Michaela Coel is Not Afraid of Making You Uncomfortable

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Balmain turtleneck; Knao Knits snood; her own jeans. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Since the June debut of I May Destroy You, the powerful television show Michaela Coel created and stars in, the British writer, poet, and actress has connected with audiences in a once-in-a-generation kind of way. In 12 episodes, Coel spins a complex tale about a young writer in London named Arabella who is sexually assaulted after her drink is spiked at a bar, and then spends months trying to piece together the events of the night, process the trauma, and hold her rapist accountable—all while blowing past multiple professional deadlines and navigating the complexities of her relationships with her friends, family, lovers both ex- and current, and a growing base of online fans. 

The show has been compared to Girls and Fleabag (and Coel’s unapologetic writing and acting style to that of both shows’ creators), but what sets I May Destroy You apart is Coel’s unique ability to distill what could have been an unbearable treatise on the nature of trauma into a sharp, funny, complex, deeply personal show about the nature of existence. In an interview with Coel over the summer, Trevor Noah suggested it was, in fact, “a show about everything,” which she didn’t refute. 

Arabella’s story is a fictionalized version of Coel’s own assault, which occured while she was writing an episode for the second season of Chewing Gum, a comedy series based on a one-woman show she wrote in her last year of drama school. During a lecture at the 2018 Edinburgh International Television Festival, Coel spoke about the incident publicly for the first time, using the rest of her 53 minutes onstage to address her experiences with racism as the child of Ghanaian immigrants in London, in a mostly white drama school, and as a young actress and TV writer. Coel also used the speech as an opportunity to hold the television industry accountable for all the ways in which she felt mistreated and disenfranchised during the production of Chewing Gum. She spoke clearly and deliberately about how she learned to stop saying, “Yes, of course, holy shit, yes,” to those in power and started understanding the necessity of saying no. “I’m going to try to be my best, to be transparent, and to play whatever part I can to help fix this [industry],” she concluded. “What part will you play?”

While she was pitching what would become I May Destroy You, Coel declined any deal that didn’t give her full creative control over the project (including, most notably, a $1 million offer from Netflix). Instead of accepting anything close to business as usual, she demanded transparency, and got it. Her deal with the BBC gave her full control and full rights to the work; she also wrote, directed, and executive-produced every episode in the series. This approach also meant she got to assemble her ideal team of costars and collaborators, with whom she is photographed here. Coel credits casting director Julie Harkin (whose previous work on the British show Utopia she found particularly inspiring) for her ability to envision certain actors for roles she never would have imagined them in—even when it came to one of her oldest friends from drama school. Thanks to Harkin’s guidance, Coel’s supporting cast came together with a singular electric chemistry onscreen, and a careful, caring approach to the material behind the scenes. Harkin is, quite simply, “brilliant,” Coel says. 

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Loro Piana turtleneck; Givenchy skirt and hat. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

In the spirit of The New Originals Issue, we invited Coel to have a conversation with the playwright, actor, and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris, whose plays Daddy and Slave Play have awed and confounded Broadway audiences. Both Harris and Coel have written brilliant, frank, confrontational work with no clear-cut heroes or villains. They deal head-on with the murkiness of sexual communication and consent, issues of race and racism, processing and living with trauma, and the risks and rewards of vulnerability. They also speak with clarity and force about topics most others find difficult to articulate. 

The morning after the first presidential debate, the pair met on a Zoom call (Coel from her East London apartment, Harris from a terrace in Puglia) to discuss the creative process, ownership, making “uncomfortable” art, and the idea of having tea with Drake. Harris, having stayed up all night to agonize over the state of the American electoral process, logged on a few minutes behind schedule and began the call with an apology. – Andrea Whittle

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Loro Piana turtleneck; Givenchy skirt and hat. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Michaela Coel: So essentially, you woke up late because America is in a deep crisis, which makes complete sense. I’m like, Yeah, that’s some real…

Jeremy O. Harris: How are you? Where are you?

Coel: I’m at home, in London. It’s weird here. Coronavirus cases are picking up again. I don’t know if you’ve heard that; we’re having a bit of a spike. But there’s something about the way we report things here that always seems to focus on the problems of other countries before our own. So you almost don’t realize that it’s not going very well here, because everything’s always about everyone else. It’s interesting.

Harris: I was in London from February to August, and one of my favorite things that kept happening was people would be like, “Things are going up. Should we tell people to wear masks?” They’re like, [posh British accent] “No, no, no. People should just act sensibly. Act sensibly.” And I was like, What does that mean? Like, how can you just say that with such gumption?

