ichaela Coel has one enormous eye, looming at me like a cyclops. She's deliberately pushing different parts of her face at her laptop camera - "Boom!" - trying to make me laugh (it works). The award-winning Coel has been laying low since the genre-shattering TV series I May Destroy You came out during lockdown last year. Having admitted that she wanted to run away when it came out - "I struggle with that bit... I tend to go somewhere to hide" - she's come off social media, stopped giving interviews for a little while. But in person, laying low is not Coel's style.
She's a communicator. She talks in long, descriptive sentences and even when she's not messing with the camera, her face is always moving, her thoughts and emotions flooding her features. At formal events, she can present a serious front - face and body held still and dignified - but today she's upbeat. Her laugh is big. Sometimes, she stops in the middle of an answer and asks herself questions, wondering out loud about whether she's being honest enough: "Do I feel that?" she says. "Do I really feel that?"
Coel is in the US, at her aunt and uncle's house for a few days: "I love it!" She has a couple of projects on the go. First, she's filming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and no, she can't say anything about it: "I can say that I'm in the film now, but that's it." She's also trying to write a new TV project (she's keeping shtoom about that too) and she's just published her 2018 MacTaggart lecture as a book, Misfits, A Personal Manifesto. The lecture, a prestigious speech given at the Edinburgh TV festival to a 4,000-strong industry audience, caused a sensation; it leaps off the page. Coel describes incidents at her school, her drama school, what people said to her at industry parties, how the establishment treated her when working on Chewing Gum, her series before IMDY. The stories are often shocking (she talks about rape and racism, but also about the casual thoughtlessness in TV production that means outsiders are never fully welcomed). She hits hard: funny, but also direct. "Is it important," she asks, "that voices used to interruption get the experience of writing something without interference at least once?"
In the book, Coel explains how careful she was with the lecture's tone. She wanted to deliver her stories in the right way, to acknowledge the pain beneath. Initially, she wrote it light, but then went darker. "Yes, it's interesting when it comes to humour and darkness," she says, "because there's humour in both, right? There's still humour in this lecture. But the type of humour that was there when I first wrote it, it was so shallow and frail, and underneath the glass of the joke is... thought. It was healthier to choose to not be afraid to go down into the darkness. The offering was like straddling extreme empowerment and complete vulnerability."
The reaction was intense, as it has always been for her work. She's had people come up to her in the street and say how much it's helped them, which is why she decided to publish it. She can't remember how the people in the room reacted at the time - "the lights were all on me and I couldn't really see anybody" - but she does remember that "sometime after somebody said that I was 'too green'. Meaning: too naive." She laughs. "And I remember thinking, 'I must remain green'. I have a feeling I should try to stay as green as possible."
In the afterword to the lecture, Coel writes about this. Now her life has changed, she understands the desire not to mess it up, not to wreck her new belonging. "The narrative is clear," she writes. "Once upon a time, I was a misfit. How lucky I am to find acceptance, to feel safe here. I mustn't jeopardise that."
That fear - of losing what has been won - is how misfits are neutralised. "Yes, that's saying, at some point, Michaela, you're going to realise that you need to be afraid, because you've got a position that you need to keep," she says. "That fear goes beyond people of colour and women, it even relates to people who have come from old money. Because those people are like, 'We must make sure we keep our power' and your whole identity becomes wrapped around it. It's all about holding on. There's so much fear of letting go, when it's the most freeing thing you could do."
Coel is all about letting go of fear or, at least, of using it to find your way to something better. For her, it's often via writing. Before she was an actor, she was a poet, and a Christian, and writing has a feel of something holy to her: "It's not that you are God. It's almost as if you're trying to have some contact with God and that contact is the story. So you're desperately reaching for it. You're the vessel, right? You're the servant of the story." She tends to write in bursts (she stayed up in all-night cafes to rewrite Chewing Gum; she holed up in a remote Airbnb for weeks for I May Destroy You).
And she's trying to write now, in between Black Panther filming, but it's not going that well: "I don't know how people do it. I think I've got to wait until this job is done. Stories require my full attention."
Perhaps her writing difficulties are because she's trying to look after herself. "I tend to not stay up that late writing any more," she says. "I'm trying to be healthier, which I think has robbed me of something quite special, which is these magical dreams, these things that happen in the moment of severe exhaustion. You lose that, don't you, when you start getting healthy."
