Mia McKenna-Bruce talks to us about launching her career as a child actor, growing up in the industry playing Tee Taylor in the Tracy Beaker series, advice for young actors and their parents, plus recent experiences starring in Get Even and The Witcher.
Hello Mia, thank you for talking to us. After starting your career at a young age, it very much took off playing Tee Taylor in the Tracy Beaker children's TV series. What was your experience making the shows?
Playing Tee were some of the best years of my life. We filmed in Newcastle so all stayed in a big house together while we were filming for six months of the year each year. I started at 11 and left when I was 18 so I literally grew up playing her.
She was very similar to me, so everything Tee was learning/going through, it felt as though I was too. We were one big family there. Don't get me wrong, we had our moments and we were certainly expected to act like adults as we were doing a job, but above everything else we had so much fun and I made friends for life.
Being in Tracy Beaker Returns taught me everything I needed to know about being on a set. It was a safe environment to ask questions and make mistakes, and then pass that onto any of the new, younger characters that would join. I missed out on a lot of schooling and never went to drama school so being on that set was my school for everything in life.
How have you found growing up in the industry? I feel insanely lucky to have grown up in the industry, I learnt so much so early on from technical things about being on a set to everyday life skills because being in work from so young meant I had to grow up very quickly.
I have lived away from home since the age of around ten (we had chaperones to take care of us until the age of 16), so one of the biggest things I've learnt is independence which has really helped when we are in an industry that is so unpredictable! I have also been able to meet so many incredible people as I've grown up and continue to do so, so am always learning and I love it!
It definitely had its downsides too, school was hard - I was away from school around 6 months of the year every year so I never really settled, I also moved schools half way through secondary school and before I had even joined the new school there were some not very nice rumours already going around about what I was like.
Maintaining friendships has also been difficult - its hard to be reliable when you work in this industry because you never know where you're going to be and I think that's hard for a lot of people to understand. But when you surround yourself with supportive people these things really start to pay off and you realise the world is so much bigger than your school!
What advice would you give to young actors - or indeed their parents - who are thinking of starting an acting career?
I know this is kind of cringe but my advice to anyone, always, is to just never give up on whatever it is you love.
With acting there is so much rejection. It's painful, never gets easier and every rejection hurts just as much as the last, but every 'no' is one step closer to that 'yes'. You never know what is around the corner so just keep pushing.
It's okay to be upset when you don't get that job you wanted but don't dwell on it. It wasn't meant to be so brush yourself off and come back stronger. With every 'yes' you do get you always think ‘Oh, okay so that's why I didn't get the last one’. It’ll all make sense at some point - there's always a reason.
For parents, firstly I'd say never push your child into this. A lot of it is really tough to handle and the love for acting pushes you through all the really hard parts, but if their heart is not fully in it, it can be really damaging.
If they are serious, and looking for that initial start, then Instagram and Twitter are a fantastic way of finding out about any open castings. If you follow some casting directors on these platforms you'll find they often post casting calls.
Then there’s getting an agent. There's so many fab ones out there but never pay for an agent or for an audition - these are fake! Agents just take commission on the work that you do, not any up front costs.
How are things different for you now compared to when you first started?
Things are very different from when I first started out. The biggest difference is being a child actor and being an adult actor, for me, are two totally different things. I was so young when I started out, and it all just kind of happened that there was no pressure to get this job or that job, I did the best I could and had fun and that's all there was to it really.
Then as I reached my teens the pressure really started to build and I became super self conscious of what people thought of me. I felt everyone had a certain expectation of me to be something spectacular because I had worked for a long time - but I just felt I had been lucky, I didn't have anything special to offer! From this I really struggled when it came to auditions and, as a lot of people do, suffered from anxiety which lead to panic attacks. I was so petrified of what anyone thought of me and I couldn't see how I could carry on acting now that I wasn't a child.
So, I took a break for a while, I travelled and then started attending a drama course once a week which made me fall in love with acting all over again. Doing a bit of training, I realised that acting as an adult is completely different to acting as a child. I wasn't just there to say my lines, I was there to actually be a character.
This is what has helped me to be less self conscious, or at least be able to put it to the side. I realised people aren't watching Mia. If I do my job well enough they're watching whatever character I’m playing. I’m still constantly learning and I hope I always will be. I feel so lucky to get to do something I love so much and call it my job.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as an actor so far?
I really enjoy playing a lot of different roles, it's fun to be 14 year old in a world of magic one day, then a week later be a 17 year old rebel school girl. So I am really grateful for all the roles I'm getting to play at the moment!
As for the biggest lessons I've learnt...
