Michaela Coel is napping in the car when I arrive to our interview, but she is immediately and irrepressibly ready to go when we sit down to talk. She’s in New York doing press for Black Earth Rising, Hugo Blick’s limited series that premiered on BBC Two last year and is now available in the U.S. on Netflix. After beginning her career as a poet, Coel made her name in 2015 with the fantastic, elastic comedy series Chewing Gum, a TV adaptation of her one-woman show. From there, she’s continually expanded her breadth, doing a rom-com musical (Been So Long), written by her mentor Ché Walker, and heightened science fiction (Black Mirror). Black Earth Rising is another turn — all prestige drama, with slowly panning shots and deep reservoirs of historical trauma.
Coel has a near-religious intensity when she speaks — striking, in part, because what she tells me over the next hour is how she has lost a sense of certainty in her life. Doing Black Earth Rising was a watershed moment, rearranging her perspective on the world. Coel plays Kate Ashby, an adoptee who was rescued during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s and raised by a prominent human-rights attorney in Britain. As a war-crimes tribunal against a Hutu leader unravels, so does her personal life. The messiness of historical responsibility, legacies of colonialism, and the watery lines between right and wrong, friend and enemy, was something she took to heart.
“[Kate] thinks she’s one thing, and she has to change the narrative and learn a new way of empathy,” Coel says, as tears stream down her face. “I’ve had to learn a new way of empathy, and I don’t know if everybody is into that.”
What does she mean by that, exactly? Coel has a hazy way of speaking about politically charged issues; she’s reluctant to assign blame or point fingers. Still, she’s game to talk about anything, including all the ways her internal compass on politics and justice have evolved, Brexit, Twitter (and how the two have collided in her mentions), advocating for more equitable pay for writers at Channel 4, sex, racial fetishes, and why she won’t do a third season of Chewing Gum.
My understanding is that you auditioned for Black Earth Rising. Many actors of your stature might only consider “offer only” roles, and I wondered if you felt that you had something to prove?
Yes. I had to audition for that job. Three times. I have been offered one TV job — the second character I played in Black Mirror — and one theater job. I’m not in that “offer” arena. I know your IMDb gets to a point where you just receive offers. That is not where I am, and I don’t know if it’s where I want to be. The audition process is hard, but it’s a bit like the difference between walking home and getting an Uber home. You get an Uber, you don’t even really register getting out of the car and going into a house, but when you walk and if you don’t have your Google Maps on, you are literally trying to find your way home, and it takes you 45 minutes. You feel this amazing sense of, Wow! I’m home. It feels great. That’s auditioning. When you’re just offered, it’s just like, Oh, so what jobs have I been offered today? Let me have a look in my office. I feel like that euphoria and terror and fear goes away. I do like uncertainty, because life is uncertain.
Even after I got [Black Earth Rising] I kept saying to the director, “Are you sure?” In fact, I was offered Been So Long, the musical, and they hadn’t auditioned me as a singer, and I said, “You have to audition me as a singer.” They said, “No, no. We don’t need to.” I said, “You have to.” It’s like, “Guys, don’t get gassed. Calm down. I may not deliver.” I made them audition me.
Black Earth Rising is about how personal trauma and historical trauma intertwine. Did it in any way help you process trauma yourself?
I’m getting a bit teary just thinking about it. [Voice breaks.] It did. It took me like a year-and-a-half after we filmed to realize how much I’d learned from playing this woman. I’m very much like her in a lot of ways in that I sometimes am not aware of my own trauma, so [I focus on] a wider thing: race, politics, war, TV, subconscious bias, prejudice, colorism, and kind of, We’ve got to sort this out! We’ve got to! It’s a way of not looking at you, maybe because you’re not aware.
There’s some disconnect I went through where I was literally looking for enemies, looking for who is to blame for all of this shit. Looking, looking, looking. Calling, calling, calling. Going at war, going at war. It sounds really strange, and it sounds like I’m not making sense. But in looking for my enemies I became surprised to find a mirror, and I saw myself. I realized you can chase people for doing bad things, but while you do that, you have to realize there’s probably someone running after you. You are not just a victim. I had to learn this. Once I found the ignorance and complicity in myself, the thoughtlessness that I have, I began to see other people that I saw as thoughtless or [blamed] for things, I saw the common threat. I’ve had to see things through two lenses at the same time and go, There’s good and bad in everything and everyone. I hope that makes sense.
