“I’ve never been good at doing just one thing,” admits Emma Mackey. Perhaps this—the fact of her own restlessness—is what makes these sorts of publicity interviews a challenge for the 25-year-old actress. Certainly she loves talking about Maeve, her sour-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside role in the Netflix teen dramedy Sex Education, but she’s constantly swatting away the fear she’ll be forever pinned as Maeve. It’s the job that made her the sought-after star she is today, but it’s also a job she wants to, someday, shed and outgrow. This agitation isn’t exactly a new personality trait of Mackey’s; before landing Sex Ed, she was similarly stretched thin at the University of Leeds, where she studied English language and literature. And French. And law.
“The job of acting, in that respect, is great because you can play a doctor for three months and then you can play a writer for the next three months,” she says. “It’s kind of a beautiful thing for someone with a brain like mine.”
This year, the actress is gearing up for two buzzy roles in Death on the Nile and the Brontë film Emily, but today, we’re still talking about Maeve. Everything, ultimately, traces back to Maeve, Mackey’s first recurring TV role and one of the most fascinating figures in the new season of Sex Education, which debuted Friday. Spiky but empathetic, brilliant but overlooked, Maeve is the kind of role actresses crave: She’s a love interest whose most captivating scenes happen outside the orbit of her romances. A cutting intellectual and a deeply loyal friend, Maeve nurtures a revolutionary perspective on sex within the antiquated atmosphere of Moordale Secondary. It’s her ideas—not her Margot Robbie-like looks—that first unite her with Asa Butterfield’s quirky protagonist, Otis.
Ironically, it’s her performance as Maeve that proves Mackey has the acting chops to eventually leave Maeve behind. Season 3, in particular, is fertile ground for both Maeve and Mackey’s development, a tandem rise that’s as fun as it is significant to watch. Below, Mackey discusses why she almost didn’t take the job that changed her life—and how she hopes Maeve will develop into season 4 and beyond.
When you first signed on for Sex Education, did you have any inkling it was going to be the huge success it is now?
I had no clue. I wasn’t sure if I was even going to do it. I’d never done [a TV series] before, so it was quite a momentous thing to take on. Luckily, it’s been handled really beautifully and has been edited and cast really well. It sets the bar very high. Other jobs now, I’m kind of like, “Why isn’t this like Sex Ed?”
If you weren’t sure at first, what made you decide to take the role?
It was a gift of a part; I couldn’t really turn that down. I think any doubts I had were more about my nerves, my own sort of prudishness that I might’ve had at the time, being new and not knowing what was right for me.
Even then, I hadn’t read all the script. I had only read a few [episodes], but I did get very protective of her [as I read]. At one point, I was like, “Maybe I would like to play her, because I think she’s quite special.”
A lot of shows try to say something important about sex, but Sex Education is groundbreaking in a way most series can only dream of. If you could pinpoint it, what do you think is the show’s particular magic?
Because it’s a kind of heightened, stylized world, I think the writers are able to create and explore topics that otherwise wouldn’t be able to be done. Because we’re in this very specific bubble, the characters are allowed the space to come to life.
[The show] also tries to fit in so many things that you’re bound to recognize yourself at some point. Even on a practical, educational level, I think [the show] is reassuring a lot of people, making them come to terms with things they haven’t really allowed themselves to come to terms with. It makes people actually take a step back and think, “What the fuck? Oh my God. This happened to me.” Or, “Oh, I was like that. That’s why.” It helps people actually connect the dots, which is pretty formidable.
In season 3, we open with Maeve in a particularly challenging place. Her mother is refusing to speak with her. She didn’t hear Otis’s voicemail last season, so they’re in an uncomfortable spot. She maybe has a crush on Isaac. What was the most interesting dynamic for you to explore?
I think what was really interesting to play is—also because I love [Anne-Marie Duff, who plays Erin Wiley]—all the stuff with [Maeve’s] mom is really important to me. It adds real depth and authenticity to Maeve. Everyone’s home lives feed into and nourish who they are and why they act the way they act at school, and even how they might be with their sexuality. Is that because of their parents? It’s honestly so many connecting dots that it’s kind of mind-boggling. [Laughs.] I sound like Hugh Grant.
There’s a particularly intimate scene between Maeve and Isaac this season. I’m curious how you and George Robinson worked together to translate that comfort, that ease.
