Sex Education’s Emma Mackey: ‘People Assume I Want To Talk About Sex Every Minute Of The Day’

As surprise hit Sex Education returns, star Emma Mackey tells Harriet Kean about playing a kickass character and her new-found fame.


by Harriet Kean |
Updated on

Sex Education, the show about a group of teens anxiously navigating their first sexual experiences, is back. It’s a cross between Mean Girls (the American high-school drama), Skins (bar the drugs) and Fleabag (minus the hot priest). The show’s power is that it explores almost every taboo, with storylines about virginity, masturbation, Viagra and pansexuality, to name a few.

The first series was an overnight success, resonating with a culture that has learned about sex through sterile biology lessons and panicked Google searches. ‘For young women, it has been eye-opening and empowering,’ Emma Mackey, star of the Netflix show, explains. ‘People who have watched it feel more educated, a bit more comfortable and less lonely.’

Emma, 24, plays Maeve Wiley, a feisty, pink-haired punk who sets up a makeshift sex clinic at school with her friend Otis. (His mother is a sex therapist, brilliantly played by Gillian Anderson.) It’s a testament to Emma’s acting abilities that she is quite the opposite of her rebellious, unapologetic (and sometimes abrasive) fictional counterpart. Emma is gentle, shy, introspective, and today has swapped Maeve’s trademark nose ring and scruffy leather jacket for an Alice band, black polo neck and check skirt. She looks particularly French (she was born in Le Mans, moving to Leeds when she was 18), but a hint of Maeve still exists with her choice of footwear – black, chunky Doc Martens. She tells me that Maeve has ‘rubbed off ’ on her. ‘I am a bit more forward now,’ she ponders. ‘I have never seen a character like her. She’s her own person and doesn’t exist as a satellite around other characters.’

In season two, Maeve really comes into her own when Aimee, her best friend, is sexually assaulted on a bus but decides to shrug it off. Maeve, says Emma, ‘finds the practical solution’, by encouraging Aimee to report it. ‘A lot of us would react like Aimee and be uncomfortable and sad but wouldn’t necessarily do anything about it,’ Emma says, adding that she feels particularly proud of the scene. ‘It’s important to show how, even after you deal with it practically, the PTSD never goes away.’

In a post-MeToo world, the scene feels very timely. Our conversation turns to the Prince Andrew Newsnight interview which, Emma thinks, showed the royal as archaic, especially when he said that sex ‘is a positive act for a man’. ‘It is disgusting that people still think like that, especially in his position and on television,’ she says animatedly. ‘It made me so angry – it just feels like we’ve gone back to the Stone Age.’

Emma is relieved that she started out in the industry post-MeToo. ‘I am very thankful to all the people who spoke up before any of us even entered the game,’ she says, with genuine empathy. ‘We are now in a position where we are able to say, “No, I am not comfortable with that.”’ What makes the job feel even more safe, she says, is the presence of an intimacy coordinator, who choreographs sex scenes. (They are broken down so that they feel like a dance, but still look realistic.) She explains that intimacy coordinators were probably introduced because of #MeToo.

Playing a character in a show about sex has its difficulties, though. Emma did not expect that when she signed up, she would regularly be asked about her own sexual experiences. ‘I literally got asked yesterday, “What was your first time?”,’ she says incredulously, before citing a media outlet that tried to gift her a box of sex toys. ‘It was awful, they wanted to film my reaction and I just thought, “I am a 23-year-old girl you’ve never met – how do you think that’s appropriate?”’

Maeve is Emma’s breakthrough role, so it’s unsurprising that she’s not totally ready for fame. ‘I get most stressed about the press: being in front of cameras and talking about yourself,’ she says. ‘That is scarier to me than doing a sex scene for 40 million people to watch, because then you’re playing a character.’ Her apprehension is palpable as she says this, and I wonder whether she has become a little jaded by the showbiz machine. I first met Emma a year ago (just as Sex Education blew up) and she was unreserved. Now, she chooses her words with meticulous care, and tells me how she has become more guarded. ‘People assume that I’m super-confident and happy to talk about sex every waking minute of the day. I know it’s important to talk about, but I also want to protect myself and be much more private than I’m sometimes allowed to be.’

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She is often asked for selfies, which she finds Black Mirror-esque and invasive. She would rather, understandably, have a conversation than have a phone shoved in her face. ‘It’s like you belong to people, the image of you and your character belongs to them because you’re there in so many homes all of a sudden,’ she says, citing the time she saw her ‘absolute idol’ Greta Gerwig on a train, but was too shy to approach her. ‘I’m actually quite impressed when people do. I would never go up to anyone.’

Staying grounded is important to Emma, who tells me that she lives a ‘simple’ life, is close with her university friends, and loves alone-time. ‘I think most actors are massive loners, it’s just easier sometimes to be on your own.’ Her free time is scarce, however, and with parts in upcoming films Death On The Nile with Gal Gadot and Eiffel with Romain Duris, and her plans to direct (she shadows the Sex Education directors for tips), it looks as though Emma will have even less time for herself. The upside? She’s set to become a household name. But please, no more sex toys.

‘Sex Education’ is available to stream on Netflix now.

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