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I May Destroy You is both a case of art imitating life and life imitating art. Michaela Coel’s masterful HBO limited series — which centers on a British writer named Arabella (Coel) who is dealing with the fallout of sexual assault, along with myriad other subjects — is rooted in her own experiences to the point that it’s tricky to tell where Bella stops and where Michaela begins. Conversely, Coel’s writing also has carried into real life — both in her close relationships with onscreen best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and in the fact that fans regularly approach her in public to express their gratitude, as they do to her character in the show. One year after I May Destroy You debuted to sonorous acclaim, the series picked up nine Emmy nominations, including acting, writing and directing nods for Coel. The showrunner-star shares with THR her insights on social media, balancing work and play, and what it’s like to wear so many hats on a production.
I May Destroy You is often billed as a work of autofiction. Is it important that other people know where Michaela ends and Arabella begins?
No, because I don’t even know where Bella [stops] and where Michaela begins. When I was writing, it [was like] there was my reality, Michaela, Arabella and then the writer, me. I looked at both the lives, including my own, as if they were separate from the writer. At some point, my life gets boring and isn’t very televisual. And so then Arabella begins. Most of the show is fictional, so I don’t even know if it legitimately falls under the category of autofiction. I’ve noticed some friends that only started watching the show a few weeks ago, they think people are real that aren’t real in the show, so I tell them, “Oh, this person isn’t real,” and they’re like, “No, don’t say that, you’re breaking my heart!”
Arabella struggles a lot with writer’s block and writes in bursts of inspiration. Is that reflective of your own writing process?
Yes, definitely. I’m not one of these writers that writes every day for the sake of writing every day like it’s exercise. I think it would probably benefit me to try and be that writer, but I’m not. I need to carve out time and work until I’m lost in the thing [before] I’m finally enjoying it. I need the wave of inspiration. I’m definitely a lot like Arabella in that regard.
The series came out during lockdown, so I imagine you were mostly getting feedback through the internet and social media. A year later, have you had the chance to have any face-to-face conversations about it?
Actually, most of my finding out about the response was through meeting people, either on the street [when] I run every day or walking to [go] pick up a toilet roll. I don’t really use social media. I looked at Twitter — I’m talking like three or four times — because I’m used to, from my previous experiences, reading people’s tweets [and running] into a tweet that hurts [my] feelings. I don’t like to go there because I don’t like when my feelings are hurt. So it was on the street, you know, cycling — you stop at a traffic light, and there’s another cyclist, and they’ve seen the show. I’ve had really beautiful interactions with people that way. I’ve stood on the street with people and we’ve cried together.
Talk about life imitating art. I mean, that actually happens on the show.
It does! And what’s so interesting is that people would often catch themselves being like the person in the show [who approaches Arabella in the street] and say, “You know what, I’m not going to ask for a photo because that’s what people do in the show. Instead, I’m just going to say thank you.” What ends up happening, once the cameras are removed and the phones are removed, is I get to have actual real, meaningful exchanges with people. That’s so beautiful.
In the Instagram Live sequence in episode nine, there’s this dissonance between people offering Arabella support and people not engaging in any real way. How did you translate the chaos of social media onto the screen?
It was really important for me to make [the messages] come up on the screen. I remember talking with my DP and with my special effects team, with my graphic designers, because I think the idea was so weird to them. I was like, “I don’t want it in a phone because it’s her whole world, it feels like [the messages are] all around her.” I think it’s because at some point in time, that’s how it felt to me, like my relationship with Instagram and with the community that I had there felt like it was all over my brain, totally immersive. There’s something brilliant about that because you’re able to totally lose sense of time and reality. But there’s also something really disturbing and misguided about that because it isn’t a tangible reality, some would argue. I’m not saying it’s bad or good, but I think it’s important to try to capture and present that level of immersion into social media. You know, these sort of “Show nudes” [messages] would come up and it’s funny, in a way. But also, it’s like, what the hell is going on? Is this even a person or just a bot who’s joined the Instagram Live? You’re talking, often about something quite serious, and someone is saying, “Show your tits,” and that must do something to you.
I think it complicates Arabella’s belief that social media is a one-way platform for telling the truth, because it’s not that straightforward.
It seems like what social media does [is] you try to communicate something, but it never lands properly. Just by being there, it flattens whatever feelings you have, which I think is why there’s so much misunderstanding. The people that I meet on the street [who] I have these beautiful exchanges with and cry with and laugh with and hug — if they tweeted that it wouldn’t quite land. And so if we’re going to continue this life on Twitter, I think it’s really important to save your anger, because whatever they mean is probably just not coming across properly on social media, or they’re a bot. [Or] they’re a person that is just choosing to say bullshit because something else traumatic is probably going on in their lives.
I May Destroy You refuses to paint villains or saints in broad strokes, which is not always the case when it comes to discourse about assault. What narratives did you set out to correct with the show, or was your focus on capturing an individual experience?
