Next Big Thing: ‘How to Have Sex’ Star Mia McKenna-Bruce on How James Cameron Gave Her an Unlikely Early Start

It was a phone call from James Cameron that first gave a young Mia McKenna-Bruce the inspiration to act. Well, almost.

Having watched Titanic at home in London around the age of six, she says she was so “traumatized” by the film that she couldn’t sleep. After several weeks, her mum had the bright idea to get the film’s director to ring her up so he could explain over the phone to the terrified child that what she’d seen was just a movie, with people wearing costumes on a set. “And I was like, wait, this is a real job that you can do, and you can make people cry,” she recalls. As a hugely energetic and overdramatic youngster, McKenna-Bruce knew what she wanted to do with her life.

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It would be several years later — after she’d landed her first professional job on the West End production of Billy Elliot the Musical at age 8, from which she got an agent and started booking TV work — that McKenna-Bruce, who admits to “having gone into a lot of jobs” buoyed by the confidence that she knew the man who made Titanic, found out the truth. It hadn’t been Cameron on the other end of the line. It was her grandfather.

While fake, the call from the director did help spark a trajectory that — almost two decades on — sees McKenna-Bruce, now 25, make her first trip to the Cannes Film Festival with the buzzy Un Certain Regard title How to Have Sex from debut director Molly Manning Walker. In a hugely impressive lead turn, she plays Tara, part of a trio of teenage girls on a wild holiday in Greece where the goal is to go clubbing, get wasted, and hook up. While it should be the best summer of their lives, for Tara it takes a dark turn, raising uncomfortable questions about peer pressure, the expectations placed on teens and, more importantly, sexual consent.

“You start on such a high, it’s so funny and you’re like, I want to be there with them,” says McKenna-Bruce, recalling how she felt on recently watching the completed film for the first time. “Then you get to the end and you’re like, oh my God, when did that plummet? It hasn’t got a mad pinnacle, it sort of ebbs and flows and you don’t realize you’re on a downward slope.”

Making How to Have Sex — which they shot in the notorious party resort of Malia on Crete (although they went out of season, so it was mostly the cast and crew propping up the bars) — was a “really big learning curve” for McKenna-Bruce. “It was the first time I’ve got to play a character where I’ve got to run with it,” she says. “So it’s given me a new sense of confidence.”

And with the film having been picked up by MUBI, with theatrical plans in both the U.S. and U.K., not to mention its Cannes premiere, How to Have Sex marks a significant cinematic addition to McKenna-Bruce’s resume, which has been making some impressive steps on the small screen.

Having amassed roles across British soaps and children’s TV series, she appeared in one episode of The Witcher and had a main role in Peacock’s short-lived fantasy horror Vampire Academy. Last year she starred alongside Dakota Johnson, Henry Golding, and Richard E. Grant in Netflix’s modern adaptation of Jane Austin’s Persuasion. Disappointingly, although she played Grant’s daughter in the feature, she admits not to having seen the actor’s breakout film Withnail & I, which could have provided some useful tips on how to successfully act drunk she could transfer to How to Have Sex (not that she needed it).

Despite the growing list of credits, McKenna-Bruce says Persuasion was the first job that gave her career a more concrete foundation. “Up until that it had been very up and down with work, not knowing when my next job would come, but it’s been a little bit more constant since then,” she says. “And I’m also a lot more sure of the stuff that I want to be doing.”

McKenna-Bruce’s next role is her biggest yet. In September she’s due to give birth to her first child with her fiance (the Brit actor Tom Leach). “So for my first Cannes experience, I’m going to have a big bump,” she says, acknowledging that the rose consumption will be significantly down on what she’d normally expect. And she notes one potential work upside from the stresses of motherhood, especially for someone so youthful looking. “I might finally start getting parts that are older than 16!”

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