I May Destroy You's Paapa Essiedu On The Many Different Faces Of Kwame And Smashing Assumed Limitations

The actor tells HuffPost about his approach to playing the queer Black lead character in the BBC's groundbreaking drama.
Kwame is a fitness coach and in the show also grapples with issues of sexual assault
Kwame is a fitness coach and in the show also grapples with issues of sexual assault

“I hope the energy still translates across the ocean, even if the specifics like having Babycakes on your iPod Mini doesn’t quite,” laughs Paapa Essiedu.

As problems go, worrying about whether the jokes in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You are too London-centric for an American audience is no biggie.

It hasn’t even been a month since the first episode of I May Destroy You aired on BBC 1 in the UK, and in the weeks since, the show has become the darling of later-lockdown viewing: it’s timing, as a Black millennial drama amid the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, may have been coincidental but cannot be ignored (more on that later).

Writer, co-director and lead star Coel, formerly of Chewing Gum, another stigma-smashing British drama about a young woman hilariously attempting to lose her virginity, revealed that she turned down a $1 million offer from Netflix for I May Destroy You - because she wanted to go with the BBC, who, she says, gave her complete creative freedom and ownership.

I May Destroy You stars Paapa Essiedu in a lead role as Kwame, the best friend of the central character of Arabella
I May Destroy You stars Paapa Essiedu in a lead role as Kwame, the best friend of the central character of Arabella

Essiedu studied with Coel at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and plays her character’s best friend Kwame on the show.

An established stage actor who recently played Hamlet for the RSC, Essiedu, much like Coel, is now receiving international attention in a seismic new way, which inevitably has its benefits and pitfalls.

“I love chatting to people that are intelligent and interesting,” says the 30-year-old, who as we speak is midway through day two of virtual press junkets and is stationed in his lockdown set-up in north London, ahead of the finale airing Monday July 13.

“When it gets into interviews about, ‘what’s your favourite pizza topping?’ That’s when it starts getting a bit boring,” he says. “You can very quickly tell the difference between someone who’s, like, really interested in the themes of the show and someone who’s interested in the stuff around it.”

From day one, publications Essiedu may file on his “intelligent and interesting” list were shouting from the rooftops about the show’s dealings with consent and the psychological ramifications of rape.

Inspired by a real-life experience of Coel’s, the show offers an authentic depiction of rape from every perspective: revelation, recovery, breakdowns, the effect trauma has on relationships.

Its boundless commitment to showcasing the kaleidoscopic fears caused by sexual assault is epitomised in characters such as Kwame’s.

Having also experienced sexual assault in episode four, he goes from energetic and confident to nervous and submissive. At the crux of this storytelling is Black Britishness: how these issues - rape, mistrust, mental and physical abuse - affect not just anyone, but a particular minority group.

I May Destroy You's lead cast, left to right: Michaela Coel as Arabella, Paapa Essiedu as Kwame, Weruche Opia as Terri
I May Destroy You's lead cast, left to right: Michaela Coel as Arabella, Paapa Essiedu as Kwame, Weruche Opia as Terri

I say that the timing of the show with the Black Lives Matter news cycle feels hard to overlook. “I guess,” Essiedu says hesitantly.

“I think it’s double edged. All the things we’re looking at in this show concerning race, concerning gender politics, sexuality, these are issues that were true and relevant ten years ago, a year ago, today and will be in ten years’ time too, so it is interesting, I guess, the context in which it’s coming out.

“But I would hope that the show itself is clearly thought out enough and structured that it would have stood tall regardless of the political landscape, do you know what I mean?”

I do. Regardless of the news cycle, it feels about time, given conversations around diversity in TV and film that were already circulating, that a show representing a community like I May Destroy You should break through to a broader audience outside of the one it represents on screen.

“It was all about limitation as opposed to ‘the world’s your oyster!’”

- Paapa Essiedu on studying at Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Is this the type of success the two young Black actors hoped they could achieve on screen while studying together at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama?

“I don’t think either of us could have dreamed of doing something like this, a big BBC flagship show,” reflects Essiedu.

“We were at a very traditional, classical, theatrical drama school. It’s a very weird space to occupy as Black creatives in 2000-and-whatever. Both of us were kinda like being told, ‘ooh you’re not going to work in theatre because you can’t do the RP [received pronunciation] properly.’

“It was all about limitation as opposed to, ‘the world’s your oyster!’ at that point. So for us we were already in a space where we were trying to counter that.”

