Inside The Mind of Michaela Coel
Meet the creator behind HBO’s ground-breaking series
As 2021 rolls into view, the number of female showrunners working in TV and streaming today continues to grow at a healthy pace, but few arrived with the same confidence and impact as Michaela Coel. For her sophomore series I May Destroy You, the 33-year-old Londoner— delivering on the promise of her breakout 2018 Bafta award—delved into the highs and lows of her own life as a woman of color, taking a deeply personal trauma as the starting point for a journey of self-discovery.
Although, first and foremost, I May Destroy You is the story of a woman trying to deal with the unimaginable horrors of a sexual assault she cannot remember, it's also about a lot more. That ordeal alone would be enough for six hours of gripping television, but it is the particular genius of the show’s creator, star and co-director that it deals with many more issues besides, some serious (race and sexuality), others less so (millennial entitlement, friendship and flatmates). If anything, it’s the story of a girl becoming a woman, provoked by a shocking incident over which she has no control, to look at the messy mosaic of her life so far and try to find some kind of order for the future.
It's easy to see how Coel's story brought her to this point: she comes from London—and knows it well, as the series shows—but a part of the city that few would know exists, somewhere between urban East End and the capital’s rich banking district, home to the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England. It’s a peculiar place to find a social housing project, in an area riddled with medieval alleyways and backstreets, dominated by huge and seemingly ever-increasing corporate skyscrapers, but it serves as a good metaphor for Coel’s story so far. “Right there, in plain sight,” she has said, “yet somehow unseen.”
Born Michaela Ewuraba Boakye-Collinson to Ghanian parents (she changed her surname at 23), Coel first encountered drama at the age of eight, when her mother, a health and social sciences student and a weekend cleaner, enrolled her in a local youth theatre. The immediate attraction was free childcare, but Coel loved it, even though she didn’t really realize at the time what it was she was doing. Coel looks back on her youth with affection, praising her support network—“My friends were all misfits”—as she cannonballed through her teenage years, taking two attempts at university before dropping out. Her attempts to study English involved only one lecture, which she was surprised to find out afterwards was actually for Law students (“I’d even taken notes,” she laughed). Her third time was the charm, when, in 2009, she enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, the first black woman they’d taken in five years.
Like Arabella, her character in I May Destroy You—the precocious, hipster writer who published her first novel as a downloadable pdf file—Coel was a somewhat geeky adolescent, and, for a time, a very committed Christian, which is what first inspired her to express herself in public, as a performance poet. Unsurprisingly, she found drama school hard to fit into. “I’d never been into a pub,” she recalled, “and I struggled to converse on things I didn’t know about. I was watching a lot of [American] TV—Seinfield, Moesha, Golden Girls, Buffy—shows no one really spoke about.”
It was during this period that Coel became dissatisfied with the roles on offer and developed a 15-minute solo piece called Chewing Gum Dreams, in which she played 11 characters, including the heroine, Tracey Gordon, a 14-year-old girl observing life on a London estate. It was the perfect showcase for Coel’s talents—her gifts as a writer and a performer, her ear for mimicry and eye for detail— an in 2012, it became a stage play, touring the UK and even transferring to the prestigious National Theatre. I was making a story about the world from my view,” she said, "from the view of those misfits I’d grown up with, who looked at things a bit like I did. A view rarely found on TV.”
This didn't go unnoticed, and three years later Coel was commissioned by Channel 4 to turn Chewing Gum Dreams into a sitcom. Truncated to Chewing Gum, it was an immediate hit, earning Cole her BAFTA for Female Performance in a Comedy Programme. A second series was greenlit, and while racing to meet a 7am deadline on the same show, Coel took a break from writing to have a drink with a friend. That night she was drugged and assaulted—the defining incident that inspired I May Destroy You—and the experience changed her life, not just in the obvious way, but in the way she saw others reveal their true selves. Mining her own thoughts, Coel set out to create a work that would push the boundaries of drama. “I’m always aware that going into your past can inform how you see your present and how you can dictate your future,” she has said. “Going off on a tangent somewhere else seems random but really isn’t.”
Those tangents are key to I May Destroy You, with its conflicting viewpoints and shifting emotions, which reach a stunning climax in the finale. To explain it, Coel might point you to a quote from a self-help book called Act Accordingly by Colin Wright: “He said: ‘There are as many perspectives as there are people.’ I’ll always remember that.”
“I’m always aware that going into your past can inform how you see your present and how you can dictate your future...”