The misfit-education of Michaela Coel

With the game-changing I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel has created a daring, funny, shocking drama about abuse, consent and modern millennial life that’s been hailed as the television drama of the year. Coel talks to Gaylene Gould about finding her ‘misfit’ voice and constructing the New World of TV.

25 August 2020

By Gaylene Gould

Sight and Sound
Michaela Coel photographed by Anna Rosova; make up by Julia Edwards

This feature is also published as the cover story of our September 2020 issue.

▶︎ I May Destroy You is available on BBC iPlayer.

Spoiler alert: this interview discusses plot revelations in I May Destroy You.


Just when we need it most, Michaela Coel is uniting our world. Her new series I May Destroy You is unifying the left and the right, blog and broadsheet, Britons and beyond in the vote for the finest TV drama of 2020. Coel may not be what a ‘traditional’ popular British export is supposed to look like, but then again, our popular exports have never really looked like Britain’s established view of itself. Remember The Beatles?

Born Michaela Ewuraba Boakye-Collinson in 1987 at the height of Britain’s rebellious alternative comedy phase, 32-year-old Coel is in many ways an exemplar of her ambitious generation. She’s proudly working class, of Ghanaian heritage, and defiantly original. In all these respects, she’s decidedly British, an unintended consequence of the empire’s long arm, which sweeps up a mélange of class and cultures and produces someone as uniquely brilliant as her. In so many ways she could only come from Britain.

The term ‘entitled’ used to be the preserve of old-school privilege. Now, thankfully, Coel’s born-and-bred East London swagger has her claim the right to express her identity in any way that fits. For Coel, as for many others of her generation, the boundaries of class, gender, race and sexuality are to be transgressed, not obeyed, and talent will out. Border crossing has formed an integral part of Coel’s identity from the beginning. She straddles Ghanaian and British cultures, grew up in a block of flats that marks the dividing line between Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and her creative voice was born by mashing up literature, theology, spoken word, music, theatre and TV.

“I love the world that I’ve come from,” Coel explains when I speak to her via Zoom during lockdown. “But I’m realising how invisible this world has been, in terms of our television. So there’s a homage that I’m paying to the world that I know. And it also helps me remember it, because I’d never want to forget it.”

Coel’s budding talent was nurtured simultaneously at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (she was reportedly the first Black woman to be admitted in five years when she started in 2009) and Talawa, the UK’s oldest Black theatre company. At around the same time, Coel began performing her own poems as ‘Michaela the Poet’ at spoken-word nights in small venues across London, releasing an album in 2009. In this period, her ability to mix cultural forms began to reveal itself. On one night Coel might be found spitting lyrics in a tiny spoken-word club and the next, reciting Shakespeare on the stage of the National Theatre. This versatility found its form in her one-person Guildhall graduation show Chewing Gum Dreams, which wound up at the National before catching the eye of Channel 4 executives.

Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum (2015)

Coel border-crossed again, flinging open the doors to the world of British TV, and whipping up viewers with her 2015 Bafta-winning debut comedy series Chewing Gum. The series made for exhilarating “what the fuck?” TV. Not since The Young Ones (1982-84) had a sitcom so ripped up our idea of what is allowed on telly. This breakthrough show swam in the risky cross-current between propriety and crudeness, shame and liberation, and mixed awkward sex, toilet humour and bodily fluids with frank, insightful interactions between friends and lovers across race, class and the gender spectrum.

Coel herself played Tracey, the show’s rude-girl, church-adjacent sexual-buffoon. Tracey lives on a London estate, much like the one Michaela herself grew up in, surrounded by her tribe of misfits, and subjects herself – and us – to cringe-inducing attempts to get laid.

Chewing Gum’s success proved that British audiences are far more intersectional, expansive, thoughtful and brave than the like of Mrs. Brown’s Boys would have us believe. (It’s also perhaps true that Coel’s comic instinct owes more of a debt to ribald, saucy British humour than to slick, aspirational American sitcoms. There’s an unmistakable smutty throughline from Carry On to Chewing Gum.)

