Emma Mackey Isn't Concerned About Getting the Facts Right in 'Emily' (2024)

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How much of the Brontë sisters did you know about before you got cast? This film isn't a faithful retelling of Emily's life. It fictionalizes events in order for us to imagine what might have inspired her real-life work. Did you find the lack of restriction to historical accuracy to be creatively freeing? Or does it maybe pose its own challenges? That scene where Emily puts on the mask and seems to channel their dead mother felt like the first time that we see the rest of her siblings let themselves be vulnerable. Especially Charlotte, who is almost the embodiment of Victorian-era repression in a way. And I like that it's left up for interpretation. Emily never really admits to whether or not she was truly pretending to be their mother. I read that you all spent around two days filming that scene specifically. I appreciate that the film isn't just a love story between Emily and William Weightman. I think most of the compelling moments come from the scenes between Emily and her siblings, where we see these moments of both tenderness and resentment. People with siblings might find it refreshing to see such a universal sibling dynamic portrayed in a period drama set in the 19th century. Can you talk about the evolution of Emily's relationship with William? What do you think shifts in order for her to go from mocking a man, who at first impression comes across as uppity and a little bit pretentious, to then falling head over heels in love with him? This is also Frances O'Connor's directorial debut. O'Connor herself is a veteran of beloved period dramas based on famous literary works. What was it like working with her? You also worked with Greta Gerwig on the upcoming Barbie movie. What does it mean to you to be on a set that's helmed and led by women? Do you gravitate to working with women directors? Barbie and Emily Brontë are probably two completely different experiences. What's your process when you decide on your next project? References

You don't need to know anything about Emily Brontë before watching Emily, a two-hour epic about the legendary Gothic novelist who wrote Wuthering Heights. In fact, it might be better if you know nothing at all.

Historical precedence is cast out the window in Frances O'Connor's breathtaking directorial debut, which imagines the heartbreak that may have inspired the writer to pen a book as seismically devastating as her 1847 novel. Though it may bruise the egos of die-hard Brontë purists, what actually happened on historical record matters much less than what could have happened.

"If you wanna watch a documentary about the Brontës, there are loads and they're great. But this is a story and an interpretation," says Emma Mackey, who stars as the titular character, and who, this past Sunday, was named the 2023 BAFTA Rising Star. "You just kind of have to roll with it."

Discrepancies abound when it comes to Emily's supposed lover, William Weightman, a real-life curate who may or may not have actually been linked to her younger sister. Her sisters, too, are renowned literary heroes in their own right (Charlotte is most known for Jane Eyre, and though Anne's works have been less read, her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is oft regarded as one of the first feminist novels). Yet, they function more as auxiliaries in Emily, acting as foils to the novelist's social awkwardness and ineptitude. Ultimately, it's her unwavering devotion to her brother, Branwell, an alcoholic and art school dropout, that builds up to the movie's biggest heartbreak.

Ahead, the Sex Education star talks to BAZAAR.com about exploring Emily's "rich inner life," filming one particularly eerie scene involving a mask and the spirit of the Brontës' dead mother, and hopping from the harsh moors of Emily to the fluorescent neon set of Greta Gerwig's Barbie.

How much of the Brontë sisters did you know about before you got cast?

I knew who they were. I knew the books that they'd written. I'd read some of them when I was younger. So I had a bit of context, but I discovered most of what I needed to know through reading the biographies and doing the research when I got offered the part. I watched all of the documentaries I possibly could, and all the films that had been made, and all the adaptations that had been made of the said books.

This film isn't a faithful retelling of Emily's life. It fictionalizes events in order for us to imagine what might have inspired her real-life work. Did you find the lack of restriction to historical accuracy to be creatively freeing? Or does it maybe pose its own challenges?

It poses challenges. I got offered the part a year and a bit before we actually started shooting, so I went in there pretty fresh. When I started researching and realized that there were a lot of historical discrepancies and a lot of things weren't factual, I sort of had to re-habituate my preconceptions of what the Brontës' story was and what Emily's story was. I'm a little more classical. I think I'd thought it was a biopic, and then when I got in there, it wasn't. In the end, I had to kind of fight against my own preconceptions of what I thought I was doing.

