Netflix’s raunchy teen dramedy Sex Education kicks off with an enterprising outsider — the hard-edged, down-on-her-luck Maeve Wiley — who spots an opportunity to make a little cash. Her classmates are hopelessly clueless about sex, and Maeve guesses that they might pay real money for an amateur sex clinic. Over the course of the show’s debut season, she and her partner Otis (Asa Butterfield) attempt to help their fellow students navigate relationships, learn how to masturbate, and unmask the slut shamer behind an anonymous sext sent to the entire school. But the real revelation in Sex Education is Emma Mackey, the newcomer who plays Maeve. With her two-toned pink hair and knack for a cutting insult, Maeve already seems destined for cult fandom. Or, as one fan put it, “emma mackey as maeve wiley can kill me, rob me, sacrifice me or put me alive in the oven and I’d say thankyou.”
Earlier this week, Vulture caught up with Mackey to talk about playing Maeve, what she learned about sex from the role, her reaction to all those Margot Robbie comparisons, and what her grandparents think about such a racy show. (Spoiler: Her grandma loved the banana blow-job scene.)
Maeve is a girl with a harsh, tough shell but a caring interior. Did you feel connected to that tension?
I definitely felt connected to her. She’s just this tour de force of a young woman, independent and fierce and unapologetically herself, and she has to go through all this shit of being bullied and almost excommunicated from her school, but that doesn’t stop her from being herself and focusing on her studies. She uses her mind before anything else. She’s in constant survival mode, which I love. When someone has to look after themselves and toughen up at such a young age, I think that brings out amazing qualities.
In some ways, she feels like a response to other cool girls we’ve met onscreen. How did you approach that?
She has this really tough exterior because of her circumstances. A lot of people do that, don’t they? People choose to shut themselves off and build a load of defense mechanisms and not let anybody in, because it’s easier that way. You don’t get hurt and there’s less risk involved if you build this hard shell. But ultimately, she’s got this lovely, warm, selfless, caring interior. When she’s down in the dumps and going through tough times, she’s still able to show humanity and put herself after everyone else, which is one of the most amazing qualities that someone can have.
Did you have any particular inspirations for the role? Any other characters or actors or books you drew inspiration from?
Throughout the filming process, the aesthetic is very John Hughes–esque, so there was that whole Breakfast Club vibe going on. Ten Things I Hate About You came up a couple of times. But to be honest with you, it was more a combination of the direction and the writing — Laurie [Nunn] is an absolute genius — and creating playlists and the costumes and the set design that helped me. All of those physical aspects of the job. But also, I was inspired by Judd Nelson. Just a little bit. [Laughs.]
What was the hardest scene for you to play?
It’s in episode three, and actually, it’s not even in the final cut. I have a slight fear of hospitals, so you can imagine that when I go into the operating theater, my heart started beating a little bit quicker than usual. That’s just me and my paranoia about illness and whatever. Really, it was such a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere throughout. It could very easily have been overwhelming and scary, but it wasn’t. And to be honest with you, there weren’t any scenes I was actually scared to do.
It’s interesting that it was so comfortable, because I imagine it could potentially have gotten really awkward. What were your sex scenes like?
It was ultimately quite fun. When you’re doing intimacy scenes, it’s a closed set and you’ve only got the key people there, so that takes the pressure off because you haven’t got like 80 people looking at you having sex. But it was all so well-handled — we had an intimacy workshop way before filming, where we spoke about our worries and any questions we might have.
What was the workshop like?
We all sat in a circle for three hours talking about all our experiences or lack thereof, and the nerves evaporated pretty much immediately. There was an intimacy coordinator, and the whole writing team and the production team and the director, and we just talked it all out. It’s funny because people just expect actors to know how to have sex onscreen. But at the workshop, they compared it to doing stunts, and how it would be completely ridiculous to expect actors to just jump off a building without rehearsing. It’s exactly the same with sex scenes. It’s all really coordinated and choreographed.
Tell me more …
Kedar [Williams-Stirling], the guy who played Jackson, and I, we quite literally timed everything before we started filming. Like, we’re going to kiss for three seconds, and then I’m going to push you on the bed, then you’re going to say your line. We’d practice it, practice the movements, until it’s as natural as possible. So everything you see onscreen, we’re in our heads counting. It’s like a dance; it’s quite funny.
What was going on in your life before you got this job? Were you in school? Working?
I went to university in Leeds, and I graduated in 2016 and moved to London with the intention of applying to drama school. I was living at my friend’s house, then I was working as a live-in nanny for a couple of months because I had nowhere else to live. Then I left the nannying job and moved in with some other friends, all the while applying to drama school. I didn’t get in, but that whole year, I was also going to acting classes. Going there every week, that was my acting education. After that year, I got an agent, started auditioning, and eventually got the job six months after getting the agent.
Did the show teach you anything about sex that you didn’t know?
Oh my God, so much. But what it taught me most was relief: All these weird times that you have when you’re a teenager, everyone has them. I never spoke about masturbation at school; it just wasn’t a thing for some reason. Girls and pleasure, it’s really taboo. I thought I was always really weird, like, No one else is doing this. Maybe I’m really bad. Maybe something’s wrong with me.
I think a lot of people feel that way about the show, from what I’ve heard. My grandparents actually said they wished they had a show like this 50 years ago. My grandma literally said that her sex education at a girls’ grammar school in the ’40s and ’50s was rabbits reproducing. Can you imagine? We’ve come a long way since pictures of reproducing rabbits.
Did your grandparents like it?
My grandparents absolutely loved it. I was worried about my grandparents watching it, when obviously they’ve lived through far more than I have, and they’ve seen it all. But they fell in love with the characters, and my grandma loved the banana blow-job scene, which is always good to know.
I have to ask: Are you sick of the Margot Robbie comparisons yet?
Oh my God. I don’t know if “sick” of it is the word. It’s a weird one. I’m very flattered because Margot Robbie is insanely beautiful, but it’s always annoying to have people focusing on your looks as opposed to what you’re actually doing on the job. But also, I’ll take it. There are worse people to be compared to. [Laughs.]