Emma Mackey’s Next Move (2024)

Emma Mackey’s Next Move (1)

She's already got a BAFTA and a role in the biggest movie of the summer, but the actor is just getting started.

By Laura Craik

Few people would look goddess-like in a dressing gown and slippers, but Emma Mackey pulls it off – which maybe explains why she’s the face of Burberry’s new Goddess scent and we’re not. Settling down to talk in a dressing room halfway through our shoot in a north-London studio, she insists I take the comfier chair. ‘Honestly, I’m good on the stool,’ she says, with the geniality of someone famously easy to work with.

And work she has, building up an impressive CV that belies her 27 years. Mackey’s new role as an ambassador for Burberry Beauty is one of a slew that show just how rapidly the British/French actor’s star has ascended since being cast as loveable badass Maeve Wiley in Netflix’s hit drama Sex Education, a mere four years ago. Since then, she’s starred alongside Kenneth Branagh in Death on the Nile (2022), portrayed the writer Emily Brontë in the film Emily (2022) and appeared in a low-key, low-budget flick you might not have heard of... Barbie. In February, she won Bafta’s prestigious Rising Star award: the fact that previous recipients include James McAvoy, Tom Holland and Kristen Stewart proves that, for Mackey, this is just the beginning.

As beginnings go, Barbie – surely one of the most-hyped films of all time, with the added distinction of having lived up to it – is something of a dream(house). ‘Greta Gerwig has always been someone I really wanted to work with,’ Mackey confirms. ‘I just get how her brain works. She’s incredible, a joy.’ After auditioning for the part via a self tape, she says she pestered her agent for news every day. ‘I really wanted to be a part of it, even in the smallest way. All of us felt like that.’

She loved every moment of the experience, not least the autonomy each cast member was given. ‘I learnt so much. It was life-changing. Greta was very clear from the beginning that she wanted us all to feel really beautiful, whatever that meant to us. So in terms of the outfits and the make-up, we were all part of the conversation, which is quite rare, or has been rare in my limited experience. All of us felt heard.’ She’s equally full of praise for Margot Robbie, who produced the film as well as starring in it. ‘Margot handled both roles with grace and humour – plus, she’s really down-to-earth, which is a great quality to have.’ And, yes, Ryan Gosling is every bit as charismatic in real life as he appears on screen. ‘He’s so funny and had so many ideas, adding his own beats to the script. He completely owned Ken.’

Emma Mackey’s Next Move (2)

The whole point of the Barbie film is that it gives a plastic Mattel doll a nuanced, complex and fully rounded character, and I wonder what Mackey’s views are on the paucity of complex female roles in cinema. Does she think scripts are getting better? ‘I don’t think I’ve been around [long enough to comment],’ she says. ‘There have always been fantastic roles, and I feel like I’ve been very lucky.’

Greta Gerwig has always been someone I really wanted to work with. I just get how her brain works.

Certainly, Greta Gerwig is one of the women moving the dial, and I suggest that she, along with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sharon Horgan, has helped shift the balance of power from men towards women, thanks to their scripts being written from a female perspective. ‘I’m mindful that it should be a balance,’ says Mackey. ‘It should be all parties feeding into one another and nurturing a story. Great things come out of true collaboration.’ She has her own aspirations to write and direct at some point in the future. ‘I’m sort of dabbling in the production side, and I’m surrounded by friends who are great writers. My partner is a writer and director, so it definitely feeds into my everyday life.’

Mackey is keen to be as elliptical about her personal life as politesse will permit, though she says she has two younger brothers, aged 25 and 22, the youngest of whom has just finished university, and ‘might at some point’ follow her into the business. Not that acting is in their blood: brought up in Sablé-sur-Sarthe, France, by a British mother and French father, Mackey is certainly no nepo-baby.

Though she moved from France to the UK in 2013 to study English at Leeds University, and has lived in London when her work required it, Mackey mentions that she is now based mainly in France. ‘I love living there – it calms me down,’ she says, smiling, and adds that the French culture of cooking together and eating around the table is very much a part of her DNA. ‘I’ve always taken care [with my food], and I love cooking. It’s a great way to be creative.’ Does she have a favourite type of cuisine? ‘You can’t go wrong with pasta, can you? [And] when I’m living in France, I get to go to the local market, which is great.’

Emma Mackey’s Next Move (3)

Being recognised on the street, she says, is something that used to bother her a lot, but which she has less of an issue with now. ‘It used to make me go into my shell. But you just have to deal with it, and it’s fine.’

Shy as she might be, Mackey is also strong – in will as well as spirit. She’s the ideal face of Burberry Goddess, a scent that, the brand says, celebrates strength, power and inner confidence. ‘I’m fascinated with the way [fragrance] can immediately transport you to a specific time and place in your life,’ she says. Of course, she’s a big Burberry fan. ‘When I think of Burberry, I think of British heritage, comfort, elegance and practicality,’ she smiles. ‘I know “practicality” isn’t a sexy word, but that’s how I see it.’

Mackey has a practical attitude to her career, too. ‘Rejection is weekly in that life – it’s part of the game. You grin and bear it. Sometimes, you get really attached to certain things [roles] but I’m pretty good at moving on.’ Her wish list of actors to work with includes Emma Stone, Mads Mikkelsen and Viggo Mortensen, though ‘the list is infinite’. And while some of her upcoming projects can’t yet be divulged, she will say she’s shooting a film in America with James L Brooks later this year. She has also been cast in an upcoming adaptation of Deborah Levy’s 2017 novel Hot Milk, alongside Fiona Shaw and Vicky Krieps.

Rejection is weekly in [acting] – it’s part of the game. You grin and bear it.

For now, it’s time for her to have her hair unfastened from its bobby pins and primped before getting back in front of the camera. Does she ever have bad-hair days? ‘Every day. Constantly. Don’t we all?’ She has bad-skin days, too she says. ‘I had acne for 10 years, and I’m only just coming out of it. It was a long process. I could talk about it for hours.’

Unusually for an actor – unusually for anyone, really – she hasn’t spent the interview fiddling with her phone. She says she has ‘zero’ social media. ‘I find it crazy how much time people spend on their phones. I’m not saying that in an arrogant way – I do understand, because it’s completely addictive. But it really frightens me. There are some positives to it, of course. I miss out on great restaurant recommendations or secret concerts or whatever. But people don’t talk to me about what they do anymore. They forget to tell me when they get a good piece of news, because they just put all their life on their Stories and expect everyone to watch.’

Avoiding social media must mean her mental health is great, right? ‘No – that’s also a myth. But it does help, not constantly scrolling. It just wastes so much time,’ she says, shaking her head. And if there’s one thing Emma Mackey doesn’t have to waste, it’s time. Not when Hollywood is waiting...

This shoot and interview were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strikes began. Styling by Aurelia Donaldson.

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