How the British-French actress turned the culture shock of moving to Leeds at 17 into a star-making turn as wild child Emily Brontë
“The thing no one could have prepared me for,” says Emma Mackey, “was how much people drank.” Growing up in north-west France, Mackey – the breakout star of Netflix’s Sex Education – had always thought of England as a place of storybook wonder and enchantment. So, when she was 17, she moved to Leeds. “I’d seen nothing like it. I was a very naive French girl in this huge northern city in the era of chokers and house music – and was like, ‘Oh my god, you all get drunk four times a week. How do you get up in [ . . . ]
The Sex Education actor talks about her Irish roots and her Anglo-French upbringing
By Donald Clarke
Jun 27, 2020
Some parts of the French film industry have, it seems, clanked back into action. Emma Mackey, Anglo-French star of Netflix’s Sex Education, has been shooting Eiffel, a drama concerning the designer of the titular tower, since the beginning of June. How odd to speak to a resident of the Planet Normal.
“It is one the rare films,” she explains. “It’s not the case with everyone. As you can imagine, the protocols are extremely strict. We have to be very careful and our producer worked very hard to get us back on track. But it’s good.”
Lockdown arrived at a busy time for Ms Mackey. She is about to be everywhere. By one measure, Sex Education was the third most-watched show on Netflix during the Covid emergency (one place ahead of Tiger King, according to trackers at Reelgood). We hope to see her in Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile before the autumn is out. In early July, she will be remotely present at the digital incarnation of the Galway Film Fleadh. Mackey stars as a troubled midlander in Phil Sheerin’s spooky The Winter Lake, which will receive its world premiere at this year’s one-off online event.
Shot in Leitrim and Sligo, the picture co-stars Anson Boon, Michael McElhatton and Charlie Murphy in a tale of sombre omens, hidden abuse and sublimated passions. I can’t imagine what she expected of the shoot.
Mackey says she “felt at home” on the shoot, and, as you might expect for a Mackey, she has deep Irish roots
“I didn’t have any expectations,” she says. “I knew that I’d be there for a month. And I knew that I wanted to do the film very badly. It just came at a time when I felt like I needed it. I loved it. I stayed there for the entire month and didn’t go back to London. I made the choice to kind of stay there just so I could be in that world. It is so wild. I felt at home.”
There is a something of a chamber-piece dynamic to the interactions between the four characters. Based on a screenplay by David Turpin, The Winter Lake could almost work as a play.
“There were so few cast members that it was really nice to just spend time with those few people and really get to have proper conversations with everyone and get to know each other and fool around. That was really, really fun.”
Amid the political point-scoring, Netflix’s Sex Education remains effervescently charming.
Sex Education, now in its third season, has always been a show that kicks at boundaries, so it should surprise no one that the third season starts off with some bangs (literally — the first episode opens with a montage of people engaged in sexual acts). The series has always been risqué, but season three takes it even further. The upside is that this move toward the more explicit comes with heartfelt, humorous and, at times, informative storytelling.
Season three starts with a new school year at Moordale High. Otis (Asa Butterfield) is having casual sex with the most popular girl in school, Ruby (Mimi Keene), while Eric (Ncuti Gatwa, always a standout) and Adam (Connor Swindells) have become an official couple. Meanwhile, trouble is a-brewing at Moordale, fallout from the staging of a raunchy musical — a reimagined version of Romeo and Juliet (complete with tentacles). The original headmaster of Moordale, Adam’s father, Mr. Groff (Alistair Petrie), has been fired, so a new headmaster is brought in, Ms. Hope Haddon, played by Girls’ Jemima Kirke.
