With a title like ‘Sex Education’, it’s no surprise that Netflix’s new hit show features more than a few scenes you wouldn’t want to watch with your parents.
But as actress Emma Mackey, who plays teenager Maeve Wiley, points out, there’s a lot more to the show than just its sexual content.
“I feel like the sex is kind of like the backbone of the show,” she tells HuffPost UK. “It’s there, for sure, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that it’s actually more about human relationships, and how we work and interact with each other. And actually I think that’s why it works.
“We as a species can be very confusing and messy and funny anyway, so if you write the truth, like Laurie [Nunn, the show’s creator] has, you recognise yourself in so many things. I think that’s why it resonates with so many people. It rings a bell, for a lot of people, for sure.”
This notion of not judging a book is an important theme throughout the eight episodes of ‘Sex Education’. The show introduces us to an array of characters who may seem cliché and one-dimensional at first glance, but as the story unravels, we discover there’s a lot more going on under the surface.
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Describing her own “strong, tour-de-force” character, Maeve, Emma says: “At first she seems like the archetypal bad girl, you know, the kind of emo kid who’s kind of left out. Maybe a bit grumpy and a bit scary. But after the first episode you realise that’s not the case at all.
“She’s got so much more going on – she’s clever, she’s pragmatic, she’s funny, she’s cynical. She’s got a really tough exterior and she has loads of defence mechanisms because she doesn’t want to let anybody in and doesn’t want to be hurt. And then you realise that even in the moments where she’s struggling the most in her own life, she’s still able to be a friend to people and still be warm and caring, which is amazing.
“And it’s so wonderful to have a meaty female role that has her own story, rather than being wrapped around a male character.”
Interestingly, 23-year-old Emma notes that when she was a teenager, she was quite different from her ‘Sex Education’ character, pointing out that while she “spent a lot of my teenage years trying to fit in”, Maeve is “unapologetically herself”, even in the face of bullying and slut-shaming from her peers.
But Emma does say she’s noticed changes in herself since playing Maeve, and she’s even found herself channelling her character in real life.
She notes: “I think Maeve has taught me a lot about myself, and that’s really cool, that the character is written so well I’m kind of inspired by her.
“I don’t feel like I have to be nice and apologetic all of the time, I’m trying to be strong and fierce. I think that’s kind of special.”
Prior to landing the role of Maeve in ‘Sex Education’, Emma only had a small amount of professional acting experience, and admits that while this initially made her nervous (“I mean, I was shitting myself on that first day,” she says, with a laugh), this wasn’t a feeling that lasted.
“Being thrown in at the deep end with this job was really brilliant for me,” she recalls. “It was just all-encapsulating, I learned everything all at once. It was very intense in all the best ways, and just being in a show like this, and with a cast like this, is so wonderful. I think at first, I did feel like I had to prove myself, and prove to people that I’m an actor and that I belonged there, but that feeling literally disappeared after about two days.
“I’ve said this before, but it was just like a big summer camp, basically. With loads of weird and wonderful people. We spent four months together in Wales, and it was just glorious, the whole thing. All of those initial nerves dissipated after about 48 hours.”
She continues: “It’s just such a solid group of friends, and I feel like we keep each other grounded and we support each other. And it’s not fake, it’s not superficial, they’re there for you if you need it, do you know what I mean? If you can’t sleep or you’re worried about a scene or whatever, you can call on various cast members and they’ll be there for you.”
And while those aforementioned sex scenes might be off-putting for some stars in the early stages of their career, Emma says she and her co-stars were eased into it, with the help of an “intimacy workshop”, which have become more prevalent in the entertainment industry since the rise of the Me Too movement.
“We get asked [about sex scenes] a lot, and to be honest with you, it wasn’t that nerve-wracking at all, because before we started filming we had this full day at this intimacy workshop,” she recalls.
“We spent the first part of the day with the producers and the writers and the director and the cast and we all just sat down for about three hours, talking about our experience, or lack thereof, of intimacy scenes, either on stage or on screen, and our worries or fears or nerves or whatever we had. We all spoke, and everyone was talking openly, so everyone was on equal footing from the get-go, which was brilliant.
“And then, the second part of the workshop was very, like, drama school-type things, and if someone had been a fly on the wall they would have been like, ‘what the hell is going on in here?’. It was doing like animal rhythms, like imitations of mating rhythms of various animals.
“But the most important thing was the actual physical consent part. So, what we learned, which was brilliant, was with your scene partner, whoever that may be, making sure you’re touching them in places that aren’t uncomfortable for them, if that makes sense?
“Consent and communication were literally the two keywords. And everything was choreographed and timed as well, and rehearsed so much that when it came down to filming, it was like a dance. We were timing in our heads, ‘kiss for three seconds’, ‘move to the wall’, ‘do this’, so it was really interesting. But consent and communication were always there, so it was always really comfortable, and actually quite fun, when we got down to it.”
In the space of just one week, the show has garnered a loyal following and won critical acclaim, though Emma admits she’s missed a lot of it, having “taken a step back” from social media.
“I’ve just turned off my notifications,” she reveals. “I’m not very good with all that, it gives me a bit of anxiety. But generally, the whole response has been so completely humbling and lovely.
“I feel like that’s not really my job and I get a bit… I find it quite overwhelming. So when it calms down, maybe I’ll look. But I know the response has been positive, and even just things like drawings, I think it’s so wonderful that people take the time to draw a character that you’ve played, I think it’s really beautiful.
“Obviously the most important thing is having my family and friends, my parents and my grandparents and brothers and close friends thinking the show is great, and that, in my heart, makes me proud.”
Emma puts the early success of ‘Sex Education’ down to its creator, Laurie Nunn, for creating such “complex, different, beautiful characters”, saying: “We’re kind of exploring the whole spectrum here, I think there’s a character for everyone if that makes sense, I think everyone can kind of relate to at least one.
“I think people are comforted and actually reassured that a show like this exists, and thankful, like, ‘we feel educated now’. And not just in terms of sex, but in terms of life decisions and all the weird and wonderful stuff that goes on in your head when you’re a teenager, and understanding all of that.”
She continues: “We’re touching upon so many important things, to do with the ideas of consent and sexuality and sexual freedom, but also for me the highlight is the fact the show is written predominantly by women. And that all the female characters on the show are so brilliant and so well-crafted.
“I feel like they’ve opened up another dimension with the show, and that’s made me feel very excited. And it’s come along at the right time because of what’s happened in the industry which has to do with how women are treated.
“I feel very much like we’re part of a movement, not necessarily with the show but just as young actors in this world, it’s such an exciting time, and this show has given us a platform to talk really openly about everything, and I hope that this will give other people the chance to express themselves more freely and not have to hide.
“I feel like we’ve really opened up conversations and debates, and I think acting and TV is ultimately political and can change the world. I think the show really does that, actually, as well as being really funny and heartwarming and heartbreaking sometimes, but ultimately it’s doing something big and can help create change.”
‘Sex Education’ is now streaming on Netflix.