Emma Mackey On Playing Emily Brontë, What To Expect From 'Barbie', And Teary Fan Encounters (2024)

BAFTA nominated star and 'Sex Education' actor Emma Mackey talks to Katie O’Malley about her debut lead role in 'Emily', teary fan encounters, and her Sunday brunch specialty.

By Katie O'Malley

Emma Mackey On Playing Emily Brontë, What To Expect From 'Barbie', And Teary Fan Encounters (1)

While we were prodding our sourdough starters, making our 24th batch of banana bread and swapping the knitting needles for yet another Netflix binge-watching marathon, Emma Mackey spent six weeks of the second UK lockdown hunkered down in a house with her fellow actors in the windy Yorkshire Moors. ‘There was no break or hiding,’ she tells ELLE UK. ‘It was so intense and charged. We’d spend our days chatting, playing card games, going for walks, and on Sundays I’d make brunch for everyone.’ Her speciality? An amalgamation of roasted garlic, parsley, lemon rind, mushrooms, cumin, tomatoes, and sugar.

It's a fitting and wholesome image for a cast hired to explore the imagined life of one of the world’s most famous 18th century authors, Emily Brontë. Directed by actor Frances O’Connor, the film stars Mackey in the lead role of Emily, a reclusive rebel who’s in a constant battle with the status quo and forges on to write the classic novel, Wuthering Heights. Emily's plot sees the twentysomething-year-old navigate her relationship with her sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething), a romance with William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and the downward spiral of her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). ‘It was a lot to take on,’ Mackey tells us about the pressure to make her debut lead in the film, crediting her castmates for providing her ‘a sense of normality and comfort’.

For Mackey, playing Emily was a ‘no brainer’. ‘It felt like the right sort of project and challenge for me to take on, something I could get my teeth stuck into,’ she continues. But the road to filming wasn’t plain sailing. The actor was originally cast in the role in 2020, but with the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, production didn’t start for another year-and-a-half. The time offered the perfect opportunity for the ever-studious Mackey to get stuck into researching her complex character, from watching documentaries and film adaptations about Wuthering Heights and the Brontë sisters, to listening to music. ‘I’m quite clinical in the way I prep,’ the actor admits. ‘I love it. I’m quite academic, so I need to read real facts.’

Contrary to the likes of biopics such as Spencer, Elvis and tick, tick… Boom! which have graced our screens of late, the creators of Emily are keen to point out that their film isn’t a biopic in the traditional sense, rather speculative and an interpretation of the author’s life. For this reason, once Mackey had finished her research on Brontë, she decided to let go of the reigns entirely in favour of trusting O’Connor and following her vision of how her character's story would evolve. ‘Once you do that, the character takes on a whole different meaning,’ she explains. Two weeks before shooting the cast moved to Yorkshire – the home county of the Brontës – and began rehearsals, taking part in movement classes, workshops and belting out hymns.

We’d spend our days chatting, playing card games and going for walks

One thing that can’t go unnoticed in the film is the characters' shared Yorkshire accents. ‘There was no way we were making the film without Emily having a Yorkshire accent, but it became a case of seeing how far we could take it,’ Mackey says. ‘I wanted to set the tone and make sure that we all had some flavour of it,’ she adds, noting that she took inspiration for her character’s hybrid dialect form the Brontë matriarch’s Cornwallian and father’s Irish accents. ‘A soft Yorkshire lilt was the final choice,’ she says.

The location for the film became somewhat of a full-circle moment for Mackey, who moved to the UK when she was 18, to study English language and Literature at the University of Leeds. The 26-year-old originally hails from Le Mans, France - the daughter of a French father and English mother. In 2019 she made her screen debut playing Maeve Wiley on the Netflix comedy-drama series Sex Education, which earned her a British Academy Television Award nomination, and has since appeared in the drama Eiffel (2021) and the mystery film Death on the Nile (2022).

Emma Mackey On Playing Emily Brontë, What To Expect From 'Barbie', And Teary Fan Encounters (4)

While the similarities between Mackey and Emily are few and far between, the actor says she could empathise with the author’s sense of feeling overwhelmed and often wanting to retire to be on her own with her own thoughts. ‘They’re things that everyone feels to varying extremes. She is the sum total of someone who has a really dense imaginary life, but who also feels incredibly shy and doesn't know how to operate around people,’ she says. Ahead of the film’s release, much has been said of the subtle unpicking of mental health issues Brontë may have suffered, which help make the character relatable to a 21st century audience now armed with the language to talk about the way we feel. ‘I'm really glad that people are noticing that because issues like social anxiety, social awkwardness or depression aren’t something we necessarily focussed on showing,’ she says of the mental health topics raised during filming.