Could you give me an example?
Yes. For example, I gave something called the MacTaggart Lecture. I decided to reach out to a lot of new writers and say, “Send me your first contracts.” I don’t wanna get Channel 4 in trouble … There were things like regulations put in place that no writer could be paid anything under this. Then when you saw the contracts you see, “I didn’t know that was regulation. I was paid under that. So were you?” They weren’t. I want to be clear, but I also don’t want to attack. I have no issue with cash, but what I do have an issue with is, it looks like sometimes there seems to be some pay discrepancy between people who are darker or working class and people who are perhaps middle class, male, Anglo-Saxon.
You can see there’s a little pattern, and I don’t know if that pattern really means anything, but then to call the people that I saw as responsible, call the heads of department, call the people who run the finance — you imagine these people as monsters, people that are intentionally doing something. Then you face them and you just see a thoughtless little person who doesn’t know what’s going on, and they’re flustering around, and then they start talking about all the other things they had to do. They’re going through stress and you go, Oh God! You’re not even intentionally fucking shit up. You’re just not thinking.
And I, sometimes, don’t think. What do I do now? I throw you off a cliff because you didn’t think? As if I’m always thinking. I had to have a little bit of empathy, which has changed the way I navigate my life. I’ve realized that everybody has different life experiences, and we all end up with different perspectives. My perspective isn’t better than anybody else’s, it’s just another perspective. If I try to suggest my perspective as better, I’m wrong because it’s just mine. Knowing that, it makes it hard to really talk about things because everybody is doing what they have to do.
One of the concerns people could have is that there’s a both-sides-ism to this.
It’s a problem, because there are two sides?
Right, because those two sides aren’t equal.
What are the two sides?
Well, if we’re talking about systemic racism …
Yes, the two sides aren’t equal, so we should try to make the two sides equal? I learned I cannot draw conclusions for the other side. I can just show them what I can see. For example, I can’t call up those people and go, “Systemic racism.” They switch off, because it’s an attack. But if you go, “Oh, look at the payments here. What do you think?” If my aim is to try to bring us a bit closer to a form of justice, I have learned that I can’t draw conclusions for the people who are responsible for injustice. It doesn’t work. It’s seen as an attack. I’m not just trying to shout at people; I want the next writers to have some equal pay. That might feel good to call up and say, “You’re racist,” or, “This is systematic racism.” But how does that bring equal pay?
It sounds like what you’re talking about is how to be more strategic, and how to be more effective. Did these conversations result in more equitable pay?
Definitely resulted in more opportunities. I know so many writers, and it did resolve in more equitable pay. Some writers say, “We use your lecture as receipts.” They’re execs and they’re new writers. I don’t know if it’s resulted in pay equality. I would have to see contracts; I would have to have that kind of power to even work. I don’t have any power in this industry. It seems to have been more effective than when I would attack, which I used to do a lot.
I feel like I understand your Theresa May tweet a little bit better, where you wrote, “I did not vote for Theresa May, but that chick is handling her shit right now in house of commons like a QUEEEEN.” Did you feel like the reaction was misunderstood?
How was it understood?
Well, you deleted it.
I’ve deleted all my tweets because I realized I was having dialogue and going, Oh, literally we are coming from two different perspectives and we can’t agree. I don’t mind that. I’ve learned on Twitter, just don’t talk anymore. Don’t write anything, Michaela. Don’t write any tweets. Just, “Hey, this is happening. Here’s the show coming out.” Be that person. I’ve never voted Conservative in my life. I’ve never said anything nice about Theresa May. I learned don’t ever say anything nice. Don’t ever try to understand people who have a different perspective publicly. Never do it.
How then do you view pro-Brexiters who voted to leave? I assume you’re not …
I’m all for remain.
