Emma Mackey: ‘You’d have to be a sociopath to want to be a celebrity’

The Sex Education star on the perils of social media, playing Emily Brontë, and her new Disney whodunnit with French and Saunders

When the trailer came out, it felt really Hollywood, which makes me laugh. I was like: ‘Ah, OK. This is quite a big deal.’” Emma Mackey spent the last few months of 2019 filming Death on the Nile, the second of Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot adaptations. It’s a big-budget, big-name Disney extravaganza, and for Mackey, who turns 25 on Monday, it marks a first dip into blockbuster waters.

“I’d never really had that experience of walking into a studio before, where the sets were all built, and the costumes were tailored to my body, and I had a wig, and it was just … ” She trails off, lost for words. “I clearly can’t talk about it!” she says, laughing. “It completely blows my mind, still.” She does an impression of a 1930s ingenue. “‘It felt like a movie! A proper movie!’ Which is a good sign, I guess.”

Death on the Nile is one of those films that has been buffeted around by the pandemic. It was supposed to be out last October, then just in time for Christmas but, with uncertainty continuing, Disney has pushed it back again to September this year. Mackey says she loved the whole thing: the costumes, the props, the choreography. Seeing the boat for the first time floored her. The film stars Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Sophie Okonedo and Annette Bening, as well as Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

“I would purposely put myself in a French and Saunders sandwich most days, just to feel good,” she laughs. “And Annette Bening would call us ‘her women’. We went for dinner one day and she ordered for us: ‘My women and I will have this bottle of wine.’ I was like: God, you’re so glamorous.” It’s hard not to love the idea of French and Saunders in a film with Wonder Woman. She giggles. “Exactly. Dawn was like: ‘Obviously I’m Wonder Woman, aren’t I, Gal? This is all very well, but … ’ They’re so lovely.”

When we spoke last September, Mackey was in Cardiff, filming the third season of Sex Education. She plays tough girl Maeve, the book-loving, riot grrrl-listening loner with a nose ring and a heart of gold. Filming continued, with restrictions: the cast couldn’t leave the country or use public transport, and were tested for Covid twice a week. The second season ended with her romantic interest (and teenage sex-therapy business partner) Otis confessing his love in a voicemail deleted before she could hear it. “That’s what series do! You’ve got to leave cliffhangers.”

Mackey grew up mostly in the Pays de la Loire region of France, with an English mother and a French father. She moved to England at 17, to study English at the University of Leeds. “My favourite course was Beckett, Kane and Pinter. I did that in my final semester, and I was like, yeah, theatre’s for me.” She moved to London, got an agent, and through a casting call landed her first real gig, Sex Education. Astonishingly, it only began in 2019, though its cultural impact makes it feel as if it started much earlier. It has been a bona fide phenomenon, slotting easily into cultural conversations around sex and identity, and making stars of its cast. Life must have changed a lot in those two years. “I mean, Death on the Nile? Don’t know how that happened,” she smiles.

If Mackey shares anything with Maeve, it’s a certain earnestness; she has a calmer air than her character, and is up for a laugh, but she gives the impression of a person who thinks about everything deeply. When she has spare time, which isn’t often, she likes to make it matter: she walks, cooks, reads, watches documentaries. She says she doesn’t feel the need to be constantly working, constantly chasing the next part. “I’m realising it more and more, how bizarre it is, to spend a lot of your waking hours dressed up as someone else. Wearing clothes that aren’t yours, you don’t get a lot of agency.” Any time she has is precious, and she wants to make the most of it. “I think what I’m saying is: the simpler, the better.”

Mackey deeds ... Emma with Asa Butterfield in Sex Education.
Mackey deeds ... Emma with Asa Butterfield in Sex Education. Photograph: Jon Hall/Netflix

Does that apply to work, too? “Definitely. I’ve always been like that anyway, but more so now. It’s fine to ask yourself the question: ‘Would I be a better person if I do this job, will it elevate me?’ And now, I think it’s more: ‘If I do this film, is it necessary, does it have a place in this day and age?’ Because I don’t like to feel useless or like I’m wasting my time, or not doing something that is going to benefit other people in some way.”

She puts this down to the experience of being in Sex Education, which is disarmingly frank when it comes to its portrayal of sex, tackles “issues” without seeming heavy-handed or hectoring, and has a winning refusal to be judgmental. “That’s where the sentiment stems from. That show has set the bar high, in terms of inclusivity, in terms of storylines, and the female characters we’re portraying. It has been of great service to people of all generations. And it’s started conversations: regardless of how you feel about the show, it’s going to make you think. Regardless of what you think about the acting, the style, the music, whatever, it doesn’t matter, because we’re sort of pioneers, in that field of frankness and openness about things that we deal with every day. That’s really special.”

Sex Education is a popular show, and Maeve is a very popular character, which has translated to Mackey having a quite shocking number of followers on Instagram: 5 million, at the last count. She snorts. “Quite shocking!” I didn’t mean it like that! “Brilliant. A quite shocking amount of followers,” she laughs. But she rarely posts on it. “I don’t really have a comfortable relationship with social media. I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have Facebook, or things like that.” She’ll read messages from friends on Instagram, “but I would never look at comments, because I don’t see the point. Maybe that’s quite pessimistic, but I kind of see it as: it can only be detrimental to my brain and self-confidence. So I just don’t. It’s not my job to be an Instagrammer so I don’t see why I would spend my waking hours scrolling through an app, of which I am a product.” She shudders: “Ugh.”

Going with the flow ... Mackey and Gal Gadot in Death on the Nile.
Going with the flow ... Mackey and Gal Gadot in Death on the Nile. Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy

Acting and celebrity go hand-in-hand, though. Is it fair to say she doesn’t feel comfortable with the celebrity side of it? “It is, because I don’t believe in it. I don’t think anyone gives a shit about celebrities.” Well, 5 million people might say otherwise. “Yeah, but they don’t care about me. It’s Maeve, it’s not necessarily me. They don’t know me. So what does it actually mean? Celebrityism, or whatever, is a byproduct of the job. I certainly didn’t get into acting to become a celebrity, because it’s terrifying. You’d have to be a complete sociopath to want to be a celebrity.” But lots of people do. “But I find it absurd.”

She has ambitions to write and direct: “I think I’m probably more of a director than an actor, in some part of me.” On set, she says, she pays attention to everything that’s going on behind the camera. “I’d probably quite enjoy directing because I’d see the whole thing through, as opposed to just popping in for two months, getting to do a bit of acting,” she whistles, “then off, poof, it’s not mine any more. So I am thinking of directing, just not right now. I’ve never written anything either. But I’ve got ideas. When the time’s right they’ll happen, and I’ll just trust in that, I think.”

For now, there is Death on the Nile, and Eiffel, due later this year. And that’s French-language? “Yeah, fully French. The Frenchest film,” she laughs. “A romance about the Eiffel Tower? That’s me.” In May, it was announced she will play Emily Brontë in Emily, about the author’s journey to womanhood, which should start filming next year. How good is her Yorkshire accent? “Pretty good,” she says. “It’s Emily Brontë, I studied English at Leeds, we’re filming in Leeds, so it feels like a full-circle moment.” She sounds excited: “Twelve-year-old Emma would be freaking out right now.”

Sex Education resumes later this year on Netflix; Death on the Nile is in cinemas, 17 September


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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