Coel as Kate Ashby in Black Earth Rising (2018)

Along the way, Coel’s background as a classically trained actress led her to small parts in TV work written by others, such as episodes of Top Boy in 2013 and London Spy in 2015 and in particular Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising (2018), in which she gave a searing lead performance as an adopted Rwandan genocide survivor. Blick described Coel’s performance as running on “nuclear fusion”.

Coel as Simone in Been So Long (2018)

In many ways, her lead role in Ché Walker’s film musical Been So Long (2018) took her back to her roots. It was a reunion with Walker, who was one of the first to nurture her talent after he saw her perform as a poet, and the role also required her to sing, allowing her to tap into another of her youthful passions, music.

However, as powerful as they are, those performances were but side hustles for fans of Coel’s own writing, and the follow-up to Chewing Gum was eagerly awaited. I May Destroy You finally came to the screen three long years after Chewing Gum, and for good reason.

While giving an Edinburgh TV Festival keynote speech in 2018, Coel made the horrifying admission that she had been drugged and raped while writing the second series of Chewing Gum. With her striking, elfin, dark-skinned beauty, our image of a victim was immediately and powerfully subverted. And with characteristic frankness, Coel used this moment to turn the mirror back on to us. How did we as an industry care for young women like her? Why are our expectations of men’s behaviour so low that abuses like this are everyday occurrences?

Then Coel surprised us again. She waved off the #MeToo train, deactivated her social media accounts, retreated to a lake in Italy and got to work. Two years later she emerged with a story exploring the legacy of rape, consent, trauma, catharsis and forgiveness. As with Chewing Gum, I May Destroy You is proof that the more specific the story, the more universal the reach. Both are rooted in precise autobiographical truths, and defy the formula of what should make hit TV.

The morning after bingeing on I May Destroy You, I came across the latest edition of the psychology podcast This Jungian Life. The topic was dissociation, the way the psyche defends against trauma by withdrawing consciousness. Instead we manifest uncontrollable behaviours, develop memory slippages.

Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You

Arabella, the protagonist of I May Destroy You, is precisely such a character. She’s a London-based writer, struggling to complete the followup to her bestselling, zeitgeisty debut novel Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Arabella’s freewheeling charisma thrills us at first. We squeal squeamishly at the show’s daring – scenes of graphic period sex forever burned into our minds – but daren’t look away.

But, as we strap in for the ride, we also sense that we’re about to witness a slow car crash. Arabella is behind on delivering her follow-up book to her publisher, but nevertheless the night before a deadline heads to a bar with friends, and gets wasted – so wasted that there are holes in her memories of the night. How did she get home? Who was she with at the end? And why is she plagued by sudden image flashes of a man looming over her in a bar toilet?

As the series moves through its 12 episodes, however, we begin to realise that Arabella’s memory blackouts began long before she was drugged and raped, and in the gaps we glimpse a deeper drama surging beneath. I May Destroy You is perhaps one of the greatest screen lessons in dissociation since Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964).

The startling clarity of the series lies not only in its psychological veracity but also in the way it problematises the simplistic victim vs oppressor binary. Instead, through following Arabella’s journey, and that of her gay friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who is also abused during a casual sexual encounter, we are invited to explore the more nuanced idea that we each exist on a sliding scale of complicity and confusion. It is this complex layering that makes I May Destroy You so bold and prescient.

Rarely too have we seen so well rendered the way Black women navigate the tension between race and gender, or the intergenerational trauma passed down from Black mothers to their girls. There are eddies in the breathless harum-scarum pace of Arabella’s life that made space for my own tears – the quiet moment of impossible heartbreak when we rest on Arabella’s long-suffering mother’s face being one of them.

What we witness over the show’s 12 episodes is the healing of Arabella’s maladaptive psyche. Once she unpacks the memories she has stuffed beneath the bed, dons the horns of her own darkness and baptises herself in the sea, her true freedom can begin.

Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You

With I May Destroy You, you took a traumatic period in your life and over two years wrote the screenplay as an act of catharsis and transcendence. It’s now been rapturously received, so how are you feeling now it’s out in the world?

I often use the ‘other child’ metaphor to describe my relationship to my work. I always thought my child was awesome, but now other people do too. I feel so proud. It’s quite a lot to process the response.

