Emma Mackey talks EE BAFTA Rising Star nomination, the fun of Barbie, and moving on from Sex Education

Emma Mackey
(Image credit: Chris Chapman)

Landing a nomination for the EE BAFTA Rising Star Award is a reflective moment for Emma Mackey. The actor, best known for her role as pink-haired Maeve in Netflix’s runaway hit Sex Education, landed the nomination for last year’s Emily Brontë biopic, Emily. With the prospect of saying goodbye to the Netflix show on the horizon, as well as a role in one of 2023’s most-anticipated movies Barbie on the way, Mackey opens up to Total Film about what’s next for her. 

"There are certain key moments in everyone's respective lives where I think it's important to take stock and think really clearly about where you want to go and the kinds of things that you want to make and for what reasons," the actor explains to TF. "Without falling into, like, legacy and what you want to leave behind because we're not missionaries, it is something we're so privileged to even be able to audition for things and to be able to get roles, so [you need to] make sure that they're the right ones and you get to explore and stretch out. There are different phases and now is definitely the phase where I want to try everything."

Emily, the film Mackey is being recognized for, is an example of just that. Helmed by actor-turned-director Frances O’Connor, the 2022 movie was a take on the Wuthering Heights author’s life. Less concerned with following facts, Emily has been described as an atmospheric interpretation of Brontë’s life, with Mackey’s performance widely praised.

"It was really intense," Mackey says of making the movie. "It was only six weeks to do the whole film so there wasn't really any time for doubt, you just had to go into it quite forcefully and bring it to life in the way that Frances wanted you to. It felt special and I love period dramas, but this didn't feel like a lot of them. It felt fresher and it felt a bit dirtier as well. It felt rugged in a really good way. And I just like the idea of just telling the story, wholeheartedly, the good, bad, and ugly, and being able to run wild with your imagination."

Awards season

Emma Mackey in Emily

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The film gained the attention of the EE BAFTA Rising Star panel, which nominated her alongside Daryl McCormack (Good Luck To You, Leo Grande), Sheila Atim (The Woman King), Naomi Ackie (I Wanna Dance With Somebody), and Aimee Lou Wood (Living). For Mackey, the recognition is "lovely", but what she’s most excited about is celebrating with her Sex Education co-star Wood. 

"She's one of my best friends in the entire world so it's really not a hardship and it's a wonderful thing that we get to share," she adds. "It’s an evening that we get to share and celebrate outside of work and outside of Sex Ed. To be noticed for our work outside of TV is really special as well."

The pair have worked together since season one of the hit Netflix show, which has spawned huge careers for them as well as co-stars like Ncuti Gatwa and Simone Ashley. They’ll soon be returning for Sex Education season 4, which will see Mackey’s character Maeve across the Atlantic and will also feature big changes to the cast. 

Looking back at where they started in 2019, Mackey is blown away by everyone’s success. "We've really grown together and have evolved together and learned from each other in ways that are really quite singular that most people don't really get to experience in their life, because it's just so contained and so condensed and intense when you're shooting those kinds of things," she says. "We well up just thinking about how far we’ve come from when we were 21 and had our first auditions to where we are now. It's really emotional because we've all done it together."

Part of the joy of the role for Mackey has been returning to play Maeve each year, but she admits it can be a bit strange pretending to be a teenager in her late 20s. "It’s just always tricky, it’s different when you're playing a character that is sort of stuck in time," she explains. "You know, we're playing 17-year-olds, and we're all almost 30, it is a bit weird. It’s a blessing because it is a launchpad and it is something that has given us opportunities in different ways but it's something that I want to gracefully exit from, and be happy that it exists and protect it and enjoy it in the time that it has existed in but yeah, it needs to be left alone now I think."

She adds of the show: "We can all move on and take what we learned from Sex Ed as well because it has been a school, quite literally, for all of us. It's just wonderful to have had that education and to have that baptism of fire and to have just been flung into that whole world. I think it's made us stronger."

It’s a Barbie world

Sex Education

(Image credit: Netflix)

Mackey will also soon be starring in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which is due out in theaters in July. Given the huge secrecy around the project, as well as her absence in the first trailer, it’s not yet clear who she’ll be playing opposite Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken. As you might imagine, there’s not a lot she can say about this, but Mackey is much more verbose on the topic of working with Gerwig.

"I jumped, I fought, I shouted from the rooftops in any way I could," she says of working with the Lady Bird director. "She’s my absolute hero and she lived up to expectations more than I could have anticipated." As for the movie, Mackey says she’s "excited" for people to see it. 

"All of the people in it are excited to see how it’s going to end up," she continues. "I just can’t wait, it feels like such a complete film to me. That’s how I felt when I read it, and that’s how it felt when we were filming it. I’m just excited for it all to come together."

"It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life," she continues. "It was wonderful. It’s being helmed by people who know what they're doing and who care and who are in the best possible circumstances to do their job. When they're in their element, and you see other people confident and calm in what they're doing, then you feel competent and calm, and you want to make them proud and you want to do the best job possible. It's all a very healthy work environment to be in. Those opportunities don't come by all the time so you've got to take them when you can."

Voting for the EE Rising Star Award is now open at ee.co.uk/BAFTA and the winner will be announced at the EE BAFTA Film Awards on Sunday, February 19 on BBC One.

Fay Watson

I’m an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering TV and film for the Total Film and SFX sections online. I previously worked as a Senior Showbiz Reporter and SEO TV reporter at Express Online for three years. I've also written for The Resident magazines and Amateur Photographer, before specializing in entertainment.