TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Michaela Coel, is the creator, writer, director and star of the new HBO series "I May Destroy You." The show is leading to a lot of conversation because it's about a subject that can be hard to talk about - rape - as well as forms of sexual assault that the victim may not even realize is assault.
"I May Destroy You" is a stylish, sometimes funny drama starring Coel as Arabella, a young writer whose first book, "Chronicles Of A Fed-Up Millennial," was published online. It made her famous on social media, but now she's trying to complete a draft for her second book. She takes a break one night, goes for a drink with a friend and later regains consciousness with no memory of what happened. She figures out her drink was spiked. She has unsettling images in her mind that she can't shake of a man above her. She doesn't know if the man in this image is the man who raped her, and she's kind of in denial that she was raped. As the series goes on, she tries to cope with the assault's profound effects on her life while also trying to meet her publishing deadlines.
Michaela Coel was assaulted in a similar way when she was writing and starring in her first TV series, "Chewing Gum." That was a comedy about a naive 24-year-old in East London desperately trying to lose her virginity. Coel also starred in the Netflix series "Black Earth Rising" playing a young woman saved from the Rwandan genocide. Coel's parents are from Ghana. Before we start my interview with Michaela Coel, I want you to know that part of our discussion will be about sexual assault but nothing explicit. Nevertheless, some listeners may find that part of the discussion too disturbing.
Let's start with a clip from "I May Destroy You." The young writer Arabella, suspecting she's been raped, goes to the police station to report it. She tries to answer the policewoman's questions but still isn't sure what the flashbacks of the man on top of her mean. She's not sure they're actually a memory. She calls these flashing images the thing in my head. Here's Michaela Coel as Arabella and Sarah Niles as the police officer who speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I MAY DESTROY YOU")
SARAH NILES: (As Officer Funmi) And the assault, you recall...
MICHAELA COEL: (As Arabella) The thing in my head.
NILES: (As Officer Funmi) Yes.
COEL: (As Arabella) Yeah. I wouldn't - 'cause now you're calling it something that I never - I haven't said that.
NILES: (As Officer Funmi) Do you see anyone else?
COEL: (As Arabella) Where?
NILES: (As Officer Funmi) In this memory.
COEL: (As Arabella) You can't call it a memory.
NILES: (As Officer Funmi) OK. Other than the man in the...
COEL: (As Arabella) In my head. It may not even be real because I'm the person that can actually see it, and I'm not sure. So I should probably pay attention to that.
NILES: (As Officer Funmi) Yes.
COEL: (As Arabella) Yeah because we don't know. That's a very big thing to assume. I'm just saying that we should refrain from talking about things like they're facts and we should probably just be careful.
NILES: (As Officer Funmi) OK.
GROSS: Michaela Coel spoke to us from her home in London.
Michaela Coel, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the series. Before we really get into things, like, how are you? How are you doing during the pandemic? I haven't been following closely how things are in London. So are you basically just staying home?
COEL: Yes, Festival Heights (ph) area. It's really lovely to talk with you. Thank you for having me on. I'm taking it day-by-day. It's - we're not too far behind America. I think we're the third in terms of how big the impact has been and how much it spreads here. It's an adjustment. But my mom is actually a nurse on the frontlines. And I try to look to how she behaves to guide how I behave. And she's really, you know, in very good spirits and quite excited that she's able to contribute to tackling the problem. So - and she's very grateful and happy. So I just keep looking to my mom instead of becoming very anxious. Yes.
GROSS: So let's get to it. What - why did you want to write a series where rape and various forms of sexual assault are at the center of the story?
COEL: I think in the beginning, I wanted to write about it because it had happened. And I have a habit of writing some sort of piece that's inspired by reality, whether it's poetry or music or a one-woman play or a TV show. And because I found it so huge in my life, it seemed only natural for me to write it. But as I began thinking about doing this, other people started sharing their stories with me - friends, friends of friends - and I realized that many people had some sort of experience that was connected to mine involving consent. And there were so many different ways to explore consent and how it affects us today. So what better places for a story than one that I felt many people could find an identification in?