It’s not really a forced thing, and that’s the magic of casting. That’s why we do chemistry reads, and that’s why [casting director Lauren Evans] is a genius, because she put us all together. So that’s all done for us.
There was a lot of back and forth-ing on the intimacy scenes. It’s always really important to to get the right messages across, to make sure they’re done in a way that takes into account where the characters are and who they are. I wanted to be a friend for [George] and to make sure he felt safe and that he was listened to. He was so kind and so generous and so patient with me. Yeah, he’s just a lovely, lovely boy and a lovely friend.
But again, we’re lucky, because [all the cast members] do generally get on. It’s a bit mad. It’s quite incredible to have an ensemble of people all in their twenties, who get on so well and who see each other outside of work and who cultivate and nourish these friendships outside of work. I think it’s so important. That’s the main takeaway from this job that I love.
You and Asa Butterfield, as Maeve and Otis, have a really interesting arc over the course of this season. The two characters have danced around each other for pretty much three whole seasons, and then finally we have this momentous kiss, and they’re finally together! Then Maeve has to sail off to the States. Why do you think these two characters keep missing each other? Do you think they have a future?
Oh, wow. I’ve just always seen it as—it’s a timing thing. Which often it is, isn’t it? I think they’re both quite good at communicating how they feel, Otis perhaps more so than Maeve. But really, they needed to grow up and figure shit out for themselves.
Also, their whole world doesn’t revolve around each other. They both have home lives. They’re not satellites around each other. I think it’s important to show that they have a whole rich life individually. If the time is right, it will happen, and I think that’s what we achieved this season.
What would you say is your favorite part of season 3, even if it doesn’t involve Maeve?
I was excited to see Cal (Dua Saleh) and Jackson’s (Kedar Williams-Stirling) relationship evolve—I really like their dynamic. Also, I feel that [all the cast members] have become more grounded. Everyone is sort of at a level where we’ve got a solid foundation, and now we can play with it and make it more naturalistic.
You’ve mentioned multiple times in interviews that you have a general discomfort around the idea of celebrity. Have you grown more at ease with your following? Or is it still jarring to be thought of as a public figure?
I don’t really care. I don’t really care about it that much, and I don’t want it to suck up every ounce of energy that I have. I think that’s why I have spoken quite vociferously about Instagram and social media and all that, because I think it just doesn’t correlate with who I am. I don’t really see why [the world should follow] someone like me, who just wants a simple life—which is hilarious because I don’t really think I’ve chosen the right job for it. [Laughs]
I’m sure [the attention] can bring some benefits to some people, but I don’t think it works for me. It brings me a tremendous amount of anxiety and discomfort. I’m very lucky to do my job, and I know that it’s now a part of the job to do that kind of stuff, but it doesn’t have to be. I want to be able to make a choice on that matter.
You’ve also been vocal about your desire to explore a life outside of acting. Is that still the case? Do you see yourself as a writer, or someone behind the camera?
Yeah, and I think those shifts will happen naturally. I’m very happy in my job, and I love my job when I’m in it. I very much feel like when I’m on set, I’m in my element, and it brings me a lot of joy. So I’m not going to stop acting right now. It’s just, only doing one thing—I can’t do that. It’s not possible for me. I like the idea of being a jack of all trades. And why not? Why not direct?
Season 3 ends with Maeve leaving to study abroad in the U.S. I’m curious what you want for Maeve to get out of this experience. If season 4 does happen, how do you want her to change?
I’m excited for her to make some new friends, to open up a bit more and be exposed to a different culture, to a different kind of world. Because she’s only ever lived in her little tiny bubbles. How is she out of that bubble?
It’d be really nice to see her actually living out a dream for herself. What does that do to a person, and how does that change you? What kind of happiness does that give you? And all the anxieties that come with being away from home. If we get to it, it will be a lovely thing to witness.
Finally, what has this show and this experience taught you about sex within our larger culture? Do you feel like your perspective has changed since you started working on Sex Ed?
I mean, of course. I think that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? If anything, I think the main takeaway is that [the show’s] not prescriptive, and hopefully people don’t see it as, “Oh, this is how [sex] should be.” It’s more of like, this is a story that we’re telling, and these are the characters we have to offer you. Do with them what you will, but go forth and discuss all of these topics. Even if you’re not ready [to have sex] yet, just know that we have created this little bubble for you to dip into and to feel safe in, and to be reassured by.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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