Mia McKenna-Bruce is amazing. Or at least, this is what she tells me once I ask her my first proper question, the tried and tested, “How are you doing?” “I’m amazing,” she says. “Really good. Split between slight deliriousness from lack of sleep and the excitement of everything that’s going on. I feel like I’m in another world.”
The world she actually inhabits is one in which she’s 26 years old, has a career almost the same age as she is, gave birth to her first child only a handful of weeks ago, and is already back to work doing press for her new film How to Have Sex, the award-winning debut by UK director Molly Manning Walker. I’ll happily second the motion – Mia McKenna-Bruce is, indeed, amazing.
Moments before we meet, I see Jude Law having his lunch in the restaurant next door. I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but I consider this a good omen. When I tell her about it, she’s as excited as I am. “I love Jude Law!” she says. “I love Jude Law!” I say. A great start. We’ve so much in common.
The night before our interview she attended the UK premiere of How to Have Sex (HTHS from hereon in). It was a bit of a late one, she tells me. “I think it was 2am we got back. I’ve still got my make-up on. I woke up and had, like, red eyeshadow, and I thought, that’s a bit extreme… let me try and wipe some of that off. The rest can stay put.” (I know relatability is de rigueur with famous people at the moment, but I think she genuinely might be one of us.)
She’s keen not to take any unearned credit for last night’s glam, silver-embellished Miu Miu gown, artful cascade of brown-blonde hair, or striking raspberry eyeshadow. “I had Holly White – she’s my stylist – and Ben Talbot doing my hair and Alex Babsky doing my make-up… I gave birth six weeks ago, so I had no idea how I was going to feel and they just made me feel like my best self. I’m so grateful.”
This becomes a bit of a trend in our conversation, her making sure everyone else gets their due. She names cast and crew, singles people out for praise, talks about filmmaking as a fully collaborative process instead of just a convenient backdrop for her own singular talent. She’s especially effusive in her praise for HTHS director Manning Walker. “I don’t even think there’s a word to describe Molly. She’s exceptional in every way. She gave me this confidence throughout the whole of filming. She had complete faith in me, and that gave me faith in myself. I’m so grateful because it made me grow and learn so much. When I walked away I thought, ‘I just want to work with Molly forever.’”
Mia is wonderfully kind and easy to talk to; our hour together flies by. She seems an Actually Normal person in an entirely abnormal industry. She’ll take off a Miu Miu gown and put on a tracksuit; she gets excited when our coffees arrive with little biscottis on the saucers. Taking joy in the small things.
She’s remarkably fresh-faced despite a night out and a 3am baby feed, showing no outward signs of this alleged deliriousness. If anything, she’s glowing, and not only because I’ve inadvertently positioned her directly in front of a stylishly concealed fireplace (“Is it really hot in here or is it just me?” she asks at around minute 58, and the roaring flames at her back are finally registered.) She beams while she talks about her journey from child performer to career actress, her family, her fiancé, her new-born son, the making of the film and her hopes for the future.
But before we look in that direction, let’s have a quick recap. Mia has been performing since she was yay high (she’s about five foot tall now, so little lower… little lower). Aged eight, she was cast in the West End production of Billy Elliot after an agent saw her in a local amateur production of Seussical (a musical comedy based on the stories of Dr Seuss, obviously.) What followed were the usual stops on the UK television circuit: Holby City (RIP), a few episodes of Doctors (RIP), a turn in The Bill (RIP, but not for long), a recurring role in Eastenders. There were some film roles, too.
For anyone born in the late 1990s or early 2000s, however, she’ll be most recognisable for playing Tee Taylor in several Tracy Beaker spin-offs and revivals. Despite being fairly booked and busy as a kid, she tells me that these first few years felt more like a hobby. “We had no idea about the industry, so between us all we thought, ‘Here’s a job, I’ll do it, and then that will be it.’ I had no idea that I would be doing it as an adult.”
She nearly didn’t. Aged 18 she wanted a break from the industry – potentially permanently – and moved to Australia. There she worked in a call centre as frontline tech support. Quite the pivot. Any reason? “I have no idea. And I’m very sorry to any of those people that I spoke to on the phone. Their computers are still broken.” After trying and failing to help customers with their electronics Down Under, she came home and turned acting from off to on again.
She’s since starred opposite Henry Cavill in The Witcher, landed a central role in the 2022 American fantasy horror series Vampire Academy, and played Mary Musgrove in Netflix’s big budget adaptation of Persuasion alongside Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis. And now HTHS, currently generating a hell of a lot of buzz. (Sidenote: before doing your own Google search, do remember to pop the word ‘movie’ at the end or phrases like ‘proper lubrication’ and ‘maximum pleasure’ will appear on your laptop for all to see in a very crowded café.)
The film follows three teenage mates on their blowout, post-GCSE holiday to Malia. Mia plays Tara, the most outgoing and least sexually experienced of the trio who has hopes of losing her virginity before check-in opens for their return flight into Luton. Her mates Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) are on similar quests to have as much fun as possible before their exam results come in and they’re forced to make adulty decisions about the future.