GROSS: You know, in the story, Arabella is given a roofie. Her drink is spiked. And she doesn't know what happened. She doesn't know how it happened or who did it or who may have witnessed it. And she doesn't even know if it really happened or maybe doesn't want to accept the fact that it really happened. Was it traumatic for you to write about this and to act the part? For some people, I think it might have brought on kind of PTSD.
COEL: Yes, especially writing it, I would say - did it bring on PTSD? I was probably already suffering from PTSD anyway. It was really interesting because it almost sent me around the bend back into the shock. It suddenly felt very new. It still startled me that it had happened. So writing it definitely made the event feel very present again. Performing it, I just love - I really love to perform. You know, I love - I love that act because there is a team of people there. We had a therapist that was on site at all times. So it felt like I could be safe to explore very dangerous areas in a very safe playground.
GROSS: So I want to ask you if it's OK if I talk with you about your own experience. And you could guide me with what you're comfortable talking about and what you're not because I don't want to cross any boundaries here. So can I ask a little bit about your own experience and how it led to this series?
COEL: Yes. Let's try.
GROSS: Thank you. Thank you very much. So did you experience the same kind of thing that Arabella does, where you had a drink that was spiked, where you were given a roofie and basically lost consciousness and didn't know what happened?
GROSS: How did you piece together what had happened? Like, did you have friends who could help you? Did you have a similar kind of image in your head of somebody, you know, being over you or on top of you and not knowing who it was or what it meant?
COEL: Yes. In many ways, Arabella's story at that point in the series is very similar to mine. But there are differences that I've intentionally kept, so that there's always a distinction between myself and Arabella. But yes, I was writing an all-nighter at the production office that I was making a TV show for and went on a break to meet my friend in a bar, and I had a drink. And then I was back at work, typing and finishing the episode that was due and didn't quite realize. You know, my phone was smashed. You know, I was a mess. But I didn't quite connect the dots until I had a flashback. And then, yes, I had friends who helped me going through Uber receipts, bank statements, calling other friends to literally try and gather the pieces. So our stories are different, but there are many, many similarities.
GROSS: Do you think your phone was smashed so that you couldn't call anybody for help or call anybody to report it?
COEL: Who would ever know?
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
COEL: Who would ever know?
GROSS: Isn't that awful to, like, know that you'll never know?
COEL: It's so bizarre, isn't it? It's such a strange experience. And I think, for a lot of people, they don't even have a flash back at all. So, you know, it's even stranger that I had a flash that enabled me to end up going to the police to give DNA swabs. All these things technically should never have happened. I wasn't supposed to remember anything. So it's - you know, it's troubling, but also it's fascinating. And I think there's something odd about not remembering and yet having a flash. It's bizarre, isn't it?
GROSS: So let me play a clip. And this is the first time that Arabella sees her therapist, and she still is not even close to having processed what happened to her. So here's the therapist asking the first question. This is about two months after the rape.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I MAY DESTROY YOU")
ANDI OSHO: (As Carrie) How are you doing?
COEL: (As Arabella Essiedu) I'm great, great. I'm great as long as I'm around people. When I'm alone, flashbacks - just sometimes it gets a bit much.
OSHO: (As Carrie) What do you do when it gets a bit much?
COEL: (As Arabella) I just make sure I'm around someone, anyone. Yeah, and if I'm not, I say there are hungry children, there are hungry children, there are hungry children; there's a war in Syria, there's a war in Syria, there's a war in Syria; or not everyone has a smartphone, not everyone has a smartphone, not everyone has a smartphone - to remind myself of the bigger picture.
OSHO: (As Carrie) Sometimes when we try our best to see the big picture, we lose sight of the little one altogether. The little detail here is you.
