emma mackey: the breakout star of netflix's ‘sex education’ on maeve, intimacy and season 2

We meet the actor behind the bad girl torn straight from a John Hughes handbook, catapulted out of obscurity and into the homes of 140 million people, all in the space of seven days.

by Matthew Whitehouse
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Jan 24 2019, 4:37pm

Everyone and their streaming service dog is talking about Sex Education, the latest show from subscription behemoths, Netflix. And for good reason.

Following the story of Otis (Asa Butterfield), a teenage boy being raised by his sex-therapist mother Jean (the frankly incredible Gillian Anderson), it has managed to tap into that same kind of heightened yet honest coming of age territory that made Skins such a colossal smash back in the heady days of 2007.

Like Skins, too, where the most interesting characters were the ones with their own stories (away from ostensible lead Nicholas Hoult), it’s the cast as a whole that make the show what it is -- from the funny, brave Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa, to the hilarious, northern relief Aimee, played by Aimee Lou Wood.

The show’s biggest breakout, however, is reserved for Emma Mackey -- the French-born actor playing the show’s female lead, Maeve Wiley. A bad girl torn straight from the John Hughes handbook -- albeit updated in a way that feels authentically 2019 -- Maeve has catapulted Emma from complete unknown to Literal Famous Person™, beamed into the homes of 140 million people, all in the space of seven days. What an absolute mindfuck.

To explain everything, here Emma is, answering all the big questions, including ‘why do you think people have connected with Maeve in such a big way?’.

Hello Emma! Why do you think people have connected with Maeve in such a big way?
I think they like that she’s her own person and she doesn't rely on anyone else to… She doesn’t rely on anyone else full stop, actually! 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 just tell she cares for people. You can tell that it’s just a facade. And I think that a lot of people recognise themselves in that. Because we all, at some point in our lives, have our defence mechanisms. We don’t want to get hurt and we don’t want to take risks. So I think people recognise themselves in that and really appreciate the more vulnerable moments. When she allows herself to laugh, smile, stop being cynical for a while and be intimate with people. I think it’s really nice to see her walls progressively break down.

Is that what you liked about her too?
Yeah, I think that’s what drew me to her. Laurie [Nunn], the writer, has just done such an incredible job of crafting all these characters. No one’s really left behind. I think it’s really lovely to see a lead female character like Maeve who isn’t a satellite. And I’m not just talking about Maeve, I’m talking about Jean and Aimee and Lily -- you could write a story just about them and it would still be as thrilling and heartbreaking and funny in its own right. Maeve is unapologetic, and she drives her own story forward as well as other characters.

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Why did you think you could play her so well?
I think that I felt very protective over her. The more I auditioned for her, the more I felt like she was a very important character and not dissimilar to me when I was 17. I wasn’t living alone in a trailer park but I had moved away from home and I was very much living an independent life. So I guess there was that aspect of her that was very close to me. But I also like that she’s feisty and has this ability to assert herself and be who she is and not give a shit. Whereas I definitely was not like that at 17. I definitely tried to fit in and wanted to be part of the group. Maeve does not try to do that. It’s this is me and that’s all you’re getting and if you’re lucky I’ll let you in. If you’re lucky. And I like that.

What was the filming process like?
I was kind of thrown in the deep end, which is really good, because you have to learn everything really quickly. It was my first job, so there were nerves at the beginning. I didn’t know where I was going, what I was doing, I didn’t even know what a call sheet was. But at the end of the first day all of the nerves just dissipated and I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself to anyone. It’s really amazing that the crew and cast created that atmosphere where you feel comfortable, and like you don’t have to prove yourself. As a young actor it was really lovely.

Especially, you would imagine, with some of the more intimate things you’re filming. There’s a lot of trust required.
Yes, between us and the crew. And us as actors as well. But, from the get go, communication and consent were present at all time. So, for the intimate scenes, we were coached from very early on before filming and we spoke about it loads with the producers and directors and writers, and they just made sure that we were all okay at all times. For Kedar [Williams-Stirling who plays Jackson] and I, it was essentially choreography. We’d have beats, like, kiss for three seconds then we do this. There was a physical consent thing that we had to do as well, like, ‘Is it okay if I touch you on your shoulders?’. It was all really rehearsed. So when it came down to it, we’d rehearsed it so much, the movements and the timing, that, hopefully, it looks quite real.

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It’s the show's realism that really makes it, isn’t it? I’m thinking especially about the third episode, when Maeve visits the abortion clinic.
We actually had a medical expert with us the whole time, on set, making sure everything we were doing was close to reality. 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? And I don’t think it would have been close to reality at all if Maeve had kept the baby. Because she can’t look after herself at all. She lives in a caravan with no money, no family support, and she’s at school. So it’s just common sense really for her. There’s no crying, no ‘what am I going to do?’. It’s like, I’ve got to get this sorted and that’s it. It’s part of her life and she moves on.

What do you want for her in the next series?
We’re all very excited about the prospect of a next series but it’s early doors. It’s been out a week! It’s mad to think. A week is not a long period of time. And it’s just exploded in our faces. In the best way. It’s very humbling and lovely. I think that I really would love to see more of Maeve and Amiee’s relationship. I think that they’re going to develop an even stronger bond. I would like to see female friendships at the forefront of season two. I think that would be cool. Because I think Maeve is empowering in herself and so is Amy. So the two together…. It’s like Thelma and Louise!

Sex Education is on Netflix now.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.