Netflix’s taboo-busting hit often finds its characters in – how can I put this? – compromising positions: an inopportune erection here, a spot of self-loving in a car park there.
The comedy-drama follows Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), a timid teenager who becomes the grudging sex therapist of his school. Mackey stars as the punky bad-girl Maeve Wiley, who convinces Otis that running an unsanctioned sex clinic will be a lucrative business venture. Thanks to her nonconformist nature and fierce loyalty to the women in her life, Maeve has become something of a feminist icon. As has Mackey herself. “I didn’t know that,” laughs the French-British actor. “I just believe in equality for people, so it’s not such a big deal. I’d rather be remembered for that than being an a***hole, so that’s good.”
Today, the 24-year-old is channelling the school rebel look. With chunky boots, a tartan miniskirt, black turtle neck and retro Alice band, she looks like she’s walked straight out of a John Hughes movie (The Breakfast Club filmmaker’s work was a major reference point for Sex Education’s creator Laurie Nunn). But she’s used to a more contemporary comparison. Time and again, Mackey is likened to Margot Robbie. They have the same high cheek bones, expressive brows and square jaw – but it’s not an observation she particularly enjoys.
“I genuinely just don’t see it at all,” she says. “But it’s fine. I wish people would stop comparing. Like, it’s lovely to be compared to Margot Robbie, but mostly I’d rather people focus on the jobs that we’re both doing rather than what we look like. Hollywood churns out people who look the same and we love to put people in boxes. It’s just a thing that we do as a species, we categorise people, we always have.”
While Mackey smiles a hell of a lot more than Maeve, she does share some of her character’s traits. “I’m a bit of a lone wolf,” she says. “I don’t want to be like anyone else, I want to do my own thing. In that respect, Maeve and I are quite similar – we just knuckle down.” Growing up in a small, Catholic town in the Pays de la Loire region of France, she had friends – but “I wasn’t really interested in any of the drama and politics within that realm”. She was more focused on her studies. “I wanted to get out and go to uni. That was my priority.”
Maeve is one of the smartest people at her school, devouring Sylvia Plath and writing brilliant essays for her classmates in exchange for cash, but her life is not an easy one. In season one, she struggled to pay rent after being abandoned by her mother, was vilified by pro-life activists for having an abortion and was cruelly nicknamed “Cock Biter” by her classmates. Things don’t exactly get easier in the second season. Not only is she heartbroken over Otis, but her mother – who is struggling with a drug addiction – hurricanes back into her life.
Suffice to say, Mackey doesn’t get to goof around on set as much as her fellow stars. “I do sometimes wish Maeve wasn’t such a Debbie Downer,” she says. “But I love her and I’m very protective of her.”
She recalls shooting solo scenes in Maeve’s caravan home and “gazing wistfully at a book” while the others were all doing fun group sequences at the school. “I’d feel a little bit left out,” she admits, though Maeve does have her own, “unplanned” comic moments. “She surprises you with her deadpan nature and her cutting one-liners,” says Mackey. “That’s my kind of comedy.”
Humour aside, Sex Education has been widely praised for how it deals with the adolescent experience. Nothing is off-limits, however difficult or uncomfortable. Sexual assault is a major theme in the show’s second season, with one character encountering a predatory stranger on a bus. For Mackey, it’s vital that the show tackles these “very, very real” issues that “affect so many people”.
“Stuff has happened to me,” she says. “You know, it’s when people are taking advantage of small spaces... I rarely go out to clubs but every time I’ve been to a gig there’s always been something, or it’s happened around me. It’s unfortunately a really common thing, so to me, this was one of the most moving and important storylines.”
Mackey’s also learnt a lot she didn’t know from starring in the series. When a photo of a student’s vagina does the rounds in season one, Otis points out that it’s a crime to circulate images of someone’s body without their consent. “That, to me, was a surprise,” she says. “It’s like, everyone’s making jokes about sending nudes but actually if they’re misused, that is a criminal offence. That is something the show has taught people.”
The fact that sex education in schools is, well, appalling, is the show’s entire raison-d’etre. The British curriculum dictates that pupils learn about sex as a means for reproduction and nothing more – which ignores many of the things they really want – and often need – to know about, such as the female orgasm, anal douching and STIs.
Surely France, given its reputation for being sexually liberated, is better than the UK in that regard? “It’s not!” she says, slamming her hand down on the arm of her chair. “Let me break this taboo right now. I do not believe in that at all. I do not believe that French people are loose and, like, super… they can be romantic, definitely, but the curriculum is as bad as it is here [in England].”
She’s on a roll. “Any view that we have of French people is linked to the Sixties, to all these really sexy people smoking cigarettes and being naked in films. That’s not actually what French people are like. And I actually think it’s a generational thing. Our generation is a bit more open minded and frank, and there are more social media accounts about female pleasure and consent, but I certainly see France – maybe I’m wrong – as more conservative than a lot of people realise. There’s still work to do. I don’t think we’re the loose cannons that everyone thinks we are.”
Mackey intends to have a frank discussion with her father – who is the headteacher of the local secondary and “not a Mr Groff, thank God” – about the sex education in his school. But she’ll have to squeeze it in between the torrent of silver screen roles she has coming up. There’s the Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile, in which she stars alongside Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer, Irish film The Winter Lake and the French-language feature Eiffel.
Sex Education, Mackey says, has “set the bar ridiculously high for anything I do afterwards”. Particularly when it comes to diversity. “I’m hyper-aware of representation in anything I do now. It’s something I have discussed with directors, just to start the conversation at least.”
She nods to herself, looking every bit as determined as Maeve Wiley. “That’s my duty.”
‘Sex Education’ is available on Netflix now
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