I’m interested in the way you centre vulnerability in your writing and whether you ever suffer what American professor Brené Brown calls “vulnerability hangover”? Basically, once you put something in the world that’s so honest, there’s a moment of terror afterwards.

I’m in the middle of the moment of the terror now! You have to let it come, don’t you? I’ve felt the same way after everything that I’ve put out.

Getting there has been heartbreaking, funny, joyous, awfully hard, exhausting, difficult; I’ve learnt so much and now I’m so sad to finish. Not that I’ve ever died, but I compare it to living and dying; it feels like I’m on a death bed, looking over my life going, “Oh my god, it was great and I’m so gutted to leave.”

The series is a textbook study of the effect of trauma on the subconscious – I can imagine psychology students right now are gearing up to do their thesis on it. You litter the text with all these psychological clues, and it’s our job, with Arabella, to work them out.

Arabella is a perfect embodiment of disassociation. She has memory losses. She immerses herself in drugs. She stuffs her repressed memories under the bed. The bar is even called Ego Death. Was your intention to do a psychological ‘whodunnit’, and how many of those clues were you consciously aware of while writing?

I knew something of the ending and I had the beginning, but I didn’t have anything in between. It’s funny you describe littering the episodes with clues, because in many ways it was almost as if I found the clues myself while writing and realised how I would finish the series.

It was seeing how the characters were dealing with their trauma. I was looking at the resources the police give you when you’ve been assaulted – there’s actually, like, a PDF pack about PTSD [post-traumatic stress disroder], and the stages of grief. Then I was back on the script.

There’s definitely this sense, as you are writing, of not being entirely conscious of the meaning of what you’re doing. It’s like something else is looking for fingers and hands and a brain to be available so that it can get this thing out – it’s looking for a body to bring itself to life; similar to motherhood and fatherhood.

I don’t write in the way that I think sensible writers write, which is to plan and then write. I just start, and often my own jaw drops as the plot twists begin to occur. As I write, I travel around and have experiences and they thread themselves into what I’m writing. I’ve gone to Lake Tahoe and I’ve looked at the water. Oh, where did this ‘water’ metaphor come from? Everything for me begins with a stream of consciousness; it’s the only way I know how to begin.

Coel in I May Destroy You

Do you find a similar process with directing? Or is that more structured?

I like working with actors, so I’ll talk from the actor’s perspective. As I wrote this, I had to really look in the mirror and understand what I might look like outside. When I understood that, I then had to love who I was and, as the characters also came from me, I had to love them too. So when the actors came to portray them, I wanted them to love themselves and to feel justified in everything they were doing.

So, when Terry [Arabella’s best friend, played in a breakthrough performance by Weruche Opia] understands that she is the reason Arabella was left at the club [by herself before she was attacked], you can’t look badly on that. You have to remember that Terry is also a great friend, you have to remember that as you do the scene.

The actor [Kadiff Kirwan] who plays the police officer [in the scene in which Paapa Essiedu’s character Kwame goes to the police station to report that he has been assaulted on a Grindr date], I had to tell him too, “No, you’re trying to help. You are not here to play the homophobic police officer. You’re trying your best. Everybody is trying their best.”

Another thing, as we shot, it can be very easy for the focus puller to pull the focus from the person who is experiencing the pain. But when the characters become very dark and very difficult to look at, it’s all the more important for me to not lower the focus, to keep looking at them. Once our focus puller got that – Mairead Albiston, she’s fantastic – she ran with it.

It became the same in the edits. I would go into the edit and see what the editors had done and be surprised to find that what I meant was still coming across, even when ten minutes had been removed. The story was in safe hands… It was a village raising the child.

The show moves beyond concepts of victim and oppressor to an idea of healing and wholeness. Is that something you wanted to express from the start or did that idea reveal itself in the writing?

It revealed itself through the writing. Every draft… it becomes clearer. Also, stepping away from social media, stepping away from a space where you are looking out and observing what’s going on outside all the time, somewhere that robs your introspection.

When I left [social media], I was taken by surprise at the things that I was really looking to understand. It allowed me to have empathy for myself and for other people. It brought me a sense of calm.