Coel: Right. Like, do your job. Do things. Help us. 

Harris: I’m really excited about our chat for a lot of reasons, but mainly just because, ever since I saw your show, I thought to myself, We are one. And I know you’ve probably had, like, 15 manic-depressive writers reach out to you and say, “You are me. I am you.” But, truly, when I saw your show, I was like, Wait—how? Does that feel crazy when people tell you that? They must have done that with Chewing Gum, too. 

Coel: Yeah. But maybe more so with this show. And it doesn’t feel weird, because I definitely feel like that when I watch other people’s work. I feel like our minds are the same. I have reached out to some people, and I think I may have freaked them out, because I’m not that coherent at the best of times. 

Harris: Who have you freaked out before?

Coel: I think I freaked out Jordan Peele.

Harris: No. It’s impossible. 

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Loro Piana turtleneck; custom headpiece by Cyndia Harvey. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Coel: I went about it in a really dumb way. I saw Us, and then I DMed him. I basically told him I saw it, and then I sent him a screenshot of a poem that I’d written for my show, so I wanted to try and show him that we were in sync. It wouldn’t be crazy to call me crazy after something like that.

Harris: I’m sure he saw it and was so touched, he was just like, I don’t need to respond to this. You know what I mean?

Coel: I think he may have responded, but it was one of those very kind responses you would give to someone who’s crazy. 

Harris: I don’t know how much of the Internet you read about yourself, but I feel like something I’ve heard people say is, “X white writer got this fashion thing. Why haven’t they done that for Michaela? See? Proof of racism.” I was always like, “Guys, listen to what Michaela has to say about this before we just start throwing other writers down the drain.” Because I couldn’t imagine that a fashion company hadn’t invited you to do something.

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Rasharn Agyemang. Balenciaga jacket and pants. Hair by Virginie Moreira for Oribe at M+A World Group; makeup by Ammy Drammeh for Dr. Barbara Sturm at Bryant Artists.

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Balmain turtleneck; Knao Knits snood; her own jeans. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Coel: We very rarely have all of the details of a situation. We very rarely have even half. It could very well be that I didn’t want to do them! I have had offers upon offers. They invited me; I just didn’t say yes. 

Harris: Do you think that part of the reticence to say yes is political, in a way?

Coel: What I really think about… Okay, the good thing is it brings in a lot of money, right? Everybody needs money. And it puts you on the radar of people’s minds. It’s like a quick hit of you, right? And it’s good to put dark-skinned women in positions like that. I think there is a lot of benefit to that. But then, on a personal level, I don’t know. There are so many pros, and then I’m like, if I just focus on the pros, I could do it, but then this other voice creeps in that’s like, Is my identity being capitalized into fashion? So you’ve done the incredible shoot, and then what? I sometimes think about what I am left with once that has occurred. And it’s great that it can do loads of things for other people, because of politics and representation, and I need to be in these spaces, and blah, blah, blah. But I also like walking through an airport relatively undercover. I don’t like the idea of someone going, “Ah! Isn’t that you on the wall there?” My life is still so normal. I’m so normal. Like, it actually concerns my mom. My mom spends a lot of time on social media, and she’s like, “Michaela, everybody is talking about you. On Instagram, on Twitter. They love you. They’re celebrating you. They look up to you, and you’re just sitting in your house.” And it’s like, well, you know, maybe you need to spend less time on the Internet version, and just then you’ll be okay with this very mundane me. I’m not doing much. I’m just real chill. I’ll sometimes have a little game night, play blackjack, do some puzzles. I’m boring. 

Harris: Who’s in your little circle? Who do you play blackjack with?

Coel: Last week it was my friend Sherie, who’s also a story consultant on my show, and Shaka, who is a musician. This weekend, Tyler’s coming over; Paapa’s a regular. I’ve loads of friends that I’ve known for, like, over a decade. My solid great people. 

Harris: So you haven’t fallen into a game where you’re like, Oh, I’m going over to Drake’s house, because, you know, he just gets it now.

Coel: Yeah, no. Half the time I really forget that I’m on television. But I would love to go to Drake’s house. If Drake wants to invite me to his house, I’d love that. Just for, like, afternoon tea. [Laughs]

Harris: I think he probably really likes tea. I mean, I think he really enjoys feeling like he’s from a culture that’s not Canada. You’re Ghanaian, right? 

