Klara Waldberg

ALL HER LIFE, Mia McKenna-Bruce has been told she looks young for her age. Between her 4’10” height and natural exuberance, at school she was known as “the baby of the group”. At clubs, strangers would pick her up.

It used to get to her when she was younger, McKenna-Bruce says. “You’re trying to be older, and your height is constantly giving you away.”

It was only while doing press for How To Have Sex, in which she plays a teenager, coming of age at a party resort in Crete, that McKenna-Bruce realised how far she’d come. An interview highlighted that she was a full decade older than her character. On Zoom, McKenna’s enormous eyes widen in mock-horror. “I was like, ‘Oh my god’. I thought I was still a teenager!”

Just a few years ago, McKenna-Bruce had been second-guessing her future in acting. Now 26, she is a mother herself (to four-month-old Leo, having fallen pregnant just after wrapping the film) – and enjoying the most attention of her career, for her turn in writer-director Molly Manning Walker’s feature-length debut.

Since premiering at Cannes last year, How to Have Sex has received nigh-on unanimous praise from critics for its confronting but empathetic—and often very funny—view into the lives of today’s teenage girls.

Amidst the acclaim, McKenna-Bruce has been persistently singled out for her sensitive, nuanced and “star-making” portrayal of 16-year-old Tara: the film’s main character, and the vehicle for its weighty themes.

On a post-GCSEs blowout to the Greek island with her two best friends, their first-ever holiday sans parents, Tara is feeling anxious about the future and burdened by her virginity.

In this adolescent playground, fortified by alcohol and drugs, she finds herself a victim of a hyper-sexualised culture that teaches young people to push their—and others’—boundaries.

Yet as heartbreaking as Tara’s story is, what struck McKenna-Bruce, reading the script, was its depressing familiarity. “Everyone can relate to it in some capacity.”

She wanted to make How To Have Sex for her two younger sisters, she says. “I wanted them to watch the film—that’s how I knew how important it was. If I could be a part of it, then amazing.”

The film is McKenna-Bruce’s first time as a lead, following roles (as Dakota Johnson’s sister) in Netflix’s Persuasion and Peacock TV fantasy series Vampire Academy. It’s already led to some “exciting” opportunities.

She is coy about giving more details—but “it’s definitely put me in rooms that I wouldn’t have been in before”, she says.

Now she’s being mentioned in the same breath as big names like Ayo Edebiri and Jacob Elordi as a nominee for EE’s Rising Star award at this weekend’s Baftas. But before she landed Persuasion, in 2021, McKenna-Bruce had been having doubts about whether to continue with acting at all.

Growing up in Bromley, McKenna-Bruce gravitated towards performing and landed her first part in Billy Elliot the Musical at 17. Small television roles followed—on Holby CityEastEnders and The Bill—but, after two years playing Tee on Tracy Beaker Returns, she kept getting passed over for meatier parts. “It gets to a point where you’re like: ‘Why am I putting myself through this rejection?’”

When, around 2016, she started to have debilitating panic attacks before auditions, McKenna-Bruce “ran away” to Australia. After a seven-month break, working in a call centre, she returned to the UK with her passion for acting renewed. For all her recent successes, she still finds auditions “ridiculously nerve-wracking”—but the time out led her to realise that the highs outweigh the lows. “Just getting to be on a set, I couldn’t not have that.”

The attention on her since How to Have Sex has been “a whirlwind”, she says. They only finished shooting in late 2022, a few months before Cannes, where it was met with an eight-minute standing ovation. “I couldn’t have imagined how incredible this journey would be.”

Promoting the film, and seeing how it resonates with audiences, has also affirmed McKenna-Bruce’s early sense of its importance. Screenings have prompted discussion of consent, sharing of deeply personal experiences, and even some uncomfortable admissions as audience members have grappled with their own complicity.

At Cannes, McKenna-Bruce says, an older man said “I’ve just figured out that I was a Paddy”—identifying himself with Tara’s sexual partner.

It’s proof of the film’s multiple entry points into the conversation, she continues—and the need to have it. “Somewhere along the line we’ve got confused as to what consent actually is… Every party involved in sex just needs to be happy, and enjoying it. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.”

But some people haven’t picked up on Tara’s resistance until their second viewing, McKenna-Bruce says. “‘No’ is never taken as the final answer—but as soon as she says ‘yes’, that’s it.”

Manning Walker has said it was loosely inspired by her own experience, and informed by interviews with young people. It was important to both of them that the film resisted easy judgements, and making villains out of its male characters.

Clubbing, too, is presented as equally disorienting and euphoric, bringing people together as much as putting them at risk.

“It was about trying to make sure anyone and everyone could see themselves reflected in some way, and therefore look at themselves or their mates and know that they could do better,” says McKenna-Bruce.

Even Badger, the more upstanding of the two male leads, has been held by some to a low standard. “Quite a few people have been like, ‘We were so grateful that he just put her to bed and left her alone’,” says McKenna-Bruce. “Why are we grateful for that? Like, that’s the bare minimum!”

Like The Inbetweeners MovieHow to Have Sex is set in the lawless land of Malia, where every night promises to be “the best ever”. Though vastly different, the two could be twisted companion pieces, each presenting a take on the hyper-sexualised world of adolescents.

But where The Inbetweeners played it for laughs, How to Have Sex confronts the personal costs, and the culture that enables them. McKenna-Bruce laughs to imagine them as a double bill, but agrees that it’s interesting to compare the two.

To anyone no longer in their teens, Malia may look like hell on Earth – but from the sexualised stunts of the resort, to the naked ladies on the beach towels, “we really wanted to show that you’re getting pressure from all angles”, says McKenna-Bruce, with mounting heat.

“It’s not just the person that you’re having sex with – it’s from your mates, the environment. From every angle, there’s the pressure to have sex or be sexualised… And you’re just expected to know what to do with it, because everyone’s too scared to talk about it.”

For McKenna-Bruce, tasked with carrying the thorny conversations started by How to Have Sex, “it’s a big responsibility” – but also a privilege. “I want to be able to talk about this film,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons I did it.”

McKenna-Bruce is the first of her friends to become a parent, surprising even herself. Now split between new motherhood and reliving her teenage experiences, “it does feel a little bit like I’m living two lives,” McKenna-Bruce admits. “But it’s also amazing, because I can objectively look at both.”

Hair by Sophie Sugarman, make-up by Charlotte Yeomans, styling by Ruta Jane

This story originally appeared on Esquire UK.


‘How to Have Sex’: A Brits abroad horror story

From ‘One Day’ to ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’, romcoms belong on TV