Michaela Coel reveals the BBC 'took the reins off' for I May Destroy You's hard-hitting scenes: "They let me do anything"
Craig McLean meets Michaela Coel and talks about the process of getting I May Destroy You on to screen.
Michaela Coel zooms into view on my laptop, all sunshine cheerfulness and boundless enthusiasm with, in the foreground, a bucket-sized beaker of green juice. It pretty much fills the screen.
“It’s almost as if I wanted you to notice it!” is her playful rejoinder when I ask what it is. Apologising, the actor/writer/director says it was blending this health-giving smoothie that made her a notch late for our lunchtime interview. “Why did I do this?” she ponders. “Because it’s quick and I haven’t eaten yet.”
Coel first came to our attention in 2015 as the creator and star of the double-Bafta-winning E4 comedy Chewing Gum; now she’s here to talk about her latest, very different, project, the must-see BBC One drama I May Destroy You, which she also wrote and stars in.
She is isolating alone in a flat in Shoreditch, east London, at the moment but is weathering the solitude just fine. “This is a very familiar mode to me. I write long… things, so I go away to the middle of nowhere and don’t see human beings for weeks on end,” she explains of a routine that has taken her to writing retreats in Somerset, Cornwall, Zurich, Berlin and Lake Tahoe. “So, I’m OK. I’ve got my health!”
The 32-year-old Londoner is maintaining her physical and mental health by exercising and meditating. She runs or cycles daily, using her outdoor excursions to exchange the occasional nod or smile with strangers. “It’s like a dopamine hit for me.” As for the meditation – “My method is, I focus on my breath, and sometimes play with my breath. So I’ll take a big, big breath in, then just release it, and I do that over and over again, so lots of oxygen gets into my brain.”
That lust for life in the teeth of adversity is shot through I May Destroy You. A dark drama studded with nuggets of hard humour, it centres on Arabella (Coel), a 20-something Londoner whose sharp, pithy tweets go viral and propel her from social media star to bestselling author of a memoir titled Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial.
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She wins a publishing deal for a follow-up book but, struggling to meet her deadline, pulls an all-nighter. To let off steam, she pops out for drinks with friends. As we see in unflinching detail, the evening gets big, boozy, druggy and messy, with Arabella ending up back in front of her laptop with a fuzzy recollection of events. But as the hangover-clouds part, she experiences flashbacks that indicate that she’s been the victim of a sexual assault.
Over two and a half years in the making, I May Destroy You – provocative, witty and beautifully acted – has a back story as twisted as its plot. Firstly it is, at heart, autobiographical.
Delivering the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2018, Coel used her speech to reveal the horrific event that happened to her in the midst of a scriptwriting session for series two of Chewing Gum.
“I was working overnight in the [production] company’s offices; I had an episode due at 7am,” she told the audience. “I took a break and had a drink with a good friend who was nearby. I emerged into consciousness typing season two, many hours later. I was lucky. I had a flashback. It turned out I’d been sexually assaulted by strangers. The first people I called after the police, before my own family, were the producers.”
Speaking now, she tells me that, at the time she made the speech, she’d already been writing I May Destroy You for six months. But after the attack happened at the beginning of 2016, she quickly knew that she’d turn the personal trauma into a creative response.
“You go through the very normal [process] – as I try to depict in the second episode – almost like an initiation into victimhood. You’re quickly sent, in the police investigation, into the [sexual assault] referrals unit, and your swabs are taken.”
She’s keen to stress that the show is not wholly an account of her experiences. “That was the beginning. But talking to different people, I began to realise that mine was not a rare experience, and that there were many different kinds of sexual assault, where consent was taken from you and you were unaware.
“So then many, many stories developed, which enabled me to continue through 12 episodes and find a way to make it not just be about my personal experience.”
Raised in east London by her Ghanaian mum, Coel started out as a performance poet and won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Post-college, she began landing parts in National Theatre productions, securing a writing commission from the Royal Court. There were acting roles on television, too, notably in Top Boy and Black Mirror.
