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Michaela Coel’s new HBO show makes consent clear: ‘It doesn’t look gray, does it?’

Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel: writer, director and star of HBO’s “I May Destroy You,” inspired by her experiences as an assault survivor.
(Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images)

TV rarely gets as personal — or as singular in its vision — as “I May Destroy You.”

Writer and director Michaela Coel stars as Arabella, a celebrated young writer who is drugged and raped during a night out with friends — a fact she pieces together afterwards from the fragmented images coursing through her mind. Over 12 episodes that boldly dart back and forth in time, the series follows Arabella and her best friends Terry (Waruche Opia) and Kwame (Pappa Essiedu) as they wrestle with the aftermath of the assault.

“I May Destroy You” was inspired by Coel’s own experiences — not only as an assault survivor, but as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants raised in working-class London and a creative person struggling to make a living by channeling her life into art. It has received ecstatic praise for its nuanced examination of sexual consent and the complications of race, gender, sexuality and class, as well as its authentic portrayal of contemporary, multicultural London.

Since the U.K. went into lockdown in late March, Coel — whose previous series, “Chewing Gum,” centered on the efforts of a 24-year-old religious woman to lose her virginity — has been holed up at home in East London, catching up on “Ozark” and making the odd loaf of vegan banana bread. But mostly she’s been working remotely on post-production on “I May Destroy You” and enjoying the socially distanced love the series has received.

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“It’s required a lot of actors under their duvets trying to make soundproof rooms doing ADR. The morale was high the whole time, so I’m very grateful that we were able to finish it, and finish it with joy,” she told The Times by video conference call.

Writer-producer-star Michaela Coel of the sitcom “Chewing Gum” mines her own experience of sexual assault for HBO/BBC series “I May Destroy You.”

Michaela Coel and Weruche Opia in "I May Destroy You."
Michaela Coel, left, Weruche Opia in “I May Destroy You.”
(Natalie Seery / HBO
)

This series is based on your own experience with assault. How did you know it was something you had to write about?

Very similar to Arabella, I wasn’t actually sure what it was that I was seeing in my head. Because I didn’t think that something could have happened to me, it meant that I was talking a lot from the very beginning. “There’s this thing in my head, what is this?” So before I could actually process and swallow and hide [the experience], I was already talking about it. This meant my journey was probably different from other sexual assault survivors, because I was just talking about a very disconnected image which I thought could have been a very strange dream. Which I think is lucky, because often what you would do is contain it.

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I began sort of taking notes half consciously when things would occur, like being in the police investigation room. I realize I am in this room because something bad has happened to me. As we waited for the detective to come in, I looked to my friend who was looking after me and realized he was playing Pokémon Go on his phone. It was funny. I didn’t laugh and he didn’t know that I could see him, but I just saw him and thought, “This is absurd.” At the moment that the course of my life was about to change forever, my friend who was babysitting me was playing Pokémon Go. I wrote that down in my notes app a couple of days later. I obviously was taking notes for a reason, and it slowly became clear that that reason must have been because I wanted to write it. I wasn’t entirely conscious of it.

You wrote all of 12 episodes of this, you co-directed it, you starred in it. You were involved in every creative decision. How did you keep yourself safe while you were reliving all of this trauma?

Two things: I made sure I got at least seven hours of sleep every day. There was so much that I was doing that in order to do these things properly I felt like the first thing I had to do was sleep. Also I didn’t take a car to work — I cycled to work. So it would allow me to get endorphins going and clear my mind and have a moment of solitude. And we also had a dramatherapist on standby the whole time, Lou Platt. She was very helpful, quite grounding. When occasionally things do get quite tough, you do remember this is your real life, and so I would meet with Lou. Lou was available to anybody, because the content was triggering for everybody. And, of course, not only did I have Lou, I had my own therapist. I like talking.

Michaela Coel in "Chewing Gum."
(Mark Johnson / Netflix)

I think we call this area gray because there’s a lack of transparency. It seems gray and it seems blurry, but all we have to do is shine a torch on it and it will become clear. When you actually see somebody take the condom off, when we show it, it doesn’t look gray, does it? It’s so secretive and tricky, this behavior, but when you actually show it and you have a torch tracking someone’s behavior, it’s not very gray.

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Kwame is also assaulted after a consensual encounter with another man, and it is powerful to see a depiction from a different perspective in terms of gender and sexuality. How did you decide to include another story to mirror Arabella’s journey?

I definitely wanted to take it outside one person. I wanted people to perhaps find a way to relate. I wanted to create a story where there were many different types of sexual assault so that we might identify ourselves in the story. That plot is lifted, unfortunately, from the reality of someone I know. I had an anonymous story consultant [on the series]. I’m not making it up, so that’s quite sad, isn’t it?

The Netflix limited series “Unbelievable,” about a young woman accused of making a false rape allegation, shows how the system fails survivors of sexual assault.

Michaela Coel, foreground, in "I May Destroy You."
Michaela Coel, foreground, in “I May Destroy You.”
(Natalie Seery / HBO
)

Arabella’s look throughout the show seems very intentional. She wears an array of colorful wigs, she shaves her head, she has this sweater that comes and goes. What conversations did you have about her hair and wardrobe, and what were you saying with it?

I have to give a lot of credit to my hair and makeup designer, Bethany Swan, and Lynsey Moore, the costume designer. We wanted to create a character who was trying to give the impression of someone holding it together but deep down they were falling apart. So for the wig, [Swan] found a shade that did not actually complement my skin on purpose. We didn’t want everything to look great, and we imagined at some point when she first got this wig it was shiny and new and flawless, straight out of the packet, a little bit like her career when she got her book deal — but as time has gone on it’s wearing down. And then, when she realizes not only has she been assaulted once but twice, she runs to this extreme of taking off her wig and shaving off her hair almost to rid herself of anything that’s feminine. I was using this trope of pink and length so when she gets rid of it it’s like her trying to raze womanhood from her and she goes to Oxfam and she buys men’s trousers. It’s all these decisions made from a place of severe vulnerability and fear about her identity. She’s constantly trying to find the tribe in which she feels safest because she’s very scared to sit by herself, which I think many of us can identify with.

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Arabella also talks movingly about the sudden realization that she belongs to two different tribes — that she is both Black and a woman — and the complications this creates for her. Is that something you have struggled with?

That quote was actually born from my reality. I did a play called “Blurred Lines”; it was a devised piece [about gender inequality] in response to that song [by Robin Thicke]. A lot of the times I was just thinking I couldn’t relate to all these frustrations that all these people had. They would often say, “Michaela, what do you think?” And I actually said on one of those days, “Guys, I’m really sorry, I’m busy being Black and poor.” And it really broke the ice. It allowed us to understand where I was coming from a little bit more. And through that play I definitely learned to process a lot of things from my past that I just quite ignored about being a woman — the nuances of being a woman that I hadn’t engaged with because I was so busy being Black and poor.

In another talked-about scene, Arabella hooks up with Biagio (Marouane Zotti) while she has her period, and it is portrayed very matter-of-factly. Were you hoping to destigmatize menstruation?

People bleed, don’t they? People bleed. And it happens once a month. And for something that occurs once a month I find it odd that I rarely hear anything, or see anything about it. It’s monthly, why isn’t it just happening on the screen? Again, it’s lifted from my reality. I loved the fact I have had sexual partners who really don’t judge my blood or hesitate at all. Sometimes the only person judging my body is me.


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