If viewers think they know Michaela Coel personally after watching “I May Destroy You,” she understands why.
“Even though it’s fictional, there’s something very transparent about the show,” Coel tells Variety. “I know a lot of people will say, ‘You think you know me, but you have no idea.’ And I feel like, ‘No. You probably do have a pretty good idea.’”
This rings true, even over Zoom, where Coel is as profoundly introspective and pointedly funny as she is on the HBO series that she created, wrote, co-directed and stars in. The show’s delicate balance of tone matches its creator’s personality, as it investigates sexual assault and consent, society’s relationship to social media and the complexities of overcoming trauma while still finding ways to make audiences laugh.
The art Coel consumes is marked by a similar combination. During quarantine, she dove into heady podcasts and books but also made time for Netflix’s zany musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.”
“I actually was crying my eyes out watching. It’s that moment when [Rachel McAdams] begins to sing in Icelandic, I cried. I’m so pathetic,” she laughs. “We’re all rooting for the little guy, aren’t we? It’s emotional.”
As Coel well knows, catharsis sometimes comes in strange forms or during uncertain times.
“I May Destroy You” debuted in June 2020, amid one the most turbulent years in history. The premise is deeply personal for Coel, who stars as Arabella, a writer who is drugged and sexually assaulted by strangers, after taking a break during an overnight writing session to grab a drink with friends. Coel wrote the show from her own experience.
Given the weighty subject matter, Coel initially worried the timing might not be right. But her fears were calmed as audiences and critics devoured the HBO series’ 12 episodes, engaging with the material intimately.
“I think that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of using fiction to really bring audiences to quite personal, challenging and dark places and asking audiences to question the world around them,” she says. “The way people received the show, as we would say in London, gave me vim.”
Coel watched the series as it aired each week, taking in the evolution of her “baby” from event to page to screen, thanks to some advice from one of her exec. producers Roberto Troni.
“He told me, ’This live debut, where hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people are sitting down to watch the show, you won’t get that again,” she recalls. “[Watching the episodes] was a very emotional process, and another form of catharsis in itself. It was exhilarating and joyous and exciting, and also difficult, because, as you watch and people begin to receive it, it is ending at the same time.”
Overall, though, she’s largely evaded the full breadth of attention “I May Destroy You” has received.
“Generally when projects come out, my habit is to run away to a country where it isn’t airing, because I think I struggle with that bit of things, so I tend to go somewhere to hide a little bit,” she laughs. “The nice thing about lockdown was that we were all forced to hide, so it meant that I never felt the scale [of the response], which I think may possibly have given me anxiety.”
The creator has also pulled back on social media since the show began airing. Instead, she’s engaged in conversations with fans on the street or in the grocery store.
“It’s as if I have been conversing with them for 12 episodes,” she says of hearing viewers’ reactions firsthand. “That’s how deeply they’ve understood something in the show.”
She feels a similar sense of kinship with screen legend Jane Fonda, who has shared her love of the series far and wide.
“I imagine if I bumped into her outside of the supermarket, we’d be nerding out on all of the hidden meanings and layers because I can see that she really gets it,” Coel says. “She watches it the way that I dreamed the audience would watch it.”
“I May Destroy You” has also been a critical darling, most recently earning a Peabody Award nomination, plus awards from Gotham and Film Independent, where the cast — including Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu and Stephane Wight — was awarded the first-ever award for best ensemble in a new scripted series. Coel, who penned all 12 episodes of the series solo, won the NAACP Image Award for her work on the time-turning season finale, titled “Ego Death.”
Coel admits she didn’t used to write speeches for awards ceremonies, but she’s found a deeper meaning in them this year. In fact, she often finds herself crying at her keyboard.
“When you are nominated for something and you have to make a speech, I’m forced to practice the act of gratitude again,” Coel explains. “So, I remember all over again how incredible it is that all these people watched my show, that all these people helped me create the show that has spoken to and stimulated so many people in the world that I found myself nominated on this list.”
Honors from organizations like GLAAD and NAACP mean a little extra, Coel says. “When they’re targeted from the LGBTQ or the Black communities,” she explains. “It just allows you to remember why you’re grateful this community appreciated what you did, why you did it for these communities, how you feel about these communities and your relation to [them].”
For the wave of gratitude she feels writing the speeches, Coel feels much differently about filming them. “It’s fucking annoying, because the ring light keeps falling down, and the lighting is shit, and there’s no fucking makeup artist, so you look like shit,” she jokes. “ In real life, when you win an award, you give the speech, you don’t re-record the thing five times. I just hope the people are listening to the words and hope that transcends.”
Another benefit of the virtual awards circuit has been the opportunity for Coel to meet some of her personal favorites. For instance, what made the SAG Awards in April so awesome, she says, “is that I basically got to be on a Zoom with Kerry Washington.”
“I imagine, if the show was in real life, she’d be sat over there and I’d be way too shy to go over and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been watching you on my screen for decades,’” Coel explains. ”I was still too shy to say any of that on Zoom, but she knew my name. I was like ‘Oh my God, hi!’ You can’t do that in real life.”
In September, Coel will release her debut book, “Misfits: A Personal Manifesto,” which evokes the subject of her 2018 Edinburgh Festival MacTaggart lecture. She’s also begun a new writing project, details of which are a tightly held secret.
Coel does share that she intends to continue working in television, noting that the medium’s accessibility to audiences both benefits storytellers and challenges them to find something valuable to say. And despite building a sizable reputation via her first two shows (the other being her 2015 comedy “Chewing Gum”), she’s not worried about creating, defining or destroying it with whatever comes next.
When asked about the legacy of her work, Coel responds: “I can think of like 100 bullshit answers. But I think the most transparent thing that I can tell you is that I’m focusing on whatever challenge is in my hand.”
Styling: Nana Kwasi Wiafe; Makeup: Giselle Ali/Pat McGrath Labs; Hair: Nathaniel Dogbey/Nate the Barber; Lead image: Dress: Eledzine; Cover, dress: Veryghanaian; Head Piece: Schiaparelli; Third image (leopard print): Top and skirt: Kayadua