Michaela Coel on Enjoying Being Agentless in Wake of 'I May Destroy You' Success

I May Destroy You - Publicity still 2- H 2020
Natalie Seery/HBO

The British multihyphenate also discusses the response to her deeply personal BBC/HBO drama and why she was happy to make one (minor) edit for the U.S. version.

Tackling issues such as sexual consent, gender, race, class, drugs, victim shaming and social media obsession with the sort of raw, unflinching, angry, often hilarious, at times deeply upsetting and frequently hedonistic honesty unseen on TV before, I May Destroy You has become one of the summer's must-watch events.

The 12-part BBC/HBO drama has also further underlined Michaela Coel — creator, writer, co-director, showrunner and lead star — as one of the most exciting young creatives working today.

Already a BAFTA winner thanks to her groundbreaking and semiautobiographical comedy series Chewing Gum, Coel mined her own experiences of sexual assault and racism — which she first discussed publicly at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival (as the first Black woman to give the keynote MacTaggart Lecture) — and crafted a story that has managed to be fiercely topical and debate-sparking and, with just two episodes landing each week, has kept audiences screaming out for more.

While it may be based almost entirely in Coel's home city of London and told through the eyes of a Black Londoner, I May Destroy You has resonated and reverberated across the Atlantic and beyond.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Coel explains that there's one — minor — change in the BBC and HBO versions of the final episode (although that was the only note she had throughout), how being agentless (she recently revealed that she fired CAA while pitching I May Destroy You) has allowed her to relax rather than get caught up in the post-hit excitement, and why her future — near, at least — involves nieces, plants and puzzles.

How does it feel to be the hottest thing on TV right now?

Ha! You know what, it's something that is strange to me. I think because of the lockdown. Everything feels very normal in my life. Also, I'm not really on Instagram and Twitter at all. So where do you feel the warmth from having been the hottest thing on anything? Where is it? I'm watering a plant that I've bought. I'm starting on a new puzzle.

The response to I May Destroy You has been phenomenal. Have you had a chance to sit and reflect on it at all?

Yeah, I think I half processed it a little bit via a couple of these articles, and something in seeing a journalist's perspective allows me to process it a little bit. I've actually cried [in interviews], because it's quite overwhelming, especially when you're working so hard that you don't often reflect and process. We finished postproduction only really two weeks ago, so I've just finished working, so I haven't really yet had time to really process anything.

Given the extremely personal nature of the show, is it a relief that the there's been such a great reaction to it? Did you place any additional pressure on yourself to make something that would be loved?

No. I say this to myself because it helps keep me calm, which is, "You've done the work, you've done your job and now that it's aired, your job is done." And it's done. So I put my whole life into those two and a half years, and then I have to leave it there. Because I do see this as my child and I can't force anybody to like my child. I've done my best. I've ironed her skirt. I've braided her hair. Off she goes, and there's nothing I can do. But deep down you're in total anguish, but you can't do anything.

What did your friends and family say when you told them you'd be making a show based on your own personal story?

You know, nobody really said anything. And I think that's because they weren't sure about whether it was a good idea. But you can't really say to somebody, "This isn't a good idea." There were probably preconceptions of what the show would be because I'm going to write a show about being sexually assaulted, and you can imagine what that would be. But only I know what it will be. So I think there was a lot of careful silence.

There are several scenes in the show that are kind of out there — I've certainly not seen them on the BBC before. I understand that the BBC gave you full creative freedom, but when HBO got involved, did they have any input? Did you get any notes telling you to tone it down a little, or were you really allowed to push it as far as you liked?

There is one tiny shot in episode 12, and we have an HBO version and a BBC version. It's tiny. You know, it's kind of like for two and a half years you've been really just chilling whilst I presented you with content that's quite unusual for the BBC. So there was this one moment, and I thought, you know what, that's fair.

One shot is pretty good going for the entire show …

It's incredible. They really did honor their word, which blows my mind. I'm very grateful for Piers [Wenger, controller of drama commissioning] at the BBC.

There's been a lot of talk recently following the revelation that you refused a $1 million offer from Netflix because they wouldn't let you keep any of the copyright to I May Destroy You, and then sacked your reps at CAA because they were pushing for the deal. Have you had any reaction or blowback from the industry to this?

How do I hear from the industry? How does that work?

Have you had your agents, or any producers or other executives in the industry that you know comment on it?

I don't actually have representation. I'm totally … I'm totally just living. Hahaha!

Ha!

I've been agentless before. I mean, it's such a weird time for me in so many ways. But it also means I'm not hearing back and I think people who I am working with understand that right now. I just want to water the plants and do puzzles. So they're just leaving me alone, which is very sweet.

What's the picture on the puzzle?

It's just like shapes and colors. And it's 500 pieces.

Oh man, not even a nice landscape. That sounds like one of the trickier ones.

No, it's going to be hard!

If you did have representation, normally at a time like this, they'd probably be receiving floods of scripts and offers for you. Have these been pushed through your front door instead?

I have a personal assistant and a publicist. But what they know is — currently — I just need a little break. Just keep everything away … we'll deal with it later because my mental health needs a little pause so that I can see my family and my friends. Because I work so much that I really don't see people and I'm always lucky enough that I when I finish the project, my friends and family are waiting for me going, "Are you back?" So now I have to experience my life as a friend and an auntie — I've got a little niece — and just want to do that for a little while and gather myself back up.

Do you have any plans to take I May Destroy You further, beyond this season?

I don't want to give anything away. But I think when you see the final episode, you'll know.

This sounds like something you're not thinking about at the moment, but now that Hollywood has taken notice of you in a big way, is there a particular role you'd really like to play, one that you might have the opportunity to do now?

I haven't really got a part in my mind that I would love to play. I just love great scripts. I can't say that I wanted to play a legal investigator until Hugo Blick's Black Earth Rising ended up in my inbox. So you just never know.

And you probably didn't know you wanted to play — briefly — a member of the Resistance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi 

Exactly! And then it turns up and you're like, this is the one thing I never knew I wanted. 

Slightly off topic, but do you sometimes feel like you haven't got the credit that you're due over the years? No disrespect to Fleabag, but people often talk about the show as if Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the first woman in British comedy to break the fourth wall. But you were obviously doing this a year earlier in Chewing Gum 

Yes, it's interesting. It definitely doesn't feel like a surprising thing. If you look, you know, over the years, I think it's, it's not surprising, is it?

It's not. But how do you feel about it? It must grate to have someone else credited for something you did.

I can't say it grates. I think because it isn't surprising. I also must say that I loved Crashing, which was the first thing I'd seen Phoebe Waller-Bridge do. I thought that was fucking brilliant. So I have a lot of respect for her as an artist and as a woman in this industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.