Emma Mackey is happy. The night before our Zoom call, her new film, Emily, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and “I think people liked it,” says the 26-year-old actress with a modesty that barely conceals her confident delight. No wonder: the lead role of writer Emily Brontë in the offbeat biopic is just right for her at this precise moment in her career. She was well known after taking on the role of punk Maeve Wiley in the British Netflix series Sex Education alongside Gillian Anderson three years ago. When she then played the great love of the architect in the French film “Eiffel” alongside Romain Duris, we found out that she also speaks French and grew up bilingually in France. With “Death on the Nile” and now soon in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” she shows that she can also achieve great Hollywood cinema. And you? Takes this as an opportunity to say: “Now I finally want to have more say in my roles and films!”
This determination is not surprising. Ultimately, it is the courageous, rebellious obstinacy that unites their depictions. It’s hard to imagine how her distinctive yet classically, almost sublimely beautiful face is not in opposition to her surroundings. So who else could play Emily Brontë, the celebrated author of Wuthering Heights as she explores the possibility of a passionate life amidst Victorian austerity? The online industry service Indiewire calls the idea of filling Emily Brontë with Emma Mackey a “brilliant idea” and states “what a splendid job she does”. The “Hollywood Reporter” even says: “Mackey commands the screen.” In this film everything that means a lot to Emma Mackey comes together: literature, nature, languages, intensity. “It’s about eating life”, as she puts it: “The film is an ode to creativity, a thank you to Emily Brontë – and a kind of fuck you to everyone who tries to dictate rules in life!”
Even the movie Emily itself doesn’t pay much attention to the rules of historical biopics. “People will certainly come and say: But that’s not historically correct and blah, blah, blah. I mean, we make films about blue aliens – we shouldn’t be too specific about that,” laughs Emma Mackey. In fact, the story of the young poet Emily, who begins a passionate affair with her French teacher and parish priest, draws more on the famous Brontës novel than on actual lore. But what he almost certainly conveys accurately is the great resistance she had to overcome in order to write her novel.
Emily grew up with her three siblings in a wealthy family in the first half of the 19th century. The mother dies early, the father is cool and critical. All four write, but the father has envisioned a future for the girls as teachers. Emily, however, who is called “the strange one” in the village, as her sister Charlotte tells her, does not seem suitable for this: nervous fits repeatedly lead to her being sent back home. When she falls in love with Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she feels accepted for the first time. But their relationship is complicated.
What was the biggest challenge about this role? “Everything,” says Emma Mackey – and seems very happy about it. Because it was the debut film of actress Frances O’Connor, who was directing for the first time, they only had six weeks to shoot. “That’s not much for any film, but especially for a costume film in which you have to constantly change corsets and clothes. Also, it was raining all the time and we got wet all the time because of all the outdoor shooting on the moor,” Mackey recalls. But precisely because of the time pressure, the shoot was extremely intense: “We had to throw ourselves in straight away – there was simply no room for hesitation or doubt.” She particularly liked this urgency. “It made it feel like a play, almost in real time.”