As the creator and star of the sensational new HBO and BBC drama I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel has been splashed across magazine covers and billboards for the past few months. She’s shared the deeply personal stories that inspired IMDY, and addressed the institutional barriers she encountered during the making of her previous show, Chewing Gum. While thrilled to have the chance to make it, she was barred from acting as the show’s executive producer. The Black actors were forced to share one trailer, while the white actors weren’t, and she often felt she wasn’t given due credit for the show’s massive success. Ultimately, she walked away from Chewing Gum and went on a tour making her views about the experience widely known, and charging networks to do better. “Of late, channels, production companies, and online streaming services have found themselves scrabbling for misfits like kids in a playground scrabbling for sweets—desperate for a chew, not sure of the taste of these sweets, these dreams, just aware they might be very profitable,” she said in a keynote speech at the 2018 Edinburgh International Television Festival. “Is it important that voices used to interruption get the experience of writing something without interference at least once?”
The A.V. Club recently sat down with Coel via Zoom to discuss tokenism in Hollywood, what it takes to get a seat at the table, and if she found closure from writing about her sexual assault—or whether such closure even exists. Excerpts of that interview are in the video above, with the full transcript posted below.
The A.V. Club: There was an excellent Vulture piece about you recently, and in it, it was mentioned that you’d done 191 drafts of I May Destroy You. What changed from draft one to the final piece that we’re seeing?
Michaela Coel: In many ways, a lot has changed. In other ways, it hasn’t changed a bit. At the origin of this show, I knew I would begin with sexual assault, and I had a version of the ending, which meant I understood the beginning and the end, but didn’t know how I would get there. I always knew where I was going, but there were hundreds of different ways to really get there. So it changed in loads of ways.
The episodes I did the most rewrites for were nine and eight. I don’t know how much you’ve seen, but originally [episode nine] wasn’t about social media. Originally it was a flashback to the therapist’s life. You know how sometimes we flash back? We went to Italy, we went to the school… And in one draft we actually went into the therapist’s life. [Episode nine] is about trying to rebuild Arabella, and explaining that there aren’t good people here and bad people here. Everybody is neither and both. I was using the therapist as an example, so we went back in time to see the therapist do something that was very questionable… But then I felt like that was a cop-out, and I just knew I wasn’t there.
Then I realized, no, I have to put it on Arabella. Arabella has to reveal that she herself is both the hero and villain and neither hero nor villain. And that required me going into myself and seeing ugly bits. That took a really long time, but originally, the story didn’t go back to Italy. So that was another episode [episode eight] that had many, many different permutations. And then I decided, “Oh, I know what she has to do. She has to go back to Italy.”
So, many different things. I can’t even necessarily remember all of the drafts. The themes stay the same, but there are so many different ways to try to express the same thing.
AVC: Another thing that I really enjoyed in the Vulture piece were the points about how, sometimes networks and studios see the social push for diversity and say, “Oh, let’s get people of color in the door. Let’s give them shows.” But then they might not let them execute that show or that film or that project with an unfettered vision. They’re reining them in, they’re saying, “Yeah, you can make a show, but we’re going to have a different producer come in, and we’re going to not give you all the credit.” You have been notably outspoken about this in regards to Chewing Gum. Do you feel at all optimistic about where the diversity effort in Hollywood—or in London—is going?
MC: I think it’s always good to be optimistic. I’ve always felt optimistic even through Chewing Gum. I feel like there will be teething problems along the way whilst we try to empower a diversity of voices, but we’re trying, bit by bit and step by step. There are companies who are trying, and the more we talk about this, the more those companies will rise up and we’ll be able to find them. And then misfits and diverse voices will be able to find and partner with those companies.
AVC: I have to imagine that there are a lot of creators—both creators of color and not—that are just so excited to get a deal or to get something made that they’ve been working on for maybe 20 years that they may be willing to take a lesser deal or to not even realize what they’re getting is not what they would want. Is that something that you recognized when you first got into the business or did you need to have an experience like Chewing Gum to make you say, “This isn’t what I wanted.”
MC: Before I was ever on TV, I was saying no to auditions that I didn’t think would quite suit me or I didn’t think I’d be able to do the role. And this is while I lived with my mom in our council flat. I guess because I lived at home, I had the power to say no to things, because I had the comfort of living with my mom. You know, I wonder if that has helped me be quite picky. However, I never had an aspiration to necessarily have amazing things and live in a great apartment. I would never say, “I’m going to take this because I need the money to live.” I didn’t really have that. I was told very early on that there is power in the word no. I also think that there’s power in the word yes, though. And we will never really know for sure whether we’ve said no at the right time or yes at the right time, but we just have to pay attention to how we feel.
