In 2016, Coel was sexually assaulted by strangers, after being drugged while meeting a friend for a drink, like Arabella, the night before a deadline. The details of the incident aren’t necessary, they’re painful, yet Coel chose to share them with the world in 2018, when she became the first black woman to deliver the prestigious MacTaggart lecture. Now, she’s blurred the lines between reality and fiction with I May Destroy You’s protagonist, Arabella, amalgamating friends’ anecdotes and her own experiences for a searing commentary on consent, assault and that murky, grey area in between. Its viewers are in both shock and awe: the first in response to the naturally upsetting themes in the show, the latter at her talent, bravery and tremendous gift for storytelling.
But what else happened in 2016? Well Coel was busy writing the second series of her other groundbreaking, hit show, Chewing Gum, in which she starred as (and created and wrote) Tracey Gordon, a religious 24-year-old living on a Hackney council estate who was hellbent on losing her virginity. Like I May Destroy You, the show was inspired greatly by her own experiences growing up in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, where she was raised by her Ghanaian mother, and celebrates life on the estate rather than depicting it as a place riddled with gang crime.
Starting life as a 20-minute, one-woman play that she performed in lieu of the other production her peers were taking part in for their final-year assessment at London’s Guildhall School Of Music & Drama, Chewing Gum was soon extended into an hour-long show for The Yard Theatre in Hackney. Not long after that—and additional runs at other venues, including National Theatre, no less—the BBC swooped in and commissioned it for television. Now 32, all of this happened before Coel had even turned 27.
It’s an impressive CV, but it doesn’t stop there: After Chewing Gum came a turn in Black Mirror, as the difficult airline stewardess in “Nosedive”. The following year, Coel returned to Black Mirror in “USS Callister”. Next, she was enlisted for Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising, as well as the leading role in the musical Been So Long, in 2018. Before you pause for breath, it’s probably also worth mentioning that Coel was in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the original series of Top Boy. She excels in every role, no matter how large or small, but no more so when she is in control of the narrative herself.
Back to the not-quite-post-apocalyptic present day. It’s the middle of a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests are still filling streets across the world, Michaela Coel is beaming at me through a Zoom call. Like I said, her smile can’t be held back. Her warmth radiates through even the most unreliable of internet connections. Aside from I May Destroy You’s success, there’s a lot going on in the world at the moment and, as such, a lot for everyone to process. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Coel’s already got a lot of it figured out…
GQ: Congratulations on I May Destroy You. It must have been equally challenging and cathartic to write. Did you always intend for it to be a piece of work that would have such a public platform on TV?
Michaela Coel: I don’t think I have a version of writing that’s not intended to be shared. I have a personal journal, but my artistic writing is always meant to be shared. If it’s shared with one, it’s shared with all. If I was doing plays it probably would have ended up being a play, but I’m doing TV, which I’m very happy about, because it reaches large numbers and people don’t have to make much effort to see it. You don’t have to dress up and go to the theatre. You don’t have to sit there and buy a book. I think for our brains TV is quite easy to digest, so I’m glad that this was the format.