If life really is, as the Canadian rocker Tom Cochrane once sang, a highway, then Mia McKenna-Bruce is ripping it up the fast lane in an open-top convertible. Since the start of 2022, the rising British actress has got engaged, shot a career-making movie in Greece, been to Cannes Film Festival where she helped bag a top prize, and cemented her status as a breakout talent. If that wasn’t enough, she also just gave birth to her first child. “I’m very all-or-nothing,” she grins. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
Luckily, McKenna-Bruce seems to have enough gas in her tank to keep going. When we meet, at a swanky central London hotel, she almost bounces into the room. She talks quickly and excitedly throughout our interview, often answering questions before we’ve finished asking them. This could be down to caffeine – “It’s my first morning with coffee since I found out I was pregnant,” she explains – but you suspect she’s always this switched-on.
She’s the same in How To Have Sex, the Un Certain Regard-winning film that’s got critics in a tizz. Every year, there’s a buzzy British indie that captures a moment. Think Paul Mescal’s Aftersun in 2022, or Hackney-set drama Rocks from 2020. In 2023, How To Have Sex is that film. In it, McKenna-Bruce plays Tara, one of three best mates on a boozy, post-GCSEs blowout in sunny Malia. They do the usual things: drink extraordinary amounts of liquid from brightly coloured plastic bowls, stay out dancing in sticky-floored clubs, scoff chips on the way home. The next day, they nurse their thumping heads on the beach before doing it all over again. If you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of Sun, Sex And Suspicious Parents, you’ll know the vibe.
Tara is definitely the biggest personality of the three friends – quick to laugh, shout and sing (ear-splittingly so). But she is also nervous and shy around new people. When some older partiers in the neighbouring flat join their group, Tara gets embarrassed because she’s still a virgin – and upset at more confident Skye for teasing her. As the film goes on, she retreats into her shell. By the end of the holiday, and following a deeply disturbing sexual experience, the bubbly, confident teenager has completely disappeared. Undoubtedly, Tara’s trauma, and McKenna-Bruce’s moving portrayal of it, raises some necessary questions about consent. When you consider that the other famous British film set in Malia is The Inbetweeners Movie, which promotes a very different message, How To Have Sex feels extra prescient.
“We made How To Have Sex to open a conversation”
“We made it to try and open a conversation… and the feedback that we’ve had so far makes me realise how important these films are,” says McKenna-Bruce. “We’re definitely starting to see change though – and having voices like [writer-director] Molly Manning Walker’s in the industry to [help] navigate that change is so exciting to see. But obviously there’s still so far to go.”
On the lighter side, McKenna-Bruce says she had a lot of fun making the film too. Shooting at night on Malia’s feral strip, streaked with vomit and packed with blotto boys and girls, resulted in a few lolzy encounters. People would wander, pissed as anything, onto the set without noticing. When they did notice, they’d often stick around – keen to chat or even talk their way into being in the movie. “One guy kept saying: ‘I am Hollywood’,” remembers McKenna-Bruce. “We were like, ‘OK, move along…’” Eventually, they worked out that the overly lubricated lad was just yelling his name: ‘Olly Wood’. Filming the nightclub scenes turned out to be unexpectedly amusing as well. Loud music was pumped through hi-tech speaker systems, but turned off as the cameras rolled. So hundreds of extras would be frantically throwing shapes to imaginary club bangers while the main cast were asked “to shout as if there was loud music playing, which sounded absolutely ridiculous.” It’s a silly anecdote, but McKenna-Bruce tells the story lovingly. Indie movies often have a homemade vibe, the lack of budget compensated for by camaraderie and a collective enthusiasm. She’d been involved in memorable projects before, but this was something really special.