Still, being healthy means she has the stamina to not only be a film star, writer and niece, but also an excellent interviewee. She's excited about answering readers' questions - "Yes! I am" - but before we start, she has one more thing to say. Since I May Destroy You, she's often asked about trauma and whether using her own rape as a basis for writing has helped her (she talks about this in her answers today). Would she have any advice for those misfits who suffer trauma but don't write or give lectures or make TV programmes? She does.
"Call somebody and tell them. That's it," she says. "The exercise is speaking; it's not about whether you're talking to 10 or 10,000 people, it's about getting it out from your vocal cords, out, away from you, into the air."
Questions for Michaela Coel from readers and famous fans
Olly Alexander, singer, actorWhen do you feel most powerful?
I would say I feel most powerful when I'm running. I run most days. I did a half-marathon two days ago in an hour and 53 minutes. Eight minutes 58 seconds per mile, which is not my fastest. It's OK, it was very hot in Memphis. And even last night, I just went out for a little walk, I was in a yellow dress, and then I thought, "Oh, I feel like running" and it turned into a run. I did have trainers on with the dress.
I would recommend The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, by Yuval Noah Harari... what's the third one I would suggest? Maybe it's not in my top 10, but I will probably throw in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Because I remember finishing each of them feeling like a new person. And that is what I would offer people. It's what I'm trying to do: I May Destroy You is trying to do that in some way as well. Trying to make you feel like a new person.
Emma Watson, actorWhat changes could the film and TV industry make to better ensure people on set feel protected, safe and respected? What more can be done to deepen people's understanding of consent?
I think intimacy coordinators are really useful, especially when you allow them to do their jobs and don't just hire them as lip service. If you let them do their job, they are the saviours of television sets. On I May Destroy You, we also had a therapist called Lou Platt on call at any time who you could contact. I called her when there were a couple of moments where the content was a little bit triggering and she was really helpful.
Consent is tricky. I think it goes beyond consent. I was talking to a new friend that I've made the other day and he was talking about saying: "Let me use a condom" because it makes it look like he doesn't trust the woman. So he doesn't talk about the condom, in case the woman thinks he thinks she's a whore. And I was just like, "Oh, my God", you know? It seems like everybody is afraid of communicating and afraid of being transparent... I wonder whether it's to do with education. What are we teaching kids when they're like 12, 13, because these things - or the lack of things that we teach them - will follow them into adulthood.
I would direct it. And it would be about some sort of life that I felt had not yet been shown to the world around me. Some unreported life that I would platform.
Louis Theroux, interviewer, documentary-makerWhen, if ever, have you been in fear of your life?
I started rollerblading this year. And I got these new rollerblades, which only have three massive wheels, so you're high up off the ground - balance is harder, everything is more difficult. And I was in Ghana and I found some skater girls and we started hanging out. One night, we were skating in an underground garage, but we got kicked out by security. So one of the girls was like, "Let's go to the university campus, it's really cool there, lots of space", but it was dark now. We got there and she was like, "I know this really cool route, with this hill" and it's like, "Oh my God, cool". So we go on this route, and we're going, and it's dark. And she's behind me because she's on quads, but I'm on my huge ones that go really fast. And then I hear a voice saying: "Shall we turn?" And I realised that I don't know how to turn. I don't know how to brake. I don't know how to stop. So I'm going down and the hill is getting steeper and in front of me I see traffic. Just cars going really quickly in both directions. And I hear something like "fall". So I realised she's probably fallen, but I'm just going and I don't know how to stop. So I just go. I remember thinking, "Well, it's over. There's nothing I can do. It's over." By some insane miracle I go, whoosh, between the traffic... Horrible. And I just keep going until the hill flattens out to the point where there were people on the street clapping, thinking I had done that shit on purpose. It was insane. And you know what? I actually go out now and just practise braking. I go on a hill and I just practise braking down as I go.
Am I cooking? If I am, I would cook jollof rice, it's a Ghanaian rice thing, with red stew, a tomato-based stew. And I would have also kontomire, it's like a spinach stew, with some boiled apem, a type of green plantain. Without the fish, because I try to eat plant-based. Maybe with some dairy-free chocolate cake at the end. I would invite my mum, because my mum always deserves to be treated to a meal. I would invite my friend Rachel, because Rachel and my mum get on. The dinner guests all revolve around my mum, because my mum gets shy around people, especially people that she admires. So no celebrities can come if my mum's there. So it's my mate Rachel, it's my dad, who's lots of jokes, and... my brother. My brother's a great crack.
Arinzé Kene, actorWhat does your writing day look like?
