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W hen the trailer came out, it felt really Hollywood, which makes me laugh. I was like: âAh, OK. This is quite a big deal.ââ Emma Mackey spent the last few months of 2019 filming Death on the Nile, the second of Kenneth Branaghâs Poirot adaptations. Itâs a big-budget, big-name Disney extravaganza, and for Mackey, who turns 25 on Monday, it marks a first dip into blockbuster waters.
âIâd 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 â¦ â She trails off, lost for words. âI clearly canât talk about it!â she says, laughing. âIt completely blows my mind, still.â She does an impression of a 1930s ingenue. ââIt felt like a movie! A proper movie!â Which is a good sign, I guess.âThe Guide: Staying In â sign up for our home entertainment tips Read more
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.
âI would purposely put myself in a French and Saunders sandwich most days, just to feel good,â she laughs. âAnd Annette Bening would call us âher womenâ. We went for dinner one day and she ordered for us: âMy women and I will have this bottle of wine.â I was like: God, youâre so glamorous.â Itâs hard not to love the idea of French and Saunders in a film with Wonder Woman. She giggles. âExactly. Dawn was like: âObviously Iâm Wonder Woman, arenât I, Gal? This is all very well, but â¦ â Theyâre so lovely.â
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 couldnât 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. âThatâs what series do! Youâve got to leave cliffhangers.â
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. âMy favourite course was Beckett, Kane and Pinter. I did that in my final semester, and I was like, yeah, theatreâs for me.â 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. âI mean, Death on the Nile? Donât know how that happened,â she smiles.
If Mackey shares anything with Maeve, itâs 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 isnât often, she likes to make it matter: she walks, cooks, reads, watches documentaries. She says she doesnât feel the need to be constantly working, constantly chasing the next part. âIâm 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 arenât yours, you donât get a lot of agency.â Any time she has is precious, and she wants to make the most of it. âI think what Iâm saying is: the simpler, the better.âMackey deeds ... Emma with Asa Butterfield in Sex Education. Photograph: Jon Hall/Netflix
Does that apply to work, too? âDefinitely. Iâve always been like that anyway, but more so now. Itâs fine to ask yourself the question: âWould I be a better person if I do this job, will it elevate me?â And now, I think itâs more: âIf I do this film, is it necessary, does it have a place in this day and age?â Because I donât like to feel useless or like Iâm wasting my time, or not doing something that is going to benefit other people in some way.â
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 âissuesâ without seeming heavy-handed or hectoring, and has a winning refusal to be judgmental. âThatâs where the sentiment stems from. That show has set the bar high, in terms of inclusivity, in terms of storylines, and the female characters weâre portraying. It has been of great service to people of all generations. And itâs started conversations: regardless of how you feel about the show, itâs going to make you think. Regardless of what you think about the acting, the style, the music, whatever, it doesnât matter, because weâre sort of pioneers, in that field of frankness and openness about things that we deal with every day. Thatâs really special.â
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. âQuite shocking!â I didnât mean it like that! âBrilliant. A quite shocking amount of followers,â she laughs. But she rarely posts on it. âI donât really have a comfortable relationship with social media. I donât have Twitter, I donât have Facebook, or things like that.â Sheâll read messages from friends on Instagram, âbut I would never look at comments, because I donât see the point. Maybe thatâs quite pessimistic, but I kind of see it as: it can only be detrimental to my brain and self-confidence. So I just donât. Itâs not my job to be an Instagrammer so I donât see why I would spend my waking hours scrolling through an app, of which I am a product.â She shudders: âUgh.âGoing 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 doesnât feel comfortable with the celebrity side of it? âIt is, because I donât believe in it. I donât think anyone gives a shit about celebrities.â Well, 5 million people might say otherwise. âYeah, but they donât care about me. Itâs Maeve, itâs not necessarily me. They donât know me. So what does it actually mean? Celebrityism, or whatever, is a byproduct of the job. I certainly didnât get into acting to become a celebrity, because itâs terrifying. Youâd have to be a complete sociopath to want to be a celebrity.â But lots of people do. âBut I find it absurd.â
She has ambitions to write and direct: âI think Iâm probably more of a director than an actor, in some part of me.â On set, she says, she pays attention to everything thatâs going on behind the camera. âIâd probably quite enjoy directing because Iâd see the whole thing through, as opposed to just popping in for two months, getting to do a bit of acting,â she whistles, âthen off, poof, itâs not mine any more. So I am thinking of directing, just not right now. Iâve never written anything either. But Iâve got ideas. When the timeâs right theyâll happen, and Iâll just trust in that, I think.â
For now, there is Death on the Nile, and Eiffel, due later this year. And thatâs French-language? âYeah, fully French. The Frenchest film,â she laughs. âA romance about the Eiffel Tower? Thatâs me.â In May, it was announced she will play Emily BrontÃ« in Emily, about the authorâs journey to womanhood, which should start filming next year. How good is her Yorkshire accent? âPretty good,â she says. âItâs Emily BrontÃ«, I studied English at Leeds, weâre filming in Leeds, so it feels like a full-circle moment.â She sounds excited: âTwelve-year-old Emma would be freaking out right now.â
Sex Education resumes later this year on Netflix; Death on the Nile is in cinemas, 17 September