I find that sometimes there’s a question in the back of your mind and you’re not quite confronting it, and that question is, “Hey, how is this working? What are you being paid? What’s going on?” Sometimes we don’t ask that because the deal is so shiny, but I think we need to start listening to ourselves a bit more perhaps, and even asking people for advice. I wish I asked people for advice more often before. If I’d asked other people, maybe I’d have more data. I’d be able to make a decision quicker.
AVC: I think people are oftentimes afraid to talk about money or to talk about what’s going on with their personal life, especially with colleagues or people they admire. I also think that in a lot of situations, there’s not necessarily a wealth of people that you can go to that have had similar experiences to you to say, “Hey, can you be my mentor? Can you show me how to do this thing?”
MC: So true. I wouldn’t have had anybody to ask. That’s why I didn’t ask anybody—because I didn’t have anybody to ask that wasn’t involved in the financial aspects of the project itself. I’m not going to get an objective answer from people who have financial incentives in my life. So it’s tricky, isn’t it? It’s really tricky. And I also think if you’ve signed the contract and you’ve taken the deal, sometimes you need to just be optimistic and go through it and learn for next time. Sometimes you’ve just got to see the bright side, and make your peace.
AVC: I May Destroy You is, in part, based on your own sexual assault. In the show, Arabella was broken open and is attempting to become whole. I’m wondering if writing the show was an act that helped you come to terms with what happened to you or if you had to find closure with what happened before you could even write the show.
MC: I think it’s a bit of both. I started therapy within days after my assault. So that was always running through everything, but writing gave me another form of… I don’t know if it’s closure. I don’t really know if you ever have this kind of “we’ve closed it and we’ve tied the little ribbon on it, and now it’s a TV show and now my whole life is pink ribbons and sorted.” You just learn to not be afraid of trying to understand yourself, trying to understand the world of other people, imagining what could have been and all the possibilities, and trying to bring yourself to a place of empathy. That’s what writing the show did for me. It pulled me to a place of empathy for myself and for other people, and that really empowered me.
AVC: I’m a big admirer of the cardigans on the show, as is Ashley Ray-Harris, the writer that reviews the show for us. Where did the vision for Arabella’s wardrobe or look come from?
MC: It’s mainly down to Lynsey Moore. That’s my costume designer. She also worked with me on both seasons of Chewing Gum. She’s the only costume designer I’ve ever worked with. So I give her complete credit. I don’t entirely know how she comes across half the things that she does, but she brings me options, and then we decide what works best. We just have to clap for Lynsey. I don’t entirely know.
AVC: Earlier you mentioned episode nine, “Social Media Is A Great Way To Connect.” Did writing that episode give you any sort of insight into using the internet for activism? Is it a good thing? A bad thing? Both? Where do you think we’re at?
MC: I think it’s probably used for both, but to finish the show, I had to leave social media because it’s so distracting. I really did have 12 episodes of a TV show to write. I realized that I had to leave in order to get the work done. However, then in leaving, I suddenly became aware that I had spent a lot of time in a portal that isn’t tangible in many ways and how much that portal affected my perception of the world and of myself. Only by leaving did I suddenly find myself able to look back and see how it had affected my brain.
When I first left, I deleted the apps, but then I would find myself just chilling with my phone and just doing this. [Holds up phone, idly scrolls with finger.] And then I’d think, what am I looking for? I was looking for Instagram, I was looking for Twitter, and they weren’t on my phone anymore. So it was in my whole body. My body had remembered it. So it was quite interesting to realize how much it had penetrated my biology.
[Disconnecting made me realize] that, yes, there are many good things [about social media]. I got to connect with people from all around the world and discovered that I wasn’t alone. But also there were aspects of social media that had affected the way that I’d seen other people. I had perhaps flattened everything into one of these binary perspectives where it was one or the other, and I never recognized the complexity of both things. [Social media] flattens ideas, and it made me unable to be calm and sit with things I didn’t necessarily agree with when somebody was coming from a different place and had a different perspective for me. It somehow made those huge, infuriating things immediate. I was never able to just sit patiently before. Before, when I was engaging [more] on social media, it stole that stillness, and that ability to listen. And I feel so happy that I’ve been able to find that now.