Arinzé is one of my best and longest friends! I have an app called Focus Keeper. I work for half an hour and then break for five minutes. I do that four times and then I have food, so I break for an hour. And then I do half an hour, five minutes, half an hour, five minutes. It's four, then lunch, then another four. And then I'm done.
Hmm. In some ways, yes. But in many ways, I'm definitely a very insecure person. I say, with a laugh! I try to do, day by day, whatever I can to make me feel less insecure. There are some things I just don't do. I don't really watch music videos. I don't read fashion magazines. Even if I'm in them I don't read them, because the pictures can make me feel really insecure. You know: this is what beautiful people look like and if I look, I'll realise that isn't me. I'd rather not know that.
Miranda July, performer, writer, directorHow do you feel right now, today? Please trace each nuance of your feelings to its origins, be they mundane or complex, current or ancestral; there is no wrong or boring answer.
I feel... settled right now. Which isn't necessarily applicable to my life as a whole. But right now, I am at my uncle, my aunt's house and I feel rooted... you know, this is my blood. That feeling feels temporary because I'm leaving today and there's a part of me that feels mournful because I will be returning to a place of being unsettled. Because I'll be in a place, Atlanta, which is not my home, surrounded by people who are not my roots. They're not my roots to this earth. But happy, nonetheless. Happy, nonetheless, because I have my tools in place that I do every day - be it cycling, roller-skating, running - to keep me feeling like the world is new and exciting and revelatory. And right now, I'm looking outside my aunt's window and the light is hitting the leaves in this really beautiful, glistening way and they're dancing in the wind a little bit. And the sky is very blue, the speckled bits of cloud, and that is gorgeous, so I feel gorgeous seeing that.
Maybe I would substitute storytelling for writing and I would say it helps me to see the story as something that is already written. The story is daring you to be the one to draw it out into existence. The story is saying "Are you going to be the one?" It's a challenge.
Two come to mind. One is if everybody had their basic needs met - food, shelter, water, loving company - and the other, wouldn't it be cool if the laws of physics could change and climate change was not a thing? Having that stress gone... I'm intrigued. How would we live? I don't even know if that's a good idea, because maybe we would be worse, treat the planet worse. So maybe the first one.I'm always blown away by the moments of character-driven humour in your work, making everything feel rich and specific. What makes you laugh in your day-to-day life?
Mae Martin, comedianAs a linguist who is passionate about language and a non-native speaker of English, I kept wondering why you had decided to call the series I May Destroy You, as opposed to I Might Destroy You or I Could Destroy You - why did you choose that phrase?
What, if anything, about your work makes you uncomfortable? Maria Josie Mena, 41, translator, Spain
I find day-to-day life funny. I'm always laughing. Yesterday, I was in the car with my aunt and my uncle and my aunt asked my uncle, very earnestly, what a humdinger was. My uncle said: "It's a very exciting event." And my aunt said: "Oh, so it was humming and dinging?" It was such a serious conversation! "It was humming and dinging?" I laugh at anything.
Oh, that's lovely! Definitely a question from a linguist. I think that I May Destroy You, not that I was thinking about this at the time, is much softer than those other ones - "might", "could", they're hard. And I think I May Destroy You flows more. And for such a dangerous sentence, that flow and that softness, and that curvature on the tongue is better. Also "may" is a little bit like asking permission. Because you have to allow it to happen, with the show. You have to be open enough to allow the show to do what it does. Arabella has to be open. Everybody has to be open.As a former church girl, Chewing Gum immediately resonated with me. It's one of my absolute favourite pieces of art, about the desire for abjection and wildness, and the friction between that desire and the more conservative tenets of faith. I've always wanted to know what interests you most about that subject.
Roxane Gay, writerMisfits are often demonised by political leaders in the mainstream media. How do we reconceptualise the role that a misfit plays in society?
Trying to keep doing something I haven't done before makes me uncomfortable in a way. Rather than doing what I've done before, thinking it worked last time, I'm trying to do something different. And that is uncomfortable.
There's a writer, Cixin Liu, and he has a sci-fi trilogy: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death's End. They are three incredibly brilliant sci-fi books and I think people would be quite surprised that I've read them and I love them. I read them over the last three years.