Coel in I May Destroy You

One aspect of the show that I’ve rarely seen rendered so well is the competing agendas of race and gender, and how this plays out for young Black women. Young Arabella goes to bat on behalf of a young Black boy, who has effectively sexually abused a troubled young white girl – and it’s only later that Arabella begins to awaken to the fact that she’s suffered treachery at the hands of men. Was that something you witnessed, or felt, as a Black woman growing up?

Yes, there’s something that fascinates me about identity and what happens when we need a tribe. We’ve come a long way, as a species. We live these lives where we don’t necessarily need to be in a pack, but for some reason we sometimes feel threatened, like we need a tribe.

Arabella experiences that in school – especially in a school where the teachers were quite racist. So she protects her tribe. And then, as her life evolved and she understood that she experienced treachery at the hands of men, she still felt she needed a new tribe. So she joined another and began to protect women, even when their behaviour is questionable.

But as Arabella goes through the 12 episodes, she learns to understand the power of thinking within and outside of the tribe. We need to figure out how we behave and what action we take as a community, but we also have to remember how we feel as individuals. There’s communal trauma and then there’s how we deal with our own personal, psychological trauma. They require different actions. This fascinates me.

The other trauma here is intergenerational. The backstory with the mother, where we see her abuse at the hands of her husband, is deeply moving. We come to understand that the rape is actually the final straw of Arabella’s unravelling, not the cause – the pain of treachery has been passed down to her. This is an unspoken reality for many Black girls.

Yes, and we disassociate from it. In the first two episodes, we see Arabella go into denial. Then we realise she’s always been doing that. The [date rape] drug made her forget, but she’s always been forgetting.

I find it harrowing that, in order to get by, she can’t process these things. She hasn’t been taught to process things. Her mum couldn’t process things, because her mum was busy raising children and didn’t want to pass it on. But, by actively not passing it on, you’re passing on the act of not dealing with this.

This terrible web; how does Arabella begin to un-knit it? I think the first thing is acceptance and that might be what we see her do. This line used to be in the script, but it was cut a long time ago – “How close does the screen need to be, for us to realise it’s a mirror?”

Coel with Weruche Opia as Terry in I May Destroy You

As a British-African talent, your productions are generous affairs, creating space for other British-African actors. We’ve got Chewing Gum to thank for the rise of Susan Wokoma, for instance, and I’m really hoping we’re going to see Weruche Opia in lead roles from here on in. The African-British context has been really important to your work so far. Will it continue to be? Especially given the pull to the US that a lot of British talent feel.

Well, I love diversity. I’m born in London of immigrant parents. I grew up in a block of flats that straddled two boroughs, so I’m always interested in what happens when we diversify. And this, for me, means I’m open to doing many, many things.

But I love the world that I’ve come from. I’d never want to forget it. So this is like an act of remembering. Like Arabella, my memory is a bit full.

You’ve spoken about how important it is to you to write, star, direct and run the overall show. As a young British-African star in British TV you’re something of a unicorn. Given the rise of the Black Lives Matter voice, what is your relationship to your own power within this sector?

It was important for me to do all those things within the show because it was so personal. But it’s not just that it’s personal. I’m aware that I am a minority within this industry and so putting [the work] into the hands of people who will take it whilst really not understanding it is frightening for me.

I want audiences who are from worlds like mine to recognise themselves in what I’m doing. It’s quite a daunting industry and sometimes, when you’re a bit scared, you allow people in who don’t really understand it, and then it changes it – and I worry that, when it gets to the audience, it looks like it’s been tampered with in a way that isn’t right. But I don’t know whether that’s an anxiety that I need to work on and lose – to trust other people more, to collaborate.

The thing with this show is that the root was so internal, it wasn’t collaborative at the start. I’m curious about how I can create a space where everybody is free to explore their internal mind with each other, and what that looks like. The space I have in mind is a writers’ room, where no one has fear. That’s what I want. Then, maybe, I can make something that involves many different people – where people who are misfits feel no fear in their space. A space where all the misfits are empowered to do misfit behaviour.

Coel in I May Destroy You

What inspired you back when you first decided you wanted to write and perform? Were there particular writers, actors, films or TV shows that made you go, “I want to do that?”