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Rasharn Agyemang. Joseph turtleneck. Hair by Virginie Moreira for Oribe at M+A World Group; makeup by Ammy Drammeh for Dr. Barbara Sturm at Bryant Artists.

Coel: That’s right, yes. 

Harris: He’d love to eat some Ghanaian food.

Coel: We can order that from Deliveroo. What I can’t do is cook it. I can cook an online recipe from a Ghanaian telling me how to make the food step-by-step, but am I some instinctive cook, as if it were somehow handed down through my DNA? No. My mom was busy working. She literally taught me, “This is how you put chicken in the oven, and now I have to go to work.” 

Harris: When I saw that you had turned down that million dollars from Netflix in order to retain autonomy—and not only did you turn it down, but you talked about it publicly—that made me feel so utterly and completely seen, because I think that one of the things that’s really difficult is articulating to the masses how difficult it is to make something that feels like your own, how difficult it is to make something that is truly art and to get paid for it. Do you have any class shame about how well saying no has worked out for you? 

Coel: I think if I really processed being born poor and then suddenly finding myself here, I would probably spin out and faint, because it’s too weird, isn’t it? The system is often rigged so that we fall through the cracks, right? That’s kind of the way it is: You go to school, the school you go to expects you to do nothing, to be nothing, so you don’t even think about what you want to do. I don’t know how this happened, and I try not to think about it too much, because it does make me feel weird. 

Harris: It’s a complex thing, growing up seeing a mom work a job, work multiple jobs, in order to make things work for you. You’re like, “I’ve chosen to be an artist. My labor isn’t as intensive as my mom’s was for X, Y, or Z reason,” in a physical way, right? So maybe I can say no to this and work harder to do this other thing in this other way so I have more autonomy. 

Coel: My thing is, I don’t trust people. I just don’t trust. I don’t trust businesspeople, especially when they’re parading as friends. I don’t like it. I think that’s all probably because of learning from my previous deals where I didn’t say no, where I accepted, and so now it’s made me very suspicious.

Harris: Have you faced any controversies yet? 

Coel: My mom called me once, we were just having a normal chat, da-da-da, and then she said, “And, you know, don’t worry, okay?” And I was like, “Wait, wait. What? What about?” And she was like, “Oh, you know, they took that thing in The Economist…” I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I had to go and find it. And I found it. I was talking with a journalist, and we came onto how I process my own trauma, and how when we’re trying to look after victims of sexual assault, sometimes we protect them from things that there’s no danger in. For example, it helped me to look at the fact that I didn’t watch my drink. It doesn’t make me go, Oh no, it’s my fault, but it’s like, Let me keep looking at that. And then go, Well, this is hilarious, because it doesn’t mean anything. And it’s got nothing to do with me. I feel like sometimes we’re scared to go there because it leaves us susceptible to self-blame and guilt. But -actually, if you allow me to look and realize that I have no guilt or blame here, I’m stronger for it. You have to allow me to look at my actions rather than tell me, “Don’t worry about that. Ignore what anybody’s saying about anything.” Do you know what I mean?

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Marc Jacobs coat, socks, and shoes; Stephen Jones for Marc Jacobs hat; stylist’s own gloves. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Harris: Yeah.

Coel: My mom was just gutted. She’s always trolling for my name, which means she’s enjoying the celebrations. Then when there’s one thing that’s not a celebration, it impacts her. So I have to just tell her, “Mom, this is natural… You have to let it go and let it flow.” I said to her the other day, “Soon, Mom, guess what? No one’s gonna be talking about me. I’m gonna be writing my next thing. It’s gonna take me three years, and during those three years no one’s gonna talk about me. It’s like I’m gonna be dead to the Internet.”

Harris: You’re not on social media these days. How did you stop? 

Coel: I haven’t, like, stopped stopped. Every now and again, I will type in “I May Destroy You” because I wanna know how it’s doing. Less so now. Now it’s, like, once a week. I’ll do it for five minutes, and then I go, Oh, this is lovely, and then I come across something that indicates that somebody has been watching a show that isn’t the show that I made, so they’ve misunderstood it. I can understand that sometimes what you’ve watched is not what I was intending to show you. The thing I like about making TV is that when we’re done as writers, the work continues once the work goes out. It continues to be written and shaped, and it develops as it meets people. William Wordsworth wrote an essay about it a long, long time ago—I’m sure you know. Hey, you went to Yale, buddy. You probably know this shit. This is the spirit of the story. It’s not even really tethered to me anymore. It flew out, and it left me. My energy doesn’t go to social media anymore. Not even to say something funny to someone that’s insulted me. I’m still on my phone. I’m still giving in to this app. Who is making money from my being here?

