‘I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel On Telling The Story Of Her Personal Trauma On Screen: “It Wasn’t A Very Conscious And Marked Decision”

When I May Destroy You‘s Creator, EP, director and star Michaela Coel first began taking notes about her own experience of sexual assault, she didn’t realize she was creating the series in which she would ultimately star as a version of herself. She plays Arabella, a young London-based writer trying to find a way through the trauma of sexual assault with the help of her close friends.

Speaking during an AwardsLine Virtual Screening Series event, Coel said, “I don’t know if there was a moment when I decided that I really wanted to write about it. I think as the kind of writer I am I’m always somehow writing about everything. I was recording the voice notes in my phone after I’d leave the police station, and after I’d received a call from police just reporting into my phone, somehow knowing it was for something I would write, but it wasn’t a very conscious and marked decision.”

As for actually reliving that trauma in a way as she played the lead role of Arabella, Coel said she was ultimately unable to imagine not playing the part and was happy EP Piers Wenger pushed her toward taking on the role.

“Piers, who was my person who read all my scripts and looked after me the whole way through said, ‘And you’ll be Arabella right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I think even if we ended up looking to cast somebody else, I think deep down I would have been desperate to play Arabella, so I was really glad that Piers, the commissioner, said it first and I said yes.”

Fortunately, Coel wore so many hats in the process she didn’t have time to be too scared to play the part.

“I think when it comes to acting,” she said, “it’s always the last thing I think about until I’m in the space with other actors. So I remember the first day of the shoot, because that was the first day I was directing. There’s a lot of things going on psychologically, so I’m generally too terrified to be anxious about how I perform”

For Paapa Essiedu, who plays Arabella’s friend Kwame, who also experiences sexual assault, exploring Coel’s creation was both strange and very rewarding.

He explained, “Working with Michaela is very easy. She’s actor friendly. I think it comes from writing characters and the kind of joy that comes from seeing them realized. As well as the joy we as actors get from performing, so you really see those two things happening. So of course, Michaela’s a friend of mine, and we’ve known each other a long time, but collaborating on this was good and different and trippy because there is always a line between reality and fantasy or imagination, and sometimes that line is thinner than others and when it’s particularly thin it’s very odd to look at the other person. There were several moments when me and Michaela would look at each other, either on set or in a scene or between scenes, and just say, ‘This is mad. What we’re doing right here is mad.’”

Costume plays a huge role in the series, as Arabella leans into a signature look that runs the gamut of pastel colored hair and chunky ’90s-style knits paired with workboots, to a darkly angelic halloween costume.

Costume designer Lynsey Moore said of the looks she created for the cast, “We were really keen to represent East London, and it actually is referencing real people on the street. It’s quite a creative arty area and people there are quite playful and expressive with their clothing, and this was something that we really wanted to translate with our characters.”

“Obviously Arabella the character is an influencer and she’s all about her image, the identity she constructs for herself through her wardrobe. It’s kind of how she wants the world to see her. So she’s deliberately styled every day, and it’s very consciously self-styled so there were lots of conversations at the beginning about how she should look and Michaela had mentioned that she felt that ’90s references were a really great starting point.” The approach was also as sustainable as possible, reusing clothing where they could, as Moore said, “That’s something Michaela’s very passionate about.”

Julie Haskell, casting director, worked mostly from her gut as she brought in actors to read for the roles, but Coel also instilled in her a fresh approach to inclusivity.

“Michaela was always trying to get me and Nathan, who works with me, to try and turn our thinking on its head, which was a very interesting process for me. For example, Michaela would often say to us to look after the underrepresented groups of people, not just in a diversity of color, but of someone’s sexuality. We had a conversation one say about gay actors being pigeonholed into playing a gay character, and to give opportunities to actors who would not necessarily get these opportunities. For example Kadiff kirwan, who plays the homophobic police officer when Kwame goes to report his assault. Kadiff is an out gay actor, and we felt that he would never get asked to come in and read for a role like that. So that was brilliant to be part of the process for that, and we did that repeatedly throughout the show. It was extremely rewarding for me and the team.”

The music in the show is also key—almost a character in itself—comprising artists that really spoke to Coel’s sensibility.

Music supervisor Ciara Elwes said, “[Coel] talked about some of the artists she liked, and also podcasts she listens to. So we went away and essentially listened to loads and loads of music, especially the selection of podcasts that Michaela had spoken about, to try and get a vibe of what it was going to sound like… it’s quite hard to know for sure until you see the look of something exactly what kind of music’s going to work just because the aesthetic is hard to judge until you’re actually looking at it. But certainly, Michaela had already put a lot of amazing songs into the script.”

For more, check out the video above.

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