Michaela Coel on sexual assault: My friends’ stories made me realise I was far from alone

Coel
Screenwriter, musician, poet, playwright and Bafta-winning actor Michaela Coel is back on TV with her new BBC drama, I May Destroy You. It is the most personal thing she has ever done

In 2018, aged 30 and following her Bafta-winning series Chewing Gum, Michaela Coel became the youngest person to give the keynote MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival (it’s kind of a big deal).

Within the theme of transparency in the industry, she used the platform to describe the night that she was working in the production company’s office to meet a deadline, and stepped out for a drink with a friend. The next thing she remembered was being back at the office: her drink was spiked, and she’d been sexually assaulted.

Her lecture laid it bare. So does the series inspired by the event, I May Destroy You. The incident is depicted in the first episode. It was Coel’s sole vision: she was the sole writer, as well as the actor, co-producer and co-director.

“I don’t know if I could have written it within a writer’s room, because it requires a lot of vulnerability,” she says, speaking from her home in London. “I’m trying to imagine how a story so inspired by reality would work.”

Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4
Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

It’s not a standard crime drama. The incident is the jumping off point for a wider look at consent, in this #MeToo age. What follows is a series of overlapping stories from the rich characters of the show, threaded together with the theme of consent. Set in the concrete jungle of inner London with Michaela playing the lead of savvy novelist Arabella, and Weruche Opia (Inside No9) and Paapa Essiedu (Kiri) among the co-stars, we see a wild threesome in Italy, a tryst with a charming Cambridge alumnus who removes the condom without asking, and date rape.

It took shape after “telling my friends I was writing about my experience, and them sharing stories that made me realise how common it was . . . not necessarily having your drink spiked, but having your consent stolen during sexual interactions, and all the different ways that can manifest,” says Coel.

“These ideas grew and overpowered my own story, which I’m so grateful for because it made me understand that I was far from alone, and that was a comfort for me.”

The drama has touches of humour, but it marks a major departure from Chewing Gum, her irreverent sitcom aired on Channel 4. Following the exploits of Tracey, a high-octane Christian girl hankering to lose her virginity, it snowballed into a cultural phenomenon, with the adjectives “fresh”, “unique” and “contemporary” often used to describe it.

It was all three, and more to the point, it was a rare time that the TV industry told the stories of a black working-class woman.

The origin of the camera was that it was made to make white skin visible. That’s where we are with every single camera in the world!

Coel is no wallflower. She’s made it known that her creative vision on Chewing Gum came despite the workings of the television industry. For starters, it was decided she’d work with a co-writer until the script got into the hands of Phil Clarke, head of comedy of Channel 4, who quashed that idea.

She had to push to become a producer on the second series, and later turned down a not-so-lucrative offer to form a production company under an umbrella one. But this groundwork made it easier to lead on I May Destroy You, which airs on the BBC, and HBO in the US.

“I fought for my freedom, and this time I didn’t have to fight,” she says. “Maybe that’s down to my own confidence growing as an artist, as an exec producer, and as a creative. It’s also down to my supportive team. They kept reminding me that nothing was going to be a fight, and they were willing to listen. They had a lot of patience, and in turn, I learned patience.”

It was her first foray into directing, alongside Sam Miller (Luther, Spooks), although she notes that the role was familiar as “a lot of it is being asked questions, and having the freedom and confidence to answer”. Instead, it focused her attention on the more technical details; we discuss the ongoing predicament of portraying dark skin on screen, even in 2020.

“The origin of the camera was that it was made to make white skin visible. That’s where we are with every single camera in the world!” she says, letting out a generous laugh. After trial and error, they opted for Leica lenses.

The sex scenes – of which there are plenty, Liveline listeners be warned – were overseen by Ita O’Brien, the intimacy co-ordinator/movement director who also worked on Normal People. Coel believes that society is in a time and place where the inclusion of intimacy co-ordinators on set should be standard.

“And on this show, because it’s exploring consent, it seems fitting that we had a director whose sole purpose was to help us with the intimacy, to empower the actors, to make sure there were no awkward feelings, and that we were all comfortable and happy,” she says. “There was no other way. Some of the scenes were really delicate, and it can go wrong so easily.

“A month before shooting, we talked around a table, we talked about consent, we talked about our lives. Then there’s a transition where you have to make the transition from sitting at the table and being in your head, to being in your body. The space between those things is difficult because we live in our heads so much. That’s Ita’s magic.

“She also brings with her this bag of protective gear. She has these pads that you put around your delicate parts so that when you’re having to do all these difficult interactions, you don’t see anything. We opted for those because it meant we could go as far as we wanted to go, and our actual physical bodies wouldn’t be triggered.

“When we were on set, the great thing about Ita is that she doesn’t care that there’s a clock ticking. If the actors need private time, if they need to connect to each other, she’ll demand that time, and that time will happen.”

Coen as Arabella in I May Destroy You. 

There’s a theme in Michaela’s career so far, and that is she doesn’t stand still for long. Born as Michaela Ewuraba Boakye-Collinson in Tower Hamlets to Ghanaian parents who split before she was born, she began her creative life in her teens as a born-again Christian spoken-word artist. The church took her around the world to perform, led to two albums, and eventually to a place at drama school (by then, she’d dropped out of university twice). Chewing Gum Dreams was her end-of-course production, and she struck gold straight away: an adapted play followed, before it was snapped up for television.

In between Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, other acting projects cropped up: you might recognise her from short-lived sci-fi series The Aliens, Black Earth Rising (the drama set in Rwanda), or her appearances in two episodes of Black Mirror. Against her own predictions, she’s become a bona fide actor.

“I wasn’t planning on being here,” she says. “I was reading an old blog post that I wrote 10 years ago when I was in drama school, which said I doubt I’d be an actor and I didn’t mind. And that if I do act, I’d just want to be in loads of Shakespeare plays and Greek tragedies, because I love Shakespeare.”

As it is, she’s spent the full stretch of the UK’s lockdown putting the finishing touches to her own creation, and “it’s lucky I have this to focus me. I think it would be difficult if I wasn’t working around the clock, it’s crazy right now.”

But the focus on the show hasn’t been spared her the pain of lockdown. “I live alone, and I’ve been only lockdown since 12th March, a week before official lockdown,” she says. “I haven’t seen my family or been able to hug my niece. And my mum works in the NHS, and she’s working every day,” she says.

The day we speak, when George’s Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis is still being digested across the world, closer to home a UK report finds that that despite being more at risk, black and minority ethnic (Bame) health and care workers have less access to PPE. “If I think about it too much, it hurts. It hurts, it hurts,” she says, matter-of-factly. We move the discussion on, but, despite her looming post-production deadline, she emails the next day to pick it back up.

“Am I angry? I think this is a question of expectation. I wouldn’t say I ever had an expectation of this government to prioritise high-risk communities from Bame backgrounds, or working-class backgrounds. This country voted this government into power, for reasons that takes a lot of time and a lot of intelligence (that I lack) to unpick. This is all a result of that. It’s hard for me to be angry, I’m perhaps more numb.”

She ends on a positive note. “My mum gives me hope,” she writes. “She goes to work with a spring in her step, motivated by the national support, and prepared to put her life on the line for her job. She has gratitude, and optimism and is taking it day by day. She focuses on the lives, the things she can improve, and what she has the power to change. So I am doing the same.”

I May Destroy You airs on BBC One at 10.45pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, starting on June 8th