“She’s there as a colleague, as a mate, and then she’s there jumping into the role of actor for a scene,” reflects Ita O’Brien, intimacy coordinator who worked with Michaela Coel on I May Destroy You. “And on days where she’s finished her scene she’s into her own clothes and bang, into co-director mode… And then, ‘oh sorry, I can’t have this conversation, I’ve got to go and have a production meeting’: into executive producer mode.”
This is only the briefest glimpse into what life was like for Michaela Coel during the shoot for I May Destroy You, the BBC drama which set a new precedent for how consent and sexual assault - moreover, just how lives in general - can be authentically portrayed on screen.
Coel had previously written and starred in the BAFTA award-winning Chewing Gum on Channel 4, so her new work was always going to garner attention, but when the Daily Mail started writing articles about the show, it became clear this experimental project shot in east London had reached a mainstream audience.
Soon after, when Coel appeared on the front page of New York Magazine captioned ‘Michaela The Destroyer,’ her small but robust international fanbase felt validated. I May Destroy You has seen Coel rise to a level of fame and prominence only those closest to her could have quietly predicted. Not that anyone would have listened.
“What’s brilliant about her is she’s calling the industry out: going ‘hold on a minute, you’re not really considering us,’” continues O’Brien of Coel. “I do feel it is groundbreaking. How Michaela writes, what she has written about, and also the fact that she’s a woman writer.
“Part of the groundbreaking work is a shift in focus: that the writing’s not coming from a male perspective, with a male gratuitous gaze on sexual content. I’m not saying all male writers are gratuitous…”
The prominence of writers like Coel, Normal People’s Sally Rooney and Sex Education’s Laurie Nunn suggest we’re living through an age where female writers are being given - or confidently taking - opportunities to offer new perspectives on storytelling.
Her fans and co-workers say Coel’s writing has forced us to consider how much of what we passively intake on TV is written from the perspective of men.
Take the scene in episode three of I May Destroy You (mild spoiler alert) where Coel’s character Arabella is hooking up with an Italian man named Biagio, who notices a blood clot in her period discharge during sex.
“The paraphernalia of a menstruation isn’t something that’s out there,” says O’Brien, who notes that half the population spend roughly half their lives engaged in a menstrual cycle, yet when has the reality of that been shown on TV before Coel?
“It’s so gratifying being part of something that is helping people have that awareness,” continues O’Brien. “Plus, when else have you seen a woman of colour with an Asian man?”
Graphic scenes of sexual assault, stealthing (the act of a man removing a condom during intercourse without alerting his partner), and vivid depictions of drug use all go further than other shows to depict truthful scenarios from real life, breaking stigmas about what we can and can’t say, but also the way in which we say it.
More than clusters of realistic scenes reflecting the life of one Black millennial woman, Coel’s brilliance is in how she has dismantled the traditional narrative of storytelling - which is patriarchal as hell, says Nadia Fall, who directed Coel in Home at the National Theatre in 2013 and worked with her before that, during her time at Guildhall School of Acting.
“I May Destroy You made me weak at the knees because it was just so genre-defining,” says Fall. “Each episode takes its own pace and it’s not linear. I think that’s a very female way of looking at the world - you can tell there’s a woman at the helm of that.
Women have been taught to write and produce work in that way, with a beginning, middle and end: she breaks that.Nadia Fall, theatre director
“Even us women have been taught to write and produce work in that way, with a beginning, middle and end: she breaks that. She breaks that because she’s good, but she also breaks that because she’s given the time and space to do that.”
Coel continually revised the script throughout production, which felt meta given her character Arabella in the show is a writer struggling to turn in the script for her new book. “Michaela did 191 rewrites,” recalls O’Brien of the creative process for I May Destroy You.
“We were musing on art absolutely repeating life,” remembers O’Brien. “The art is she was up against it, the storytelling is she’s got to get her draft written, and there’s no time really given in the storytelling to deal with her trauma... and that in a way was still happening here within the mechanisms of filming.”
Michaela had a wellbeing practitioner on set, which is common for productions dealing with themes of trauma and assault (I May Destroy You is inspired by Coel’s own experiences of sexual assault.)
“It was sort of like how do we pause and push back time so Michaela can get the support she needs in order to continue giving the best of herself as an actor in the scene, as well as holding the space as executive producer co director and writer,” says O’Brien.
Still, she remembers a woman in control. “The development of the creativity that was happening throughout the production was really quite extraordinary. That kind of ongoing development of script, this beautiful unfolding beast tends to happen more in theatre: it felt like this ongoing undulation, everybody absolutely supporting and going with the flow.”
O’Brien remembers Coel reflecting on her own creative process during filming. “I did ask her what she’d do differently and she said she’d have a writers’ room,” says O’Brien.
Her tenacity for work is just phenomenal. Her obvious self care to be able to come back each and every day and step into each of those different hats, those different rolesIta O'Brien, intimacy coordinator, I May Destroy You
“I wouldn’t write it all myself - she did all of those herself. Her tenacity for work is just phenomenal and her obvious self care to be able to come back each and every day and step into each of those different hats, those different roles (Coel has writer, actor, producer and director credits on the show), and give each of them what they needed…”
Nadia Fall recognises in Michaela an unmatched skill to get things done. “I have never known someone who is such a grafter. And I mean that in every sense of the word: physically grafting and mentally grafting, and writing: pulling late nights and all of that...
