Michaela Coel is turning personal trauma into powerful drama
Sexual assault, sexual pleasure, consent, defiance, survival: the Londoner packs a powerful punch with her provocative new TV series I May Destroy You.
Double BAFTA winner. Leading actress. Writer. Producer. Director. Poet. Is there anything on stage or screen that Michaela Coel can’t do? No, not really.
Before unforgettable moments in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (twice – in the Nosedive and USS Callister episodes), Hugo Blick’s powerful BBC war crimes drama Black Earth Rising and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Coel announced herself as a rare and special talent with her first TV show, 2015’s self-written, semi-autobiographical E4 sitcom Chewing Gum.
Echoing Coel’s years growing up in east London with her mother and sister, the offbeat comedy followed the cringeworthy storylines of 24-year-old Tracey Gordon, whose lack of luck in love and sex was due to the religious faith she was desperately trying to shake off.
Five years on, the 32-year-old follows that sensational debut with a still (occasionally) funny but much darker second series. I May Destroy You, broadcasting on BBC1 and HBO, is a 12-part series in which Coel plays millennial-voice writer Arabella Essiedu. She’s a “carefree Londoner” whose life is upended when she’s the victim of sexual assault after her drink is spiked on a night out with friends.
Exploring sexual consent and the modern day landscape of dating and relationships, I May Destroy You packs a powerful punch.
As with Chewing Gum, the show is rooted in personal experience. In 2016 Coel was sexually assaulted in circumstances not dissimilar to those experienced by Arabella. Writing and dramatising the event, she explains, became a way to channel emotion and make sense of a senseless act.
“I write to separate myself from the event to try to understand it,” she says. “That was my personal importance.” Since sharing her experiences, she adds, Coel has connected with victims and survivors, creating an open dialogue that she’s been able to channel into I May Destroy You.
Without giving the game away, expect scenes of excessive drug-taking, explosive altercations and toe-curling sex sessions throughout. These are exactly the details Coel needed to be allowed to include in a show on which she is showrunner as well as creator and star.
“When I got the greenlight from the BBC in September 2017, I remember the email: ‘We want you to make it as near to the knuckle as you want.’ So if that’s what y’all said…” she smiles.
When we connect via Zoom, Coel is holed up in her flat in Shoreditch, east London, enduring lockdown like the rest of us.
“But because I write longform, I spend a lot of time in the middle of nowhere completely alone, so this felt like: ‘Oh, everybody’s going to be doing that thing that I do… cool!’ – except with devastation underpinning everything, which gives it quite a different tone. But I’m quite happy, even though I miss humans.”
Firstly, Michaela, the big question: how are you surviving lockdown?
I’ve been going on lots of runs because you get eye contact, and that tiny exchange means so much to me right now. And I listen to loads of podcasts. Hidden Brain I really like. It’s an NPR psychology podcast about the brain, led by Shankar Vedantam. So that’s one of my regular voices. Every episode investigates a different thing. I’m also listening to Science Vs and I’m taking a course called The Science of Well-Being. It’s a Yale course that they’ve made free for everybody during the pandemic. So that’s been pretty cool.
Noticing a scientific theme here – are you taking a career turn?
[Laughs] No! Even when writing the show, one of the pillars for me has always been to ask where the characters are psychologically. I have to begin there or I’m not sure of their intentions.
In 2018 I was a fellow at The Wellcome Trust, which is the biggest science hub in the UK. I got free access into that building and got to meet and talk with loads of people from different fields within science. I wonder if that slightly shifted [my mindset]. But, then, I did study psychology in college. My mum is a mental health nurse and my sister is a psychology teacher, so it’s already been ingrained in there.
What’s been the biggest change promoting a TV show during a pandemic?
No photoshoots! But once you don’t get to have them anymore, [you realise] they’re such a lovely thing to do. I miss being dressed up, and the make-up people, and the lighting, and them capturing you. I miss the flamboyance of that. If you’d asked me six months ago, I would have been like: “Nah… SUSTAINABILITY! NO MORE PHOTOSHOOTS!” Now it’s like: “Oh, come on… just one.”
Your new show was originally titled January 22nd. Why did you change it?
I thought January 22nd was a naff title. It was like: “Guys, I know we’re really attached to this title because woahhh all the things come full circle and [INFORMATION REDACTED; NO SPOILERS ON OUR WATCH] on January 22nd.” But it’s not interesting. I much preferred I May Destroy You because many of the characters throughout the series face a choice in what actions they are going to take and how they will respond to traumatic events. I think that title does a good job of encompassing many different plots and ideas.
Tell us about the writing process.
Oh, man! I began writing this in February 2018. I’ve been to a lot of places: a cabin in Michigan, Lake Tahoe a couple of times, Kent, Inverness, Somerset, Kent again, Spain. That’s a lot of places, isn’t it? Somebody likes flying planes through polluted skies. That is so bad, but I have to get away! Oh, also Thurso in Scotland. I took trains where I could. But sometimes somebody has a spare house and they let me sit in there for free, so I’ll go to whoever has a free yard in the middle of nowhere.
Towards the end, I did actually write my final drafts on my mum’s couch and I was surprised that I didn’t really need to go away to do it. Before I felt like I had no choice – like I needed to go away to hit the deadlines.
How did you get the idea?
It originated from my own reality. I was spiked by a stranger and I guess the beginning of my story is quite similar to Arabella’s – I had a flashback the next day. Because I’m a writer, I’ve always drawn from something that is happening in my life, even when I was a poet. I knew quite quickly to begin documenting it. Somewhere in my mind I knew I would be writing it. But that was four years ago.
