Mia McKenna-Bruce Is All Grown Up

A veteran of British children’s television is now a film-festival darling.

VERSACE Embellished Cocktail Dress, at Photo: Amber Pinkerton
VERSACE Embellished Cocktail Dress, at Photo: Amber Pinkerton

Mia McKenna-Bruce will never live one of her first roles down, but she’s not complaining about it. Tracy Beaker Returns, a spinoff of one of the most beloved shows on British children’s television, is what put the baby-faced actress on the map in the U.K., and to this day, it’s what she gets recognized for the most. “I did understand what that show meant to so many people because I was one of those people,” she says. “[The cast] lived in these houses together with chaperones, and we all turned up with Tracy Beaker merch because we were all huge fans.” Fourteen years later, the 26-year-old Londoner is all grown up, impressing American audiences with her star turn in director Molly Manning Walker’s debut How to Have Sex, popping up on awards-season hopeful lists, and earning a BAFTA Rising Star nomination along the likes of Jacob Elordi and Ayo Edebiri.

None of which would have been possible if McKenna-Bruce hadn’t taken a step back. After growing up on the Tracy Beaker Returns set and turning 18, the actress found herself struggling with the transition to performing as an adult — the auditions were radically different, and everything she had learned happened through pure instinct and osmosis, with no formal education. Ultimately, she packed her bags and headed to Australia. What was initially supposed to be a three-week vacation turned into a seven-month hiatus.

“Stepping out of acting, I think, was the best thing I could have done, because it made me realize how much I loved it and why I loved it,” McKenna-Bruce tells me in a central London office, removing her U.K. size 2 UGG boots to curl up on her chair. “It allowed me to deal with the feelings of rejection because I’m willing to persevere instead of just putting this pressure on myself to book every job.” The respite worked wonders. She started picking up roles again: a small part opposite Henry Cavill in a 2019 episode of The Witcher; a magnetic turn as Dakota Johnson’s histrionic sister in Netflix’s Persuasion adaptation. But it’s her leading performance in How to Have Sex that’s changed everything. It helps that the film is outstanding: McKenna-Bruce plays Tara, a 16-year-old navigating the uncomfortable lack of concern for sexual consent on a boozy getaway in Crete.

McKenna-Bruce has been picking up breakthrough-actor accolades for months, but the praise for her performance as Tara started at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where John C. Reilly (head of the Un Certain Regard jury) awarded How to Have Sex the top prize and heralded the film for “bringing us closer to understanding the human condition.” McKenna-Bruce never got the chance to shake hands with Reilly — she was six months pregnant at the time and couldn’t stay in France for long — but naturally, she was stunned. “To have him put it into those words was like, ‘Wow, people get it, it’s crazy.’”

Tara’s story holds a sobering mirror to Britain’s holiday scene, and McKenna-Bruce notes that the responses have been fascinating, as young people who have seen the film have started to reflect not only on the extremities of sex and consent, but also the culture of complicity that has allowed coercive sex to become the norm. “There’s the bit where Badger puts her to bed,” she says, recalling her character’s flirtatious friendship with her hotel neighbor. “And so many people were like, ‘Oh, we’re so grateful that he just put her to bed and that was it.’ And it’s like, that shouldn’t be the bar. That’s the bare minimum.”

MIU MIU Dress, at Tights and shoes are stylist’s own. Photo: Amber Pinkerton

Where did you grow up, and where is home for you?

Home for me now … I don’t really know, it’s all over the place. We’re trying to move house at the moment; we’re based in Kent. But I spent most of my life in southeast London, which we left during the pandemic. We were just over it a little bit. ​​I found being in London during the pandemic really eerie. It was really weird. We went to stay with my mom and dad, and they’re in Kent. The vibe is a lot chiller and because we’re traveling around a lot for work, it just made more sense because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than living out of London.

Who was the first actor who made you realize you could do it too?

It’s a combination of Kate Winslet and Shirley Temple. Kate Winslet because it was watching Titanic that made me go, Acting is a job, I want to do that. I was 5 years old, so a bit premature to be watching Titanic, I think. After that, I became obsessed with Shirley Temple because I was like, She’s a young actor, I’ll copy her. By copying her, I put on an American accent and everything all the time. Very annoying for anyone around me. I thought I was Hannah Montana.

What’s the biggest misconception about acting that you’d like to clear up?

That it’s glamorous and earns a lot of money. I think that’s the biggest misconception. Definitely a lot. You know how everyone was doing those quizzes during the pandemic? Some people from the school that I went to did a quiz, and one of the questions was like, “How much is Mia McKenna-Bruce’s net worth?” Because on Google it says that I’m worth loads of money, which is great. I love that. But it’s absolutely not the case. I mean, maybe once you’re doing Marvel or something, it’s a bit different, but where we are right now, the glam side of it isn’t what people think.

COURREGES Dress. Photo: Amber Pinkerton

How to Have Sex premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Was that not glamorous? 

The parties are fun, but then we go back to our Airbnb that we booked that’s falling apart. The lights don’t work. We’re there eating instant noodles in bed at 3 a.m. having been to all these wild parties. I remember it was really raining when we were there as well. And I’d be barefoot running around because the main street doesn’t move due to the traffic. It was pissing it down with rain, I’d just had my hair and makeup done, but then I’m running through the rain barefoot. People were looking at me like, “What’s going on with her?”

That was the premiere?

Yeah, and then they wouldn’t let us in! Someone inside had our tickets, so we were like, “No, we’re supposed to be presenting the film.” And they were like, “Not without your tickets, you’re not.”

What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?