It’s about the narrative that we give ourselves, and what narratives are you going to have for your own life? Does it benefit you to see other people as complete and utter monsters, nothing but the devil inside of them? How does that help you sleep at night? How are you going to have empowerment in your life over the things people have done to you? That’s the narrative I’m trying to correct. I’m trying to give other people the chance and the time to correct the narrative that they have made about themselves, about their perception of the world, rather than saying, “This is the narrative of a rapist, let’s correct it.” That isn’t my focus or my interest. My interest is always about the victim of the trauma, the survivor of the trauma, and the narratives they tell themselves.
You famously turned down a $1 million Netflix offer in pursuit of full creative control, and you’ve spoken openly about your experiences with your show Chewing Gum, on which you didn’t have that. Going into this series, what did you want to do differently?
My commissioners, the BBC and HBO, listened to me and gave me time, gave me attention, gave me space to grow and change my mind. I went into the process of making the show with that mentality. Because of the way I was treated, I think I was able to treat other people with that same care and mindfulness and also have an element of play. When we went to L.A. to pitch the show, I went with my co-producers, Roberto Troni and Philip Clarke. I had never been to Santa Monica before, and we went to the beach, and we took our shoes off and put our feet in the water and we played. I also tried to bring that same sense of play to the set [with] the crew, the cast, everybody. It was fucking hard work, but also we played. When we had a couple of days off, we went and we had drinks and got incredibly drunk.
As a writer-director-actor, do you find that you need a buffer between prepping a scene and performing it? Do you see all of your roles as part of a cohesive whole or do you have to mentally separate them?
I don’t really have any choice in the matter when it comes to that. While I’m being costumed and fitted for Arabella, someone has a question about set design. You’re always doing all the jobs, and there is no, “Let’s do it like this, it might work better for me.” It’s all systems go, go, go. And it’s manic! I don’t know any other version, but I really enjoyed it. It’s so much that you can only smile and laugh and crack on with it. This is so crazy and so intense that we have to realize that this is an incredible experience. This is so hard, but also, oh my God, who gets to do this? That was on my mind every day.
There are a number of flashbacks to Arabella’s childhood in the series. What can you accomplish with this method that you can’t with events taking place in the present?
I didn’t necessarily realize this at the time of writing, but therapists often encourage you to think about your life as a child to try and connect the dots between who you are now. So I go back into Arabella’s life to try to give us an extra piece of the puzzle, to try and create the full picture of who she is to better orchestrate where she can go as a person. What is her relationship like with her dad? Where is her anger? What has she buried? Before she was spiked and her memory was taken away, her brain [had] practiced “Let’s forget this thing.” And now that it’s resurfaced, what does she do? She hugs her dad. So now we see, Arabella has now understood this idea of forgiveness, this idea of giving tenderness instead of a slap. And that means when she meets Terry, and she now knows that Terry left her [the night of the assault], we may assume there’s going to be a big old argument. But look what she’s done. She’s instead drawn on the good things that this person has done [for] her.
What was it like working with the actors who play younger versions of Terry, Arabella and Kwame? How did you re-create your characters’ specific dynamic?
These characters that I’ve written, these actors come and make them real. There is no real-life version of me in a threesome friendship with a Kwame and a Terry. Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia made that real. I wasn’t trying to create something that existed beyond the pages, the words that I had written, and it’s those two [who] made that reality. Now we have this friendship and it’s very strange, actors imitating writing that existed [beforehand] but also the characters we are imitating. All I know is that they made playing Arabella with them the greatest joy ever. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? Who knows?
What was your approach to figuring out the role that music plays in the show?
Some of the music was written into the script. At the time I was writing that show, I was listening to a lot of music sometimes while writing or sometimes, if I take a break, I treat myself by listening to some music. I think there was even more than I thought there would be, because once we filmed it and I met Ciara [Elwis] and Matt [Biffa], the music supervisors, they kind of allowed me to see that we [could] use a lot of music. So then the TV show almost became an homage to a style of music or modern artists that I loved. During COVID when we were doing the edit, I would spend nights just playing different music on top of a scene. Sometimes you’re not able to have a song because it’s too expensive, or everything’s really complicated because the rights aren’t with the artist, they’re with some fucked-up expensive, stupid label, and you have to lose a track. But every time we lost the track, we gained a track that was even better and made more sense than the one we lost. So [it] was also a joy to get lost in that.
How are you feeling in the wake of I May Destroy You‘s nine Emmy nominations and all of the attention that comes with that?
It’s made my team over the moon. It’s made England delighted, it’s made Ghana delighted, it’s made everybody so happy — and me. Obviously, my biggest euphoria comes from either the writing process, playing with the cast, with the crew, with the show airing and meeting the audience. The euphoria from all of that is the prize for me. But also, it’s delightful. I hope I get to go [to the Emmys] and meet the people that created the other shows that I fucking loved to watch over the last year.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
It’s almost anticlimactic for Michaela Coel’s universally acclaimed magnum opus to land in the limited field more than a year after premiering and being overlooked by so many other awards shows. But it also makes sense. It’s hardly a traditional comedy, and the parameters of drama don’t quite track either. Now it’ll settle for being the wild card and low-key favorite in a category where, in any other year, Mare of Easttown or The Queen’s Gambit would have very easily walked away with it all. — Mikey O’Connell
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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