Emma Mackey, a versatile actress from Sex Education to Barbie
Franco-British actress Emma Mackey, who has been featured in most international magazines and in the latest Hollywood productions. At just 27, the one who became known for her memorable role in Sex Education in 2019, is about to leave the successful Netflix series to focus on new roles, which she has been accumulating for a couple of years now. Far from the pink hair and grungy look of the rebellious Maeve, a key character in the Netflix teen show about sexuality, the versatile actress sported a crinoline in Eiffel in 2021 and a sultry blood-red dress for her role as a murderess in Death on the Nile a year later. This year, she embodies the 19th-century writer Emily Brontë in the film Emily, released on March 15th, 2023, and will also appear in the highly anticipated Barbie alongside Margot Robbie – an actress to whom Emma Mackey has been compared several times... When asked “how do you choose your roles?” during our Parisian meeting, the Franco-British actress answered with humor “randomly”, before adding: “If the script speaks to me, if italigns with who I am, I do it. I often run on the spur of the moment.”
Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Emily
It will undoubtedly be a case of love at first sight for the viewers when they will watch Emily. Under the direction of the Australian filmmaker Frances O’Connor, who is making her first feature, Emma Mackey mesmerizes the audience as a young outcast writer, unable to fit into the shackles imposed by the English society of the late 19th century. Her face, often shot in close- ups, appears most of the time on screen. Happy, worried, serious, defiant, in love, possessed... the actress unfolds a whole range of emotions, with her dark brown eyebrows and her intense gaze. “It was important to me to make this historical character human. Frances and I didn’ t want to turn Emily Brontë into some kind of boring, untouchable statue,” she explains. Conversely to her role as the tough, yet hopeless romantic girl in Sex Education, Emma Mackey manages to infuse into her character a vulnerability that makes Emily Brontë human, almost palpable, and distances her from her famous character set in stone by history. The film’s goal is not to trace back her biography: “It’s not a biopic, I’ve already said it plenty of times,” says the Franco-British actress. “The sooner people understand it, the better they can follow a story that has to be lived.”
“What appealed to me about the role?” repeats Emma Mackey, amused. “Hmm... it has been some time now.” The truth is that she received the script for Emily three years ago, before she played any of her major roles in other productions. “At that time, I had never been offered a lead role so to speak, so I was excited to live with a character in such an intense way.” However, to get into Emily’s skin, she only had six weeks on set, locked up with the costumes and the rest of the cast in a house in Yorkshire, like the real Brontë family. The other thing that links Emma Mackey to her character is literature. Like Emily Brontë, she is a literature buff – she majored in literature and graduated with honors in high school, before studying English literature at the University of Leeds... Fully bilingual, she has been reading books in French and in English since her early years and even quotes Sartre in an interview to describe Emily Brontë’s work Wuthering Heights (1847) – “existence precedes essence”. She also finds the French class scenes involving the characters of William Weightman and Emily to be the most interesting ones in the film and key moments in their relationship.
“In Emily, I really unveiled myself.” Emma Mackey
A literary bubble outside of time that reminds her of her own intimate bubble far from social media. For the past six months, Emma Mackey has been absent from platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, which she has decided to leave completely. Very discreet, she avoids paparazzi and the tabloids in the two cities she lives in, London and Marseille. So, when asked how she prepared emotionally to play Emily Brontë, she answered in a tone oscillating between defensiveness and humor: “I followed the script and the director. Everything was made to ease the process. I’m not going to dig into my personal traumas either!” Despite her international status, the Franco-British woman keeps her life private as much as her authenticity and sincerity – two qualities that seem to stick to her in the characters she plays. “I don’t hide myself. In Emily, I really unveiled myself. And it costs a lot. My character lets go, she lets her voice take over and manages to express herself fully.”
Emma Mackey also grants herself this type of freedom in her career choices. Her decision to leave the series Sex Education in order to express herself fully in different projects is part of that. “I’ve never said yes to things just to say yes, that’s not really my approach. All the films and series I’ve played in were done because they made sense to me at a specific time in my life.” When she first started out, Sex Education offered her an unparalleled springboard for her career as a young, inexperienced actress and, above all, it advocated for values that were dear to her. “Now, I really want to make good use of my time in projects that are worthwhile,” Emma Mackey explains, convinced of her career path. She had also won the coveted Rising Star Award at the BAFTA, a prestigious British ceremony, last February 20th.
Emma Mackey leaving the series Sex Education
It was a successful BATFA Awards ceremony that the actress would somewhat remembers bitterly. The reason? The “bad timing” of the announcement of her departure from Sex Education after four seasons on the day of the ceremony. “They were smart,” she says, referring to the Netflix teams, with a pungent sense of humor. “It’s just a bit disappointing because I had just won an award and the questions I was asked afterwards were almost all about Sex Education.” Tired of playing a teenager when she is an adult now, Emma Mackey has decided to bow out.
The actress credits her BAFTA award to all the teams who gave her a chance, from the producers at Netflix to her drama teacher at the University of Leeds: “I stand on the shoulders of all those who have carried me,” she explains with an eloquence that she somehow missed during the ceremony. Indeed, the actress was caught up in a whirlwind of surprise: “I panicked at the time. All I could see was that there were a lot of steps [to the stage],” she recalls. But heights don’t scare Emma Mackey, who keeps climbing the steps of the film industry. Perhaps she will eventually hold the reins of direction, according to her future plans: “I don’t have any pretension, but the desire is here, and I still have a lot to learn,” she concludes, humble and hopeful.
Emily (2023) by Frances O’Connor, out on March 15th, 2023.