There's a different function of a creative story versus a documentary, even if some Brontë purists might be upset about the fudging of the timeline.

Yeah, but, like, who cares? I get it. I mean, I was the same in the beginning, but in the end, it's, like, "It's just a story. Can we all just get over ourselves?" The problem is if it was ever pitched and sold as a biopic, that would be the problem. It's not a documentary, basically. If you wanna watch a documentary about the Brontës, there are loads and they're great. But this is a story and an interpretation. You just kind of have to roll with it and let it happen to you and just enjoy it in all of its imperfections and all the different rhythms and all of the broad strokes. You need to just follow it. That's the way you can enjoy it.

The end result I'm quite happy with. It feels like it's not stuck in a specific structure or a specific kind of filmic rule system, which I like. I like that we pretty quickly, from the mask scene onwards, blur those boundaries quite intensely and play with the genre a little bit, go towards the more the supernatural side.

That scene where Emily puts on the mask and seems to channel their dead mother felt like the first time that we see the rest of her siblings let themselves be vulnerable. Especially Charlotte, who is almost the embodiment of Victorian-era repression in a way. And I like that it's left up for interpretation. Emily never really admits to whether or not she was truly pretending to be their mother.

It's not clear, and I don't want it to be clear. I think anyone can make their mind up, really. That's the whole point, is it's quite an intensely dramatized scene, but it's also a scene that unlocks something tonally in the film.

In the discussions with the sisters, like you say, you see Charlotte's kind of a straight-laced Victorian doll that she'd become after going to school. You see her suddenly crumble at just the mere mention of her mother and hearing her mother's voice. It could be interpreted as her way to discuss grief and for her to actually break down that wall that shrouds their mother in this unspoken mystery. We see Branwell, as well, become a little boy again. It's a really key scene. I just think it's really haunting. That scene really haunted us doing it.

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I read that you all spent around two days filming that scene specifically.

Yeah, I think two, three days. Then, we had to redo it all in postproduction. And I had to redo it the other day, because I dubbed the film in French, and I had to re-act the whole scene out. I was like, "f*cking hell." [Laughs.] Yeah, it's pretty intense.

I appreciate that the film isn't just a love story between Emily and William Weightman. I think most of the compelling moments come from the scenes between Emily and her siblings, where we see these moments of both tenderness and resentment. People with siblings might find it refreshing to see such a universal sibling dynamic portrayed in a period drama set in the 19th century.

I think you're right. That was very important to [director Frances O'Connor]. In the run-up to the film and in the rehearsal period that we had, we spent a lot of time playing and improvising the scenes and figuring out the different beats between those people. They're all each other had. Emily feels betrayed very quickly. So when Charlotte leaves and changes her whole personality and the way she exteriorizes herself, Emily feels betrayed. She's like, "Is that you in there?" She takes everything very personally.

But they're all each other has. So with that added dimension of not having a mother and having a father who's estranged and quite cold, they rely on each other quite heavily. You see all of the extremes of people's personalities come out in their sibling dynamics, Victorian era or not, so I think you're right. It is refreshing to see all of those colors.

Particularly, to me, one of the most striking relationships is between her and her brother, Branwell. You see her really kind of come into her own thanks to him, even though he is what he is and their relationship is what it is, but it's meaningful enough for it to bring out lots of different colors in her.

Emma Mackey Isn't Concerned About Getting the Facts Right in 'Emily' (4)

Alexandra Dowling as Charlotte Brontë and Amelia Gething as Anne Brontë.

Can you talk about the evolution of Emily's relationship with William? What do you think shifts in order for her to go from mocking a man, who at first impression comes across as uppity and a little bit pretentious, to then falling head over heels in love with him?

Frances said something interesting to [Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays William]. She was saying, "Nothing bad has ever happened to William Weightman." He's kind of sailed through life. He hasn't really had to fight for anything. He hasn't really been confronted with an obstacle to force him to make a choice.

He arrives there and is confronted with Emily, who is so instinctive and is so chaotic in her own way. She doesn't necessarily think before she speaks. I think that's a real slap in the face for him. And he's a slap in the face for her. He shakes up her preconceptions of that kind of man, but he's kind of an ethereal character.

