate scenes expected of the young cast. “From the get go, communication and consent were present at all times,” Emma says. “We were coached from early on and spoke about the sex scenes loads with the producers, directors and writers, who made sure that we were all okay at all times. For Kedar [Williams-Stirling who plays Jackson] and I, those scenes were essentially choreography. We’d have beats, like, kiss for three seconds, then we do this. When it came down to it, we’d rehearsed so much that, hopefully, it looks quite real.”
The level of sensitivity fostered by the show is nowhere more apparent than in the show’s third episode, which takes the series from charming, well-written teen comedy, to a genuinely moving piece of television. It follows Maeve’s visit to an abortion clinic, following the realisation she is pregnant after a secret relationship with the school’s sports star Jackson Monroe (Kedar Williams-Stirling). Not only is the episode, one of the most thoughtful portrayals of abortion ever seen on screen, it’s also one of the most informative – following the process from beginning to end in a refreshingly unsensationalied manner.
“We actually had a medical expert with us on set the whole time, making sure everything we were doing was close to reality,” Emma explains. “Ben [Taylor], the director, didn’t want to dramatise it at all. Because a lot of the time, when someone becomes pregnant, it becomes a drama, doesn’t it? But I don’t think it would have been close to reality if Maeve had kept the baby. She lives in a caravan with no money, no family support, and she’s at school. It’s just common sense for her. It’s part of her life and she moves on.”
Where exactly Maeve moves onto in the future remains a tight-lipped secret. Although a new series is yet to be confirmed, it would, you’d imagine, take an act of anthropocene-ending destruction not to be picked up a second time. What would Emma like to see happen in season two? “I would like to see female friendships at the forefront. I think that would be cool,” she replies. “And for Maeve to carry on focusing on herself and get onto that aptitude scheme and start looking at universities. For her to do what she wants to do.” And what of Emma herself, thrown headlong into a world of press junkets, photoshoots and sudden internet fame? “I pride myself on being quite practical, so I tell myself it’s just a job,” she says, “and all the rest is just a byproduct of being an actor. It’s not something I’m used to yet and that’s fine. The success of Sex Education has just exploded in our faces. In the best way,” she continues. “It’s very humbling and lovely, but it’s early doors. I’m just taking things step by step.” Today headshots, tomorrow the world.
Photography Vicki King
Styling Victoria Young
Hair Shiori Takahashi at Streeters using Oribe. Make-up Laura Dominique at Streeters using CHANEL Vision d’Asie: L’Art du Detail and CHANEL Sublimage L’Essence Fondamentale. Photography assistance Richard Kovacs.
Emma wears jumper Coach 1941. Trousers VINTAGE FROM Kool Kats Ltd. Boots Sergio Rossi.