From her home in London, Coel speaks with the clarity of someone who has worked through these mental processes time and time again. She credits some of it to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus,” a book she read examining the individual human experience. Soon after joining a video call with The Washington Post, she also mentions how grateful she is to have gone to therapy in the immediate aftermath of being sexually assaulted four years ago, while in the midst of writing her BAFTA-winning television series “Chewing Gum.”
Coel publicly addressed the assault at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2018, where she delivered a keynote address with the same unassuming confidence she emanates today. She had started writing a fictionalized version of her experience that spring, escaping to the mountains to sort through her emotions on paper. After traveling back and forth for edits from her script editor and fellow executive producers, Coel wound up with a dozen episodes of “I May Destroy You,” now on HBO.
“I don’t think there was ever a moment where I said, I am now ready to make the show,” Coel says. “That point never came. Life is a process, isn’t it? There wasn’t a moment where I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of recovery to make a show. I make art, and I write, to help myself.”
Inspired by a one-woman play Coel wrote in college, “Chewing Gum” centers on a 24-year-old shop assistant named Tracey Gordon as she aims to explore life beyond her Christian fundamentalist upbringing by, above all else, losing her virginity. Tracey is as hilarious as she is naive, reinforced by the commentary she delivers looking straight into the camera. The cheeky series attracted immediate praise upon debuting in 2015 on the British channel E4, and heaps more after making the leap to Netflix.
“Chewing Gum” is indisputably Coel’s brainchild, set in a part of London similar to where she grew up. The show earned her multiple BAFTA awards, one for her lead performance and another for her “breakthrough” writing. But the opportunity to adapt the play for television came, at times, at the expense of Coel’s creative ownership. In the Edinburgh lecture, she recalled fighting for her right to craft the series without any co-writers: “Is it important that the voices used to interruption get the experience of writing something without interference, at least once?” she wondered aloud.
On both seasons, Coel, the series creator, was denied an executive producer credit.
Looking back, she tries to focus not on what she wishes “Chewing Gum” had been, but on what it did for her. The series’ success boosted her star, and its painful moments taught her what to avoid. Coel went on to write all 12 episodes of “I May Destroy You” — on which she is an executive producer — and co-directed nine of them. The show contains clear parallels to her own life; like her protagonist, writer Arabella Essiedu, Coel had taken a break from working overnight to meet a deadline when she was drugged and assaulted.
“I really enjoyed ‘Chewing Gum.’ I loved it. When we finished, I wept like a baby,” she says. “But for me, when we create television, we’re making a story, and we serve that story first and foremost. Nothing comes before the tale that we tell. So I understand that, in order to tell the story, I have to be strong.”
For Coel, believing in her creative worth required her to find the strength to turn down $1 million. She made headlines earlier this month after telling Vulture that she stepped away from a lucrative Netflix deal while pitching “I May Destroy You” because the company refused to grant her any percentage of the rights. She clarifies that this wasn’t an immediate reaction. She had already celebrated with friends and enlisted a lawyer to draw up contracts when she took a moment to reevaluate.
Ultimately, it was Coel’s pursuit of calm, of that stability, that stopped her from following through. She had just wrapped her role as a legal investigator on Hugo Blick’s series “Black Earth Rising,” and the character’s persistent curiosity rubbed off on her. A discomfort with the lack of transparency surrounding the Netflix deal rattled around in Coel’s brain. She began to ask questions they couldn’t seem to answer.
“If there’s a little voice in your head, you should investigate it,” she says. “It led me to the BBC and HBO, and I’ve had a really good time. I think I gained a belief in myself because they believed in me and they trusted me. It really took a long time for me to adjust to being trusted.”
Coel describes “I May Destroy You” as a series about consent, but not in the legal sense.
“That didn’t interest me at all, and I think it’s because I am aware that cases very rarely end in justice,” she says. “The victim, or the survivor, is left open … How do they find their own closure? What is that difficult journey, when they lose their sense of awareness and perception of themselves in the world?”
While Arabella’s assault is central to the story, her two best friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), grapple with nonconsensual encounters as well. Coel approached the series as a way to work through trauma, setting out with little intention other than to explore how the characters manage to “navigate their lives with the issues of consent and sexual assault plaguing them.”
The tables turn later on in the season, when Arabella comes to suspect one of her friends of wrongdoing. She shuts down, unable to stray from a binary perspective. Everything becomes flattened and polarized, Coel says. Arabella has erased the idea that, as humans, our actions can be fluid.
Coel made drastic rewrites to that episode until she no longer could. At the beginning, she says, it seemed enough for Arabella to recognize that her friend could do both good and bad things, that someone she loves could be both a hero and a villain. “Then,” Coel continues, “I thought, no, love, it’s too easy. Arabella has to see that it’s her who has that capacity. We have to see it in Arabella to actually get it.”
In trying to better understand herself, Coel strives to empathize more with those around her. She credits much of what she knows about being a showrunner to Blick, whom she observed on “Black Earth Rising.” Six months into that shoot, she says, she never witnessed him shouting or seeming stressed. Even on “Chewing Gum,” her primary concern was to serve the story, and to maintain calm on set so she could present herself as someone others could approach if they had concerns about that effort.
“Some people, it’s hard for them to share, so you have to try to pay attention and spot it when someone is a little bit uncomfortable,” Coel adds. “However, I also do understand that no shoot is ever perfect. All you can do is try. Try to have empathy every day. And that’s what I would do.”
Nowadays, Coel surrounds herself with people who would treat her similarly. She left her representatives at Creative Artists Agency after they pushed for her to take the Netflix deal, which she discovered would have earned them back-end money. Those weren’t the first agents she has ditched, either. Asked what she looks for in a team, Coel responds, “Ethics, ethics, ethics.” Financial growth isn’t a bad goal to have, she says, but it isn’t hers at all: “If you are into storytelling and ethics and always trying to be mindful about how we navigate our industry, and our morals and what kind of people we want to be, that’s what I like.”
Working with HBO and the BBC, Coel retained a sense of control over her creative process. The early drafts of “I May Destroy You” streamed out of her consciousness; the right sentiments were there, she says, if a bit clouded. Given the baggage she carried from her past work in television, she was almost startled by the producers’ delicate approach to feedback. They didn’t dictate to her, instead only pointing to what they didn’t understand. She’d head back to the mountains, regroup and return with something clearer.
Finally, Coel didn’t have to fight to be heard.
“And it gave me confidence,” she says. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”