He would be the Edgar in Wuthering Heights. He's the blond-hair, blue-eyed kind of angel—the untouchable. And she is—not to be reductive—the wild thing. She doesn't really understand her place. She doesn't really belong to any societal structure, per se. She's just trying on all of these dresses to try and fit all these roles, but nothing seems to quite work.

So when she meets him, she realizes he's also playing a part, and all it takes is a little bit of scratching to realize that he's not all that she thought he was and vice versa. They find each other in the middle and find each other at their core, which is what makes it all more heartbreaking when things go awry.

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Oliver Jackson-Cohen as William Weightman and Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë.

This is also Frances O'Connor's directorial debut. O'Connor herself is a veteran of beloved period dramas based on famous literary works. What was it like working with her?

It's great. This story meant a lot to her. She was very involved in everything and is very sensitive to a lot of things. It was really great to have her live the film with you. We had all this rehearsal time before, which I thought was really rare. We don't usually get that on films, so to have those two weeks in the run-up to the actual shooting of the film was kind of a luxury. And it meant that we all had time to bond as well. The castmates all lived in a house together, so they were kind of holding me together in the end 'cause I needed them for support. They were just so brilliant. Everyone was banding together.

You also worked with Greta Gerwig on the upcoming Barbie movie. What does it mean to you to be on a set that's helmed and led by women? Do you gravitate to working with women directors?

It's not something I actively think about; it just so happens to be the case. In Greta's case, she's just an extraordinary human being, and she just knows what she wants, and there's this beautiful, electric energy about her. You just wanna be around her, and you wanna make her proud. As a human, she's great.

Of course, it's great to work with women, but it's not, like, a conscious thing of like, "I'm gonna actively seek out to only work with women." I don't think that's the right way to go about things, but I feel very lucky that I've worked with those women. It just so happens that they are women, and they're very, very good at what they do.

The Greta experience was quite singular, because it was Barbie [laughs]. I didn't do anything after Emily, 'cause it was quite intense for me. So I took a break, and Barbie was the next thing I did, and it was just such a burst of life and energy for me, and it kind of gave me hope again.

Barbie and Emily Brontë are probably two completely different experiences.

Wildly different worlds. [Laughs.] Like, day and night almost. But, you know, with Emily, it was important to find the fun as well. When I re-watched the film the other day, when I had to dub it, I really reveled in the moments of joy. You were talking about the siblings earlier, but when they are playing games, and when Emily's at the train station with Branwell, those lighter moments are more weighted when you know what happens. The darkness is omnipresent, but to me, it brings up the lighter moments more.

In the end, I find it's quite a hopeful film. I feel sad, I feel heartbroken at the end, but I also feel revved up and know that it's important to keep fighting and creating and doing all of those things. They're not self-indulgent, and they're not gratuitous, and you sort of have to make choices in life that are gonna take you to your next wherever you're supposed to be.

What's your process when you decide on your next project?

I don't have any prerequisites. Now, I just try to be as precise as possible. I feel lucky when I read a script that makes me feel something. It's really hard to find a script that ticks all the boxes, so to speak. I don't even know what those boxes are, but it's more of a feeling. When I read a script, I know in my heart or in my bones that it's the kind of thing I would love to do and that I would fight for.

There are films that you get offered, and it's an amazing thing, and you feel really lucky. But then, there are films where you have to really fight, and you have to audition for them, and you have to prove that you can do that—that you can play that part and show that range. I'm seeking those out more, 'cause I feel like I have a lot more to prove. It's exciting. It feels like a lovely exercise, and I can't wait to read more scripts and find out what's next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emma Mackey Isn't Concerned About Getting the Facts Right in 'Emily' (6)

Chelsey Sanchez

Digital Associate Editor

As an associate editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com, Chelsey keeps a finger on the pulse on all things celeb news. She also writes on social movements, connecting with activists leading the fight on workers' rights, climate justice, and more. Offline, she’s probably spending too much time on TikTok, rewatching Emma (the 2020 version, of course), or buying yet another corset.

Emma Mackey Isn't Concerned About Getting the Facts Right in 'Emily' (2024)

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