Why was it important for you to tell this story?
It began on a personal level, I think in order for me to try to forge sense into very senseless behaviour. I write, whether it’s about separating myself from the event to try to understand it, or whether it allows me to go inside the event to form an understanding. It’s one or the other. That was my personal importance. Then, as I began to write, I began to talk to different people who shared their personal stories with me, and then I realised that this is a very common thing. This seems to happen all the time, everywhere. Everybody seems to have a story, which made me feel like this did have some importance.
If it happens to you, I think it’s nice that there may be a TV show out there from one victim-survivor to another to say: you’re not alone. Because I think you tend to feel very alone for a period after that happens to you. It’s cool to go “hey” on a big screen.
Was it cathartic to write?
It was definitely cathartic. It was an absolute trip. Two years of writing and redrafting and redrafting. Then, slowly, it’s not about you anymore; it becomes incredibly fictional. I’ve done over 75 drafts of all 12 of these episodes and, the more you look into this world, you have another perspective. It was beautiful. It gave me empathy for all of these characters I’d created, and empathy for myself.
Why was it important for you to play the lead role of Arabella?
You know, it kind of wasn’t. It’s just like I’ve already done some stuff so the broadcasters were like: “…and you’re gonna play her, right?” If that’s what gets me the deal! But also, I love to act. That’s the fun bit. The rest of this shit [laughs], honestly, it’s not that fun. Writing is rewarding. Don’t know that it’s fun. But acting is like you’re a kid, you’re free, it’s all in your body and you’re working with other actors and you’re pretending.
Going back into the process of producing and acting and writing a show for a second time after Chewing Gum: how did the experience differ?
Chewing Gum is a blur. But what I do remember is not leading in terms of the direction. When I saw something going wrong I would say: “Guys, that’s not right.” So I was correcting a lot. But with I May Destroy You, I was asked a lot from the beginning to find the right locations and asked how I saw certain sequences moving. So it felt like I was given creative control and I was trusted a lot more and supported, particularly by my co-director [Sam Miller]. He taught me how to listen, because that’s what he did. It was as challenging, but I didn’t have to fight to be heard and I didn’t feel powerless. Not to say I felt powerless in Chewing Gum, but I was definitely given power with this show.
After all that time writing, did you enjoy being back onset?
I just loved every single day. There is a guy called Kwame on the show and sometimes he would look at me and he would go: “You’re tripping out, aren’t you?” And I’d be like: “Yeah, this is crazy! What the hell is going on? How have I come from the reality of this to making this HUGE show with hundreds of people? It’s bizarre.” So, although it was gruelling, I was always hyped. I was gassed every day. Even in post-production, every day is dreamy.
This show boldly pushes boundaries. The drug-taking scenes are anxiety inducing, the sex scenes are up-close and you’re showing physically intimate moments that channels are normally keen to censor. What was your intention from the outset?
It’s not far from my reality in terms of my sexual history, so it doesn’t feel risqué because it’s happened. It just feels kind of nice.
How was it taking on a leading dramatic role on Black Earth Rising?
That was definitely more than fun. I learnt a lot as a showrunner. I learnt a lot from Hugo Blick, who I had always been a huge fan of since [2011 BBC thriller] The Shadow Line. I never ever expected to be called into an audition for a Hugo Blick project.
It’s like saying you’re going to find yourself having coffee with Beyoncé. You’re not really going to expect to do that. I would tweet about Hugo Blick, like: “Guys you’ve gotta watch this show… I JUST WANNA SHAKE THIS MAN”S HAND.” Seven years later I was going into the room.
He has a very wise and developed perspective on life, on history, on current times and he’s very calm, very intelligent. He writes everything himself like me. He also started off with a comedy, [2000’s Rob Brydon-starring] Marion and Geoff, and then went into drama. See how I’m fanning out right now and doing all the parallels?
I would have always said before that I don’t have mentors because I don’t have an official mentor. But if you actually just look around at my relationships, I utilise them even if it’s just occasional text messages. There is this sense of mentorship there with Phil Clarke, my co-exec on I May Destroy You. He was Head of Comedy at Channel 4 when I did Chewing Gum and I see him as a mentor.
They are like father figures and they are all men, which is sad on one level because this industry is very male-dominated. But what I can say of these men is that I respect them very deeply.
Have you noticed a change in diversity within the industry?
I wouldn’t know specifically because I’m not looking at data. I had an all-female camera team, which was glorious. We had lots of people of colour. It was beautiful. It’s nice energy when we’re all in the room together, all of us.
How can we get more young people of colour in the writers’ room?
Now I’m thinking, it must just be by force. I don’t know how else. I was talking to my friend the other day who is a writer and keeps getting red lights. And I really began to wonder: how many writers from non-white backgrounds or LGBTQ communities get treatments put forward, and how many are getting the red light? Because I’m not really seeing a lot in terms of British television. I don’t want to feel like the only person. Sometimes it does feel a little bit like that in this country. It’s like you have to prove yourself first and write.
On my next show I have the power to have a [writers’] room. Right now, it’s something that I’m really thinking about. I think we need more content writers from BAME backgrounds to ensure that there are tables with more BAME writers.
How important is it for you to tell African origin stories in a western TV setting?
It’s all I’ve lived. I know a lot of other writers don’t do this because they write properly, so they think up stories. But I begin with what’s immediate, and that is my immediate. I was born into it.
Finally: what’s next?
A break! I’m not doing anything. I haven’t had one. I’m really making sure I don’t line anything up, as tempting as everything sounds. I need three months of nothing.
I May Destroy You starts on HBO on 7th June and BBC1 on 8th June