GROSS: So that's a scene from "I May Destroy You," and my guest Michaela Coel is the creator, writer, director and star. You know, I think the therapist's advice is so interesting. I think both ends of that are so interesting, with Arabella trying to convince herself, OK, maybe I was raped, but, like, there's worse things in the world. Like, there's war. There's famine. It's - like, I'm fine. And the therapist saying, you're losing yourself if you're just looking at the big picture. You're not seeing - you're not honoring what happened to you. I just think that's a very interesting insight. I'm wondering if that's an insight you came to on your own or through therapy.
COEL: Oh, well, I wonder. I really don't know how I came to that, whether that was my incredible therapist or whether that was my - you know, I definitely look at myself and my tendency to look out instead of looking in, and sometimes looking out is almost an escape from looking in. So, yes, there are hungry children. There is a war in Syria. Not everybody does have a smartphone. And within this world, you were a raped, rather than I was raped, but there's - people don't have smartphones. It's and. It's and. If you're using the outside world to escape your introspection, I think that's where Arabella goes wrong and where I've definitely gone wrong in my life.
GROSS: Can I ask you if you ever found out who raped you? You can tell me no.
COEL: No, I don't think I need to tell you no. I was just thinking about it. I didn't. I didn't, just like the majority of women in the world whose drinks are spiked by strangers. I didn't, no.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michaela Coel, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series "I May Destroy You." She also wrote and starred in the series "Chewing Gum." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michaela Coel, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series "I May Destroy You." She plays Arabella, a young writer who takes a break from her deadline to go to a bar with friends and regains consciousness with no memory of what happened, but she figures out her drink was spiked and she was raped.
You know, in the series, Arabella starts relying more and more on social media. Like, she starts documenting every aspect of her life. She's already a kind of social media star, but it gets to the point where it's kind of destructive for her. It's like she's not living her life; she's just kind of filtering it through social media. And I'm wondering about the social media - the role of social media in your life and how it's changed over the years, if it has changed over the years. Like, it seems lately, mostly what you're doing is retweeting other people.
COEL: I used to spend a lot of time on social media scrolling. I loved being on Instagram Live. It felt very natural for me to start a live feed and to share my thoughts and to read the thoughts of other people and to constantly be engaging. I would make yoga videos for Instagram. And I think that - I wonder, for me, whether I was feeling alone and feeling very marginalized and like I needed to connect but was perhaps too unaware of how to connect with myself and my trauma and even my friends. And so it seemed like a very easy way to connect with loads of people. But very similar to Arabella, I did realize that to kind of go on the journey of introspection that I wanted to go on and that I needed to go on to make the show I would have to severely limit my time and cleanse my algorithms and the people I was following to just quiet down the noise that social media makes.
GROSS: Do you think that dating apps have changed the conversation around consent? Because sexual encounters can happen with just a swipe. You don't even necessarily know the person, and it's such a casual encounter. And I think there might be a kind of - I mean, I'm too old to have experienced, like, dating apps, but it seems like there is an element of risk hooking up with someone who you've never met before.
COEL: Yes. And of course there is an element of risk with hooking up with somebody that you meet at a bar, which has obviously been happening for a long time. So I am interested in the technological aspects of how we hook up and how the apps are potentially designed to keep us engaging with the app and therefore constantly engaging with loads of different people. And the more you engage, the more perhaps amazing times you have, the more awful times you have because the app wants you to be addicted. So I think that's quite interesting.
GROSS: It's such an interesting contrast between your new series, "I May Destroy You," and your first series, "Chewing Gum," because in that, it's a 24-year-old woman that you portray who is trying to lose her virginity. So, you know, the contrast between the two is really interesting.
COEL: Yes. It's - what's also quite strange is that "Chewing Gum" is based on a play called "Chewing Gum Dreams." And "Chewing Gum Dreams" is much more similar to "I May Destroy You."
GROSS: Oh, how so?
COEL: It's very dark and very funny. There is an assault in the play. It's absurd in its darkness and its lightness, very, very much like "I May Destroy You."
GROSS: So when you started to write "Chewing Gum," your first TV series, you had no experience with a TV series. And you were, you know, the writer and the star, the creator. How did you learn how to write a series?