“That’s Michaela, and that was Michaela back as a student: genuine graft, she has put in the effort, it’s not come out of just chance, luck, ‘ooh I’ve had a great idea.’ She has been grafting every single day that I’ve known the woman.
“That fills me with hope and joy because it makes me think if you work really hard, and you’re really determined and focussed, it is possible to make your mark….”
Michaela’s creativity was already flowing by the time she studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama alongside I May Destroy You co-star Paapa Essiedu. “I remember her being very energetic and creative,” says former student Nicoletta, also an alumni from 2012, the year Coel graduated.
“I had the chance to watch her first performance of Chewing Gum Dreams and I was really impressed to find out it then turned into a Netflix series. This for me has been the magic of Guildhall: meeting inspiring people and having the chance, as a musician, to also work alongside actors.”
Coel may not have found it so magic: Paapa Essiedu has since spoken out about the school’s culture, and called out one teacher’s use of the N-word during class. “It was a really confusing place to be Black,” Essiedu said in a recent interview.
“I remember meeting her at Guildhall and straight away you know when someone’s got a spirit in their eyes: they’re just immediately arresting and charismatic and just very very special. I think that’s the first time we properly met,” says Nadia Fall.
The duo worked together shortly after Coel graduated on a “dusty old symposium” theatre show about mental health. “We tried to bring it to life with these little talking head dramas,” she says of the show, which Fall describes as a prelude to Home, the National Theatre production she worked on with Coel which was one of Coel’s earliest big breaks on stage.
These people don’t come around very often, so when they do it’s really striking.Nadia Fall
“A lot of the people who were in the final piece [Home] were because Michaela had worked with them or she’d done spoken word poetry with them: she’s really brilliant at bringing the right people into the mix, beyond being an actor,” says Fall.
“I think that’s a trait that more and more young artists have: they aren’t just an actor, or just a director - they’re really an artist in the true sense of the word, because they’re putting everything into the pot. Bringing the right people together, producing, thinking about the writing. Michaela really is that sum of all parts, making her a mega artist in her mind. Those people don’t come around very often, so when they do it’s really striking.”
It was in 2015 that Rachel Springett, a commissioner at Channel 4, gave Coel her first major TV commission with Chewing Gum, adapted from the Fringe play Chewing Gum Dreams Coel had developed at Guildhall and premiered at The Yard soon after graduating in 2012.
“Getting shows commissioned is really hard, especially with a new writer; every commissioner inevitably has their own taste and comedy is so subjective,” explains Springett.
“I was extremely passionate about Chewing Gum from the start and after making the online shorts I really fought to be able to pitch for a full series. I knew Michaela was someone very special and like nobody else I had seen. Her writing was so unique and her performance was incredible.”
Springett remembers seeing Chewing Gum Dreams on stage at The Yard in 2012: “She conjured up images of characters in an original, well observed, tragic and humorous way,” she recalls.
It stood out as it illustrated a part of society that doesn’t get represented enough. The themes of gentrification, class, systems, relationships and abuse were all explored in a way I had never seen beforeRachel Springett, commissioner, Chewing Gum
“Her razor sharp commentary on young kids from Hackney without being patronising or in any way falling into stereotypes. It stood out as it illustrated a part of society that doesn’t get represented enough. The themes of gentrification, class, systems, relationships and abuse were all explored in a way I had never seen before.
“The reason I wanted to commission Chewing Gum above any other show at the time, was because her writing and performing completely stood out.
“Michaela was discussing really important themes, gave us incredible characters who you’d never usually see on TV, showed us pathos and comedy in an original way, and with dialogue that was wonderfully unique. Michaela is one of the most talented writers and actors of our generation.”
An auteur, a female in a crowded industry of men and a multi-disciplinary producer able to see their work from the perspectives of director, actor and writer - but never letting multiple roles compromise her output - Coel would sound inhuman if it wasn’t for her love of people.
Lewis Reeves, who played her abuser on I May Destroy You, enthuses to HuffPost UK about the moments between takes with Coel. “She’s Incredibly smart and a wonderful listener,” he says. “She was the bollocks. Funny, down to earth but direct in what she wanted to achieve.”
Reeves sums up why perhaps so many of us resonated with I May Destroy You: “We were seeing things so recognisable and true of ourselves shot and told in a way that we all related so much to.”
“Whether that be the scene with the blood clot or recognising London how it really is. That’s a real skill: to be so true to yourself, but make it feel so connected to the audience watching.”
All eyes are on what Coel may do next - although no further work is listed on her imdb.com profile and I May Destroy You is still three weeks away from the finale in the US, airing on HBO, so the freshness of the show is likely to be felt through to the autumn and into winter.
After it ends, the ramifications of the style and content on future TV will no doubt be wide-spanning, but it’s pertinent to note that as theatre venues across the world remain closed, the ecosystem of new rising talent - the next Michaela Coels - is temporarily put on pause.
Actors like Coel and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge began their careers, and premiered their hot TV concepts, on the stage where TV executives like Rachel Springett saw them first.
We must ensure the future proofing of British theatre in order to help the future Michaela Coel’s change the landscape of TV once again.