Michaela Coel has this lockdown thing really locked down, when we talk to her a few weeks in. As the rest of us clunkily adjust to the new normal, Coel’s already something of a pro.
She’s been isolating at home for weeks before we speak, doing edits of her new TV show, and is pretty much used to this solitary life we now lead – just never before during a pandemic.
‘I think because I write, this feels really normal,’ she tells me, over a Zoom call from her east London flat, where she’s holed up alone. ‘I sometimes travel really far to write, where I have to walk like an hour and a half to get to the supermarket. I’ve written in places where I haven’t seen another human being for two and a half weeks, so this feels very familiar!’
It's not just the edits for her new series that are keeping Coel busy, she’s just started an online course on run by Yale university on the science of wellbeing. She’s also downloaded an app to help her learn the splits, but is having second thoughts. ‘My friend sent me it. By the time you finish, you’re supposed to be able to do the splits. But it’s really hard. I was like, "Mate, this is a bit much actually, it’s really painful." I’m on day three, but it’s too much. I’m worried I’m going to tear my vital bits. It’s much more serious that I thought it was…’
It’s this amusing honesty that propelled Coel onto the comedy scene with Chewing Gum just five years ago. The production began life as Chewing Gum Dreams, her one-woman end-of-year show at London’s Guildhall Schol in 2012, based loosely on her experiences growing up in a Ghanain family in east London.
It was soon picked up by Channel 4, and the utterly brilliant comedy created by, written by and starring Coel bagged two BAFTAs and much critical acclaim.
Her latest offering, whilst also autobiographical in nature, comes from a much darker place. I May Destroy You, the BBC drama she has written and starred in is based on a sexual assault she experienced several years ago.
Coel plays Arabella Essiedu, a self-assured and carefree writer whose life is thrown into disarray when her drink is spiked with a date rape drug. As might expect from Coel, it’s sharp, smart and witty - but the gut punch still manages to blindside, and stays long after the credits roll. It’s a frank and provocative portrayal of dating and consent. When I ask where she found the strength to take back control of that narrative, Coel is matter of fact about reclaiming her power.
‘It almost feels like something that I impulsively did,’ she admits. She says whilst sitting in the police station with a friend, shortly after the attack, she started making notes. 'It was a way of separating myself from what happened, but also separating myself in order to understand what happened and to find some meaning in it - in something that’s really purposeless. By the end of the series, it’s very clear that this goes way out of the realms of any sort of reality, and it’s very fictional. But it helps.’
She describes the writing process as all-consuming, and admits she’s removed from the experience when she watches the rushes back as her character Arabella: 'I talk about "her", it’s a different person.’
I May Destroy You has taken up the past two and a half years of Coel’s life (alongside parts in two episodes of Black Mirror and the lead role in the acclaimed series Black Earth Rising). She says creating a TV show is a bit like having a child.
‘I do see it very much as like a pregnancy and a labour,’ she laughs. ‘Then, when the show comes out, you do the hair, you iron the skirt and you send the child to school, and people might not like her, but you know she’s got to grow up, and off she goes. It’s like when your child graduates and you get to stop worrying about them. “Yeah, you’re not my problem any more. Get out, go and survive on your own two feet.” The minute I’ve written something, I want it to be everywhere.’ Coel has definitely achieved that aim.
I May Destroy You is on BBC One on Mondays. A longer version of this interview originally ran in the July issue of Red.
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