COEL: I Googled how to write a series and tried for a while.
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Was Googling how to write a series Did you learn anything from that?
COEL: Oh, my God. It was so helpful.
GROSS: Good. Good. What did you learn?
COEL: Structure, you know, understanding comedy and ending on a high before the commercial break and setting up the world of the character, the structure of acts, whether you're doing a five-act structure or a three-act structure. It gave me information that I think was definitely helpful. I already had my ideas, and I had "Chewing Gum Dreams" the play but was attempting to write it in the television world, which I had very little idea about other than being in a few TV shows. So that was really helpful, yeah.
GROSS: Would you explain why this character is having so much trouble losing her virginity?
COEL: "Chewing Gum" - you know, "Chewing Gum" is also, for me, quite symbolic of somebody who is on the margins and desperately trying to be in the middle of it all, in the playground playing. And having sex is kind of like my way of telling that story. She's trying to be among the mainstream. She wants to play and be in the center of the narrative instead of marginalized. And I think sometimes that's difficult whether you're very - you know, you've come from a very religious background and you don't know how to meet boys or you really want to have sex with your Christian boyfriend but there are rules against having sex, and perhaps he's gay. There are...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, right.
COEL: She has obstacles. She has obstacles, you know?
GROSS: Yeah. It seems like he's Christian, but that's not really what the issue is with him (laughter). Yeah, OK. All right, let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michaela Coel, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series "I May Destroy You." She also wrote and starred in the series "Chewing Gum." We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALAMENTE â CAP 1: AUGURIO")
ROSALIA: (Singing in Spanish).
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michaela Coel, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series "I May Destroy You." She plays Arabella, a young writer whose book was published online, making her a social media sensation. One night, on a break from a looming deadline, she goes to a bar with friends and regains consciousness with no memory of what happened. She keeps flashing back to an image of a man over her, figures out that her drink was spiked and that she was raped by this man. The series gets at various forms of sexual assault and how it's handled by the victims, their friends and the police.
Let's talk about your life. Describe where you grew up in London.
COEL: I grew up in Tower Hamlets, a borough, a neighboring city of London, on a housing association council estate. So it's a building that sits in a place and homes - maybe something like 300 different homes. I'm not sure the number, around that. But outside of that is just the Royal Bank of Scotland. The London Stock Exchange is there. So it's not a neighborhood or residential area. It's just a building where it's part funded by the government to live there. So it's for people who are below a certain economic threshold.
GROSS: So I know your parents were from Ghana. Your mother raised you. I think your parents separated before you were born. So were there other children who had parents who were immigrants from countries in Africa? Did you have people your age who you could talk to who had similar backgrounds?
COEL: Yeah, definitely. And I also had my sister. She was 2 1/2 years older than me. So it was - there was something also quite lovely about being in a house with three women. It meant that we were quite free. We didn't have to, you know, moderate the things we wore necessarily or anything like that because there was no man in the house. So there's something quite freeing about that. And when I went to high school, it was lovely to meet other people who were also children of immigrants who looked like me. And it's very nice to see yourself reflected in that way.
GROSS: So my understanding of the story is that you had joined a dance group, and it turned out that the group was affiliated with the Pentecostal Church. And you ended up being born again and being a member of the church. When you were in your late teens and a member of the church. What did you find most attractive about being a part of it?
COEL: Definitely I would say the sense of something beyond, discovering something outside of yourself. And the community of people that all believed in the same thing that named the thing beyond us the same name.
GROSS: You went to Catholic school. Can you compare the sense of religion you got from Catholic school to the sense that you got from being a member of the Pentecostal Church?
COEL: Oh, I wouldn't say there was any religion involved in the Catholic school I went to.
COEL: No. No.
GROSS: But you were taught by nuns probably, right?