Paapa Essiedu lives in London
Paapa Essiedu lives in London
David M. Benett via Getty Images

Essiedu and Coel worked collaboratively on countering the prejudice they encountered at drama school by making Kwame part of a community that isn’t represented nearly enough on mainstream TV: the queer Black male. Presenting that intersectionality of race and sexuality was essential.

“There were so many different faces to Kwame,” says Essiedu. “He has got to the potential to be loud and in your face, and brash and confident and sexy, but there’s also introspection, quietness, and suppression and fear. And I think, like you say, the writing really feeds us because it allows us to invest a lot of humanity and that’s full of contradictions.”

Working with Coel was a delight. “She’s amazing, Michaela,” Essiedu says, pivoting in his seat to shut a window, silencing the drilling noise coming from outside his apartment that’s interrupting our Zoom call.

“Michaela's up for people telling her what to do, or how to do something”

- Paapa Essiedu on working with show creator Michaela Coel

“She’s obviously across everything: she’s the co director, she’s the writer, she’s the lead actress, but she’s also so up for people telling her what to do or how to do something, or at least making suggestions. With Kwame it was super collaborative from the off, there were many different versions of him, it was a constant conversation really.”

Off screen, the two are close friends much like the characters they play in the show.

“We do, like, very very non-acting related stuff,” he says. “We go for runs together, and both of our families are from Ghana so we were both in Ghana together at Christmas three years ago. It doesn’t feel like our professional lives really occupy that much of a space, I think it’s almost coincidental in terms of that’s where we met.”

Given Coel and Essiedu’s real-life friendship, and the true parallels between Coel’s lived experience and the show’s central plot, is I May Destroy You’s colourful depiction of London nightlife also representative of Coel and Essiedu experiences out on the sesh?

Best friends Arabella and Kwame, who both experience sexual assault in the consent drama
Best friends Arabella and Kwame, who both experience sexual assault in the consent drama

Essiedu laughs in a way which suggests there’s some truth in my assumption. “I don’t really go out that much, but like, Michaela’s got a really beautiful flat so sometimes we’ll go round there, watch TV, and she makes a mean cocktail… I’m not saying that we haven’t had nights out…”

Despite his close friendship with Coel, Essiedu had to audition for the role and says it was a third party that initially put him forward.

Critics may say he isn’t the most obvious choice to play Kwane, given Essiedu doesn’t identify as queer. There’s a whole conversation around whether queer actors should play queer roles, especially given the show is defined by its interest in representation. (In another example of explicit minority representation, in episode 11 Coel’s female best friend Terry, played by Weruche Opia, dates a trans man, dutifully played by trans male actor, Tyler Luke Cunningham).

“For me, the biggest thing at the beginning was the sense of responsibility and privilege in being able to take on this part and do it justice,” Essiedu says.

“Obviously there were loads of conversations around the way I went about portraying him. I was really really concerned about any kind of like stereotype or trope or cliche being reached for as low hanging fruit. I really wanted to avoid any of that and create a guy I recognise and a guy that existed outside of my perceptions or expectations of what his identity may be and allow it to be infused with lots of different things. Sexuality’s a big part of his identity but it’s not the monolithic soul that he is perceived by.”

Avoiding the low hanging fruit may be I May Destroy You’s strongest component: perhaps part of the reason this niche British show has had success Stateside is the way it portrays an authentically interconnected and complex web of Black identities and not cliches.

As a white viewer, it’s thrilling to gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of Black British culture, queer Black British culture and millennial Black Britishness.

“These characters and these stories are complete in an incomplete way, and that feels quite satisfying”

- Paapa Essiedu

Will there be more? “I don’t think that’s where our collective heads are at right now,” says Essiedu.

“I think these characters and these stories are complete in an incomplete way, and that feels quite satisfying,” he ruminates.

That said, Essiedu says no decisions or thoughts have been made yet about what “we do or don’t want to do” about the future of the show. He is open-minded about future projects but wary of jobs “that make me feel embarrassed speaking to someone like you [a journalist] about afterwards.”

As for I May Destroy You’s legacy, Essiedu hopes it will stand the test of time.

“I hope it doesn’t age badly or become dated,” he says, pausing. “And if it does, I hope that happens in a good way because as a society we’ve become so much more progressive that it is embarrassing to look back.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Paapa Essiedu and Michaela Coel studied together at the Guildford School of Acting. They actually studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.


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