Mia tells me there’s more than a little of herself in her character. “Tara is this young, excitable girl that can talk her way out of everything, the life and soul of the party. Everything to her is the best thing in the world. As soon as I read it I was like, ‘Yes, that’s me.’” She is stunning in the film, alert and natural, with Tara’s heedlessness and teenage bravado expertly laid deftly over palpable naivety.
Unsurprisingly her performance has already received an avalanche of praise. Vogue described it as “gobsmackingly good”, Variety a “star-making performance”, Deadline as “extraordinary”, Paste “performance of the year level good”. Slash Film calls her “the British actress to watch right now.” Square Mile, for the record, is nodding in ardent agreement.
The film has all the hallmarks of a teenage budget holiday: glo fishbowls, pushy hotel reps, blowjobs, eating chips for all main meals, sleeping where you drop, and developing crushes on the group one balcony over. Some scenes are pure nostalgic brilliance: the girl’s strategic course around a foreign supermarket to grab all the essentials (crisps and phallic bottle openers), overdoing the shots on night one, terrible karaoke in a half empty bar on the strip.
It’s a frank and unflinching look at growing up, drinking, rape culture packaged as boys being boys, teenagers’ early forays into sex, the subtle (and unsubtle) flexing of male power, the resilience of young people. Across several days of partying the tone darkens, an almost imperceptible shift from youthful excess and experimentation on a rite-of-passage holiday to something altogether more sinister and adult. The film, much like any big night out, is brilliant fun right up until the moment it’s not. I won’t say any more, but there’s a before and an afterwards.
I ask Mia if this ‘afterwards’ was hard to film. “Quite a lot of people have asked me if I found it difficult carrying the weight of those scenes, and truthfully I didn’t, because I never felt like it was on me. I never felt it was on my shoulders. I never felt alone in it. We were all telling this story together.”
As is becoming industry standard now, there was an intimacy co-ordinator both on set in Malia and during the London rehearsals. “She was there every step of the way, so these scenes were choreographed to a tee. We had an extra layer of protection that meant we could throw ourselves into it as much as possible, because we knew we were in a safe space. It’s crazy to me that it’s a relatively new thing in the industry – it made such a difference.”
Unlike many other films that cover similar ground, HTHS manages nimbly to avoid cloying sentimentality or coming across like a nagging PSA about drinking, drugs or the dangers of daring to have fun as a girl in the world. “Something we discussed was that we’re not trying to say that these holidays are awful. They’re some of the best times a lot of people have had.”
Indeed, there are scenes that will have even the bougiest of travellers reminiscing about their first teen trip – swapping in and out of one another’s outfits before a big night, unspeakably cheap vodka as standard, the poolside communion of a group hangover. It’s hard being a young person, sure, but it’s also bloody exciting.
Mia puts it well: “At 16, you’re on the cusp of adulthood. I remember being so fearless but so fearful at the same time. You’re in a position of both ‘I can take on the world and I can do anything’ and ‘I actually don’t have a clue what’s going on.’”
In a recent Guardian feature Manning Walker discussed her hopes for the film to be shown to teenagers, a starting point in a much-needed conversation about consent, pleasure and sex. Mia is in firm agreement. “It’s so important to give young people space to feel like they can have these conversations. We were talking about this yesterday… about how with sex education, there was never a conversation about consent. It’s something you have to navigate yourself, everyone does. If we can get those conversations going that’s only going to be a great thing.”
Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, it sounds like they had an absolute blast on set. The primary cast is small – you could count them on one hand if that hand had six fingers – and Mia describes them as a family. “We just had the best time, which I think was really important for keeping up the energy and the trust between cast and crew. There was no kind of hierarchy or anything like that, just this complete camaraderie where it genuinely felt like we were all in it together.
“I don’t know how Molly found us all, but we just gelled immediately. We would go to the beach and just stand and watch the sunset. You can’t do that with a lot of people and it goes to show how much we deeply knew one another – for some reason and somehow.”
Filming began in September 2022 and wrapped two months later. When they arrived, the tourist season was on its last legs – dwindling but not quite ready to leave the party. “There were still people there. We would be filming on the strip and there’d be drunk people trying to order cheesy chips from the set. They’d be there, trying to get chips, then look around and see the camera. I could just imagine them waking up the next morning like ‘Did anyone else see the whole film crew?’”
How to Have Sex won the Un Certain Regard award for best first feature at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with Manning Walker having to rush from the airport to collect it after jetting in from Italy. “We were following Molly’s journey on the group chat – and at one point she went quiet. So we were thinking she must be in the air, she must be nearly here. And she just made it, which was pretty phenomenal in itself.”
While they waited for her to arrive, John C Reilly – actor and Cannes jury president – sang Nat King Cole’s ‘Pretend’ to the waiting audience and nominees. “Maybe through the miracle of song Molly will appear,” he joked, and then appear she did, out of breath and legging it up the aisle towards the stage. She improvised an acceptance speech, culminating in a whole room standing-chant of “Ooh-ah Malia! Ooh-ah Malia!” Mia beams telling this story. It’s hard not to beam hearing it.