It was probably somewhere in between becoming a poet and my final year at drama school when I began to write and perform. It was actually through poetry. It was 22 May 2006 that I wrote my first poem. I remember the date because I had sent an email to somebody saying: “What do you think of this poem?” Then when I recorded my first EP CD of music I called it May 22nd. And then Inua Ellams – who as well as being an amazing playwright is also a graphic designer – designed the tattoo that I have on my ribcage, which is partly influenced by May 22nd.

Were there particular poets you looked to? And did they make you think “That’s how I want to use my voice, in poetry?” Or how did performance and screen work then draw you in?

There weren’t any particular poets really. And, no, I wasn’t drawn into doing this. My ambition when I went to drama school was to be in Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. I had no intention of being here. I never foresaw any of it. I never had any designs!

You started getting attention early on through your online blogging – a really freeing space where you can do and say what you want. Was that a place where you found your voice? And how do you think the very contractual world of TV has affected that voice since?

I’d say my blogging was just blogging, and was separate to the TV aspect, which is more related to the theatre work. How the TV contractual stuff has affected me is, I think it’s where I learnt to do real storytelling.

The structure of the 30-minute episode – you’ve got this many episodes and each one has to be this amount of time. But then, on the one hand you have all the structure, and on the other you’ve got so much more time. So, what was Chewing Gum? It was two-and-a-half hours overall. And I May Destroy You is six hours. So within the structure there’s time and a freedom. What you do is, you accept that you’re you, and then you make art within whatever structures that are assigned to you.

Coel in I May Destroy You

You’ve been transparent about the blocks a Black woman faces in this medium, and the hidden traps that exist in the TV industry. Thanks to Black Lives Matter those blocks have been outed. You signed a collective letter to the film and TV industry demanding it tackle racism. What change are you hoping for?

The real thing on my mind is changing how we handle [TV] commissions. Right now it’s hard for artists, particularly artists from poorer backgrounds, to have a 20 per cent – or whatever – fee upfront and be expected to finish one project on that, which is why we end up taking the commissions from here, there, here, there. We need a way to more consistently look after the artists so that they don’t have to end up taking more than one thing. We need to have a different way of commissioning people if they’re from poorer backgrounds.

Like Virginia Woolf said, we need A Room of One’s Own. We need space. Sometimes we’re giving people commissions whilst they live in a family of six or seven. If we want to foster the greatest stories from the greatest range of people, then we need to create an environment for them to produce and create.

Are there tensions between your commitment to this kind of communal change around race and class and poverty, and your own personal needs and ambitions? Do you feel you have to engage directly in protest and politics or are there other methods you can use?

I think everybody needs to do their jobs, and if we are all out protesting, what happens to the… For instance, we are trying to find a vaccine for the coronavirus! Someone will have to do that, so some other person’s job is somewhere else. They have to do that whilst we do this. Some people are engaging with politicians, having meetings and talking about how to tackle problems within the law. Other people’s job is to stand on the street and make everybody listen…

My job is to make stories from where I am. So, no, I don’t feel any pressure to do anything like that. I feel a pressure to do my job very well, and the one that I have right now is being a storyteller, a creator of television, and I’m trying to do that the best I can from where I am.

I May Destroy You (2020)

As the interview comes to an end, I ask Michaela a big question. If you have a platform right now to make a statement about the world, what do you say? “I say please watch I May Destroy You. Whatever I would say is all in there.”

I’m left thinking about the space writers and artists need to let their imaginations fly, and how diminished that space can be for Black and working-class artists. Not only is there an overwhelmingly homogeneous culture club to breach, but also the expectation that those artists will liberate others while doing so.

Michaela’s production company is called Falkna Productions. The name is possibly a nod to the falcon, the bird that inspired her career-launching one-person show Chewing Gum Dreams. The falcon might also be a symbol of the power of Michaela’s own imagination and a reminder that, above all else, it must take flight.

At a time when the world seems to be stripping away its old identities, I May Destroy You is a powerfully mature work marking the moment an exciting British talent became a great one and British TV was forever expanded. The show also predicts what life beyond the maladaptive Old World might look like, after shame, prejudice and violence are swept away, and misfit story architects like Coel can get on with constructing our New World.

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