Michaela Coel Puts Up In ‘Misfits’
The city of Edinburgh was the epicenter of a powerful pulse of energy on August 22, 2018 – not one that precise scientific equipment can detect, but one whose ripples would be felt by sensitive human instruments within weeks and the months that followed.
That evening, Michaela Coel, a rising British television star, was invited to address her colleagues at the prestigious Edinburgh International Television Festival. Speaking to a few thousand industry peers in a boardroom and countless other viewers watching her online, she shared stories of her rise, a tale that is both comically and devastating.
Coel spoke of growing up as a member of one of four black families in a public housing complex in East London. She described her time in drama school, where a teacher called her a racial insult during an acting practice. She spoke of her surprise, after achieving some professional success, to receive a gift bag containing “dry shampoo, tanning lotion and foundation that even Kim Kardashian was too dark for.” She recounted how she went out for a drink one night and later found out that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted.
She spoke of the resilience gained over a lifetime of “having to climb ladders with no stable ground beneath you” and she classified herself as maladjusted, defined in part as someone who “does not climb a mountain. aim of security or profit, she climbs telling stories.
Three years later, Coel – now 33 and acclaimed creator and star of the HBO comedy-drama “I May Destroy You” – views the speech as a satisfying moment of personal relief.
As she said in a video interview a few weeks ago, “We work with people and we never really know who they are, and no one ever really knows who you are. liberating just to let everyone know.
With its explicit calls for greater transparency, Coel’s speech (officially known as the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture) resonated in the entertainment industry and provided a narrative and thematic basis for “I May Destroy You”. Next month the speech will be published by Henry Holt & Co. as a book titled “Misfits: A Personal Manifesto”.
To an audience still new to Coel, her life, and her work, “Misfits” may seem like an artifact preserving the moment its author became the fullest version of herself.
But for Coel, it represents a particularly validating episode in a career where she has always felt empowered to say what she thinks.
“I’ve always annoyed people about these things,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know where I got the nerve to be like this. But from the start, there has always been a story where Michaela would insist and say, “There is something wrong here.
To this day, Coel is relentlessly outspoken about the choices that go into her work, even when it comes to the decision to call “Misfits” a “manifesto,” which she says was forced upon her by her editors. .
As she explained, “I was like, ‘But it’s so small, it’s not really a book.’ They said, “A book is a binding of papers. OK, okay, can we call it a test book? “Mmm, no. “
She was more circumspect when discussing where she was on the planet during our video chat. Despite a report in Variety that Coel had joined the cast of the Marvel superhero sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” she said, “I’m in America. I don’t know why I’m here. I feel like I’m not supposed to say this. (A Marvel spokesperson declined to comment.)
Actor Paapa Essiedu, co-star of “I May Destroy You” and longtime friend of Coel, said that since their time together as students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he has known that Coel was a brave, outspoken person.
“Her voice was always very clear,” Essiedu said. “She always felt like she wasn’t fazed by what was expected of her, and she was able to think and speak independently.”
Even so, Essiedu said, “Remember she’s just a normal person,” who talks trash with her friends, ”and can be funny and can be really boring. Her everyday life isn’t about marrying the way to make the world a better place. ”
In the speech, Coel described the frustrations she endured with her groundbreaking comedy series, “Chewing Gum,” which airs on E4 in Britain and Netflix in America. She spoke of crying in a pair of pantyhose not purchased at a drugstore following a phone call where it was suggested that she should hire co-writers to help her on the show.
She also spoke about turning down an offer to make “I May Destroy You” with Netflix when the streaming service refused to allow her to retain ownership rights to the series. (In the lecture, she told this story with allegorical flair, imagining it as a negotiation with a fictional mother-in-law she called “No-Face Netanya.”)
Amy Gravitt, executive vice president of HBO who oversees its original comedy programming, said she was moved by Coel’s lecture when she watched it online.
“There was so much she said in that speech that resonated as a woman working in this industry,” said Gravitt, who first met Coel in 2017 after the success of “Chewing Gum” .
“When she spoke about her desire to see another person’s point of view represented on screen, it resonated deeply with me as a programmer,” Gravitt said.