COEL: No. No. The - I think the - no. No. It's - really, I don't know why it's a Catholic school. It's a Catholic school. But, no, you're just taught by teachers who are not nuns. They're just some teachers from everywhere. I don't know where the nuns are. Perhaps they were on vacation for the five years I was there, and their stand-ins were absolutely dreadful.
GROSS: So when you were in the Pentecostal Church, did you speak in tongues?
COEL: I did. I first spoke in tongues in a park. We would do this thing called prayer in the park. And one of those prayer days I - that was when I first spoke in tongues.
GROSS: Can you explain what it's like to speak in tongues and - like, did you feel like you were inspired to do it by the, you know, by the divine spirit and that it was just kind of coming out of you unprovoked or did you try to figure out what to say or, like, how did that work for you?
COEL: Yes. I know - I think it did come out of me unprovoked. And I was definitely having an experience of something beyond. And I liken that very much to the writing process when I don't necessarily know what I'm going to write but I put my fingers on the keypad and something flows. It's also like improvising as a comedy group in English. This just happens to be tongues. And it's unexplainable, but yet, you know, it does happen.
GROSS: And what was the experience of doing it? How did that feel? Did it make you feel more connected spiritually to other people in the church?
COEL: You know, no, I just remember being very emotional, very, very, very emotional. And then, you know, life carries on as normal. And I think I even got some congratulations. Welcome, tongue speaker. You have spoken in tongues. And it would - sometimes I'd be in church and I'd speak in tongues again. Yes. I mean, obviously I definitely don't speak in tongues anymore. But I, you know, when I meditate sometimes I cry. Hey, I'm sure if I wanted to speak in tongues, which is just like sound, of course, I think we all could if we tried.
GROSS: So my understanding is that when you went to drama school, you became good friends with some gay men. But your intention initially was to try to talk them into not being gay and turning to Jesus. But instead, the opposite happened. You became their good friends and I think turned away from the church. Can you describe what that experience was like for you to have, like, your mind so changed through your experience of meeting gay men?
COEL: It definitely - I wouldn't say that my mission was to tell them that they shouldn't be gay. My mission - this is what I was told - was that everybody has a void in their lives that Jesus is the one to fill, and that, you know, when they go on that - basically to represent Jesus and to share the love and the message of Jesus. The thing is that message is for people who have a void. And these lovely gay men, you know, or even - not even just the gay men, just the people who were not Christian, I didn't sense that they had a void that only Jesus could fill, that it didn't make sense. They were very happy, you know, great people, beautiful people that I began to learn a lot from. And I think because drama school is Monday to Friday and church is only Saturday and maybe like a Tuesday evening, I was really able to understand my year group and to really sort of be there. And one habit, which was Monday to Friday you go to drama school, became more dominant than the narrative of every Sunday and Tuesday you go to church. And I began to hold up these two different habits together, and it stopped making sense for me. I remember being in church on Sunday and just - you know, I really feel - it still feels like a betrayal to my church to share this, you know, because it's so delicate, isn't it? It's so delicate. But for me, I just stopped believing it. I stopped believing that it was real, and I really wanted to really believe it. I wanted to - I wanted somebody to find a way to justify it. I even went to different churches after, and then I realized that I'm really trying to do this thing, and I don't believe this anymore.
GROSS: I think your mother joined the Pentecostal church after you did, and she stayed after you left. That must have been kind of odd that she joined because of you and then stayed after you departed.
COEL: Yes. Oh, my. It's like bringing your friend to a party, and then they're gone. So there's something that feels like I abandoned my family and my community, the church that I was a part of, which is - it's such a shame that I have to sit with that feeling. However, my mom is having a great time. She takes regular trips to Israel with her church. She loves her little community. She goes to a different church. She doesn't go to the same church that I went to. She never did. So she's very happy, and she prays for me. And I don't know, she's somehow OK with the choices that I've made to leave, which is helpful in assisting with that. Yeah.
GROSS: I think the church probably had a kind of set of approved and restricted behaviors. I'm wondering, like, when you left the church if you kind of headed in the opposite direction when the restrictions were lifted.
