“I May Destroy You” took TV by storm this summer after its June 7 premiere on HBO. Michaela Coel’s show about a woman working through the aftermath of her sexual assault has made for one of the most arresting new shows in recent memory, with a standout performance from Coel herself. While her character Arabella anchors “I May Destroy You,” though, the series gains even more perspective from her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), whose own sexual experiences gain new and disturbing dimensions the longer they look at them.
Coel and Essiedu already knew each other from drama school, but Opia landing the part of Terry hinged on locking into a rhythm with Coel without any preexisting history. As Opia puts it, though, finding that dynamic ended up being one of the easiest parts of her audition. “There was just immediate chemistry,” Opia says. “It just felt like an incredible first date where you feel like, “Yeah, I definitely want to see that person again.”
Variety recently caught up with Opia over Zoom to talk about “I May Destroy You,” the scene she wouldn’t do (and how the production gladly shifted to accommodate her needs), and the quietly shattering realization Terry comes to in episode 11 (“Do You Know the Sex?”), which aired August 17 on HBO.
What was the audition process like for “I May Destroy You”?
I auditioned for it about a year ago. I had three auditions. The third was with Michaela, the casting director Julie Harkin, and [director] Sam Miller. I remember walking into the room and Michaela was sitting there, looking at me. She’s really attentive, and when she speaks to you, she’s really listening. So I was like, “Okay, cute!” And then we did the scene and it was like two friends who’ve known each other forever, two besties. There was just this immediate chemistry between us, and I remember leaving the audition like, “What was that?” It just felt like an incredible first date where you feel like, “Yeah, I definitely want to see that person again.” A month later, I got the call that I got the job.
Do you remember which scene you first did together?
It was the scene the night after [Arabella’s assault], where they’re just getting Chinese food. It was just the initial back and forth of, “What happened?” The whole thing was like the mundane parts of life, that normal friendship. Arabella is trying to piece things together, but she’s not making sense, so Terry’s looking at her friend like, “What are you trying to say? Use your words!” I think that scene does that brilliantly. Obviously, we as the audience know something’s gone on, but it’s still just normal everyday banter. That chemistry was there from the beginning, which led to my being Terry.
Did you get all the scripts at once, or were you reading them as they came in?
When I got offered the role, they sent all the scripts and I read them all at once on the plane on my way back from Virginia, where I was filming a pilot. I was coming back home to London for the readthrough, and my whole plane journey, I was gagging the whole time. I didn’t sleep! I had the little light on and was looking around the plane like, “Y’all don’t know what I’m reading right now!” So yeah, I read all 12 on my trip home and it just solidified that this is something I wanted to be a part of.
But I had only gotten a scene when we did the audition initially, but when I got home that day, my agent called me and said, “Michaela is aware that you’re a Christian, and there’s a sex scene for Terry, and we need to know what you’re going to do.” So I said, “Okay, send me the script.” I got episode 3 [featuring Terry’s threesome], and read it, and was like, “I’m not comfortable with that — if there’s any way we can work around it or whatever, I’m game, but what is there right now, I’m not comfortable with.”
They ended up getting a body double for you, right? That must have been a relief.
It was! I was quite shocked, because I know how the industry can be and how fickle it can be. When I said I wasn’t comfortable doing [the sex scene], my agent was like, “Okay, and if they decide they want to go with someone else?” I was like, “It is what it is.” So I had in my mind that kind of resolution, the possibility I wouldn’t get it. When I was told I did get it and we’d have some arrangements made, I’m not gonna lie, I was completely shocked. But then I was also quite happy and proud of myself for sticking to my guns, and also quite happy in the sense that now the industry is moving in a really good direction, where everyone’s being respected. We do know about the #MeToo stuff, and how sex is sold, and the pressure to do what you may not be comfortable with. So the fact that I was able to be brave enough to risk it, and it worked out for me, I’m really, really glad.
It was all done in a respectful way. There was an intimacy coordinator [Ita O’Brien], who also had conversations with me about the lovely double, Lola. I met with her and it was incredible seeing someone else with the same face, the same hair and everything. So it was done making sure that everyone felt safe and protected and respected.
In episode 11, we find out that Terry’s threesome wasn’t quite what she thought it was at the time. Were you playing it like she always kind of knew something was off?
I was playing the gray area, where I think the whole situation was. I spoke to Michaela about it, and there was no clear-cut [conclusion] about, “This is how she feels.” She felt empowered in the moment, that she made this decision as a woman who was exploring her sexuality. But there is that gray area conversation: was that circumstance actually given, or was it stolen because she wasn’t privy to the whole situation? Some people might think she was completely in control, and others may feel like her consent was stolen. I felt it was important to play both sides of it and allow everyone to take what they would from it. It’s interesting to watch and to think about these situations, because everyone’s is unique.
I still don’t know how I feel about it! It’s another part of this show where I was like, “I’m gonna have to sit with this for a while.”
I haven’t watched the show again yet, but I know I’m going to have different feelings about different things the more I watch it. My friends have been like, “We just watched it and had a two hour conversation about it.” And I was like, “This is a whole syllabus!”
I think it’s one of those slow-burners as well. It’s had an incredible reaction and response immediately, but I also think it’s going to be one of those things where people will go back after some time, watch it again and get new perspectives.
The last episode is extremely intense and trippy and interesting and weird. I loved it. What was it like to film all those different scenarios and shift Terry to fit each one?
I didn’t understand that episode until I actually watched it. I remember reading it and being like, “whaaat? Which one actually happened?” And I still don’t know! [Laughs]
I really liked the scenario where Terry does confess and say she has a way to make up [for not being there for Arabella the night of her assault]. That made me accept Terry as a person, because I also judged her initially as a bad friend. But then I had a chat with Michaela, and she said she didn’t want any of the characters to be judged, because they were human. So then I tried to understand where she was coming from and sympathize with her as well. But I especially liked that [finale] scenario where she makes up a plan to try and help her friend.
But I think it’s so incredible to see the different scenarios that could have happened, the different ways Bella could take back her power. It is a full process of coming to a point of closure with a traumatic event, I don’t know how Michaela came up with that, but it’s just so brilliantly done. But since we filmed bits of it in isolation, it didn’t quite make sense until I actually watched it and I was like, “Okay, this is what it’s doing, this is what it means to take the power back in each scenario.” So, yeah. Trippy!
Are there any episodes or scenes in particular that you’ll take with you as particularly great to film?
Episode 3 [where Terry visits Arabella in Italy] was definitely the most fun one to film, because we got to go to Italy. And there was the one scene where Terry gets to the flat, and they make pasta, and they’re eating on the balcony. That was one of my favorite scenes, because it felt like I was literally just being myself on a work trip, living my best life.