Chemistry between actors is a special thing: It can make audiences believe that the characters they’re playing have fallen madly in love, or that they’ve known each other their whole lives. The opposite is true when co-stars lack chemistry. The sparks never fly, their dialogue doesn’t snap together, and their body language can’t hide their discomfort. Fortunately for anybody watching I May Destroy You, the chemistry between Michaela Coel and Weruche Opia is spectacular. In the HBO show, they play Arabella and Terry, best friends who share hugs and handholds and stand by each other through their highs and lows. It’s a bond, Opia says, that was there from the very first moment she and Coel read a scene together.
In the series’ third episode, “Don’t Forget the Sea,” the story takes a detour from Arabella’s investigation of her own assault to a happier time three months earlier, when she and Terry reunite in Italy for a bit of fun and luxury. It’s the first time Terry and Arabella feel unburdened by any pressing deadlines or auditions. Their affectionate friendship is a delight to follow, but when Terry faces her own issues, she keeps it from Arabella, briefly interrupting their easygoing rapport. Vulture spoke with Opia about the episode, working with Coel, and relating to her character.
Terry has become such an essential part of I May Destroy You in just the first few episodes. How did you become involved with the show?
My agent rings and says, “I have an audition for you.” And I was like, “Okay.” She says, “It’s for Michaela Coel’s new project,” and then I was like, “Oh, okay!” I had three rounds of auditions. The third audition was when I was in a room with Michaela, the casting director, Julie Harkin, and [director] Sam Miller. There was a chemistry that was there. I remember walking out of the audition feeling like I’d just been on the best date ever. A few months down the line, I got the call that I’ve been offered the role.
What was your first impression of Terry?
I found her relatable. I’d always wanted to play an actor, so this was my first chance. I could relate to her being a young woman in London, an actor trying to get her career off the ground, battling with self-doubt and all the other things that come with being in the creative industry.
Did your impression of her change as the series goes on?
I did struggle with her a little bit. I did have a chat with Michaela about what happens, what roles they have to play, and whether Terry was a good friend or not. Michaela pointed out that nobody was actually a villain in the story, and it helped me to understand the character. Everyone, at the end of the day, does what they feel is right at that moment. Whether whatever you choose is right is a different case. People make decisions, and you deal with the fallout after and come back from it.
Did you workshop your character with Michaela or develop her further from what was in the script?
We had a few rehearsal days, but Michaela was very collaborative, in the sense that she trusted that I knew what I was doing with Terry. She was always there to ask questions or bounce things off. So she put the character together on paper, but I guess I was able to tap into her and make her come to life.
Is that collaborative process usually how Michaela Coel works?
It’s very collaborative. Also, I like the fact that she knows what she likes. She’s always going to do what is best for the character or for the story. There was never any ego or anything like that. It was always, “What is the best way forward, and what tells the story best?”
In “Don’t Forget the Sea,” we get to see a lot more of Terry and Arabella together. How did you and Michaela work out those little personal moments?
It was strangely effortless. We were fake friends to start off with, but we did become real friends. It’s very strange. There was no practice. We just instinctively did what we did, and it was very fun. We had that chemistry, which I’m glad comes out. A lot of people would ask how long Michaela and I have known each other, and we only really properly met on the set, which was quite remarkable.
Arabella’s career is hitting its stride, whereas Terry is still trying to audition and get to that next level. There’s an unspoken unbalance between them, but they still relate to each other very closely. Did you ever talk about that with Michaela?
No, we never really spoke about it. It was just all instinctive. I personally would always want to support my friends, regardless of what stage they are in in life. And there are perks of having a best friend who travels. The characters are always saying, “My birth is your birth; my death is your death.” I think that’s where the characters show that they’re together in the trenches, whatever they go through in life, which is reflective of a lot of friendships. I can definitely see myself and my best friends were like that.
In that same episode, there’s a shift over to Terry’s side of the story, when she gets involved in a threesome. What was your first impression when you read that script?
Oh my gosh, it happens! It was interesting to see that. For me, the issue of consent really stood out for the character, in the sense that she was consenting to this threesome, but she wasn’t aware that the guys knew each other. It was quite a delicate situation trying to define whether she gave her consent or whether the consent was stolen from her from those guys.
I May Destroy You has explored other gray areas of consent, with Arabella’s sexual assault as the most extreme example. Are you hoping the show will spark conversations around this issue?
Yeah, the gray areas are where the majority of the discussions are [about] people trying to ascertain what was right and what was wrong, who was in control and who wasn’t. I’m hoping that there can be clear-cut responses to that.
Since the show focuses on issues around consent, what was it like preparing for intimate scenes on set? Were there intimacy coordinators involved?
I prefer not to act out sexual scenes, so I had a body double in that scene — a very great body double, because some people think it was me. So I certainly didn’t act out any of that, but there was an intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, and she was really great. It was a very respectful environment. Only the people involved were there. Though I wasn’t allowed in the room at that time, I did get to know what was going on. I was told what was going to go on, as it was my character who was going to be portrayed. It was a very comfortable and safe space.
After Terry realizes the two men lied to her, Arabella knocks on her door but Terry doesn’t tell her what really happened. Do you have a theory about why she hid that from her best friend?
At that moment, it was still part of her confusion trying to process what just happened. Maybe if she didn’t see those guys walking off, she might have been more excited to come forth. I guess she also knows that Arabella can be quite out there. I actually don’t know. I do think she decided she was in charge of it.