Michaela Coel Centers Survivors in Her New HBO Series
Michaela Coel has never shied away from controversial topics. Whether it’s straddling the line between Christianity and sex in the hilarious Chewing Gum or starring in a show based on the 1994 Rwandan genocide with Black Earth Rising, the 32-year-old multihyphenate has used her talents as an actor and writer to address topics that have historically been whispered in pockets of society rather than blasted on television screens across the world.
Now she’s set to star in her most personal work to date as Arabella in I May Destroy You.
The series tells the story of Arabella Essiedu (Coel), a writer who is at the apex of her career after being labeled “the voice of a generation” and who is in the midst of dealing with the pressures of writing a highly anticipated book. While on a break from her all-nighter of writing, Arabella is spiked with a date rape drug, is sexually assaulted, and goes on a journey of self-discovery that leads her to reassess everything in her life from family and friends to her career.
The raw television series is partially based on Coel’s own experience with sexual assault and is a strong reminder of her talents as she wrote, executively produced, and stars in the HBO drama that presents complex conversations around love, sex, and consent in 2020.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: The character you play, Arabella, is grappling with instant fame after finding success as a writer. How much of that mirrored your own experience after the success of Chewing Gum?
Michaela Coel: Well, I was never scared about the next thing that I was gonna make. I guess with Arabella, one of the ways we differ is she has a lot of ease with the people who know her work whereas I definitely had a period after Chewing Gum where I became incredibly anxious. It meant my interactions with people I didn’t know who were big supporters of my work were sometimes anxious experiences because life just changed faster than I imagined.
Was it hard to get the show commissioned during a time where the #MeToo movement was increasing as were discussions around consent?
It was a really easy process. I was lucky enough to be working on Black Earth Rising, which enabled me to meet Piers Wenger [controller of BBC Drama] and Charlotte Moore [BBC director of content], and I spoke about the project for about an hour. A couple of days later, I got an email saying that they would love to commission it straight to series. I didn’t write a treatment or a pilot; I just described it, and they were incredibly supportive.
You spent two years writing I May Destroy You and worked solely on that. What was your writing process like?
I run away somewhere, and I write what I call vomit drafts — I did this with Chewing Gum as well. I found Phil Clarke, and Phil was the head of comedy at Channel 4 when I did Chewing Gum, and I was always very determined that if I was going to do anything that I needed to find Phil. I tracked him down, found his office, and he was game. I delivered these vomit drafts to Phil [Clarke] and Roberto [Troni], and what they do is look at these containers of vomit and try to figure out what on earth it is that I’m talking about.
They ask all these questions, and as I answer these questions, I realize where I haven’t been quite clear in the vomit. I come back with draft two, draft 191, draft 192, and then we have to shoot.
I know this was one of your first experiences directing. What was it like to co-direct the series along with Sam Miller (Luther)?
What was lovely is that I had a brilliant co-director, and from very early on, we were determined to become one mind, and I learnt a lot from him. I learnt to be patient, to listen, and to really pick your battles. I had a great time, and I guess this time, my vision felt like the beginning of everything.
While filming the show, you had an intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, on set. Were you involved in finding Ita, and what was it like to work alongside her?
I think someone sent me an interview with Ita, and I forwarded the email to my co-exec-producer, and I said we need her, and we were lucky enough to get her. Not only was it important to have her because of the mental and physical well-being of the cast, it’s also great because it enabled us to go into it [a scene] safely so we could get what we need from the scene with all the safety measures in there.
Did you find the process of working on I May Destroy You cathartic?
Deeply. It was two years of writing this, traveling to places in the middle of nowhere where this is all I would do. It’s been the most cathartic joy of my life, and acting was as cathartic as playing any other character. I always find playing actors cathartic because you’re working with other people and it feels like an intense play.
Do you feel working on this project pushed your own creative boundaries after having to envision things over and over again?
When you’re writing this kind of content, which is delicate content, I think for me, I always stay with the experience of the survivor. I never wrote outside of imagining them — I wrote and became them, or in the case of Arabella, I was her. I always begin and end with the person experiencing this opposed to gazing at them from outside.
How did the process of working on I May Destroy You differ from Chewing Gum?
This differed from Chewing Gum in some ways. I was still creative in the direction of Chewing Gum, but with I May Destroy You, co-directing and having the title of co-director made me really appreciative. I think it also gave me confidence because I was being asked what I thought, and therefore I had to share it, and sharing gives confidence. It was nice to realize that it was okay for my vision to be trusted and to settle into that.
I May Destroy You premieres June 7 on HBO.