I grew up in London. I’ve grown up in Europe. The last time I was attacked for being black was only four years ago, 2015 in Bulgaria, walking around carrying groceries home. Being chased down the street with stones thrown in my path. Do you think Brexit surprises me? That people want to do things like leave? No. This is where I live. I understand where I’m from. It’s very hard to have a black community in the U.K. There’s 3 percent of black people in the U.K. There’s not enough of us. I’ve been in British Anglo-Saxon spaces since I was born, and, no, they haven’t always been fun. They’ve been very, very, very hard. When you are in the hardness, you have to try to see something good or you’ll kill yourself. How many times can your face be rubbed in the mud because you’re a nigger? It’s where you belong and you just go, Why would you stay alive? You have to keep looking and go, “Okay, you hate me. You want me to go. Why? I see fear. You’re afraid of me.” Once you see someone is scared, it really does something to your perspective of the person hurting you. What do you do when people are afraid, and they don’t even know they’re afraid?
All I know is, I saw Theresa May, and they were laughing and scoffing. They were just men laughing, scoffing, telling her, “You are humiliated.” If people were doing that to me, I don’t know how well I’d manage. I’m like, Let me just pretend for a second that I’m in this really posh-ass building and people are laughing and scoffing at me while I tried to explain a point. Whether the point is wrong or right, whether the person is a queen or a pauper. If you imagine being that person, how would I handle that? I don’t know.
Was there a specific moment when you had this realization?
It was through this bloody show, I’m telling you. Looking at the genocide, the fearmongering, the propaganda, you realize fear is at the heart. Why do we protect things? Why do we lie? Why do people in places of privilege keep these secrets? To avoid sharing things because they’re scared of losing things; they’re scared of losing legacies. It doesn’t make these people innocent. It doesn’t make these people not incredibly destructive in the damage that they can do to the world, but you just have to go, I don’t know if anybody’s born evil.
Do you think there should be a second referendum?
I don’t know. I think everything is very interesting. I’m really intrigued to see what the outcome would be, and I think it would be really more of the same embarrassment this country is facing if we have the same results again. I’m like, “So what’s it gonna be now? It’s gonna be 48 percent leaving? Is it going to be that big a difference, guys?” Once again, it goes back to perspectives. I know my vote wouldn’t change. Would anybody’s vote change? Would anybody go, “I admit I was ignorant”?
Did you feel ready for the sudden acclaim that came with the first season of Chewing Gum? How did you handle that level of attention?
It came in waves because it was Channel 4 first, and the show was received very well, but by a very small group of people. I think it was a maximum of 500,000 views. I was so proud. It felt like a cult classic. It’s strange; you’re an actor and a writer, so there’s a part of you that likes being onstage and telling stories, and there’s a part of you that much prefers to be in the middle of nowhere in a cabin by yourself for a month with no contact with the outside world. You don’t quite know how to respond to the level of exposure, but you do know that that’s what you wanted. You wanted everybody to see it, and they did and they loved it, and that’s amazing. It can overwhelm because it doesn’t feel natural. So many people know you.
I used to go out — I didn’t brush my teeth; I wouldn’t shower. I would be able to sit on the street. I remember once I had an eye infection, and I went to the emergency doctor in Shoreditch. It was like 9 at night, and I really just sat on the bench, and somebody threw me change. I just looked like a very invisible spectator of the world. I was able to really do those things and I loved that. I could go anywhere and not be noticed, and now that’s really gone. I can still get around, but I’m known for things that I consider nice things. Things to be proud of. But look, I’m fine. I’m not Beyoncé. It’s not a problem. I can leave my house. I don’t need security.
Something that resonated with me about Chewing Gum was that it was a show about a woman, Tracey, who gets to explore her sexuality, which is something that can be foreclosed to a lot of people. I liked how weird and painful and funny and gross that journey was for her. Could you talk about how the character first emerged out of that sense of repression?
We lived quite sexually repressed childhoods in teenage years. Even in secondary school among me and my black friends, it was not cool to do sexual things. It was like, “Somebody let some guy suck her tits.” That’s like you disrespect the person. We’re going to get those opinions from our culture, [and] even from people who aren’t religious. There’s no dialogue about sex. In my house, it was never mentioned — it’s biology; it’s unavoidable. I wonder if knew more about sex I would’ve made fewer mistakes.
For example, there are a lot of girls, they talk about sex, and they say things like they love real big dicks. I mean huge ones. I’m always like, “That’s really intense for me.” And I always ask, “Have you orgasmed while having sex?” And they go, “Oh, no.” They like big dicks and tricks. All these positions, positions, positions, positions, positions. Like, sex is so simple. You don’t have to be tricky, and you can tell they haven’t been allowed to get their orgasm while they’re having sex. It’s almost like a pretend, where [they] are not pursuing pleasure in the sex. It’s the man who is pursuing the pleasure in the sex, and the man thinks you want this version of events, which is tricks and tricks, and they pretend that they like it. I don’t think we really think sex is pleasurable for us, too, as women.