Harris: A bunch of white men.

Coel: A bunch of white men who don’t give a shit about me, about any Black people. They are making money whilst I kind of slip the narrative on social media and engage with the people who are giving me critiques. In fact, I’m still paying some random dude that don’t give a fuck.  

Harris: One of the freedoms of social media, for me, was to watch the full maturation of rage come upon my work. I want to keep making things that make people feel something. One of the reasons I write the way I do is because I don’t think Black authors have been -historically allowed to make people uncomfortable. There have been Black authors who’ve done it, duh. Like, if they hadn’t, then we wouldn’t be here. But the reason that it feels like a necessity for you to make the kind of work that you make, and for me to make the kind of work that I make, is that I want people to ask questions of Black subjectivity that they’ve never asked before, and in new ways. And the more of us that get to do that and maybe fuck up, the better.

Coel: We deserve to be made uncomfortable, too, and that discomfort is so raw and so outrageous. The audience should be allowed to feel those things. We shouldn’t make work that simply panders to whatever the political norm is right now, unless there is a way you can do that, that stimulates the audience and gives them that feeling the storytelling is supposed to give them. It’s fear-based. We can’t be afraid as writers to bring discomfort to anyone.

Harris: Do you feel like, both as a woman and as a Black person in the U.K., your work is experienced differently than your work is experienced as a woman and as a Black person in America? 

Coel: What do you feel?

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Dior coat; custom headpiece by Cyndia Harvey. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Harris: I haven’t had a play premiere in the U.K. yet, so I don’t know how people experience my work in the U.K. But I do think that when I’m hanging out with my British friends, a lot of the racial dialogue in the U.K. feels like it’s learning from America, and I don’t know that it’s necessarily learning all of the best things from America. The U.K. seems to allow more freedom for Black artists, and I feel like there is a lot more excitement to see Black artists in the U.K. just try. I don’t feel there’s the same interest in saying, like, “That’s not for us, that was made for X, Y, or Z audience.” But maybe that’s my own grass-is-greener situation. What happens to a lot of Black artists in America is that—and this has been going on since the Harlem Renaissance, so it’s psychotic that people still don’t realize this—there’s this idea that there are some Black artists who are making work for white people, and some Black people who are making work for Black people. And that’s not to say that that doesn’t exist—there definitely are ways that some people try to please the masses, and some ways that people don’t try to please the masses.

Coel: I think we have that here, too. In fact, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and she brought up an artist and said words like Uncle Tom and coon, these sorts of things. And that they were making work sort of pandering to white people. In that particular case, she was talking about an older artist. That artist was trying to make work in a time when it was actually more overtly difficult to be Black and make work than it is now. It’s one thing if, perhaps, deep in the backs of the minds of white people, they’re watching you perform, or watching your play and thinking, You don’t necessarily have a right to be there, or, Aren’t you lucky to be let in? But it’s another thing if you are performing and white people are shouting “monkey” and “gorilla” and the N-word at you. It could very well be that this person is experiencing a different kind of trauma of being an artist, and that perhaps the experiences they’ve had have led them to make work in this way. Perhaps they are yearning for acceptance from white people because of the harshness they face. Depending on where we are all from, and depending on how much fear we have in any given moment, depending on how much pressure white production companies put on you, you may end up accidentally making work that panders to white audiences. And, actually, rather than just saying, “Well, that person pandered,” it might be interesting to wonder about the context. Because, maybe if you’re in that position, and someone’s giving you this much money, you don’t know how you’re going to react. It’s terrifying. It’s a daily battle to say no, isn’t it? It’s that daily thing.

Harris: Yes.

Coel: I’m just talking about empathy. I’m trying to understand context. 

Harris: I’m in a space where I am no longer interested in judging how good a Black person’s work is in, like, the history of all of the Black diaspora. ’Cause, guess what? I ain’t experienced all of it. I will never know what it’s like to be a Black British person. There’s a Black British actor who’s interested in me writing a thing for them about being Black in the U.K., and I’m like, “Yo, you should probably talk to someone who’s there.” 

Coel: Is that normal? That an actor will say, “Write me a thing”?

Harris: Yeah.

Coel: How do you feel about that?