It’s fascinating to see Kirke in such a different role, a complete contrast to her free-spirited character in Girls. The actress is downright frightening here; Kirke plays Hope to snarky perfection, pettily micromanaging and sneering with aplomb. At first, she manages to win over the student body with a song and dance routine, but quickly we see that she has troubling plans for the school. Hope is far more focused on building up Moordale’s brand than on what her students and staff actually need. She quickly introduces uniforms as well as a homophobic and abstinence-only sex education course that denies resources to nonbinary students. A powerful political message is being delivered here, one that demands that secondary schools refuse reactionary policies. The ironically named Hope reflects the cultural dangers posed by sexism, transphobia, and homophobia, prejudices that, unfortunately, still run rampant in America’s schools. (The satire could be seen as part of the growing pushback to the demonization of Critical Race Theory, the near ban on abortion in Texas, and the continued lack of proper sex education given to high school students.)
Even worse, Hope pits Head Boy Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) against Head Girl Vivienne (Chinenye Ezeudu). It’s very frustrating to watch Hope attempt to tear apart what had become a moving friendship, one that blossomed over the course of the last season. Hope also instills fear into her teachers, who are now terrified to answer their students questions about their sexuality. Thankfully, a few teachers rebel and recommend that students go to a local health clinic with their concerns — but it’s absurd that would need to be done in the first place. Real life students, trapped in abstinence-only programs, may find it worth tuning into Sex Education because the series will honestly and accurately answer some of their own burning questions about sex and relationships.
Much of what makes Sex Education distinctive as a series drama is its ability to subvert its viewers’ expectations. Ruby was introduced as a stereotypical mean girl, but she turns out to be vulnerable and caring in her relationship with Otis. Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), who started off as Maeve’s rather vapid-brained friend, seeks therapy from Otis’s mother, the enchanting Jean (played by the equally enchanting Gillian Anderson), regarding a sexual assault she experienced in the previous season. The sessions encourage Aimee to embrace who she truly is and she learns to become more independent. Adam, who began as the bully of the series, has become more comfortable with his own sexuality and even pursues additional help to improve his academics. As the episodes go on, each of the characters is becoming increasingly complex, which makes the world of Sex Education more involving. Even Jean, who is now pregnant with her former boyfriend’s child, grows substantially in the third season.
Despite moving into more melodramatic plot realms, Sex Education remains as funny as it was in its first season. There are plenty of amusing moments: Aimee and her boyfriend procure a goat and bring said animal to school; Eric dancing and singing when he learns that he is about to have sex with his boyfriend. Amid the political point-scoring, Sex Education remains effervescently charming, an appeal that will continue, even deepen, with the hoped-for arrival of a fourth season.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman
Debuting in 2019, Sex Education quickly became one of the biggest shows for the streaming service based on reports. So, it’s not surprising when it didn’t take long before it returned for its sophomore year in 2020. Chronicling the lives of the students and staff at Moordale Secondary School, the series’ primary focus has always been on its main lead, Otis, and his relationships, particularly with his best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and his crush, Maeve. The trio first got together after deciding to run an underground sex therapy business at school. As the storytelling progressed, each of them started exploring their respective and collective arcs. For Otis, that meant navigating his own sexual issues, not to mention his growing attraction to Maeve.
She scored a global smash with her TV debut. As the taboo-busting show is green-lit for a return, the writer reveals how she turned teenage dorkiness – and her own experience of sexual assault – into dynamite drama
Laurie Nunn is remembering her own experience of sex education. It was, she says, “practically nonexistent” at her school, which is ironic, given that she is responsible for one of the most candid TV shows ever made about the subject. “They didn’t talk about female pleasure at all,” says the writer. “I’m in my 30s and I feel like I’m only now starting to get the right language to talk about my own body. I think, ‘God, I wish I’d known this stuff when I was in my 20s.’”
When Sex Education was picked up, Nunn had no big credits to her name. She had written and directed a couple of short films and had worked up ideas for production companies, but nothing had quite landed. Then, suddenly, she had a hit – such a hit that Netflix’s UK headquarters now has a Sex Education-themed floor. (We meet on the Stranger Things floor, though. Perhaps the Sex Education floor would have been just too weird.)