But it’s clearly her own writing, her own projects, that most fire her up. Coel’s one-woman play, Chewing Gum Dreams, part of her final year’s work at Guildhall, was a fringe theatre hit in 2012 and became the basis for Chewing Gum. The sitcom ran for two series and followed the comic misadventures of a formerly God- fearing woman desperate to lose her virginity.
The storylines, as hilarious as they were often wincingly mortifying, were inspired by her own teenage conversion to Pentecostal Christianity. Coel embraced a “militant faith” that compelled her to stay celibate between the ages of 17 and 22. She was so devout she converted her mother and sister, too.
It was in January 2016, a few months before her two Chewing Gum Bafta wins (for breakthrough talent and best female performance in a comedy), that the assault happened. The following year she began shopping around the idea for a show based on her experience. “I pitched to HBO and they could see, more than I could, that I wasn’t ready to do the show – it was too soon.”
Having shelved the idea, in 2018 she was shooting Black Earth Rising. The gripping BBC Two/Netflix thriller about African war crimes, written and directed by Hugo Blick, featured Coel in a leading role alongside John Goodman and Harriet Walter. In the midst of production, Netflix asked for more information about her new idea.
“I pitched it to them, they liked it, but niggling in my mind was a desire to retain a small portion of my rights as the creator, writer, director, star of the show – even two per cent of my rights. And they wouldn’t go for that,” she says with a wry smile. “So, I said no.”
But during the shoot for Black Earth Rising, “I got to know the BBC a little bit, so I went in to meet them. We spoke for an hour, then Piers [Wenger, controller of BBC drama commissioning] emailed me in September to say: ‘We would like you to do this show with us. And we would like you to make it as near the knuckle, as honest and as true to your creative vision as you desire. And we want you to have your rights, too.”
Retelling the story now, Coel beams. “And this email was humbling. Humbling. Humbling! I sometimes go back to it and read it now!”
I May Destroy You is a gripping, unsettling watch, as it must be. There is scatological humour and explicit sex, some involving Arabella, some involving her gay male best friend, some involving threesomes. There is significant drug use. There are intimate details relating to periods. Was there any pushback from the BBC to any of these scenes?
“No! And, you know, periods aren’t taboo. How could a period be taboo? It’s like saying oxygen is taboo. No, there was no pushback.”
Still, she understands what I’m getting at. “Honestly, friends are like: ‘Oh, God, was it hard doing it with the BBC?’ I’m like: ‘Guys, they let me [do anything].’ You know those things you put your toddler in – some sort of harness?”
“Yeah? The BBC took them off. And I just went running, s***ting, vomiting, period-ing everywhere. And they were like: ‘Good!’”
She laughs as she delineates the “insane” demands on her time, energies and focus during the gruelling six-month shoot for a 12-episode show that, when we speak, she’s still finishing. She likens it to “a big, long extended high. It’s like being in a long labour! And at the end you get a baby. And this is my baby.”
I May Destroy You is the story Michaela Coel had to tell. It’s part of her process of recovery, and it’s part of her mission to amplify conversations about sexual consent, sexual assault, self-destructive behaviour, male abuse of power and the proliferating use of date-rape drugs.
Was anyone charged with the crimes committed against her? “No,” she replies flatly. “It was a year and three months of brilliant work by the investigators but they were never found.”
The suspects were identified, because there were cameras in the bar. But, nonetheless, nobody was brought to justice. That, she says, is “very common. This is the way it normally is. But the miracle is, I had a flash [of memory]. The miracle is I happened to realise. The way this normally is, nothing is ever done because nobody really remembers.”
Does she know what physically happened to her? Pause. “Um, I do. But I don’t know how useful it is for us to go into that. What I would love when people watch this show, is to try and see themselves. There are so many characters. Look for yourself, and separate me, and look at this world. Because it’s so common. I realised that my experiences are the experiences of millions of women and men.”
It’s a facile question, one I apologise for asking, but: how did this experience change Michaela Coel? Did it make a confident, out-going person much more guarded?
