Emma Mackey: ‘No, not all French people want to have sex all the time’

The Sex Education actor talks about her Irish roots and her Anglo-French upbringing

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.”

Mackey says she “felt at home” on the shoot, and, as you might expect for a Mackey, she has deep Irish roots. “My great-something grandfather was called Joseph Mackey and he was actually from Ballymackey, which is in Tipperary,” she says. But we are going to settle on “Anglo-French” as the appropriate compound adjective.

Born and raised in Le Mans as Emma Tachard-Mackey, she is the daughter of a French father and an English mother. There is, however, no hint of channel-crossover when she speaks English. Dark and sharp-featured — the frequent comparisons to Margot Robbie are not outrageous — Mackey sounds as if she's spent the last 25 years in Maidenhead (or wherever). Yet she hadn't lived in England until she went to study at the University of Leeds.

“It depends where I am,” she says. “When I was in France I felt overwhelmingly British and felt like I needed to catch up on lost time. When I eventually moved to England I felt, this is my world. The theatre. The literature. In the UK we have so many influences: the Romans, the Norse, the Angles. We have so many communities. That’s how you can have so many accents within seven miles. Now I am back working in France, I feel that I have filled that British gap. I feel more balanced.”

That’s interesting. Mackey had to make a conscious decision where to live after leaving school. Presumably she could easily have remained in France. “Apparently, I had decreed at the age of eight that I was going to university in England. I don’t know why,” she says with a laugh. “I think I felt that’s where I could fulfil my creative side. I was such a bookworm.”

Mackey had only a handful of credits when she landed the role of Maeve Wiley in Sex Education. It’s an eccentric hybrid. Set in an English school that has borrowed its aesthetic from John Hughes’s America, the series stars Asa Butterfield as the son of Gillian Anderson’s frank sex therapist. Maeve is an intelligent, occasionally pink-haired outsider who speaks truth to the obfuscators. It would be lazy to ask if Mackey saw herself in the character, but, erm, does she see herself in the character?

My dad is very French, but he's been taught English humour. He has that dark sense of humour

“I am asked that a lot, but I don’t really have the distance to analyse my past,” she says. “My memory is terrible. People ask specific things about school and I just don’t remember all of it. But, yes, I did feel like an outsider — because I was English. Regardless, I think anyone who has another nationality is a little bit on the outside. I didn’t like secondary school, but sixth form was better.”

Mackey is a good talker. Set her off on a subject and, without any further prompting, she will tease out every visible thread. One gets the sense that she’s a secure sort, but, pondering the comparisons with Maeve, she admits to early insecurities.

“I was naive. I didn’t have a harsh exterior like Maeve,” she says. “I didn’t dress like her. I love books. I was very studious. But I wasn’t confident like her. There are a few core elements that are the same.”

I wonder what sort of conversations she had with her dad about Sex Education (and about sex education). The show has much to say about how badly English schools engage with the words in the title. M Tachard is, remember, headmaster at a French school. This is very much his patch.

“To be honest, we haven’t had a sit-down conversation to compare and contrast sex education in French schools,” she says. “But he really enjoys the show and finds it hilarious. My dad is very French, but he’s been taught English humour. He has that dark sense of humour. He loves a good chuckle. I am always asked this and I feel bad that I haven’t asked him.”

She goes on to wearily note that, as in the series, she was taught sex education only as part of biology. “There was nobody showing us how to put a condom on,” she says. Older viewers may be slightly surprised by this. Little seems to have changed since the 1970s.

“It’s astonishing,” she says. “We can send people to the moon and do all this amazing stuff. Yet we can’t find a contraceptive that doesn’t muck with women’s hormones. We can’t find a contraceptive for men. And we don’t teach sex education in schools.”

I can't speak for an entire country. I don't see France as repressed. But I don't see it as super-liberated either

I have already read her sighing when interviewers suggest things are different in France. Some part of the north European psyche insists on believing that everyone in France is a free-thinking character from a Nouvelle Vague film. Surely, they can’t stop talking about sex? Right?

“I can’t speak for an entire country. I don’t see France as repressed. But I don’t see it as super-liberated either,” she says. “I do get annoyed at the cliches. No, not all French people want to have sex all the time. Not all French people have hairy armpits. It’s the same with British people. We are not all stiff-upper-lip and coy. That’s not true either. Let’s get past these things.”

When Eiffel finishes, Mackey moves on to play Emily Brontë in a biopic by Frances O'Connor. Her role opposite Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in Death on the Nile is in the can, but lockdown has made life difficult for post-production facilities. Still, we are hopeful we will see the Agatha Christie adaptation in October. Mackey is in the role Mia Farrow played in the famous 1978 film.

"No pressure, is it? Standing on the shoulders of Mia Farrow," she says. "No, it's a different character. We went in a different direction. I am really excited. It's such an amazing experience. To be in a French and Saunders sandwich most days! To see Annette Bening swanning in looking divine! That was amazing. What a dream."

The cinematic wheels are moving again.

The Winter Lake is screening online at the Galway Film Fleadh on Friday, July 10th and will have a theatrical release later in the year

Galway Film Fleadh goes online

Now in its 32nd edition, the Galway Film Fleadh has long been the prime spot to launch new Irish features. So, when lockdown hit, there were worries that the bash on the Corrib would, like the Cannes, Tribeca and South by Southwest festivals, get rudely cancelled. The organisers courageously took the decision to move the event online. Films will become available to stream at precise times throughout the scheduled dates at prices from €5.

Happily, the nation's producers played along and the Fleadh has ended up with 11 world premieres, two European premieres and 10 Irish premieres. Those films making their first ever appearances include Eoin Macken's Here Are the Young Men, adapted from Rob Doyle's novel; Philip Doherty's Redemption of a Rogue, starring Aaron Monaghan as a prodigal son; and Dave Minogue's Poster Boys, a road movie featuring appearances by Keith Duffy and Joe Rooney. Fans of Pat Collins, among the nation's greatest filmmakers, will get a chance to catch up with his wonderful documentary Henry Glassie: Fieldwork. We can also expect workshops, interviews and other interactive events.

The Fleadh kicks off on July 7th with a streaming of Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve Boyle's The 8th. Already strongly reviewed, the film focuses on the 2018 campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

The 32nd Galway Film Fleadh runs online from July 7th until July 12th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist