Michaela Coel On 'Misfits' And 'I May Destroy You' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Writer and actor Michaela Coel wrote, created and starred in HBO series I May Destroy You, which is up for nine Emmy nominations. Her new book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto, is out this week. She talks to Sam about why she champions misfits like herself, I May Destroy You's basis on her trauma, and how her spirituality has shifted over time.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

Michaela Coel Is A 'Misfit.' She Wants To Help Other Misfits, Too

Michaela Coel Is A 'Misfit.' She Wants To Help Other Misfits, Too

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Writer and actor Michaela Coel's first book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto is out this week. Laura McClusky hide caption

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Laura McClusky

Writer and actor Michaela Coel's first book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto is out this week.

Laura McClusky

Michaela Coel says she first realized she was a misfit as a child living in government housing in a wealthy area of East London.

"A misfit is someone who either feels ostracized by society because they don't fit into whatever ideals the society has established as 'normal' ... " she says. "But also a misfit is someone who simply looks around the world and sees it in a way that's different."

She translated her experience into the Channel 4 show Chewing Gum, a BAFTA-winning comedy about a sweetly unhinged young woman on a mission to lose her virginity. Her next show, HBO's I May Destroy You, is up for nine Emmys this year. It draws loosely from her own experience of sexual assault and was hailed by audiences and critics for its nuanced portrayal of trauma.

Coel's latest project is her debut book, called Misfits: A Personal Manifesto. She says she wrote it to champion misfits like herself, and to describe how the world falls short in doing the same.

A manifesto in the making

Misfits was born out of Coel's 2018 MacTaggart Lecture, a high-profile address given yearly by a keynote speaker at the Edinburgh Television Festival. Past speakers have included media magnates like Rupert Murdoch and a slate of media company executives from companies like BBC, Google and Vice.

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"I was trying to understand why I had been asked to give the lecture ... [They've] never had a Black person or a person of color give this lecture, I'm the only person under 30. What is it that I am supposed to say that makes this make sense?"

The result was an indictment of how the TV industry seeks the unique perspectives of misfits, but doesn't give them the tools they need to succeed. Coel says this can range from not caring about a creative's mental health, not paying them fairly, and not providing tangible training and support to meet their deadlines.

"You've brought these people here, but you're not showing them how you do it ... The only way I can think of helping [to] dissolve this is by talking about it and publishing things like the MacTaggart lecture to try and rinse the nonsense away," she says.

The stress of climbing the ladder

In Misfits, Coel writes that she and other creatives often seem to climb an endless ladder in search of safety and success, never quite reaching the top.

"We're climbing this ladder, maybe to prove ourselves to the mainstream world, to earn respect, to be palatable and accepted in the eyes of wider society. But that ladder and that race is not necessarily necessary, really," she says. "Nonetheless, we climb it."

Though her own definition of success has changed, Coel still sees friends and colleagues getting stuck on the climb.

"I often hear from my friends who are creatives, very successful creatives. Nothing is ever enough. Nothing will ever be enough ... We're waiting for someone to tell us, no, you've done a great job, you've done enough. But that will never come," she says. "And so we keep climbing higher and higher and the ladder gets more and more wobbly."

The journey from pain to power

Coel says that even though I May Destroy You is based on her own traumatic experience, the show gave her enough distance from it to celebrate her achievements. She says she thinks it's fantastic that the show is up for so many awards this year.

"To actually experience something that began as my pain, the shock of discovering I was spiked, I was raped, of being in the police station ... The show sort of separated my pain from the fictional version of what we created," she says. "And that is what is being nominated for nine Emmys, it isn't really my pain and my trauma and my survival. So it means that it's a very celebratory situation."

Coel says that the release of the show has felt restorative for her.

"Sharing that much pain was quite healing," she says. "I've been so listened to and so cared for that I'm at peace ... [It] was a really useful way of discovering something new about the journey from pain to — sounds so cliché — power. Can I say that, pain to power? Pain to power!"

This episode was produced by Andrea Gutierrez. Liam McBain adapted this interview for web. Audio was edited by Jordana Hochman and Steve Nelson. Beth Novey provided editing support for web. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.