Michaela Coel On 'I May Destroy You', Finding Forgiveness And Dancing In The Dark

·12-min read
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

A public park in the dead of night is not where one expects to find a Hollywood actor. Instead, its denizens are the hustlers, the hiders, the dispossessed… those for whom daylight hours cast an unkind light. But it is where you will find Michaela Coel. Dancing under the moonlight. Headphones on. Eyes shut tight. Completely at peace with the misfits of the night.

You see, Michaela Coel is not like any other actor. She writes, directs and is a dab hand with an open mic. Her mum still makes her clothes. She offers her phone number to people in the street and cries and laughs and hugs with strangers. In 2018, she turned down $1m from Netflix when she was still relatively unknown; then, fired her agent for pressuring her to take said deal. That same year she outed the entire TV industry on one of the most public and prestigious stages in the world. Some said she would never work again. She hasn’t stopped.

‘I am strange. I do understand that,’ she says matter-of-factly when we meet in central London, on one of the wettest days of the year. She is busy writing her next project, in a tiny attic-like room, high above the neon glow of Soho. She slips down the stairs to greet me – a tiny, elfin figure in sports socks and shorts with a smile that knocks you backwards. Her hair is cropped close to her head (a number one on the barber clippers, I’m hazarding a guess), but dyed the delicate pink of a strawberry bon bon. The meek and mighty, all rolled into one.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

Lunch has arrived. She roots, child-like, through the paper take-out bags in front of us, eyes wide, mouth slackened, before handing out cartons of vegan lunch for the two of us. She’s been working late. Again. It is her thing. Cramming the words and storylines into the minutes of the night. ‘I think something about me enjoys the night,’ she says, swooping down on a sweet potato chip. ‘It’s an interesting time because no one is really up, so it’s like the night people. There aren’t many of us, so it feels like a very private experience of being alive. Something about me likes that.’

We are meeting today to talk about her debut book, aptly titled Misfits: A Personal Manifesto. To call it a manifesto, however, would be to underplay both the delicacy and nuance of Coel’s writing. It is warm and funny and all the things you’d expect from a woman who wrote Channel 4’s award-winning series Chewing Gum, as well as 2020’s culture-defining hit, I May Destroy You. (And let’s not forget lines such as: ‘All I’ve done here is eat four-cheese pizza and a d*ck.’) The book charts her life, her friends, growing up in east London, as well as her dramatic James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture given at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2018. For those unfamiliar with the lecture, it is a big deal in Coel’s world: an hour-long speech typically undertaken by industry veterans such as Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner and a pre-scandal Kevin Spacey.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

At the point Coel was asked to do it, she was just 30, and although she had won two BAFTAs for Chewing Gum, she was still relatively unknown. She was also reeling from a number of professional altercations, all of which had left her painfully aware of the lack of power afforded to artists over their own work. (This included a tussle over making her executive producer of Chewing Gum, a series in which she was involved in everything, from the costumes to the music. They eventually settled on the somewhat lesser title of creative co-producer.)

She had three months in which to write the keynote lecture, but, in her standard style, crammed it into two weeks, writing alone in a colleague’s house in Somerset. There, in the dark hours, she did what she does best: poured herself and her experiences into words. Words that culminated in a 53-minute speech that lambasted an entire industry. She did it with humour. With grace. With nuance. Sucker-punching the world with her honesty. It was not an admonishment as such. She is too smart and empathetic for that. Instead, she documented, from her point of view, how it feels to be an outsider in an industry of insiders. What doors to gently push, which doors to knock down. How to respond to a world whose answer to everything is: That’s just the way it is.

She explained how, on the Chewing Gum set, she found all the Black actors in one trailer, while the white actor had their own. She described it as looking like ‘a fackin’ slave ship’, to which a producer declared: ‘I’m not racist!’ ‘I know you ain’t racist, that’s what makes this all so fackin’ bizarre,’ Coel countered. Needless to say, more trailers were quickly procured.

This is Coel all over. Correction from a place of forgiveness rather than a place of fury. It is how she makes change happen. Nuance again. Trying to see all sides of the story, then beavering away to make things work. As a deeply religious Christian from the ages of 18 to 24, she admits that church probably ‘accelerated loving kindness’, but the empathy has always been there. The nuance always deep within her. ‘I hate the idea of somebody being sorry and me withholding forgiveness,’ she says. ‘Because you leave someone in torment and actually you have the power to release that person. Feeling that power is empowering.’

She also did something else at the MacTaggart lecture: she revealed that, while penning the second series of Chewing Gum, she was sexually assaulted after having her drink spiked during a break from writing. It was a shocking revelation, topped only by the further admission that, after the incident, she carried on writing for fear of not delivering her work on time.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

That experience formed the basis of I May Destroy You, the BAFTA-winning auto-fictional BBC/HBO drama that Coel wrote shortly afterwards. She is at pains to explain that I May Destroy You is not autobiographical, though there are certainly similarities between the protagonist Arabella and Coel. Like Coel, Arabella is sexually assaulted on a night out, though cannot remember much of what happened. For Coel however, her experience was largely blank, the only indication that something terrible had happened being the marks she carried and an Uber receipt. She tried to retrace her steps, she tells me, scouring nightclubs in the West End demanding to see CCTV footage. (She tells me later that there is footage of her being carried by an unidentified man, though she has not seen it.) But still there is nothing. To grieve with the scars but not the memory of the event is a complex thing. One wonders if her making sense of such a senseless act is the way she makes sense of everything – writing it down and giving it form.

