Michaela Coel on Being an "Imperfect, Inconsistent Human Being"
Like most of us working remotely in lockdown, Michaela Coel has been taking an inordinate amount of video calls. “I’m spending a lot of time on Zoom,” she tells me — via the same platform — from the comfort of her East London home, where she’s wrapped up in a red cardigan (more on that particular garment later). She certainly has something compelling to talk about: I May Destroy You, her powerful HBO comedy-drama series based on the true story of her own sexual assault that she created, wrote, executive produced, co-directed, and stars in. While coronavirus cases surge and antiracism protests continue to erupt around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coel has been holed up in post-production, dotting the i's and crossing the t's on her semi-autobiographical opus, which officially wrapped two weeks ago. Though, she assures me, she “fully supports” the protests.
In 2016, before #MeToo gained traction, Coel took a break from writing the second season of her breakthrough project, BBC’s Chewing Gum, to meet a friend at a bar, where her drink was spiked and she was sexually assaulted by strangers. The incident serves as the through line for I May Destroy You, and feels especially pertinent as we continue our collective reckoning against the sexual misdeeds of men, particularly toward people of color who are too often marginalized. As the show astutely points out, one in every two women have been abused or exploited, and Coel’s protagonist Arabella goes through an emotional rollercoaster in response to her trauma that’s painfully honest, and yes, sometimes funny to watch. “Writing [the show] was definitely cathartic,” Coel says. “I enjoyed going through the different stages of grief, from depression to disbelief to acceptance. It was very therapeutic. And of course, I still check in with my therapist.”
A born creative and triple threat, Coel always knew she wanted to write about her own experience as well as the broader definition of sexual assault. “My pitch wasn’t just about Arabella’s assault,” she says. “I wanted to widen out how we explore sexual assault and consent and investigate men as well.” (Arabella’s gay best friend, Kwame, played by Paapa Essiedu, is assaulted by a guy he met online after having consensual sex with him first.) Given the highly personal subject matter, Coel admits she was surprised by the show’s positive reception, including praise from Adele, Seth Rogen, and Jeremy O. Harris. “I’m slightly startled,” she says. It’s clear that the culture writ large appreciates how Monday nights no longer signal the start of another monotonous week, but a new arrestingly candid, gut-wrenchingly brilliant episode to stream.
Here, the BAFTA-winning poet, writer, and actress talks to InStyle about her yoga practice in quarantine, the nuances of rape, and bringing the cardigan back. [Warning: spoilers ahead.]
Besides Zoom, how else have you been keeping busy lately?
I’ve gotten into Qigong — it’s a very gentle form of yoga meditation that’s all about movements and breath and allowing your breath to dictate your movement. And puzzles!
Have you always practiced yoga?
I started when I was in drama school. Then I didn’t pick it up after, but I got back into it in 2017 because I had space in my flat. I go in waves with yoga — sometimes I’m really on it and then I just fall off completely, either because I get an injury or something just makes me stop. Or I’m just an imperfect, inconsistent human being. [Laughs]
A lot of people are trying to show solidarity with the Black community right now by consuming content, like I May Destroy You, created by strong voices such as yourself. What inspired you to tell your story?
If you were to collect the amount of leading roles for women, I imagine most of them wouldn’t be Black in my country, which therefore means you will struggle because the parts don’t exist. My pitch was: This happened to me and I want to write about it, and it will be funny sometimes. I really wanted to share. It was very loose; there wasn’t much of a plan. I didn’t have a pilot. There was a lot of trust. I don’t know if an opportunity like that will ever come again for me.
One of the things that’s so great about the show is how it delves into the many facets of misconduct. I think the scene where Arabella’s colleague removes the condom without her consent may shock some viewers who otherwise are not aware that non-consensual condom removal constitutes rape.
I remember I was painting my toenails when that came up on BBC. I was like, “Wait, what is this?” They called it “a new sex trend sweeping across the country.” And I was like, “This is crazy! I’ve just learned something that I really didn’t know before.” I had to share it, because I don’t think the news quite got around to all of us, so everybody should know. People are really getting away with that stuff. If we can expose that for what it is, it might make people think twice about what they’re doing, if they understand that what they’re doing is literally rape.
After the assault, Arabella goes through a lot of aesthetic changes with her hair. First, she’s in the pink wig, then she shaves her head, then she opts for long, straight hair. Were her various hairstyles meant to reflect her mental state?