McKenna-Bruce has been waiting for this film for a while. Ever since she was small, growing up in the leafy suburbs of south London (and later, near Ashford in Kent), she wanted to act. At six, she became obsessed with Shirley Temple, the rosy-cheeked child star from Hollywood’s Golden Age. To be like her, she decided to speak in an American accent – and didn’t stop until her first proper job on EastEnders when she was nine (“I still slip into it now,” she adds with a chuckle). More kid roles followed on Holby City, Tracy Beaker Returns and other terrestrial fare, but McKenna-Bruce says she really struggled to make the jump to grown-up stuff. “The transition felt very different,” she says. “It was a hobby until I was 18 – taking the rejection after that…” She trails off. “I hadn’t learned to not take it personally.” The breaking point came during casting for a Channel 4 movie called Ellen. She got “relatively close” and felt certain this was the gig to take her to the next level. The part ended up going to Jessica Barden (The End Of The F***ing World) instead – and McKenna-Bruce was crushed. “I didn’t know where to turn… so I quit entirely. I just had to go as far away as possible.”
If you didn’t know, one of the furthest places from the UK is Australia. So that’s where McKenna-Bruce went. Travelling the east coast from Sydney to Cairns with her best mate Georgia allowed space to think. The chance to live independently, work a job she didn’t care about (in a call centre) and have her own money. She was happy to be thousands of miles away. Her parents however, who had been very supportive of the whole acting thing, weren’t. “I remember my mum texting me, saying, ‘Mia, this is ridiculous. You need to come home.’ And I was just like,’” she adopts a surfer-dude drawl, ‘Mum, you’ve got to riiide the waaave.’” Her mum answered that she’d “lost the plot”.
Really, McKenna-Bruce was just doing what we’ve all done in a crisis: panic and try to run away. She knows her parents weren’t really worried. They were reacting how parents are meant to react. She also has two younger sisters, who make up their tight-knit family group. Upstairs in another hotel room, McKenna-Bruce says the elder of the two is helping her fiancé (actor Tom Leach) look after the baby. None of the rest of them have anything to do with the industry, but they’ve all come together to help her manage. Family, clearly, is very important to her.
When McKenna-Bruce did finally come home from her unplanned gap year (six months, to be precise), she was ready to give acting another go. “I kind of started again,” she says. “I went to a drama class on Saturdays and just fell in love with it again… It [brought back] all the reasons I wanted to do it in the first place.” Slowly but surely, she managed to book the gigs that had been denied her previously. There was a guest spot in Henry Cavill’s fantasy hit The Witcher, then a recurring character on high school romp Get Even before finally, the big one, a Netflix period drama in Persuasion with Dakota Johnson. “After that, it kind of snowballed…”
“I had to learn to not take rejection personally”
Fast-forward to 2023 and McKenna-Bruce is living her dream. Tonight she’ll strut the red carpet at a gala screening, enjoy not one but two standing ovations from fans and crack a few well-received jokes during the post-film Q&A. There’s already a raft of glowing reviews for How To Have Sex on the internet – and more than a few people talking up further awards chances (this time BAFTAs and Oscars). After that, her slate is clear. She’s already filmed a sci-fi pilot called The Marshlands, about an apocalyptic world consumed by civil war, though nothing else has been announced. Recently, she says she’s been “obsessed” with Prime Video‘s trashy but enjoyable rock drama Daisy Jones & The Six, and would love to do something that “incorporates music or dance” soon. Luckily, she’s already got some practice booked in. “Our wedding is next year and me and my dad are doing a dance to David Essex,” she says, “‘Hold Me Close’, because that was our song when I was little. It’ll be cute.”
There’s something very down-to-earth about McKenna-Bruce, something almost homey. She says the more public-facing bits of her job (the photo shoots, magazine interviews, attending exclusive events) aren’t what she enjoys most. But she really values the opportunity to “come together with the cast” and to “get to talk about what we’ve made, share the journey that we went on to create it.” Mostly though, she’s just glad people want to watch her act in something she’s passionate about. “I’m so grateful that How To Have Sex is hitting where it was supposed to hit and doing some good for people,” she says. “I couldn’t really ask for more than that.”
‘How To Have Sex’ opens in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on November 3
Photography: Joseph Sinclair
Styling: Emily Evans
Makeup: Jacinta Spencer
Hair: Davide Barbieri
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