For the first few episodes of I May Destroy, Paapa Essiedu’s Kwame acts the part of a confident and supportive best friend. He’s there for Arabella (Michaela Coel), alongside her other close friend, Terry (Weruche Opia), as she starts to process her traumatic drugging and rape,. But in the HBO show’s fourth episode, after Kwame heads off on a hookup with a man he’s met after teaching an exercise class, he suddenly has to process trauma of his own: They meet at the apartment of a third man, who ends up holding Kwame down and raping him.
Kwame doesn’t fully process his experience as assault until the fifth episode, Monday night’s “… It Just Came Up”, but where Arabella was taken seriously by police, he is met with a stunningly indifferent skepticism. “The reality is that he is painfully underserved,” Essiedu says. Vulture caught up with the English actor over the phone to hear about how he approached playing (and recovering from) Kwame’s trauma and how his long friendship with Coel goes all the way back to drama school — though he promises that “there’s no nepotism in your favor from being friends with Michaela Coel!”
How’s your lockdown life in London going?
Fucking mad! Mad in good ways, mad in terrible ways, but consistently fucking insane and unbelievable and a lot.
In the fifth episode, Kwame comes to terms with the fact that he was assaulted. What was it like to play that realization?
It’s happening in real time for Kwame. From the moment of what happens to him in episode four, he’s knocked off his center point. Because in the first four episodes, you see a version of him that’s actually very grounded and centered and assured. From that point onwards, he loses that. He’s trying to figure out what’s happened to him, and what his response should be, and even trying to put a name to the act. There’s something about seeing Arabella in front of the police and how they’ve dealt with it and what it seems to have unlocked for her. He feels like that might be something that’s useful for him as well. He also feels a responsibility to do it. There’s a moment where they say, “If everyone did this, then there wouldn’t be any of these guys on street.” But the reality is that he is painfully underserved.
It’s painful to watch. He goes to the police wanting to be affirmed, but then is just belittled in a lot of ways that express the way gay Black men’s cases are just not taken seriously.
One hundred percent. It’s mad that what we’re seeing in this show doesn’t fit the mainstream portrayal of that situation. We’re not used to seeing it. We’re not used to reading about it in any of the media that we consume. It’s no wonder that certain structures are not made to support such things.
Michaela has talked about how her personal experience inspired Arabella’s assault on the show. How did you approach playing Kwame’s?
I spoke to people I knew that had similar experiences to what he goes through. But the main thing that attracted me to Kwame was the sheer vividness of his humanity. He’s such a three-dimensional, real, authentic character, which is a real treat for an actor. We have to remember the construct of his identity, and his particular masculinity as a Black man, is to set the agenda with his confidence. When he meets the date, he’s like, “This is what we’re gonna do, this is where you’re gonna meet me, I’m gonna make you feel this way.” That’s part of who he is. So when an act happens to him which really takes that away from him, his recovery — or at least the first steps of his recovery — is about trying to reclaim that, often at the detriment of actually looking himself in the face.
What was it like to film Kwame’s assault? I know you all worked with an intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, who also worked on Normal People. The scene has to make really clear the distinctions between what starts as consensual and what becomes very clearly an assault.
It was obviously intense but also kind of hilarious. Ita O’Brien’s hilarious and hands on. She’s really into using animals as examples. She’ll be showing you an example of a bonobo having sex or a video of cats or dogs having sex and will be like, “In this part of the scene, you’re a bonobo, and then in this part, you’re a horse.” It’s one of those moments where you take a step out of your consciousness and go, “Wow, is this really a job?”
Even so, does it stay with you, having to act out a traumatic experience?
Obviously, we had safeguards put in place, there’s always a mental-health professional on set, and all that. But I’ve had to come up with my own structures to allow those things to be let go. I’ve done a lot of plays that have gone to certain places. I do a lot of self-care in its various forms, from meditation and yoga to having a pint in a pub after a shoot. It’s about making sure there’s a separation between reality and fiction.
You and Michaela Coel both went to Guildhall for drama school. You did a final-year project together, right?
Yeah, we did this final-year showcase, which is your introduction to all the professional agents. A lot of the work we’d done was made for white audiences by white authors that we had to do a lot of weird mental gymnastics to get ourselves in the right frame of mind to do. We wanted to do something that represented us and characters that spoke in our voices. So Michaela wrote a sick scene for the two of us. I actually ended up getting my agent from that, so I owe Michaela a whole lot!