I’m always trying to tell a story of [Arabella’s] identity and vulnerability through her hair. The pink wig was a conscious artistic decision. I worked very closely with my head of hair and makeup, Beth Swan, to portray a woman who, although very confident, is falling apart when the show begins. It’s not a flawless wig; it’s not an Instagrammable, 200,000 likes wig. At one point, when she took it out of the box, I’m sure it was glamorous and beautiful, much like her career when it popped off and she had a book and everything was great, but it’s wearing down and wearing thin. Then, in episode 5, she shaves [her hair] to rid herself of her femininity after discovering she’s been raped twice. It’s almost like she’s running to the complete other extreme, and she isn’t sure, so she wraps it up in a headscarf. Then it’s not about her race anymore or the fact that she was born working class and she’s the child of immigrants — it’s all about the fact that she’s a woman, so suddenly she has very long, straight hair. She’s constantly confused and running to and from different tribes and different identities.
Same with the clothes. Her outfits skew more traditionally masculine as the series goes on.
Yes, the clothes tell a similar story. For example, when she outs Zain in episode 5, she has combat trousers on and army-style boots, but she also has a soft cardigan because she’s still very vulnerable.
I think Arabella could single-handedly be credited with bringing the cardigan back.
That was all [costume designer] Lynsey Moore. I was really hesitant about the cardigans. I just don’t understand them. And look at me now: I’m wearing one! I want to be better at clothes, but at that point I was very clueless. I didn’t have any idea of what to do.
You have some idea! I read that you made your own dress for the Black Panther premiere. Is that something you do often?
No — I told people I made it to explain why it was so shit. [Laughs] Then everybody was like, “Oh, it’s great!” My mom makes a lot of my clothes and she does a much better job than me. I only did that once because I really wanted to go to the premiere and didn’t have anything to wear. I had just gotten back from Ghana so I had the fabric and tried to do something with it because I wanted to wear an African print.
I love Arabella’s disguise in the last episode when she confronts her attacker — the blonde wig and black latex dress. Very badass warrior princess.
Yes, what a look! It was in the script that she wears a blonde wig, and we needed something that she could pour her drink on, so we were always looking for a waterproof dress. In my mind, the femme fatale woman seeking revenge is always blonde. That’s how it’s depicted in movies — it’s this blonde woman who’s had enough.
The finale is so layered and complex. We see all the different possible outcomes, then arrive at Arabella sitting in solitude with her thoughts. What do you hope viewers take away from the ending?
I feel like you just summed it up when you said “in solitude with thoughts.” I would love for the audience to enjoy for a moment the solitude of being with themselves and with their own thoughts.
That can be tough for millennials.
I know, right? And that’s why I think it’s important to do. It’s so tough for us. There are so many distractions — there’s so much pressure and noise and suffocation and we’re just used to it. We’re used to being suffocated. We need to sit, be kind to ourselves, and just look inside for a minute.
The show also does a good job examining the effects of social media celebrity. As someone with a large Twitter following, can you relate?
I’ve gone through it all. In the beginning, when I first went on TV, I had this Twitter handle and I thought that Twitter would be happy that I was on TV. But when I read the tweets, they were so cruel: “I can’t stand to look at her face.” I realized that I had to not look, so I don’t look. That is what helps me. It’s too much. I don’t bother scrolling because it can damage you.
So it’s safe to say you won’t be joining Instagram?
No. I have an account, I just don’t log in. I posted the trailer for the show and then I was like, “Ugh, why am I here?” It’s been so long and all of the technology has changed. I did not have the energy to begin getting to know Instagram. I’m like an old lady now.
There does seem to be a lot of trolling and public shaming going on at the moment. What is your opinion on cancel culture?
I think people should be held accountable, but if being held accountable only exists on Twitter, are people really being held accountable? What does that even mean when everything in your real life remains the same? We’re all quite traumatized, and a lot of the time we’re acting from a place of trauma and survival mentality. I understand that — I have been a canceler — but in terms of how I feel as a human being, do I have peace? Am I OK? I don’t know how much Twitter allows us to be OK, and I think everybody on Twitter — whether you are canceling people or whether you’re being canceled — needs to find a way to be OK and grow. Twitter is hard for our wellbeing. It takes a lot of our energy to be there. I don’t know if it’s serving us.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.