First of all, and it seems obvious but you'd be surprised, genuinely know and understand what your character is saying. If you don't understand what it is you're saying, how will the audience?
Another hugely important thing I've learned is how much goes into the creation of every project. The whole team work so hard so make sure you do too. It's more than just saying something and hoping it sounds good, there's a whole lot of work that you can put in to everything you do, so do it, because there's also a whole lot of people who would kill to be in your place.
Finally, breathe. May sound silly, but I have a habit of being really nervous and speaking really, really fast. Nerves are the same as excitement just with a lack of breath, so remember to breathe your way through it as it can really help.
You recently starred in The Witcher alongside Henry Cavill as the titular monster hunter. What was the process for getting involved with the project and what was your experience filming?
For The Witcher, I actually recorded a self tape while I was travelling Canada in a campervan. I really didn't think the tape was great and thought there was no hope of me getting it. That's the funny thing, its usually the auditions you think you've done worst in that you end up booking!
It was an incredible experience. I was super nervous but it was such a welcoming set. Getting to work with Henry was amazing, he's obviously a phenomenal actor, but I was literally blown away by him on set. He was Geralt through and through which is the kind of actor I aspire to be. He’s also incredibly lovely and down to earth.
I found Marilka such a fun character to play. She was like this bubble of fearlessness, weirdness, kind of annoying but super lovable, fun and inspiring all at the same time. The sets and everything were so incredible that it was easy to immerse yourself completely in that world. I honestly loved every minute of that project, I only wish I was there longer!
You can currently be seen as Bree in Get Even on BBC iPlayer, what do you enjoy most about the character and working on the show?
I love Bree so much. She's constantly putting on this facade that she doesn't care about anything - but it's the complete opposite. On the surface she's this witty, sarcastic girl that doesn't need anyone but actually her biggest fear is not being loved. I love playing someone that has so many layers and finding out the reasons behind all those layers.
The show itself is based on four girls coming together to fight injustice (with a few murders thrown in). We hoped that everyone could find a little bit of themselves in the four girls. It means a lot to me to be a part of something that is hopefully relatable to a lot of different people.
On the subject of giving bullies a taste of their own medicine, have you ever had to deal with them yourself?
As I mentioned earlier, school wasn't very easy. Being away for half the year made it difficult to just try to slot in. And everyone assumed that because I ‘had been on the telly’ (cringing while I write that) that I was horrible/a diva/loved myself.
At school there were times that people would ping elastic bands and shout stuff at me while I walked down the corridors. At one point my whole class got under the tables as I walked into a classroom and would start shushing. There were a lot of rumours that went round the school about me and I also had a lot of ‘trolling’ on social media - most of the time about my weight which I found really hard to deal with. There were a number of accounts on Instagram that were created literally to just write horrible stuff in my comments. They even started doing the same to my family and friends too which is what I hated the most.
I've always known that choosing to do this as a career would mean a lot of people didn't like it - that's fine, that's my choice - but abusing my friends and family was when I found it tough. In general people assume that they know you and your background or think you must be a terrible person to be an actor which is kind of just bizarre really, you're just a person.
Do you have any advice for actors who might be going through a similar situation at school?
My advice would be, there's a whole entire world beyond school.
While you're there it feels like its everything but I left school 6 years ago now and do not think twice about it - honestly. This is easier said than done while you're still there though, so I’d also say look for the good people. I promise they are there. Surround yourself with supportive friends and they are the ones that matter.
Also talk to the friends that do support you, don't hold all the negativity in. When you speak it out loud you realise how silly the bullies are, they're the ones who have nothing better to do than try to bring someone else down, so speak it out and crack on doing what you love because that will be worth more to you than a group of people who you won’t know in a few years time.
I also liked to make a little mental list and say ‘okay, another person I get to prove wrong one day’. Having some not so nice people in your life is actually a blessing in disguise because it really makes you appreciate the good ones.
With all that said, what’s next for you and what are the kind of projects you’d like to be involved with?
This is a bit difficult to answer at the moment with all that's going on, but I am currently working with Fully Focused on creating a mini web series whilst in lockdown which is really exciting.
Beyond that I’m not too sure right now as I don't know when the industry will be up and running again - fingers crossed in time for filming season 2 of Get Even.
I’d love to do something involving stunts, etc. I’ve done a few bits that involve a small amount but watching the stunt team and Henry on The Witcher really made me want to stunt/action work!
All in all I just want to continue learning and hopefully keep on doing what I love most! Thanks Mia, we wish you all the best with it and look forward to seeing what you do next.
Keep up to date with Mia's next film projects by following her on Twitter @MiaMBruce