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Michaela Coel praises ‘I May Destroy You’ intimacy director during BAFTA speech

A woman standing on a street in front of buildings
Michaela Coel created and stars in “I May Destroy You.”
(Laura Radford / HBO)

Michaela Coel, star and creator of the acclaimed HBO series “I May Destroy You,” received two British Academy Television Awards during Sunday’s ceremony.

While accepting her second award of the night, for lead actress, Coel touted the importance of intimacy directorsguiding actors on set through sexually graphic and distressing scenes, such as those depicted in her TV drama about a young British writer grappling with the aftermath of a rape.

“I want to dedicate this award to the director of intimacy, Ita O’Brien,” Coel said. “Thank you for your existence in our industry, for making the space safe. For creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries, so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power without being exploited or abused in the process.”

In addition to O’Brien, Coel also gave a shout-out and expressed a desire to collaborate with her fellow nominees, Billie Piper (“I Hate Susie”); Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”); Hayley Squires (“Adult Material”); Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve”); and Letitia Wright (“Small Axe”).

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

“I know what it’s like to shoot without an intimacy director — the messy, embarrassing feeling for the crew, the internal devastation for the actor,” Coel continued. "[O’Brien’s] direction was essential to my show — and, I believe, essential for every production company that wants to make work exploring themes of consent.”

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While speaking with the press backstage, Coel elaborated on her choice to spotlight intimacy directors, who have become an increasingly common presence on film, TV and theater productions in recent years. In 2019, “I May Destroy You” distributor HBO announced its plan to hire intimacy coordinators for all of its projects, sparking greater conversation about safety and consent in the entertainment industry.

For actors, filming sex scenes can be a job requirement — and an uncomfortable one.

“The confidence that it gives you to be able to really tell a story that looks harrowing — that looks inappropriate — whilst being totally appropriate, whilst being protected, means that you’re able to properly tell that story,” she said.

“I also think it’s a very vulnerable place ... for the crew as well, because the crew might have had experiences, and it triggers things for them. So to have her there protects everybody, and if you don’t have people like Ita on set when you’re shooting things like that, I think it’s quite thoughtless, and I think it’s really inconsiderate.”

Prior to winning lead actress, Coel also accepted the prize for miniseries on behalf of the entire “I May Destroy You” crew, “because they don’t get enough credit,” she said. Among the other miniseries nominees were “Adult Material,” “Normal People” and “Small Axe.”

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.

“They are the invisible presence in every single scene of this show — the unsung heroes who creates everything you see, hear and feel. Their attention to detail and work ethics has helped this show to come alive,” Coel said. “This is me seeing you, acknowledging all of you. All of our DNA exists in this show, and I am grateful to each and every soul for all of your dedication and hard work.”

Coel’s BAFTA victories come several months after her groundbreaking series was snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hosts the Golden Globe Awards. The organization has come under sharp scrutiny in the wake of a Los Angeles Times investigation that revealed a history of corruption and lack of diversity.

Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” is one of summer’s must-see series. And costars Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu have been essential to that success.

On Sunday, Coel got emotional while reacting to her BAFTA wins and answering questions about her experience co-executive producing, co-writing, co-directing and starring in “I May Destroy You,” which is partly based on her experience of being drugged and sexually assaulted.

“It really helped me get past some troubling stuff,” she said. “And what it enabled me to do is pair something quite tragic with something quite beautiful ... It kind of replaced bad memories with really nice ones.

“I wasn’t expecting so many people to identify with the show, with the characters. I wasn’t expecting people to feel like I had represented them and that they saw the show as a mirror unto themselves. There isn’t really a word for that feeling.”


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