Harris: It’s very flattering when they’re someone you really like, which this actor is. I think that, in the same way that I think that you probably always knew that Arabella would be played by you, it was easier to write a certain idiolect, or a certain type of language, for that character, because you knew exactly how it would fit in your mouth.

Coel: When someone says, like, “Write a show for me,” I just think the story begins in a place that I don’t even understand. My process is like—sometimes I have to wait for the ideas to come.

Harris: Until I hear the characters talking in my head; they tell me where it goes. For me, it’s like divining. I think it might come from the fact that I grew up Christian, which I know you did, too, in some way. I took some of that spirituality and put it inside of here, in this space. The way in which I engage spirituality now is by saying, I’m gonna fill myself up with the world, and let the world guide me, in that way that the Lord or the Holy Spirit might guide me, right? And when that happens, my pen can’t be stopped. I can write a screenplay in a weekend.

Coel: I spent about two years writing I May Destroy You. It just takes time to do it. Actually, Drake often talks about the fact that people don’t need to see that you’re working, that you’re busy working when you’re making your things. I’m sure he’s got, like, 100 lyrics that I’ll discuss with him when we have tea one day.   

Paapa Essiedu

“I never would have thought of Paapa in a million years for Kwame,” Coel says of the actor who plays one of Arabella’s close friends on the show. Even though Coel has been friends with Essiedu since drama school, the last time they worked together was on a duologue she wrote in their final year. But Harkin convinced her he was the right man for the role: “When we did the audition, it felt very natural. He’s very unique. His portrayal of Kwame was not one that I was expecting, and I didn’t realize how complex it could be. He really did a lot to bring the character to life as we see him now.”

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Our Legacy sweater; her own pants.

Michelle Greenidge

To prepare for her role as Arabella’s Ghanaian immigrant mother, Grace, Greenidge spoke at length with Coel’s real-life mom and learned how to speak Twi, her native language. “She was very eager to talk with my mom, to get to know her, to ask her loads of questions,” Coel says. “I have a lot of respect for her for managing to handle the nuances of the dialect, of the culture, of the food. She really got on and tried to honor the person that she felt she was embodying.”

Lewis Reeves

Reeves plays Arabella’s rapist, David, who torments her in blurry, shifting flashbacks of the assault that repeat throughout the series, always in the same bathroom stall. “Whenever we’d go into the toilet, all we were actually doing was breakdancing and doing all of these bebop dances,” Coel recalls. “After doing something quite harrowing and triggering for me, he would do something really stupid to make me laugh, which really helped me get through those scenes emotionally.” She hired him immediately after watching his audition tape, which made her cry. “He manages to do something that I think people struggle with not only when playing a part, but in life, full stop: He’s very eager to try and find a reason to empathize with people who do very wicked and despicable things,” Coel says.

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Dior jacket and skirt; Uniqlo hooded sweatshirt; her own tights and boots. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Weruche Opia

Before I May Destroy You, Opia, who plays Arabella’s best friend, Terry, had actually been in a scene with Coel before, but they had never properly met—the moment had showed them on either side of the doorway to a house, but the interior and exterior were shot at different locations (a common production trick). When Coel watched Opia’s audition tape with her housemates, they all instantly fell in love with her. “She’s very captivating and charming,” Coel says. “What I really like about Weruche is her stamina. She kept her energy up the whole way through every shoot, even when she was a bit tired or a bit sick. She was always incredibly present.”

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. From left: A.P.C. sweater; Loro Piana shirt; Gucci skirt; Prada tie; Uniqlo socks; her own bag and boots. A.P.C. sweater; Charvet shirt; Gucci skirt; Uniqlo socks; her own bag and sneakers. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Lauren-Joy Williams and Danielle Vitalis 

(From left) Williams and Vitalis play the teenage versions of Terry and Arabella, respectively. The way the pair embody the mannerisms and energy of their onscreen adult counterparts is remarkable, but Coel says it didn’t require any coaching. “They seemed to just strike a similar rapport, which is really cool,” she says. Coel saw Vitalis for the first time in a play called Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. “I knew pretty much in that moment that I wanted to cast her,” she says.

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Her own jacket, top, and earrings. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Harriet Webb

“Harriet is great—she’s very easygoing when it comes to creating a story,” Coel says of the actress who plays Theo, Arabella’s former high school adversary turned colleague and trauma counselor. “There’s just something really intimate about her performances. And I could see how important the script was for her.”

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Uniqlo hooded sweatshirt; Wales Bonner pants; his own jewelry. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Photographed by Tim Walker; styled by Sam Walker. Marni shirt. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

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