Raven Leilani, novelist
It's definitely to do with Catholicism, isn't it? It's the suppression of sexual desire, sexual behaviour. It's also very African. Nobody spoke to me about sex. I think that's what interested me. There's another element: the story is about a girl who is a virgin and wants to have sex, but also Tracey exists on the margins of society and desperately wants to be included in the world around her. She wants to be allowed into the playground, for no other reason than to play. So for Tracey, literally she wants to fuck, she wants to have sex, but really, she is a girl on the outside who wants to be let in, to be at one with society. I had no idea when I was writing it that this was what it's about. I went to Michigan when I was writing I May Destroy You and Sally, who owns the Airbnb, on my last day, she asked me what Chewing Gum was about and suddenly that came out of my mouth and I burst into tears when I realised that's what it was about. The desire for inclusion.How important was meeting Ché WalkerYou seem very considered about how and when you speak and what you choose to do. Do you think there is power in silence?[the playwright who encouraged Coel to take acting classes] to your future career? How did you feel about Love IslandFelicity, 27, call centre worker, North Yorkshire How has being famous affected your writing, if at all?
I think courage is the ability to make a decision and that may be to do something active or to do something [passive]. So whether that's to leave or stay, say yes or say no, the courage is in the ability to make the decision. How do I summon the courage? This is going to sound crazy. I'm just thinking right now like, "I am courage". That's what comes to mind.I feel that every song matches perfectly in all the scenes for I May Destroy You. Do you have stories about picking the soundtrack?
What is your definition of success? Isobel, 27, marketing analyst, Colombia
David Lammy, MP
We have to try to be brave enough to accept that society is a changeable thing. I think you welcome misfits, and you value them, and you allow them to have a place in society when you're prepared to allow society to change. Because misfits, if you listen to them, they create change.
Because it happened to somebody that I know and I had not seen anything about that on television. As if we were all scared to accept that it exists. When I sensed that erasure of somebody's trauma, of a whole group of people's trauma, then I feel compelled to expose it in the most transparent way that I can.
Massively. It's very cathartic, writing and working things out. And also, placing a real-life story outside you, as if it isn't yours, and seeing how you handle it - that often gives a better perspective than how you would handle it in life. So that was good. Also, just the process of working with a brilliant team - my script editor, my commissioners, my co-producers, the set designers, costume designers, everybody. Watching them work, watching them in their flow states with this show, meant that it almost felt weird that this whole situation had come from something so devastating. Something that's devastating now has this twin, the process of making the show, which is the funnest, most glorious, loving, euphoric thing ever. And now, that happy euphoric twin has handcuffed the devastation - the devastation cannot exist by itself. And that's incredible.
Asif Kapadia, director
I'm not sure I would have ended up being taught drama had it not been for Ché Walker. Now, yes, you could say many people find a route into the industry without that. But I think the route that I took, and the things I learned, particularly in drama school, shaped who I was and has informed how I see the world in a way that is very dear to me, in a way that I'm very grateful for. I was the first black girl they had accepted in five years. That experience was invaluable, even though it was painful, but sometimes pain is something to be grateful for.
Shon Faye, writer, comedian
I think that there is power in silence and there is fear in silence. And you figure out, muted moment by muted moment, which one is behind your silence. Whether you're silent right now because you're powerful or because you're scared.
I saw maybe half an episode about four years ago but I haven't seen any since. A friend texted me a couple of weeks ago saying: "You've gotta watch Love Island, man. These people are idiots." I don't know, I haven't quite gotten around to it. I haven't yet prioritised it as something I should be doing with my life.
George the Poet, poet, podcaster
Massively, because you can't be incognito around people any more, to really be able to enjoy and exist in humanity, without humanity being aware of who you are. I read a Zadie Smith interview and she obviously manages to remain incognito because she's not an actor all over the TV and she talks about being able to be invisible and receive human interaction and listen to how it's going. I love that. What I have to do is escape to wherever people don't know me and engage with them. It is hard. The incognito thing is something that is really important as a writer writing human beings.
The story that comes to mind right now is tweeting loads of artists when we couldn't afford their music: "Hey, I'm trying to use some of your tracks in my show... " So that was cool. But it was really a lot of trial and error: sitting at home with earphones in, watching the scene on my laptop, and playing different songs, different songs, different songs, looking for the one that absolutely fits. It was fun.
Lena Waithe, writer, actor
Oh, my definition of success is being around someone who loves you, who you love.
Skating, cycling, running, games. I like playing games, dice games, card games, board games. I am competitive but I never show it. But every single time I've lost, I remember exactly when, where. I love to host games. Hosting things like that is a really big thing for me. I'm going to tell you that my favourite card game is blackjack. Ha! There's never money involved in any of my games. We don't play for cash. Just play. For glory!
I never say never to anything. I guess that's my answer.