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Michaela Coel's new HBO show makes consent clear: 'It doesn't look gray, does it?'

Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

TV rarely gets as personal -- or as singular in its vision -- as "I May Destroy You."

Writer and director Michaela Coel stars as Arabella, a celebrated young writer who is drugged and raped during a night out with friends -- a fact she pieces together after the fact from the fragmented images coursing through her mind. Over 12 episodes that boldly dart back and forth in time, the series follows Arabella and her best friends Terry (Waruche Opia) and Kwame (Pappa Essiedu) as they wrestle with the aftermath of the assault.

"I May Destroy You" was inspired by Coel's own experiences -- not only as an assault survivor, but as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants raised in working-class London and a creative person struggling to make a living by channeling her life into art. It has received ecstatic praise for its nuanced examination of sexual consent and the complications of race, gender, sexuality and class, as well as its authentic portrayal of contemporary, multicultural London.

Since the U.K. went into lockdown in late March, Coel -- whose previous series, "Chewing Gum," centered on the efforts of a 24-year-old religious woman to lose her virginity -- has been holed up at home in East London, catching up on "Ozark" and making the odd loaf of vegan banana bread. But mostly she's been working remotely on post-production on "I May Destroy You" and enjoying the socially distanced love the series has received.

"It's required a lot of actors under their duvets trying to make soundproof rooms doing ADR. The morale was high the whole time, so I'm very grateful that we were able to finish it, and finish it with joy," she told The Times by video conference call.

Q: This series is based on your own experience with assault. How did you know it was something you had to write about?

 

A: Very similar to Arabella, I wasn't actually sure what it was that I was seeing in my head. Because I didn't think that something could have happened to me, it meant that I was talking a lot from the very beginning. "There's this thing in my head, what is this?" So before I could actually process and swallow and hide 1/8the experience3/8, I was already talking about it. This meant my journey was probably different from other sexual assault survivors, because I was just talking about a very disconnected image which I thought could have been a very strange dream. Which I think is lucky, because often what you would do is contain it.

I began sort of taking notes half consciously when things would occur, like being in the police investigation room. I realize I am in this room because something bad has happened to me. As we waited for the detective to come in, I looked to my friend who was looking after me and realized he was playing Pokemon Go on his phone. It was funny. I didn't laugh and he didn't know that I could see him, but I just saw him and thought, "This is absurd." At the moment that the course of my life was about to change forever, my friend who was babysitting me was playing Pokemon Go. I wrote that down in my notes app a couple of days later. I obviously was taking notes for a reason, and it slowly became clear that that reason must have been because I wanted to write it. I wasn't entirely conscious of it.

Q: You wrote all of 12 episodes of this, you co-directed it, you starred in it. You were involved in every creative decision. How did you keep yourself safe while you were reliving all of this trauma?

A: Two things: I made sure I got at least seven hours of sleep every day. There was so much that I was doing that in order to do these things properly I felt like the first thing I had to do was sleep. Also I didn't take a car to work -- I cycled to work. So it would allow me to get endorphins going and clear my mind and have a moment of solitude. And we also had a dramatherapist on standby the whole time, Lou Platt. She was very helpful, quite grounding. When occasionally things do get quite tough, you do remember this is your real life, and so I would meet with Lou. Lou was available to anybody, because the content was triggering for everybody. And, of course, not only did I have Lou, I had my own therapist. I like talking.

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