Interview with Michaela Coel

Michaela Cole is the writer, co-director and exec producer of I May Destroy You. She plays Arabella.

Published: 26 May 2020
I didn’t add humour, humour is always there, and I, for some reason, always seem to find myself in a corner with her, even when in a police station giving a witness statement about being raped by a stranger.
— Michaela Coel

Can you briefly set up the series?
The series is about how the personal identity we create in order to understand ourselves as beings in this world, how traumatic events may warp, contort and throw that sense of self into questioning.

You play the main protagonist, Arabella. Could you introduce us to her?
Arabella is Londoner, a lover of life and a lover of Twitter. After a spontaneous piece of writing of hers goes viral on the internet she receives a commission to write a book. She’s now got an agent, and there’s a sudden professional demand for her writing. Beyond her work she lives in a two-bed flat-share in Hackney and has a cool group of friends, also trying to find themselves within this little concrete jungle.

Without giving too much away can you give me an insight into Arabella’s journey across the 12 episodes?
Arabella must understand that everything is connected, that she is connected even to the thing she despises the most: her trauma. Across the 12 episodes she learns that allowing herself to disassociate from what she struggles to accept can have unsavoury consequences.

Where is the story set and how does that inform how you tell this story?
The story is set mainly in London and there are a couple of episodes in Italy. London does not inform how I tell the story, London is both the teller of the story, and the essence of the story itself. A melting pot, with different cultures, ideas, huge economic disparity, all squished together in a city starving of trees. Without this setting being at both the core of my writing and my life, this story does not exist as it is.

Can you talk about the writing process that went into the series?
I was working on another show with the BBC when I went in to meet with them about this show. They were very gracious and had a lot of belief in me. In September 2017 I was given a commission without having written a treatment or a pilot. I went away and wrote the first drafts for all 12 episodes and returned to London where my team of co-exec producers and script editor would question my writing and intentions. I would then go away again and write revisions.

That was the process for about a one and a half years, and I always worked on all 12 episodes at one time. It is a long, laborious labour of love. I am particularly grateful to Piers Wenger from the BBC, who really did read my drafts with mindful attention, even in their very early, barely coherent, phases.

How do you add humour into a series that focuses on such serious subject matters?
I didn’t add humour, humour is always there; at every party, funeral and war, although often uninvited, she’s always there, and I, for some reason, I always seem to find myself in a corner with her, even when in a police station giving a witness statement about being raped by a stranger. I’ve come to accept she’ll be in everything I do.

What was the most challenging aspect of this job?
All in all, the hardest thing was not getting distracted in wonderment at the confounding reality of having turned a rather bleak reality into a TV Show that created real jobs for hundreds of people. Of course, attempting to do all of these wonderful jobs at the same time came with challenges.

You star in the series as the main protagonist whilst writing, directing and producing the series at the same time. Talk us through how that all works.
I don’t know, it’s insane that we accomplished this at all, I think somehow this worked... because everybody else was very good at their jobs.

The series is also produced under your production company. What drew you to producing your own material?
A streaming service, that I came very close to producing this show with, wanted me to create the show - to write every single word of it, be the sole director and the lead actress.

This streaming service wanted me to do this whilst withholding 100 percent of the rights as their property. So I thought, let me plea for two percent, and when that was rejected I grew uncomfortable with the prospect of dedicating two and a half years of my life to a show exploring exploitation and loss of power whilst also losing all of my rights.

I rejected their deal, registered my own production company and hoped one day I would meet another broadcaster or streaming service who would allow me to retain a portion of my rights. The BBC and HBO became the happy homes for this project. I was keen to partner with a co-production team I trusted, so I hunted down Phil Clarke from Various Artists Limited. He was the head of comedy at Channel 4 when I created Chewing Gum, and I very much liked the freedom he had given me as a creative back then. We teamed up together and it’s been a very rewarding partnership.

Take us through the process of transitioning from actress to writer and producer.
Writing and producing don’t require any transitioning, it’s good to have a production mind tucked away in the back of your consciousness as you write, and vice versa. Acting is the hard one: it’s hard for me to do anything else when I’m acting other than play Arabella, and when this is happening Sam Miller and Audrey Cooke, my co-directors, direct the scenes and deal with any challenges.

When cut is called I return to being Michaela Coel (for the most part), happy to help with production questions etc. It definitely requires a team of very capable people, and as a creative I have to believe in and trust in that team. Which I did.

Can you talk about the process of finding the right cast that would inhabit these characters?
We had a brilliant casting director, Julie Harking, and although I had never met her, I was very keen to work with her. I loved her work on Misfits, Utopia, and various casts she has assembled over her career. She was excited and moved by even by the early drafts and displayed an instinctive understanding of the characters within them. She called in many strong actors. We have cast many who have never worked in TV before, and that was all down to Julie.

Had you worked with any of the cast before?
I’ve been in the same show as some of the cast but I didn’t have scenes with them. Weruche who plays Terry, was in Top Boy with me, we only had one scene together but never met within the scene - in the scene she delivered my son to my door but by the time I’ve opened the door she was gone so we’d never met! That’s quite funny.

Paapa, who pays Kwame, was in Black Earth Rising, but we never saw each other on set because he was in scenes that I wasn’t. We were also in the same year at drama school.

How much prep time did the cast have together prior to shooting?
A month or so before the shoot we would have meetings at the production office with the scripts and just discuss it for hours and they’d ask questions about what things meant and share their thoughts - not just about the scripts but about life, about life right now and the age we live in. We would just talk and bond and then we had an intimacy director who would come in and begin finding ways to direct those intimate scenes. She was very good at that and helped us get into our bodies.

Can you talk about the collaboration with costume and make-up to develop Arabella into the different personas we will see on screen?
Some of that is written into the script, but Bethany our make-up designer brought so many original ideas. She had visions for the look of the characters that I had not imagined in my wildest dreams.

She spoke about natural hair texture and how to look after afro hair and how to use afro hair textures and just the fact that this was on her mind... it’s so unusual in this industry to have someone who is curious and learning and understands that they may not understand everything about all hair. This willingness to say "I am learning" actually moved me to tears in her interview. She wanted to learn how to cane row the hair and how to do a lace wig properly for black hair. I didn’t have to explain any of this or bring it up, she was way ahead of any of us.

Lindsay our costume designer, who I had worked with on both seasons of Chewing Gum, is very good at designing my shows, it is a collaboration that she is totally in charge of. Both of them were very mindful not to over-buy and be as minimal as they could with what they bought, because generally around the team there was a conciseness about the amount of waste that we could limit.

What was your reaction when you first saw the rushes and the story piece itself together?
We didn’t shoot in order, and when I see the rushes I’m just looking to see that everything is right or if anything is wrong and if we have to reshoot, so I’m just working. There’s never a moment when I’m like ‘oh yay oh my god my show’. I’m just looking to make sure we got it. That’s all I’m looking at.

When the story comes together however, this becomes beautiful and satisfying and magical. As the scenes play, I recall the moments of being on set in real life, the magic that was on the floor makes itself evident when the editors begin their work.

What have you enjoyed most about working on this project?
Everything. Every moment, from thinking to writing to shooting to editing to rewriting, this has been the most satisfying experience of my entire life.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the series?
I hope they take away something that is quite hard to put into words.