“I would’ve loved to have had this film when I was younger,” says How to Have Sex star Mia McKenna-Bruce. “I resonated with Tara in so many ways, particularly her desperation to live up to the expectations that other people have of her. I remember that being such a thing for me, particularly at that age.”
How to Have Sex isn’t a guide for scoring, but rather a cautionary tale about the essential first step: consent. McKenna-Bruce stars as Tara, a teenager whose girls’ trip to Malia, Greece receives a traumatic twist when she’s sexually assaulted one night on the beach. Where moviegoers a generation back had the horny hijinks of American Pie or chick flicks like She’s All That to warp their expectations for sex and relationships, films like How to Have Sex engage audiences with the role of consent and the emotional and psychological toll of breaching it.
McKenna-Bruce’s breakout performance, which earned her a British Independent Film Award win and a BAFTA nomination so far, devastatingly conveys the sense of violation that weighs on Tara following the assault. “The film follows Tara’s mental state very closely, so it was about making sure that was coming across at all times,” says McKenna-Bruce, speaking via Zoom. McKenna Bruce adds that she had about six months to shape the character prior to shooting, while the film had 360° sets, like drawers filled with actual clothes and knick-knacks or solo cups full of “booze” to help actors’ get into the characters’ mindsets. The actor says that she and writer/director Molly Manning Walker to explore Tara’s psychology and understand how to subtly express her discomfort subtly.
“She plays with her hairband on her wrist all the time,” McKenna-Bruce observes. “We figured that out as we went along and the picking sand out of her nails—that was a line in the script early on about how sand gets everywhere.” McKenna-Bruce plays this sense of violation into Tara’s physicality as she constantly brushes her body. It’s as if the textures of the sand grains are embedded within her, like a lingering physical reminder of the attack that she can’t seem to rub off.
How to Have Sex features a jarring, disorienting, and extremely effective tonal shift to signal the assault. After the film’s first act in which Tara and her friends, Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), enjoy some booze-fuelled nights of drinks and dancing with three older students they befriend, Manning Walker plays with the chronology of the film. Skye and Em think that Tara’s next door, while the guys next door says she’s with them. Cut to the night before and Tara’s out with one of those boys, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), who leads her to the beach. He takes advantage of Tara before she even really realizes what’s happening.
The dramatic turn highlights the depth to which McKenna-Bruce sinks into character. The actor leads the audience down a dark path without revealing her hand, which accentuates the sense of violation because we experience it along with Tara. McKenna-Bruce says that it wasn’t too difficult to avoid giving away the skin-crawlingly uncomfortable twist because they didn’t film How to Have Sex chronologically, so it was relatively easy to transfer headspaces. “
When we’re doing the ‘before’ scenes, I’m not necessarily like, ‘Here comes the first assault scene,’ but I obviously am aware of it. The first thing I do going into a job is to draw up a timeline,” she says. “I think it’s about trying to be as present in that scene as possible, so I try not to think ahead. I like to look at what she’s done up to that point, but not what is coming up.” McKenna-Bruce notes that her approach contrasts with other actors who find inspiration by looking at character’s past and future. “Personally, I don’t like to look at where they’re going because in real life, I don’t know what’s about to come after. I’m in it [the present] as much as possible.”
What comes after is especially disarming as the friends, Paddy included, carry on as if nothing happened. However, McKenna-Bruce says that she and Bottomley worked closely with Manning Walker to prepare for the two rape scenes that punctuate the film. They’re played out with an offhandedness that suggests that experiences like Tara’s are all too frequent.
McKenna-Bruce says that the three of them worked with an intimacy coordinator to get the scenes right. Both scenes, she adds, were shot on closed sets with minimal crew. “Physicality-wise, they were all choreographed beat by beat by beat, so it was more like a dance. We could be as comfortable as it was as possible,” she notes. “In terms of getting to speak through the characters and where they were at, I think it was a lot harder for Sam because he had to unpack why Paddy was doing this. For someone who is obviously not like Paddy in real life, he had to find how Paddy got to this point. That was a work in progress throughout the film—what was spurring him on and how much was he aware of what he was doing.”
Manning Walker’s approach includes checking in with the cast and crew following a take and working with them to decompress. “The second assault scene in the bedroom was just before our lunch break, so we did that and then had the check-in to make sure we were all okay. Then they ordered in a super nice lunch for us to lift everyone’s spirits and make sure everyone was checking back into themselves,” adds McKenna-Bruce. “That’s really important to get back into your own head space and not stay with the characters.”
The actor says that shooting the film invited women in the production to share experiences that they had similar to Tara. For the men, making How to Have Sex serves as something of a wake-up call. “It was fascinating, also heartbreaking, on set for a lot of the men realizing this side of it and the aftermath,” observes McKenna-Bruce. “Unfortunately, I know it does also happen to men, but for women in particular, it’s a story that isn’t unknown to a lot of us. For men, it made them go to this place that maybe they haven’t had to be before.”
These conversations throughout the success of How to Have Sex’s run also come at a unique moment for McKenna-Bruce. The actor was about six months’ pregnant when How to Have Sex premiered at Cannes, where it won top prize in the Un Certain Regard competition and turned heads towards the star as one of the festival’s breakout performers, and became a mother in August. But it’s a unique role, especially given the contrast of male characters with whom Tara becomes entangled.
On one hand, Paddy’s sense of entitlement means the impropriety of his actions don’t even register. His friend Badger (Shaun Thomas), whom Tara clearly crushes on, is more sensitive, responsive, and realizes that something’s off. Both young men are products of their upbringing, which invites one to ask how making How to Have Sex inspires McKenna-Bruce to raise her own son.
“When Badger fails Tara towards the end, I think that stems from him not knowing how to talk about it and not having the tools and the language to talk about assault or being fearful of standing up to his mate,” says McKenna-Bruce says. “For me, in particular, it’s about having an open conversation and open dialogue at all times with my son and any other children I might be lucky enough to have so that language is always there for them. Education is where it starts. I’ll make sure they’re clued up on the world of consent, on sex, and on partying in general.”
It’s a message that extends to all audiences: men, women, parents, young viewers, and everyone in between. “If this film can give people the language to start those conversations, hopefully then we can prevent more people from going through something like that in the future,” says McKenna-Bruce.