I was lucky enough to have a relationship where I was allowed to figure things out. This goes beyond heterosexual relationships. It’s this habit of going, You have to please; you do not say what you want; you let the other person do their thing. One person takes dominance, and the other person doesn’t get much after that. I don’t like that because it’s not fun for both parties. It’s not equal. Not that domination is bad. If both parties like it, great. But putting Tracey there and maybe not putting her in a sexual energy that we always see, I think it freaked people out, and it relieved some people. But it did freak people out. People didn’t want to see that. I’m [prouder] of doing that than I am of many other things I’ve already done. It’s freeing.
Could you talk about writing the character Ash (played by Jonathan Bailey) on the second season of Chewing Gum, who has an African fetish?
I had a period before Chewing Gum went to Netflix. I said, this is my last chance to really just be out there having sex with strangers. Once it’s on Netflix, it’s done for me; it’s over. So I’m gonna live this period; I’m gonna do it. That’s when I encountered Ashes. People who have only had sex with a particular kind of person or never had sex with a particular kind of person.
Sexual energy is an energy. It doesn’t have a color or a face, and some people only see what you look like. It was easy to write Ash because there are so many of them. I’ve experienced it and many other people have.
Was he a composite of experiences?
Oh, yes. Also, just not real. The dressing up, that’s not real. It’s an exaggerated version of trying to please someone who you know is fetishizing you. Some guys love long weaves and contact lenses and eyelashes and big lipstick and all this kind of stuff. I’ve had situations where a guy’s been running his fingers through my wig, and I’ve said, “This is a weave,” and they’re like, “Oh, no. I know.” They just wanna run their fingers through it. I’ve had guys that are like, “No, I love you natural.” For me, this is all a form of fetishizing me. I wanna do what I wanna do. It’s a very exaggerated telling of something true.
Do you feel like you can get to a truth through exaggeration?
Yes, if you see it. Many people don’t see it. Underneath every comedy is a tragedy, but some people don’t see the tragedy, and I assumed that more people would see the tragedy than they did. It’s very funny, yes, but there is a lot of social-political references happening all the time in the show, and some people don’t see that. This happens with a lot of artists.
My communication skills are really something I’m working on show by show, interview by interview. People see season two as darker. Maybe it is darker, because maybe my communication wasn’t quite effective in season one. People laughed, but they didn’t see everything. I’m realizing maybe that exaggerating and being absurd, it works, but it doesn’t work for everybody watching. It doesn’t quite get to everybody.
Do you feel like you’ve made it?
I’ve always felt like I’ve made it even when I was a poet who was cleaning in banks. I was a poet cleaning in the food court. I saw myself as very successful, to be honest with you. I’m just finding ways to tell stories and ways that I want to connect. We’re trying to make things en route, so there’s no destination.
You don’t know your future, so I try to just stay in this moment, which doesn’t have a conclusion. I’m making things. I’m trying to write. My friends say I don’t enjoy things enough. Maybe it’s to do with being the child of an immigrant.
Nothing is taken for granted.
Nothing is taken for granted because the floor underneath your feet, any second it can go. You have to just keep pedaling.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a show for BBC Two. It’s 12 episodes. I’ve done all of them though. It’s about sexual consent, but it’s about trauma and grief and the seven stages of grief, and how we get to the final stage.
Would you do a third season of Chewing Gum?
No. It’s so strange, I kind of relish in this news. It’s like I love giving this bad news. I love telling people it’s over. The party is over. I don’t know why I love it so much because it’s not real, but look you’re still alive, right? It’s like, I get messages from people, they say the wanna kill themselves. “I’m gonna kill myself if you don’t do another season.” You’re still here though, right? Look at that.
Would you do it for Netflix?
No. Listen, I had a message from someone saying, “I hope you don’t mind, I’ve done a season three.” I’m like, “Good. Do it.” I’m not doing another season. Anybody else can do it. Please, anybody. I’m just not doing it. That’s all. Everybody has permission. I’m just not. For real. [Giggles.]