Far from feeling reluctant to work with someone so outspoken, Gravitt said, “I feel like I just want to work with people who feel comfortable saying what they think. “
Coel eventually ended up doing “I May Destroy You” for HBO and the BBC. When I asked her if Netflix had to cry to fall asleep every night for missing the show, she replied, “Well, melatonin works a charm.”
A Netflix press representative said in a statement: “Michaela is an incredibly talented artist who we have been delighted to work with on ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Black Earth Rising’ among others, and who we hope to work with again. in the future . “
Coel said she never hesitated to tell her audience that she had been sexually assaulted. “I never had this thing where I kept it to myself and I was afraid to say it because of what people were thinking,” she said. “And because I never had that incubation period of shame and guilt to make a home inside of me, it never did.”
Talking about the assault now was like “looking at a scar,” she said.
“I look at the scar, and it’s like, whoa, it happened,” Coel said. “But now I’m alive to look at that scar, which means I’ve come through the turning point. “
By the time she gave the talk, Coel was already writing what would become “I May Destroy You,” in which her character, a young writer named Arabella, was served an enriched drink and sexually assaulted.
To this day, Coel said, she meets fans of the show but doesn’t realize it’s based on her experience. Other viewers approach him, on social media and in person, to talk to him about their own traumas. “I cried with strangers on the street,” she says.
“I May Destroy You” became a staple of the pandemic era when it aired in the spring and last summer, and it has inspired fans in other ways.
In February, the series received no Golden Globe nominations, sparking public outcry. Deborah Copaken, author and memorialist (“Ladyparts”) who wrote the first season of Netflix’s wispy comedy “Emily in Paris”, wrote in an essay for The Guardian that the snub “isn’t just wrong, it’s is what is wrong with everything.
In an interview, Copaken praised Coel for putting “people on screen that you’ve never seen on TV, except as extras or whatever,” in a series that encompassed topics such as sexual consent. and the assimilation of immigrants.
“That doesn’t make people who aren’t white and Western role models of virtue,” Copaken said. “They are interesting people with a messy life. At every turn, it challenges viewers’ assumptions.
Coel herself said she was too thrilled with the wider reaction to her series to be concerned about the Golden Globes controversy. “I was on that cloud of gratitude,” she said, “and I could hear that something was going on. I was like, guys, I don’t know how to get out of the cloud and handle this. Last month, “I May Destroy You” was nominated for nine Emmy Awards, including limited and anthology series. Coel and Essiedu both received nominations as actors, and Coel was also nominated for as director and screenwriter of the series.
Now, Coel faces the happy challenge of finding a sequel to “I May Destroy You,” and she insists the series is over.
“For me it’s very clearly over, isn’t it?” she said. “Imagine if there was a season 2? I just think guys, come on, it’s done. Unless someone has this amazing idea for Season 2 that doesn’t destroy Season 1, for me it’s closed and done.
Coel said she was under no external pressure to complete her next project. “HBO and BBC were very nice,” she said. “They said, ‘Hey, Michaela, you’ve done a great thing for us. You can just relax, take the time you need. Corn I am not like this.”
She quickly pointed her camera at a whiteboard on which she had started to draw a new story arc, but turned the camera to herself before the words were readable. She wouldn’t say anything more about the new series except that the BBC had committed to doing it.
(Gravitt, the HBO executive, said her network was “in the early stages of discussing with Michaela and the BBC and various artists who are all on the” I May Destroy You “crew, and enthusiastic about the idea of having this new project to work on together. ”)
Essiedu said that Coel hasn’t changed much in reaching a new level of fame and that she remains an artist motivated more by work than by fame.
“She deserves the credit and the applause,” he said. “She’s not going to shy away from it, which we Brits are very good at doing. She might be a little more like you Americans in this approach.
But after twice experiencing the satisfaction of feeling that her viewers really and fully received what she was saying – with her MacTaggart talk and with “I May Destroy You” – Coel said she could hardly ask for more. .
“As a writer I am sometimes overwhelmed, I am exhausted,” she said. “I try to be clear, piece by piece, and the audience liked me and listened to me.”
With a mixture of relief and joy, she exclaimed, “The way people listen to me in this life! All I have learned is to be heard.