“No, no I didn’t. I definitely had…” She stops, then starts again. “It’s very scary and it’s very shocking because it’s a traumatic event. But people generally react in different ways to things. Something can make you retreat. But also there’s this idea of running into [something]… you just keep going into it, I won’t back down, I’m gonna start boxing, I’m gonna start running… It’s coping mechanisms, isn’t it?”
She agrees that creating these stories and these characters was also part of her coping mechanism. “It’s not a conscious thing [of]: ‘In order to cope, I’m gonna write this show,’” she clarifies. “But I’ve always written based on something inspiring me from reality, with everything I’ve done, even as a poet. So the inception of it was something true. But then it became this huge story of all these fictional characters that I was able to create – some of whom were rapists, some of whom were victims of horrible crimes, creating family structures and friendships…
And that focus does help you cope.
“Falling in love with all these characters – because they were all creations of my imagination – you learn to love yourself. And you learn to perceive the world in maybe a healthier light.”
For her next project, Coel admits that she might ease up a little, and write something less personal and less exposing.
“And if-slash-when I do that, I think it would involve this mysterious thing called ‘the writers’ room’ that I’ve heard about, where other people are also doing [the writing],” she laughs, adding that, before the pandemic hit, she was due to shadow “absolute legend” Jesse Armstrong in his writing room for his hugely popular US drama series Succession.
“I am so curious, so the minute I get a chance I’m gonna be like a little mouse on Jesse Armstrong’s shoulders, listening in, trying to experience how it happens. Because I’ve never been in one. But that would be the next phase.”
When it comes to her own viewing, what does she enjoy? “I see great TV around me. I thought Trigonometry was incredible – great roles for women, great roles for men of colour. Pure was also fantastic. What I do think is: when we are given the opportunity to make the content, roles appear that are great for women, great roles appear for people of colour, for people from working-class backgrounds.
“This is what we need: I still feel there is a lack of content created by working-class people in this country. And I think we really have a long way to go.”
As for I May Destroy You, she says she isn’t apprehensive about sharing these brutal experiences with the public. “It’s really lovely to know that this show may enable people who feel alone in having a particular experience to know that they’re not alone. TV is a form of communication, and some people find it really hard to communicate with anyone, let alone a therapist. This is just a little something that might lead you towards a step of getting the help you need. Of feeling some sort of commonality from one victim, survivor – however you want to call it – to another.”
But also be entertained? “Oh my God, yes! Because it is a ride. And it’s funny. And it goes way beyond the subject of sexual assault. Because sexual assault exists in a world where a lot of other things are happening.”
I leave sunny, positive, forward-pushing Michaela Coel to another afternoon in lockdown, to her running, meditating and flagon of green gunk. I wonder if those are alternatives to the corona-coping self-medication mechanism being deployed by many of the rest of us, as it’s been reported that Coel is teetotal. Did she stop drinking as a result of what happened to her?
“No, I wouldn’t say I don’t drink any more. I feel like a journalist may have caught me at one point where I didn’t drink – then that moment kinda passed!” she cackles. “So maybe on a Saturday I’ll have a glass of wine. Or, what I got into a couple of weekends ago, making my own strawberry daiquiri. And I put a little bit of oat milk in there – hey, smoothie! And it was fantastic.
“So, I fluctuate,” she admits, and that includes her sugar intake, too. “The Friday before last I had four jam doughnuts, vegan churros and vegetarian Percy Pigs in one day. I have highs,” she smiles, “and lows.”
Just like the rest of us, then, but Coel is able to metabolise even the worst kind of lows into high-flying TV triumphs.
I May Destroy You - what you need to know
- Michaela Coel takes the lead role as Arabella, who is sexually assaulted on a night out. Resisting the label of victim, the powerful lead character must fight for her own identity.
- Who is in the I May Destroy You cast? Michaela Coel plays Arabella, Weruche Opia plays Terry, Paapa Essiedu plays Kwame alongside a star-studded line-up.
- How do I watch I May Destroy You? Check out the "biting and brave series" on BBC iPlayer now.
- I May Destroy You review - read our verdict
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.