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Meet the pair whose ‘magical’ chemistry helped make ‘I May Destroy You’ a hit

Weruche Opia, Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu in a scene from "I May Destroy You."
Weruche Opia, left, Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu in a scene from “I May Destroy You.”
(HBO)

Before the June premiere of “I May Destroy You,” few would have predicted that a half-hour dramedy about the trauma of sexual assault would be one of the summer’s hottest offerings.

But as it nears its season finale on Monday, the HBO series has emerged as the most acclaimed of the season. With its portrait of a group of Black millennials indulging in drugs, kinky sex and London’s vibrant nightlife alongside an unflinching depiction of the trauma of rape and its aftermath, “I May Destroy You” has sparked provocative discussions among its legions of fans drawn to its stylish, high-flying characters. The series has also exposed many American viewers to the U.K.'s African and Caribbean immigrant subcultures, which are rarely seen on Stateside TV.

The disturbing impact of a sexual attack on energetic writer and influencer Arabella (Michaela Coel) after a night out in which her drink was spiked is center stage in “I May Destroy You,” which was created by Coel, the show’s writer and co-director. But an essential element in the series’ appeal is the ride-or-die dynamic among Arabella and her two-person posse — aspiring actress Terry (Weruche Opia) and fitness instructor Kwame (Paapa Essiedu).

Though Terry and Kwame are devoted to helping Arabella recover from her ordeal, they are grappling with their own sources of pain . Kwame is having difficulty dealing with his own trauma after a tryst with a man he met on a dating app turns violent. Terry is plagued by insecurities as an actress to the point of experiencing a panic attack before an important performance. She is also troubled when she discovers that her participation in a threesome along with two strangers she meets in Italy one night may have been more out of her control than she realized.

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The roles have been breakouts for Opia and Essiedu, who are thrilled by the reception of “I May Destroy You.” During an interview from their respective residences in Britain, where they are in eased lockdown, they projected an obvious warmth and affection for one another. As they tease and poke fun at one another, their laughs are robust enough to fuel their own series.

In between the good-natured barbs, the two thoughtfully addressed the show’s success and its challenging themes.

Michaela Coel, creator, writer, star and co-director of HBO’s “I May Destroy You,” talks about channeling her personal trauma into the acclaimed HBO series.

Weruche Opia, left, with Michaela Coel in "I May Destroy You."
(Natalie Seery/HBO)
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“I May Destroy You” has really become something of a phenomenon. Did you have any idea it would get the reception it has?


Essiedu: While we were making it, we were really excited at what we were doing. We all thought, “We’re a special group of people working on something special for us.” We’ve been really pleased by the way people are taking it.

Opia: After reading it, I didn’t care what anyone else thought about it. When you read it, you knew it was a special project. I think whenever it would have come out, it would have been monumental. It is monumental now. It just happens to be heightened. I’m happy to be part of something so amazing.

Why do you think it’s made such an impact?


Essiedu: I can only speak for people I’ve actually spoken to. I’m not as keyed into social media as certain other people...

Opia: Shade!

Essiedu: But I feel that people are seeing themselves in these stories and seeing their experiences. There are these questions we all ask each other in real life but don’t always get articulated [on TV]. There’s something about the hyper-reality of it.

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Opia: It is universal, and there’s so many things that are going on that there’s not just one thing you can pick out and say, “This is what people are relating to more than the other.” It’s the rawness of it, the frankness. There are things that people have never seen on television before, like women menstruating. And there’s a universe that people have never been exposed to. There’s a boldness to the way it was filmed.

There’s such incredible chemistry among the three of you, like you’ve been friends for a long time.


Opia: Michaela and Paapa knew each other way before I came on the scene, so I was the third leg. I forced myself in, and we made it a trio [laughs]. It’s just one of those magical things where we just clicked. I had only met Michaela briefly before. But when I auditioned with her, we had this palpable, automatic chemistry. When we had a bit of rehearsal with Paapa as well, there was just this vibe, and Paapa fell in love with me as his friend, and it worked for Kwame, me and Arabella.

Essiedu: That’s only one side of the story, Greg.

Opia: Hater.

Essiedu: Regardless of the actual situation, you gotta do what you gotta do.

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Opia: You can’t have great chemistry on-screen if you don’t have great chemistry off-screen, sweetie.

Essiedu: It depends on how good an actor you are.

[Both laugh.]

Essiedu: There’s one scene during a party where Kwame and Terry are sitting outside an apartment and Terry tells a joke and then starts laughing at her own joke. That’s another example of the character and the actor merging.

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[More laughter.]

Weruche, how fun is it to play an actress who is very insecure?


Opia: I felt that I could draw on my own experiences for that. No one likes to be rejected. You go to hundreds of auditions and are told “No” hundreds and hundreds of times. So naturally there will be insecurities when you’re trying to decipher whether it’s your ability or something else for why you’re not getting the job. I could definitely relate to that, though I would always show up in the room. I would never chicken out.

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.”

Paapa Essiedu in "I May Destroy You" on HBO.
(HBO)

There’s a scene during an audition where you’re asked if that’s your actual hair. When you admit it isn’t, they ask to see your real hair. Has that ever happened to you, being asked about your hair?


Opia: Yeah, multiple times. I don’t like to give it too much energy. But I’m hopeful that after the whole world sees “I May Destroy You,” they will know you cannot ask a black woman to take her wig off or if she is wearing a wig. [Laughs]

Paapa, you have to convey what’s going on with Kwame without much dialogue.


Essiedu: Well, they kept cutting my lines. [Laughs] What Kwame goes through is huge and emotionally demanding. We see so many versions of him, a version where he is more confident with his friends or with his work. It was important. I felt it was important to see a different side of him when you see him process or try to process what happened to him. I was really curious how that could be communicated nonverbally.

How challenging was it to film the scene where you were assaulted?


Essiedu: As an actor, it’s nowhere comparable to going through something like that in real life. We had an intimacy coordinator and spent a lot of time on how to create that scene accurately and safely. It was a big scene, actually several scenes together — there was a lot of stuff leading up to that. The challenge was great, but the cast and crew made it happen and made it feel authentic.

Weruche, Terry has a big scene when we see her engaging in a threesome. What we learn about consent and nonconsent in that story line is very deep. What was your reaction to that part of Terry’s arc?


Opia: I, like a lot of people, found that scene to be in what is called “the gray area,” where you’re not exactly sure what or where that fits into. There’s the struggle in that scene. In one breath, Terry is completely empowered, in charge of her sexuality and has given herself consent to engage in this sexual escapade with two men. But in the end, when we see the men go off together, it raises the question of whether her consent was given or if it was seized from her. It’s one of those “gray areas” that needs to be discussed, and a lot of people have those questions.

What do you see as the legacy of the show and what it’s accomplished?


Essiedu: I’ll be interested to see what the legacy is internationally. I feel it’s a show about today and yesterday and hopefully not about 10 years from now. Hopefully, we’ll come back to this show in 10 years and feel that it’s dated and that we’ve progressed in our collective understanding around sex, consent, gender and race.

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Opia: Everything Paapa said. But I think this show has also opened our eyes a lot on the response to trauma. It’s a very educational show. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people saying they’ve never seen life like this. It also shows representation of Black people in the U.K., which is a big deal. I hope it opens a lot of doors for other Black stories to be told and other Black creators to be able to tell their stories. It’s nice to see that Americans can see that we’re alive and we don’t all drink tea and crumpets. We lit. I hate tea and crumpets, for the life of me, mate. Nasty-ass dry pancake.


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