Mia McKenna-Bruce

All clothing by Miu Miu. Watch and earrings, worn throughout, by Cartier. Socks by Comme Si. Shoes by Grenson.

Mia McKenna-Bruce Grows Up

The tropes in How to Have Sex, the winner of the Un Certain Regard section at last year's Cannes Film Festival, are familiar. Three teenage girls head off on holiday to Malia, Crete, with the goal of creating as many hedonistic, MTV Spring Break-coded memories as possible. The film follows sixteen-year-old Tara, played by now 26-year-old actor Mia McKenna-Bruce. She's less experienced than her two best friends, and in classic nineties teen comedy fashion, the race to lose her virginity is on. The forthcoming film is less raunchy ha-ha, however, than sensitive, subtly piercing drama. It's a moving, quietly nuanced interrogation of what it means to navigate peer pressure, consent, and vulnerability when you don't yet know yourself. It's also a career-making role for McKenna-Bruce, who plays Tara with a wide-eyed naturalism that feels like a memory of one's own experience. "As soon as I read the script, I knew I connected with Tara," she says.

Born in southeast London, McKenna-Bruce is petite and bubbling with enthusiasm at just under five feet and she has been busy on a run of nonstop press for the hotly received film, which premiered on Mubi in the United States earlier this month, since its premiere last May. "I've got to talk about this film a lot after having shot it," she grins. "And I love talking about it. I love having been a part of making a difference to people."

The coming-of-age feature is writer-director Molly Manning Walker's full-length debut and McKenna-Bruce's first starring role. It's full of rambunctious moments, neon hues, and booze-filled days and nights. Think Spring Breakers from a female gaze with an insistently somber undercurrent. While How To Have Sex is visually loud, it has limited dialogue. So much of Tara's experience, and the narrative of the picture, is told through her eyes. The film doesn't tell you what to think or how to feel; rather, it's an intimate emotional rollercoaster in which you inhabit the protagonist's cloudy, in-too-deep mess of a trip, wading through her hopes, desires, exhaustion, and the silent weight of her pain in equal measure.

Shirt by Our Legacy

Shirt by Our Legacy

"I knew she was a character I really wanted to play," McKenna-Bruce relates, detailing the time spent building Tara's backstory with the crew and perusing TikTok's Malia tag leading up to filming. "Mainly because it was a film I wish I had seen."

The role is, in some ways, a long time coming. McKenna-Bruce got into the arts at the tender age of two when her mom brought her to dance classes. "I had a lot of energy," she recalls. "I still do." This very early start became the base of a lifelong love of performance. McKenna-Bruce became, in her own words, obsessed, attending every dance class she could get into. By age five or six, she learned about acting. "I watched the film Titanic and I was mortified by it," she recalls. "My mom had to get my granddad to pretend to be the director and ring me up and explain that it was a movie and its actors and actors wear costumes. Then I was like, 'Oh wow, that's a job that grown-ups do!' And I was like, 'Well, that's it. That's what I want to do.'"

Her first part in a local production of Seussical the Musical earned McKenna-Bruce an agent and later a role in Billy Elliott on the West End. By age ten, she was a regular on the British TV series Tracy Beaker Returns. She stayed on for another eight years. "I grew up on that show, which was incredible, honestly," she says.

After McKenna-Bruce left the show at eighteen, acting outside of the protective cover of child auditions proved difficult. "That was a big shift," she explains. "I was facing a lot more rejection. I was doing a lot more auditions so I was getting no's a lot more. I really struggled with it and put a lot of pressure on myself."

Jacket by Our Legacy. Dress by Molly Goddard.

Jacket by Our Legacy. Dress by Molly Goddard.

She ended up quitting her agency and traveling to Australia, where she got a job at a call center fielding first-line tech support calls. Six months later, now twenty, McKenna-Bruce was ready once more to brave the harsh landscape of heartfelt investment and rejection. She returned to London and began building her career from the beginning again. "I didn't have an agent," she explains. "I started doing workshops in London once a week to realize and fall in love with acting again."

Then came How to Have Sex. McKenna-Bruce's naturalism ties the film together. "Particularly, the friendships really jumped out at me," she says, reflecting on how she approached the character. "The way [Tara] tried to live up to the expectation that everyone had of her was something that I related to at that age. It was dipping into myself at that age that really connected me with Tara."

Now, after a whirlwind year following the movie's premiere—and the birth of her son—McKenna-Bruce is diving into new work and looking ahead. A forthcoming short that will develop into a feature, Sister Wives, stars McKenna-Bruce alongside Luisa Connolly-Burnham (Vampire Academy) and Michael Fox (Downton Abbey). McKenna-Bruce plays a Morman wife who falls in love with a fellow wife in her polygamous structure. "We literally just shot it a couple of weeks ago," she shares. "It's a really beautiful piece and really poignant. Coming out of How to Have Sex, figuring out what I wanted to do next, I wanted to do more amazing female-driven pieces." Another movie—"It's very different from How to Have Sex but, again, a subject which is really important to a lot of people and particularly me right now," hints McKenna-Bruce—will shoot later this year.

All clothing by Miu Miu

All clothing by Miu Miu

As her career enters its next phase, including a nomination for the EE Rising Star Award at the BAFTAs this weekend, McKenna-Bruce mentions Kate Winslet as an actor whose career she would like to emulate. "She just seems so real," she says. Films like Good Will Hunting and Center Stage, a childhood favorite, are North Stars. She would even love to act in a 2020s version of Center Stage, something more than a few fans of the original would be happy to see come to life if done with the right touch. "I love being able to combine my love of dance [with acting]," she adds, "something where the drama of the dance comes into play."

Ultimately, the hope is to continue to address underexplored issues through her work. "I really want to work on stuff that continues the conversation," she says. How to Have Sex is, in more than one way, just the beginning.

How to Have Sex is in theaters and streaming on Mubi now. Voting for the EE Rising Star Award is now open at EE.co.uk/BAFTA until noon GMT tomorrow, February 16. The winner will be announced at the EE BAFTA Film Awards on Sunday, February 18.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.

Shirt by Our Legacy

Shirt by Our Legacy

Hair by Joe Burwin. Makeup by India Excell. Photographer's assistant: Ariel Mihaly. Stylist's assistant: Sabrina Leina.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.