COEL: Interesting. Interesting. Yes, definitely. But I don't know whether that was because of the church. The church always really did give me permission to be me. I've always been, you know, I think people might describe me as a little bit - how would they describe me? I've been described as gratifyingly bonkers. And the church (laughter) the church definitely did not try and dampen that in any way. They loved it. They loved me performing poetry and gave me a lot of freedom. However, it's the acting. It was the acting industry with its parties and fabulous people that definitely led me down a short stint of incredibly hedonistic, cocaine-fueled behavior, yes.
GROSS: Did you draw on that for your series "I May Destroy You" also?
COEL: I did, yes. Yeah.
GROSS: When you look at that period of your life, what are your thoughts about it?
COEL: Hey, I think my thoughts are very similar to when Arabella takes all those drugs and somehow is escorted home very safely. I say, well, hey, you know, it's good that I'm safe, and I'm healthy, and I'm OK.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michaela Coel, and she is the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series "I May Destroy You." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EASY LIFE SONG, "NIGHTMARES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michaela Coel, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series "I May Destroy You." She plays Arabella, a young writer who takes a break from her deadline to go to a bar with friends and regains consciousness with no memory of what happened. But she figures out that her drink was spiked and that she was raped.
You know, I've been thinking a lot about what the differences may be between being African American, between being Black in America where most Black people in America have descendants who were brought here on slave ships, and people of African descent in England because they were not brought there as slaves, but they were colonized by various European countries. And I'm just trying to give a lot of thought about what the differences might be and if you have many Black friends in America and have talked with them about some of the differences about what it means to be Black in England versus America.
COEL: Yeah. Yes, I have, actually. I do have some Black friends in America. And I think we find it fascinating and discuss these things quite a lot. It's - there's an experience that I have here in Britain as a child of African immigrants that I think has similarities and differences. Obviously my parents were not born here. They - you know, mother tongue is different. You know, I had not been to Ghana until 2018. I had never been there. So there's no lineage to trace in the land that you know, Britain. But also when I go to Ghana, even the way I walk, you will know that I am not - I'm not Ghanian-born and raised in Ghana. So that exists. However, I think that beyond being sent there on the slave ships, African Americans also can't trace their lineage. Once, you know, what happens before that, how did they - where did they come from on these slave ships? They aren't able to trace that either, so I think there is a similarity in that sense of being displaced.
I do think - perhaps I do hear from some of my friends that, in America, people like me who are British African are seen differently as people from who are African American. You know, perhaps there's a strange privilege being me in America that is denied to people who are African American. And I don't know whether it's because I don't share that history of slavery, being the descendants of slaves that, you know, that African Americans do with people in America. We're not sure, but it's fascinating.
GROSS: Do you think that people's attitude sometimes change toward you once they hear your British accent?
COEL: Exactly that. Exactly that, something about the accent. I don't - you know, I think Britain has done a very good job of perpetuating the narrative of being very fine and fancy and elegant. And I think this somehow enters the minds of Americans when they hear it, which, you know, it's interesting because it's not real. It's not real at all. It's all based on these stereotypes and prejudices. And, you know, I sometimes say I've dropped out of college three times. But my my voice is giving you a different story. But also, I think, you know, I talk to a lot of my Black British friends and especially the actors and creatives, your voice - perhaps this is also in America. I think this is in America and actually beyond African Americans. I think this is for people who are born into working class homes, that to, you know, to progress in your field, you have to change your voice.
And it's not that conscious, but my voice has changed so much, as have my my peers who are also from working class backgrounds and Black, that we sometimes wonder - I wonder, why can't I sound like the person that I was? It's interesting. We change. And we refine our voices. And I've never seen anybody who is Black and working class and British further themselves in their careers without having to change their voice.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's just been a pleasure to talk with you. And congratulations on the series.
COEL: Thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Michaela Coel created, wrote, directed and stars in the HBO series "I May Destroy You." After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new collection of essays by Zadie Smith, written between the onset of the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.