I never made five feet, which was a dream of mine. Never quite got there. My feet are U.K. size 2, so very small. [Shows her boot.] These are children’s shoes. Anytime I have to give my measurements for filming or press stuff and I say U.K. 2, they think it’s a typo. And every time they come back, and we have to confirm, “No, it is U.K. 2.”

ACNE STUDIOS Laxton Jacket, at SIMONE ROCHA Crystal Flower. Photo: Amber Pinkerton

Do you have a hidden talent?

I’m really exceptionally good at Tetris. I think I could enter a competition for Tetris. I don’t know how helpful it is in daily life, but I do think I’m really good at it. I’ve never been put to the test, though, maybe that’s what I’ve got to do: enter a competition and see how good I am.

If you weren’t an actor, what do you think you’d be doing? 

Maybe something with animals. Not a vet, because I’m too queasy, I’d pass out, but something like working at an animal sanctuary. There’s never been a plan B. I worked in Australia for a bit doing frontline tech support. That was intense. People made me cry a lot on the phone. They can be really rude. They’re like, “Fix my computer!” I’m like, “I’m sorry, I just put you to the right area, I can’t actually do the fixing.” And they’re shouting at you, which obviously I understand. It’s very frustrating when you’re trying to work and your computer is broken. But that was heavy. Before that I was really struggling with auditions, feeling the pressure. And then I did that and I was like, “Auditions are fine!”

MAISON MARGIELA Black Coated Paper-cotton Misfit Gown, at Amber Pinkerton.
MAISON MARGIELA Black Coated Paper-cotton Misfit Gown, at Amber Pinkerton.

What impression do you hope you leave with people when you first meet them?

Just that I’m a happy person. I really like to try and make other people feel happy. You know when you’re going about your daily life, putting your ticket in the barriers at the train station? I’m always trying to be like, “Thank you so much, have a good day!” I really just want to try and make people happy, because I love that when you can see someone has this infectiously happy energy, it makes you feel happy.

This is a really intense moment in your career to be having a baby in the middle of everything. How have you been coping? 

I’m a very chaotic, high-energy person, so I think it’s actually worked really well because it’s made me manage my time quite well, because I have to be Mom sometimes. And it’s made me really appreciate the times when I’m working and then going home and being puked on by the baby. When I first had the baby, I just couldn’t understand how people have a life and a baby. It was just insane to me. Then I went back to doing press six weeks after having him and it was the best thing I could have done because it was like, Oh, I can do this thing that I love with my baby that I love. Also, I just have really supportive, amazing people around me to help. I don’t know how I would do it without them. And he’s a really well-behaved baby. He sleeps really well. He’s pretty chill as far as babies go.

Did you have your own post-exams holiday like Tara has in How to Have Sex

Yes, it was after A-levels, so I think I was 18. So I was a bit older than Tara, but we went to Ibiza. We thought we were bougie. But you know, there’s a strip in Ibiza that could be anywhere in the world, so we just did that. I think someone described it as like, Going on these holidays is like going into battle. It was a bit like that, and I think you get that vibe from the film.

MORE JOY BY CHRISTOPHER KANE Sex Classic T-Shirt, at ID SARRIERI Lombard Street Ruffle Brief, at Photo: Amber Pinkerton

You filmed on the actual strip in Malia. How did you navigate shooting while people are partying around you? 

We filmed mostly out of season, but there was a slight overlap. And it was really funny because we were in the chip shop, and these girls that were on a night out came into the chip shop and were trying to eat the chips. We were like, “They’re not for sale, they’re props.” We just let them crack on with it, but I can only imagine them waking up the next morning and being like, “What the …?” You know when you have those memories come back to you after a night out. But then one of the girls did message me on Instagram and was like, “Were you shooting a film!?” I’d love to know if they’ve seen it.

The film brings a really nuanced perspective of sex and consent, or lack thereof, that isn’t often seen in cinema. What was your biggest takeaway from the story?

I’m repeating something Molly said in one of our interviews because she put it together so well. It’s just to be a good person. To realize the effect that you’re having on someone else. With sex in particular, it’s about everyone involved having a good time. It’s actually not that difficult to tell if someone is comfortable or uncomfortable. Read more than just what they’re saying; it goes beyond the yes or no. If someone’s visibly uncomfortable, check in. Molly didn’t want to shut anyone out of the conversation. It wasn’t about making Paddy this villain or monster, because otherwise people can’t see themselves in him and they can’t learn from him. They can’t because it’s like, Well, that’s an extreme version, and I can check out of that. So it was about making it as accessible as possible to everybody.

One of the things that I love about the film is you go through it in real time with Tara. The emotions that you feel are your own. It’s not really the film being like, Here’s a traumatic event, feel traumatized. We figure it out as she does: what she’s feeling and why she wasn’t enjoying it. It lets you bring to the surface what you’ve got going on as opposed to feeling what the film tells you to feel.

You received a BAFTA Rising Star nomination. How did you find out and how did you react? 

I was on a packed rush-hour train, and my publicist, my agent in the U.K., and my agent and managers in the U.S., texted me and were like, “Can you jump on a call in 15 minutes?” When they’re all getting together and you have to jump on a call quickly, you know it’s something exciting. But this was back in November, so I didn’t think it was anything BAFTA-related. They were like, “You’ve been nominated for an EE BAFTA Rising Star, but it’s top-secret, we’ve signed NDAs and everything!” And I’m on this rush-hour train in London, and I’m like, “Okaaay, just so you know, I’m really really excited, but I’m on a train right now, so I have to play it cool.” I just had to wait on this packed train with tears slowly streaming down my face.

Mia McKenna-Bruce Is All Grown Up