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Emma Mackey told Teen Vogue back in 2019 that her Sex Education character Maeve's season 1 abortion shouldn't define her whole story — it's one part, and it's important, but “that’s not what we’re gonna focus on for the rest of the series.”
Now, as the series releases its third season, Emma has kept that promise, transforming Maeve Wiley into more than the sum of her parts, her childhood traumas, her teenage decisions. She's as well-reasoned and compassionate as ever, doling out advice that sometimes people don't want to hear, even when they need to. At the end of season 3, Maeve has reached a new plane of existence, facing some of her demons while also being kind to herself.
“She is allowing herself to be helped and to be looked after by people, which isn't necessarily something that she wanted before,” Emma tells Teen Vogue now. “She is learning how to make decisions for herself.”
It's part of the reason Emma loves Sex Education so much — that innate helpfulness, the lessons masked in witty banter, sex jokes, and wildly choreographed school productions. She's always searching for meaningful projects, roles that help people understand the world, and themselves. Below, Emma talked to Teen Vogue about her upcoming projects (including Emily with Joe Alwyn), Maeve's season 3 storyline, and how she imagines Sex Education's legacy.
Teen Vogue: How have you been feeling going into season three? What was it like filming in the midst of everything going on in the world?
Emma Mackey: You know what? It was mostly a joy, because I think all of us were a bit uncertain and unsure like everyone, about whether or not we've been able to work and film and shoot again. I think there was just a heightened sense of excitement, and I think we were really excited to see each other again, so that was the main thing that I remember, which is good. None of the bad stuff took over.
TV: What was the most interesting thing about Maeve's character this season to play? What part of her story were you most drawn into?
EM: There are quite a few elements, but one of the most interesting things is the dynamic with the foster mom and what that means for Maeve. And I think… it must bring up a lot of old trauma, and the idea of cycles and giving to the next generation a better life, and all of these quite huge topics that I think are very important. That aspect of Maeve's life is really key to understanding why she is the way she is. We see everyone's home life a bit more this season, which I always really liked. Because yes, it is about school, and yes, it is about sex and the shame around sex and shame around being at that age. But also it's about, how does your other life, your home life, inform who you are at school?
TV: There are many new characters in this season, and I was really intrigued by Hope [Jemima Kirke] and how she sees Maeve's desire to succeed and is sort of manipulating her to be not as unique, or to lose her nose ring. What do you think Hope is bringing out in Maeve?
EM: It's interesting that you picked up on that. I had sort of forgotten that. But you're right, there is a complete element of manipulation. Hope totally is playing on that thing, because it's sort of Maeve's weak spot, isn't it? She's obviously so determined and so ambitious and wants things for herself, but I think isn't able to fully express them. Ms. Sands has helped her and has elevated Maeve and given her confidence, [but now] Maeve is in a vulnerable-ish place now, where she understands that she needs to work even harder to get what she wants. And so, like you say, Hope picks up on that and tries to single her out and say, "If you want to be someone… I used to be like you." She uses all these formulations that are quite, like you say, manipulative and reverse psychology sometimes, but not in a healthy way.
TV: Speaking of getting fuller picture of these characters, is there another character's storyline you particularly like from this season?
EM: I really am excited to see the sort of Cal/Jackson dynamic, and Viv. That little trio of people is really interesting, because they're so vastly different and all bring out different things in each other that are really good to see on screen. And also, the parents and the adults and seeing how is Mr. Groff going to deal with losing everything? Who does he have to fall back on? And Jean and her pregnancy and all of that. I don't get to see any of that stuff. So I'm excited to see the show, because I have no clue what's going on most of the time.
TV: You have a couple exciting projects coming up with Emily and Death on the Nile. I'm curious if Sex Education has shaped the kinds of roles you want to take on, or the career you see for yourself.
EM: Yeah. Inevitably. There's a part of me that doesn't really want to be put in the Maeve type character box, because I think she exists, and she's great. I want to preserve that, and I don't really want to play things that are similar to her, because I can do other things, and I want to do other things. Not that it's really been a strategic plot on my part, but naturally, I have gone towards literature and history as genres. But I feel like it balances out the hyper-stylized, hyper-modern Netflix vibe. And then it's nice to then go and do Emily, which is a super independent film, and it was shot in the moors. It was really gritty and naturalistic. It's amazing to be able to dip into different genres and different repertoires. That's the beauty of the job.
You get to a point where you can decide… what avenue do I want to take? What's going to make me happy, and what do I want to learn from this? And is it going to teach me anything? Is it going to be helpful to anyone else? Is it meaningful enough? I'm quite fussy, I think, which is I think a good thing, but I'm also very lucky to be in position to be fussy.
TV: Do you think the pandemic time has helped clarify your goals or help answer those kind of existential questions about what you want to do with your life?
EM: Yeah, I guess so, but I've always been like that. It's not a new thing. I mean, of course I doubted myself, but I sort of know what I want from life. I know I don't want to be like, a vapid shallow person, so that's one thing. I'm really keen on transmitting something to someone and learning from what I do. Otherwise, what is the point? Do you know what I mean? Otherwise, you'd might as well just be a cardboard box. It's good if you can nourish a character, but you can get something out of it as well. So then you can go on and become a better actor or a better person, or decide to go into directing or writing. There are so many departments and intersections in this industry that you can weave together.
TV: Watching this season, it just feels like the show is more itself than ever. What do you want the legacy of the show to be like? I hope there'll be more seasons, but what are you thinking about the way you want this show to be remembered?
EM: The idea of legacy, I think is quite a big thing. I also quite like [season] three. That's a personal thing, but I think that also we need to learn how to just let shows exist in their moment and in their time, and actually the more we drag them out, maybe the more they lose their magic. But this show has a particularity, I think, of being an educational tool. It's controversial. It brings out debates. People will talk about it, because it's bold, like you say, it just is Sex Education now. And we don't have to prove ourselves anymore, or justify why we're doing it.
I've said this since it started, but I am very practical. And I do think again, in that line of like meaningful jobs or whatever, I do think this job is meaningful. It means a lot to people, and it helps them. It's reassuring. What more could you want really, from a job?
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Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Sex Education Star Emma Mackey on Why Maeve Wiley's Abortion Shouldn't Define Her Character
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue