For most young actors lucky enough to experience a major career break, the simple act of navigating this exciting but daunting new world — be it back-to-back media arrangements or meetings with agents, casting directors and producers — is more than enough to deal with.
But Mia McKenna-Bruce, the star of buzzy Brit drama “How to Have Sex,” which launches in the U.S. on Feb. 2, has had to navigate all this while also juggling becoming a mother for the first time.
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Not that the double whammy of these two momentous, life-changing experiences seems to trouble her. In fact, she claims they went hand-in-hand.
“I think the insanity of it all has actually worked really well,” the 26-year-old tells Variety.
“I did really struggle at first because I couldn’t wrap my head around having any kind of life. But then I went back to doing press six weeks after [I gave birth] and it was the best thing I could have done, because I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can still keep doing this thing that I love and also have my baby that I love, all at the same time.’ I’m quite a chaotic person anyway. So for me, this sort of chaos really works.”
McKenna-Bruce was heavily pregnant when she went to Cannes in 2023 with Molly Manning-Walker’s debut feature, which follows a group of girls on an intoxicated summer trip to Greece and marked her first significant lead role in a film (she was previously best known for British children’s drama series “Tracey Beaker Returns”).
“How to Have Sex,” which already had Mubi on board for various territories (including the U.S. and U.K.), ended up becoming one of the talking points of the festival, where it won the main Un Certain Regard prize and began an upward trajectory that hasn’t stopped since.
Alongside the numerous awards amassed by the film and Manning-Walker over the last nine months, the applause for McKenna-Bruce’s revelatory performance as Tara, a 16-year-old whose holiday of a lifetime turns sour, has been just as loud. In December, she won best lead performance at the British Independent Film Awards from under the noses of fellow nominees Andrew Scott and Jodie Comer, and recently landed a BAFTA Rising Star award, nominated alongside the likes of Jacob Elordi and Ayo Edebiri.
In the middle of the growing crescendo of acclaim (but just before it started tipping into awards season), her son Leo was born.
And so, McKenna-Bruce has been switching back and forth between dual roles as a rising film star and a doting new parent, from magazine photoshoots to nappy changes, red carpets to baby bath times.
For “How to Have Sex’s” Italian premiere in Rome in October, she took a then 6-week-old Leo along. His bags, sadly, didn’t follow (teaching her a valuable lesson that packing absolutely everything, from sterilization machines to baby formula, just isn’t necessary — “we turned up with nothing, but it was fine”). For her upcoming short trip to New York for the U.S. launch, as it’s a longer flight, she’s leaving him at home with her partner.
Both frenzied and unpredictable worlds of being mother to a newborn baby and lead actor in a much-hyped indie film appear to be getting along just fine. They’re also keeping her grounded.
“I’m getting to do all this exciting stuff, and then going home and being puked on,” she says.
And, following a major breakout role, McKenna-Bruce has also been trying to answer that all-important question of what to do next amid the barrage of interest.
If it were up to her, she admits she’d just accept everything that came her way: “I just want to work! I’ll do it all!” she says. Thankfully, there’s a team around her in the form of her U.K. agent, 42’s Molly Cowan, and now CAA, who signed her after seeing “How to Have Sex” in Cannes — and they’re taking a more measured approach.
“They’re brilliant about being like, ‘This is all very exciting, but we need to make sure that the next steps are in line with where we want to go,’” she says, adding that the plan is to avoid immediately doing something similar to “How to Have Sex.” “They’re very much strategizing. ‘How to Have Sex’ has obviously been incredible, but we don’t want it to be a fluke. It’s about the longevity of it all.”
On that front, there are several projects on the horizon, some signed and sealed (but yet to be formerly announced), and others still in discussion. On one upcoming feature, McKenna-Bruce says she’s come onboard early as the lead and will be involved in conversations as the film comes together.
More than anything, the most dramatic career shift in the not-even-a-year since “How to Have Sex” launched in Cannes is that McKenna-Bruce is now being courted by the very same producers and casting directors whose offices she previously sat nervously waiting outside ahead of an audition. This time, they’re actually asking her which roles she’d like them to get.
“It’s changed my life, definitely,” she says of “How to Have Sex.” “But It’s been very full circle. I’m like, ‘Hang on a minute, I was here a few years ago and nobody wanted to know!’”
Despite now having seasoned professionals there to help shepherd her career to the next stage, McKenna-Bruce does have an important decision she has to make herself: who to take as her plus-one to the BAFTA awards on Feb. 18.
“My mum and dad really want to come, and they’ve both been a huge, huge part of all of this,” she says. “I may just let them fight it out.”
There is, however, one family member who won’t be getting an invite. When McKenna-Bruce’s 16-year-old sister — a huge Jacob Elordi fan — discovered she was nominated for the Rising Star award alongside the “Priscilla” and “Saltburn” star, her immediate response was: “Oh my god, I’m gonna vote for him!”
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