I ask her how it felt not only to attend the festival, but also to win an award. “Mental. I mean, we never expected the film to be received the way it has been. Cannes was the first time we got to see the finished cut, and it was the first time I sat there and went, ‘People are gonna see this, what are they gonna think?’” So far so good on that front.
How does one keep their ego in check in a situation like that? “I’ve probably seen a quote on Instagram or something but it’s like, ‘One day you were dreaming of the things you’re taking for granted now.’ That’s why we made an effort to dance down the red carpet at Cannes, because we were like ‘This is a world we all dreamed of, and you never know if you’ll get that again, so let’s go and have a good time.’
“We’d be at all these crazy parties until God knows what time in the morning, then me and Tom would come back, we’d have our Super Noodles in our little bed sit and be like, ‘OK, this is our normal.’ And it’s really refreshing having that.”
Tom is Tom Leach, fellow actor and Mia’s partner of almost seven years. The two got engaged in early 2022, fell pregnant later that same year, welcomed a son in August of this year and are planning to get married late next summer. Theirs seems to be a fun, loving and fun-loving relationship. My phone, never resting and ever-surveilling, delivers one of his TikTok videos onto my feed the night before I’m due to meet Mia.
In the clip, she’s gazing lovingly at their son as she rocks him in the kitchen. Tom’s voice from behind the camera: “I’m thinking about collecting old records.” Mia asks him what kind. “Just old records,” he says. “What, like to play on a record player?” She patiently queries and he cuts in with, “I’ve made my decision – and it’s vinyl.”
Every video is more or less the same format: Tom directing a terrible pun at Mia, who always seems not to have seen it coming, responding almost exclusively with a laugh and an affectionate eye roll. There’s something plainly adoring about this format. She’s his muse, his inspiration, his pun and only.
I ask if it helps to have a partner in the same industry. “Oh, yeah. Having to ride this wave of not knowing where we’re going or having to be in a different country each week, you kind of do need to be with someone that completely understands that, and someone who doesn’t get wrapped up in it. Having that unit of normality at all times is really important.”
How do they transition back into normal life after a job like this? “That’s something I’m still figuring out. It’s really hard because you become so, so close with these people. You’re putting yourself in a really vulnerable position, and you’re trusting everyone. And then all of a sudden everyone goes back to their own lives. And it’s a really bizarre concept to not know if and when you’re going to see these people that you have a deep, deep love for. You definitely get post-job blues. I tend to get a tattoo after each job. I don’t know if that’s particularly healthy but I do it.”
She tells me that she and Molly are currently planning to get matching 314 tattoos – a reference to Tara, Em and Skye’s room number. Coincidentally the number also featured in the name of the venue for their Cannes after-party, as well as combining Mia and Molly’s birthdates: 3 July and 14 September respectively. (With her talent I think this tradition could have her looking like Travis Barker in no time, and frankly more power to her if it does.)
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There’s a temptation when talking to a successful woman to treat her the same way the world has always treated successful men: in other words, to focus on her career, to celebrate only her talents and achievements in her chosen field. Mia is certainly a brilliant actor, a force of nature on screen, and a rising star. She’s also a new mother. I ask her how she’s finding parenthood.
“It’s absolutely amazing now. The first couple of weeks were insane. Because all of a sudden, I was just like, ‘Oh, this is a real job. This isn’t a part that I’m doing for a couple of months. This is forever.’ And I mean, we’re really lucky. He’s a little angel of a baby. But those first few weeks are just an absolute minefield of being absolutely petrified at all times. We had quite a traumatic birth, the pair of us, and then I just cried for like a week straight… then there was a feeling of ‘How will I ever do life again? How will I ever be normal again?’ But then slowly, bit by bit, we started to go out for a little walk – stuff like that. And as soon as we started to get out, that’s when I started to be like, ‘You can go outside with the baby and everything is going to be OK.’”
That she made several red-carpet appearances while heavily pregnant and is now doing press a mere six weeks postpartum seems entirely unremarkable to Mia. I ask if she’s planning a proper maternity leave. She shakes her head. “I’ve had a break since we filmed because I was pregnant; I’m ready to get going again now.”
Does she ever worry about the future in such a notoriously uncertain industry? She thinks about this for just a moment and then answers with calm resolve, “For the first time I’m actually not petrified of what’s coming next. I don’t know if it’s the baby or the excitement around this film or a little bit of both, but I’m really ready to just see what happens – I’m kind of just going with the flow.”
When I ask what she’s excited for, it’s mostly the little things. “I cannot wait for Halloween, fireworks, all of that. I just want to dress my baby up as a pumpkin.”
Last question – what would a 16-year-old Mia think of all this? “I think she’d be really happy. Because I’m really happy, and that’s all you can hope for.”
How to Have Sex is arriving at UK cinemas on 3 November 2023.