What was the scene?
All I remember is that we would throw this basketball to each other, and there was one line where she threw it and I nearly missed it and it nearly went into the front row of the audience and hit one director. I nearly was blacklisted before I even started.
What was it like to audition for I May Destroy You? Did Michaela tell you about Kwame as she was writing the script, or did you have to audition?
She wasn’t the one who had the idea of giving me the part! I would be chatting with her about this series as she was writing it, because she was writing it over a long period of time, and never once was I ever like, “Do you think I could be right for this?” And never once did she ever offer it to me. It was the casting director that suggested to her, “Maybe you would want to think about Paapa.” She was like, “Really?” I ended up auditioning a couple of times and getting the part. But there’s no nepotism in your favor from being friends with Michaela Coel! I think it actually makes it harder for you to get the job.
Did Kwame change much once you got the part?
I had ideas about what I thought the character was, and [Michaela] had ideas that had come when she was writing it, and we settled on something between the two. I’m really interested in what a character doesn’t say, and how you can communicate through silence. Before, he was way more larger than life and flamboyant. I wanted to explore what he’s like in the moments of quiet, and how powerful those moments can be, in terms of communicating feeling and emotion and frustration.
In so many of your scenes, Kwame is silently reacting to things or scrolling through his phone.
When you get a script, so often you just look through to see where your lines are, and you think that tells you about the size of your character, or what your performance is going to be like. But the more work I do, a lot of the intense screen actors I love — like Pacino, or De Niro, or Washington, or even Daniel Kaluuya — it’s those moments of reaction or pondering that suddenly draw you into what that character is thinking or feeling.
On a less serious note, Kwame talks about being on Grindr, but the app he’s using on the show isn’t Grindr. It’s interface is all pink! Is there a reason why it’s this generic hookup app?
You need to talk to someone in production about that, because honestly, when we were doing it, it was even more generic than what we see in the show, so it left a lot to the imagination.
I have to ask about Kwame’s fashion. He’s got all these beanies and this great fuzzy zip-up jacket. How did you approach dressing him?
That speaks to the Kwame that we see, especially in the first few episodes. He’s someone who is so confident and comfortable. What he wears is a part of him, a part of his sex appeal and youth, and a part of him being Black and from London. I wanted him to wear things that sat with that. We were looking at a mood board of different images, and there was this image of a guy in Brooklyn crossing the street and wearing this sheepskin jacket and a cropped trouser, and it was like, “That’s Kwame.” There was an effortlessness to his buoyancy, and that’s what we were looking for.
In the U.S., we’re, rudely, getting new episodes of I May Destroy You at half the speed that they’re coming out in the U.K.
Well, that’s good! That means you can take it one small bite by bite. I just hope that people stick with it. For you guys, that’s a long time. Three goddamn months! Who knows what’s gonna happen?
Are there any London-specific details embedded in the show that us Americans might miss?
Episode six has a flashback to the characters being at school, and a lot of the music really speaks to me because it was the music I was listening to in 2004 or whatever it is. It’s very London, so I wonder if that might go over certain people’s heads. But if you don’t know about “Babycakes,” you need to get to that, because this is classic vintage music that you’re being served up.
You’ve done a lot of stage work: You starred in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, and you were in the play Pass Over when it shut down in March because of the coronavirus. What was it like for things to grind to a halt like that?
We were in the middle of the run, and then it felt like the right time to shut down the show, because maybe the week afterwards, all of us ended up getting it. It wasn’t safe for us working. It was also weird because that’s a play about racism and police brutality, and it was written in response to what happened to Trayvon Martin, and even now, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, that play has taken on a different significance. It feels like it would be weird to be doing that same production in the current climate. It’s insane how much can change such a short period of time.
In Hollywood and on Broadway, there’ve been a lot of immediate reckonings about systemic racism in the movie, TV, and theater worlds. Have you been involved in similar conversations in London?
The initial kind of provocations towards that are being made internationally and in London. But it’s important that this is a movement, not a moment, and that we’re not just speaking in response to one thing that has happened. He’s one of many, many people that have been brutalized. Our response is going to dictate our legacies. Do we want to be seen as the generation that, just for a second, thought about doing something and then turned a blind eye? Or do we want to be a generation that shaped our society so that our kids, and kids’ kids, can live in an egalitarian and appreciative way?