While the film is imbued with dark humour and a sense adventure, its plot is largely driven by Brontë's Wuthering Heights-esque romance with clergyman Weightman, from the pair’s stolen glances with each other, delicate hand touches and steamy sex scenes in a rundown cottage in the middle of the Moors. ‘Emily is a sexy movie,’ Guardian film critic Radheyan Simonpillai recently described. ‘I love that. I like that it’s being called a sexy film,’ Mackey tells us. ‘From the religion to the male/female roles [in the film], it all makes for a charged forbidden love that is very sexy. It’s one of the reasons I liked the script in the first place - it didn't feel pretentious, self-indulgent or like a pristine thing. It was a bit rough around the edges and imperfect… I hope that it will seduce people in that way.’

Emma Mackey On Playing Emily Brontë, What To Expect From 'Barbie', And Teary Fan Encounters (5)

Having worked with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien for Sex Education, Mackey says it was ‘helpful’ to bring the ‘invaluable lessons and tricks of the trade from the Sex Education "school of sex"', onto the set of Emily. ‘It gives you such a sense of control and reassurance,’ she notes. In one passionate scene from Emily, Weightman struggles to undo Brontë's corset – a moment that's been deemed feminist foreplay. ‘It’s funny, because it takes so long, but it’s a really lovely moment,’ Mackey recalls of the scene. ‘[Oli and I] decided to just kind of craft [the sex scenes] with Francis, and go through the beats together,’ Mackey adds of the process behind filming, noting the actors had trust for each other to explore those intimate moments in a choreographed way.

There was no way we were making the film without Emily having a Yorkshire accent

Speaking of the improvements of the way sex is represented on screen in TV and film in a post #MeToo era, while Mackey is cautious to speak only from her experience, she says there’s ‘definitely more of a consciousness now to the delicacy of it, of how expositing it can be and how it can affect you in the long-term’. ‘It’s about finding the balance between feeling safe and also knowing that you can separate yourself from your character,’ she adds.

Emma Mackey On Playing Emily Brontë, What To Expect From 'Barbie', And Teary Fan Encounters (6)

Following the success of Sex Education and with her latest film’s release just days away (the film landed a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating following its screening at Toronto Film Festival 2022), Mackey says she’s reacting to her increased fanbase like ‘everyone else who’s in her situation’. ‘It’s strange and weird, but also lovely people care about the stuff you’re in,’ she says, recalling a recent encounter with a fan which left her in tears. ‘I was having coffee with my boyfriend in Paris and a lovely girl spotted me, so I gave her a smile. Ten minutes later she came over and gave me a box of choux pastries she’d bought written with ‘I love you’ and a heart in icing on top. She cried, I cried. It was the sweetest thing,’ she says.

Emma Mackey On Playing Emily Brontë, What To Expect From 'Barbie', And Teary Fan Encounters (7)

While she's grateful for the ‘gift’ of Sex Education (production for the fourth season is ongoing), Mackey says she’s keen to explore other projects. ‘I'm a 26-year old-woman and have other things to show. I’m not just one thing. I have so much I want to do and make. I'm just excited to be able to hopefully have the chance to do that.’

It’s strange and weird, but also lovely people care about the stuff you’re in

One such project includes Mackey’s recent appearance in the upcoming Barbie film, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Little is known of Mackey’s role at this stage, but it’s rumoured she might be playing Barbie’s (Robbie) younger sister (a fitting role given the actors’ uncanny resemblance to each other). ‘Barbie is crazy to me,’ she says of her most recent ‘pinch me’ moment. ‘Working on Barbie has been pretty amazing. Greta Gerwig has been my hero for a while and I’m glad to have worked with her and seen her in action. She’s formidable.’

On working with her doppelgänger Robbie (a comparison in looks she recently said she finds ‘funny’, but would like to ‘move past’), Will Ferrell and Gosling she says: ‘It was so nice seeing people who were excellent at their job, kind, humble and not hierarchical in any way. It was so reassuring.’ As for what we can expect from the film, which is shrouded in as much secrecy as a James Bond film, Mackey hints: ‘It's going be really unexpected. I'm intrigued to see how it's going to look because it's one thing filming it, but it's another thing seeing it all put together. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised! It's a really fun thing.’ And can we expect a lot of pink? ‘Well, yes. Of course!’

Emily will be released in UK and Irish cinemas on October 14, 2022.

Emma Mackey On Playing Emily Brontë, What To Expect From 'Barbie', And Teary Fan Encounters (8)

Katie O'Malley

Site Director

Katie O'Malley is the Site Director on ELLE UK. On a daily basis you’ll find Katie managing all digital workflow, editing site, video and newsletter content, liaising with commercial and sales teams on new partnerships and deals (eg Nike, Tiffany & Co., Cartier etc), implementing new digital strategies and compiling in-depth data traffic, SEO and ecomm reports. In addition to appearing on the radio and on TV, as well as interviewing everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Rishi Sunak PM, Katie enjoys writing about lifestyle, culture, wellness, fitness, fashion, and more.

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