In her role as tough, crafty Maeve Wiley on Netflix’s Sex Education, Hollywood newcomer Emma Mackey is schooling them all.
In her family’s Sablé-sur-Sarthe home in western France, Emma Mackey’s teenage bedroom had all the dreamy trappings of a well-adjusted high schooler: shelves lined with books and candles, a wardrobe adorned with flowers, and a single teal wall that the now-24-year-old actress painted with her dad on a summer day. A sign she hung outside the door read “Happy Room.” “It was,” Mackey says, laughing, “floral and naïve.” It was also worlds away from the bedroom she’d one day ‘live’ in as Maeve Wiley, the character she plays on Netflix’s British dramedy Sex Education.
The show focuses on an underground sex-therapy clinic run by Otis, an awkward, sexually inexperienced intimacy guru (played by Asa Butterfield) and his shrewd friend Maeve, the brains of the operation. Like her, Maeve’s bedroom feels vintage and a little world-weary. There are posters of Bikini Kill and Lesbians on Ecstasy tacked to the wall, a note reading “Power to the pussy” is taped beside them, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sits on the nightstand. The whole thing looks like it smells faintly of cigarettes and patchouli.
Which may be why, when Mackey first read for the role of Maeve, she didn’t think she would get the part. “My initial reaction was, ‘There’s no way I can pull off this character; she’s way cooler than me,’” Mackey the actress says over the phone from her London home. But she’s done more than pull it off. Though the show boasts a talented (and refreshingly diverse) ensemble cast, the friendship between Maeve and Otis is planted firmly at the center, and Mackey’s portrayal of the savvy, hard-edged, and tenderhearted teen has become instantly iconic—a hero for brilliant loners in fringed leather jackets everywhere.
“I still have massive imposter syndrome,” Mackey admits. “But now I’m just obsessed with Maeve, and want to protect her at all costs.” Show creator Laurie Nunn has, she adds, “done an incredible job of making Maeve relatable, authentic, and autonomous—all of these truly essential things. I just really want to honor it.”
“It may be quite cheesy,” Mackey continues, “but I want to nurture Maeve and make sure she’s as truthful as possible.”
When Sex Education’s first season debuted in January 2019, The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson, who plays Otis’s sex-therapist mother, was its only well-known name. Within the month, the show had racked up 40 million viewers, and the cast of mostly twentysomething unknowns became stars. The run-up to the second season was a whirlwind of fanfare and press trips, culminating in a hotly anticipated premiere, which dropped on Netflix in January, the same day as our photo shoot. “I had an anxiety ball in my fucking solar plexus burning all day,” Mackey remembers. “Like, I kept drinking water, I kept doing breathing [exercises]; I could not shake it off.”
After Tidal’s photo shoot, Mackey went straight home to the London flat she shares with her brother, and they binged the entire season together, all the way through. “We were a mess, both of us just crying and holding each other, being like, ‘What the fuck? This show’s so good!’” she says with a laugh. “It was so intense, but so great.”
And it’s true. The show is so good. Not only does it offer insightful storylines about teenage sex and relationships that most series avoid (uh, hi, anal douching and pansexuality), it also delves into issues beyond sex—like anxiety, addiction and family conflict—in a genuine, nuanced, and often hilarious way.
Maybe one of the most compelling arcs this season (and one that likely resonated with nearly every woman watching) was the one that saw Maeve’s sweet, daffy friend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) being quietly masturbated on by a fellow male bus rider. The show deftly explored the aftermath of her sexual assault, and ended up creating its own all-female twist on the classic Breakfast Club detention theme.
“[Aimee’s sexual assault] story has hit home for a lot of people,” Mackey affirms. “We had a screening last week, and we spoke about [that episode] in a room full of people who work for domestic violence charities. In that moment, I truly realized the social and political impact the show is having. Professionals were thanking us and thanking Laurie and the writers for putting it out there.”
Though the show operates with a heightened sense of reality—it takes place within an upscale, Americanized high school set in an idyllic Welsh town—its impact is palpable, because it trains its lens on the very areas that other teen dramedies have long panned away from. It’s packed with cringe-inducing nude scenes and full of teenage sexual experiences, but it never approaches these things from the lascivious male gaze. At its (very big) heart, the show feels… well, wholesome.
When I suggest that this is a direct result of the show being created and largely written by women, Mackey quickly agrees. “It’s essential to the show’s success,” she confirms. “I really believe that. I think it could only come from a woman’s brain. And I’m not having a go at men—they’re great as well—but I do think it plays a massive part, because nothing in that script is gratuitous. There’s a real intuition and female force that resonates throughout, and that’s so fucking cool to be a part of.”
Mackey has been waiting a long time for something like this. On childhood visits to her mom’s family in Birmingham, England, she would often take in musicals and ballet performances at the city’s Hippodrome and its Repertory Theatre. Watching shows like Cinderella and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang felt like pure magic, she recalls. “And then there was a massive part of me that was also super jealous of all the people on stage. I was like, ‘Why the fuck am I not up there? I want to do that.’”
This fall, Mackey will be starring in her first major film, Death on the Nile, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh (whom the actress calls “Mr. Shakespeare himself”). Next up will be the horror-thriller The Winter Lake, followed by Eiffel, a French film that’s due to be released in 2021. And of course, there’s the third season of Sex Education, which Netflix recently greenlit, in the works. Not too shabby for someone who just embarked on an acting career last year.
Sex Education has been a game-changer for Mackey in other ways, too. When the actress goes out now, people excitedly shout “Maeve!” in her direction. Strangers ask her for selfies, mothers thank her for making it easier to talk to their teens about sex, and high school girls slip her handwritten notes, telling her what an inspiration she is.
Tidal spoke to Maeve the day after the BAFTAs, the U.K.’s version of the Oscars. Not one for red carpets or photo ops, she had skipped the ceremony, but gone to the after-party. “I was in the same room as Robert De Niro last night,” she reveals, before admitting that she drunk-mobbed Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi to tell him that his TV series, What We Do in the Shadows, is her favorite of all time.
“I still have to pinch myself to be like, ‘What the fuck is going on? I don’t understand,’ Mackey confesses. “But I am also so happy and thankful. It feels very special to even be in the same room as people I really, truly look up to. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m building my chosen family.”