When she talks about it now, it is without anger. Of course, time and therapy have been incredible healers, too. ‘I think [about] what happened to me,’ she says calmly. ‘It’s really horrible and f*cked up, and to automatically feel angry, sad, revengeful, those are good things. And then your final destination is empathy. But then there’s also things like the law and we need both of those things.’ She pauses. ‘I think the cycle of grief has to be ridden all the way around. It’s easy to remain in a place of anger, sadness or shock.’

She then proceeds to tell me a story. Not long after the assault, she was dancing in the street (you may have gathered by now that it’s a recurring theme with her) when a man carrying two bin bags stopped her. He asked what she was doing and the two started to talk. ‘I asked him where he lived,’ she says, smiling. ‘And he said he’d just moved round the corner. Turned out he had just left prison and they had housed him there. Those were his belongings, in the bin bags. So we had a chat and I gave him my number. That night I was going through my I May Destroy You script with some friends and suggested he pop over. So he came around and my friends were like, “Michaela, what the f*ck is wrong with you?”

When my friend went to the toilet, he turned to me and said: “I feel like your friends are worried to leave you alone with me.” And I said, “Yeah, they are, so let me walk you out.” So we walked out into the night and I explained to him that a couple of years ago I was assaulted. He said, “Oh gosh… I’m so sorry.” He looked so affected. He then told me he had been shot. He lifted up his leg, and so we were exchanging wounds. We were out there, in the middle of the night, in the empty streets and he said to me, “You’re a bit weird.” And I said, “So are you.” And we hugged and off he went.’

Weird. It’s a place Coel is familiar with. She grew up in a small council estate that bordered Tower Hamlets to one side, the soaring City of London to the other. Her family were one of the few Black families on the estate and, until she reached secondary school, she was the only Black girl in her class. There was bullying at school. She was teased, mainly about her lips. Her arsenal was always the same: wit, words and empathy. (She dealt with the school bully by asking if they ‘needed a hug’. Then never heard from them again.) When she was 18, she found God by way of a Pentecostal dance troupe. Then dropped Him when she hit drama school and discovered He wasn’t, if the Bible was anything to go by, into homosexuality. She was the first Black woman to be accepted into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in five years. A misfit. Again.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

Of course, the more successful she becomes, the further she will inevitably drift from the interesting fringes where she evidently feels most comfortable. And yet it’s where she repositions herself, time and again. Finding the place no one else occupies. ‘To ask someone like me to give [the MacTaggart], there is a different version where I can ask the industry what it wants to hear. Perhaps they’ll say, “You can talk about these statistics about women in TV, Black people in TV and diversity. We could give you stats about streaming services and whatever it is.” But that wouldn’t be me giving a speech. So I wrote, as I often do, from some sort of instinct, and my first draft of it feels like a time I was still piecing things together, still not quite understanding the gravity of both my experiences in television and my assault. And as I redrafted and redrafted, things became clearer to me about my situation and the vulnerability of the whole thing.’ It is the first time throughout the interview she becomes emotional.

‘Just all of the experiences in TV, the racism. All the things that seem, when you don’t put them together, you can almost avoid. And then when you piece them together, it presents itself as a worrying and unjust picture within the context of obviously having incredible opportunities. And should it be like that? Does it have to be like that for everybody else?’ The irony is that the more successful and mainstream Coel becomes, the smaller the window becomes to see the very injustices she speaks so eloquently about.

‘I am a Black woman and that will always be true,’ she says. ‘And, for me, there is nothing like going to a different country where nobody knows me and experiencing the way security guards follow me around the pharmacy or the grocery shop. The dirty looks I receive, the fact that cars don’t want to stop on a zebra crossing. All these things reinstall that I am a Black woman. As long as these issues are still happening, I am happy to speak, because I could be deluded and forget that that’s a part of me. I’m really lucky that there are places where I’m not known and so it allows me to still experience it.’

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

And that’s what makes her not only such a talent, but such a perfect truth-teller of our time. Her desire, nay need, to stay on the edges. To not just watch but to feel what life is like there. Because here is what she has learnt is true: that those on the outside of things are often the ones who have true clarity on the big picture.

I ask her what’s the weirdest thing she does. And that’s when she goes into detail about the dancing. In lockdown, she was running every day. One day she saw a man dancing in the park alone. She was overwhelmed by the beauty of what he was doing. ‘You’re beautiful!’ she shouted, as she ran past him. A short while later they bumped into one another. They exchanged numbers. On Coel’s instruction, they decided to dance together, this time in the dead of night. So that’s what they did. Headphones on. Making shapes under the stars.

It pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Michaela Coel – the passion, the fun, the downright weirdness of it, but also the sheer lack of fear to do whatever she wants.

‘You know, you can’t live in fear,’ she says, when I ask if she gets scared, particularly in light of what has happened to her. ‘I get that there has to be an element of caution but there is security patrolling the park. I see them. They see me. They know there’s a weird girl who comes to the park at night and dances. And when it’s been some time, they say: “Oh! You’re back. It’s been a while…”’

Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel is out September 7.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

The October issue of ELLE hits newsstands on September 2, 2021

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