mia mckenna-bruce

Mia McKenna-Bruce is ready for her close-up

09 Feb 2024|By Gregory Wakeman

The How To Have Sex actor on making thought-provoking work and the transition from child star

When Mia McKenna-Bruce turned 18, she decided to put her dreams of becoming an actress to the test. By taking an office job.

By that point, she’d already thrived as a child performer, starring on the West End in Billy Elliot The Musical, in the 2009 sci-fi thriller The Fourth Kind opposite Milla Jovovich, and done her right-of-passage episodes of Holby City, Eastenders, The Bill, and Doctors, all before gaining main roles in the children’s television shows Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground.

“I was really lucky that I got to work quite continuously as a child,” McKenna-Bruce tells me over Zoom. “That took me right up to when I was 18. Then I thought to myself, ‘Oh, is this for me?’”

So, McKenna-Bruce took a break from acting and moved from London to Australia where she worked in a call centre for a year. It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that acting was her calling. Now aged 26, the fruits of this decision are now coming to bear, particularly since the premiere of How To Have Sex at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize.

A tale as old as time to many a British teen, the story of three 16-year-old best friends going to the party resort of Malia, on the Greek island of Crete, was instantly met with praise for its unflinching look at friendship, sex, and adolescence. McKenna-Bruce in particular has been praised for her star-making turn as Tara, the only virgin of the trio.

It’s a role which, in the last few months alone, has seen her rewarded with prizes at the British Independent Film Awards and London Film Critics’ Circle, while she’s also nominated for the EE Rising Star Award at the upcoming 2024 BAFTAs. To make matters even more hectic, she learned she was pregnant just a month after wrapping How To Have Sex, giving birth to her first child in August.

McKenna-Bruce can’t hide her surprise at the success of How To Have Sex, admitting that just shooting the film in a deserted Malia in September and October 2022, was reward enough for her. “By the time we were there the party season had ended. It was a ghost town,” she explains. “So we were in this bubble. All of us just forgot that anyone else was going to see the film. We all just felt so close to it, like it was our baby. I never even thought about the aftermath. I knew it was an important subject matter and I just hoped one person could watch it and take something helpful away from it.”

Born in London and raised in Bromley, McKenna-Bruce’s journey to the big screen began when she started dancing at the age of two. At five, she convinced her parents to take her to her first audition – for a musical in Croydon. After landing that part, the choreographer asked McKenna-Bruce to join his child actors agency. From that point on she started regularly auditioning for theatre, television and film.

Around this time, spurred on by an obsession with Titanic, McKenna-Bruce’s fandom of Kate Winslet began, too. Even now, Winslet is still her favourite performer, with McKenna-Bruce noting how she makes her characters feel so “human and real”, a trait which McKenna-Bruce aspires to employ to draw out the emotion in her films.

After her early success, however, when she returned from her acting sojourn in Australia, McKenna-Bruce had to start all over again. “It was really different auditioning as an adult instead of as a child,” she explains. “I didn’t have an agent now. Suddenly I was up against all of these actors that had trained at drama and musical theatre schools. I had barely been to acting school, so when they were asking me about the character in the scripts, I didn’t really know how to approach it.”

Unperturbed and hungry to once again prove herself, McKenna-Bruce began taking acting workshops in London as she sought to educate herself on the “more academic side” of the profession, all while working an office job at the same time. “Balancing that as an adult was very, very different,” she admits.

mia mckenna bruce and molly manning walker
Mia McKenna-Bruce and Molly Manning Walker at the British Independent Film Awards 2023. Image: Loredana Sangiuliano

Her work soon started to pay off. She appeared in episodes of Holby City, Josh, Cleaning Up, The Witcher, and Vera, before getting main roles in The Rebels, Get Even, and Vampire Academy. She was also cast in the films Last Train To Christmas and Persuasion, opposite Michael Sheen and Dakota Johnson, respectively.

Then, in December 2021, McKenna-Bruce was cast by writer and director Molly Manning Walker in How To Have Sex. She secured the part after getting her little sisters, Anya and Ellis, to help her make a TikTok video. Being involved in the project nine months before filming began gave her the chance to do chemistry reads with potential other actors, a side of the profession she’d never before been privy to.

Having previously been on similar Brits abroad holidays, McKenna-Bruce understood the chaos and pressure that goes hand-in-hand with these kinds of trips. It was during this time that McKenna-Bruce and Walker were able to really dig down into what they wanted to explore with the subject matter, especially when it came to its depiction of both the victim of sexual assault and the abuser.

“We didn’t want either of them to be stereotypical. You see that so much on screen and that makes it very easy for people to switch off. We wanted to make it as real as possible, make the characters as human as possible. They all have flaws, while also commenting on the pressures for men and women. Because guys feel a pressure to take control in those situations.”

Ultimately, McKenna-Bruce hopes that the critical success of How To Have Sex will lead to more conversations about sex and consent, not just for youngsters, but for viewers of all ages. “I hope the film provokes people to have these awkward conversations about sex so that there is this realisation that it should be pleasant for everybody involved,” she adds.

Seeing the reaction to the film has also made her realise she wants to continue working on projects that impact people, just as Winslet’s films did for her when she was growing up. “People are responding to the film because they feel so seen by it. People have told me it has done a lot for them in their personal lives. I’d be really honored if I can make more films that have an impact like this and spark conversations. That’s my goal.”

The public vote for the EE Rising Star Award is open until 16 February 2024 at ee.co.uk/BAFTA. How to Have Sex is streaming on Mubi now.

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