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.

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

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Listeners, heads up. This conversation includes discussion of sexual assault. It might be uncomfortable for some listeners.


SANDERS: Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders, and my guest today is actress and writer Michaela Coel. Her most recent show is called "I May Destroy You." She wrote it. She stars in it. She co-directed it. And it's one of the best-reviewed shows of the last year. But for some time now, I have had a burning question about the first episode of that show.

I was playing this morning on my run, getting ready to talk to you, this song "It's Gonna Rain" by Reverend Milton Brunson. And I first heard this song in the premiere of "I May Destroy You." And it stuck with me because it's one of the - it was a song in one of the eeriest scenes I think I've ever seen in modern television.


MILTON BRUNSON AND THE THOMPSON COMMUNITY SINGERS: (Singing) Can't you see the clouds gathering?

SANDERS: The show starts out. Your character - her drink has been drugged in a bar, and she's stumbling through the bar, about to collapse, and then be whisked away by some really bad dudes. And you expect to hear some techno or some dance music or some loud club tracks, and you hear this gospel song.


MILTON BRUNSON AND THE THOMPSON COMMUNITY SINGERS: (Singing) There's a brand-new feeling in the air.

MICHAELA COEL: So I wrote. And as I wrote, that is the song that was written into the script. So it's a warning, and it's saying, come on in because it's going to rain. But also it sounds so - there's something joyful. And it's just totally...


COEL: ...Pulling against club life, isn't it? But at the same...


COEL: ...Time, this church song is so far away from the life Arabella is leading at that moment. And there's something about this girl that has strayed so far from home. And they're singing, come on in this house, it's going to rain. But she's so far from home. She's not going to make it. And she has...

SANDERS: She can't make it to the house.

COEL: No, she's never going to make it to the house. And she essentially has to build her own home and her own safety. And that is kind of what those 12 episodes are about.


MILTON BRUNSON AND THE THOMPSON COMMUNITY SINGERS: (Singing) Better run to the ark before the rain starts.

SANDERS: You aren't afraid to have work that is speaking to the sacred and the secular at the same time. And I think it opens up these added layers of meaning and interpretation that I just really enjoy. It's a lot to chew on.

COEL: Oh, mate.

SANDERS: So thank you for that.

COEL: I - thank you for saying so. And I think it's because I realized that, you know, for me, I left the church, and then I discovered that God was, like, on my shoulder, like, looking at me like, oh, bitch, you thought I was gone? That's kind of...


COEL: You know? It's like, no, I'm everywhere. Like, I told you I was everywhere you.


COEL: That's how it feels.

SANDERS: Yes. Yes.

COEL: And so it...

SANDERS: God is even in the club.

COEL: Everywhere. The house is God's. And the house - this huge Earth is the house. And I like straying and roaming around in darkness, knowing that, well, all of this is God's.


SANDERS: "I May Destroy You" has received nine Emmy nominations this year. And this show isn't even Michaela Coel's first acclaimed series. She also created and starred in the comedy "Chewing Gum." That show ran for two seasons and won her two BAFTA awards. And all the buzz around that show - that was why she was invited to give a talk to bigwigs in the TV industry in 2018.


COEL: As a creative, I'm going to do what I do best. I'm going to tell you a story. Maybe you can look for patterns.

SANDERS: The MacTaggart Lecture - this is the keynote of the Edinburgh TV Festival, this media event where people working in TV around the world meet and talk about the state of the industry. Only a handful of women have been invited to deliver this talk, and Michaela Coel - she was the first Black woman to ever do it. Like so many people who have been the first at something, Michaela had some things to say about her experiences in the TV industry as a self-described misfit.


COEL: Why are we platforming misfits, heralding them as newly rich successes whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility? I can't help usher them into this house if there's doors within it they can't open. It feels complicit. What I can do is be transparent about my experiences. Because transparency helps.


SANDERS: This lecture has become the basis of Michaela Coel's new book. The book is called "Misfits: A Personal Manifesto." In this chat, we talk about that book and all it says about representation, inclusion and challenging the status quo. We begin with that MacTaggart lecture and what it was like to get that invitation.

COEL: I was trying to understand why I had been asked to give the lecture. Because for me - although you say, you know, acclaim and BAFTAs, for me, given the - oh, you'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 makes sense? So that question...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COEL: Do you know what I mean? So I began to realize...


COEL: ...What is the purpose behind me giving this lecture. And I think what I arrived at - as in what I presented that day - was the reason. That was the reason. And I arrived at that lecture through a process which I kind of describe in the intro of the book.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. And so you end up with this lecture that not just calls out your industry and challenges them to do better, but it also has you reliving some trauma that you've experienced. And so my first thought when the lecture became this book that I just read over the weekend - I said, huh, I wonder how tough that is for her. Was it a hard thing to relive it in those stories and those emotions? And it seems like it was tough to get through then, in which case, why go back to that and make it a book? Was it tough?

COEL: So tough.


COEL: In fact, it was tough to write that intro. You know, even my initial - when the publishers approached me with the idea, and then I had a meeting with the script editor, Marianne - when she was just like, so what are you thinking? What are you thinking? And as I'm talking, it's like, I'm crying. And then we're both just on FaceTime crying. I think when you're so connected - you know, it's as if with my - with this particular traumatic experience, it's like I'm so present with it. And it's almost like it sits by me like an old dog - you know, an old dog that sort of sits by your ankles, that you care about so deeply.

SANDERS: I've got one right now, sitting right here...

COEL: Oh, there you go.

SANDERS: ...Right next to me.

COEL: You know, you know this dog so well. And you have such mastery over this dog because you're so connected with it. By the time this book meeting came up, that's kind of how this - you know, my whole...


COEL: ...Journey with being spiked and raped was. And so I'm always able to connect with it in this very visceral and really quite overwhelming way. And every time I do connect with it, something new occurs to me. And so that was kind of the intro for me, was a really useful way of discovering something new about the journey from pain to - it sounds so cliche - power. Oh, God.

SANDERS: No, but it's real.

COEL: Can I say that, pain to power?

SANDERS: Say it.

COEL: Oh, God.

SANDERS: It's real.

COEL: Pain to power.

SANDERS: Yes. Well, I also love this imagery of, like, trauma as, like, a pet, a dog. You know, I think so much of the nature of self-help talk that we are bombarded with every day treats hard things and tough emotions as things that we can overcome one day and fully expel, when in actuality, sometimes the bad stuff that happens to us lingers and sticks around.

COEL: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDERS: And I kind of like this frame of saying, it's an old dog, you know?

COEL: Yeah.

SANDERS: It was scarier years ago, but now it's calmed down, and it's just here.

COEL: Yes.

SANDERS: And I can give it a pet every now and then, and it's not going to hurt me.

COEL: Yes. And it isn't that 1-year-old dog that yanks you down the streets.


COEL: It's not dragging you along anymore. It's old, and it's sitting here.


COEL: And you can take it for a walk...

SANDERS: You're in charge of the dog now.

COEL: ...Whenever you want.


COEL: Exactly.


SANDERS: Coming up, we talk about misfits - who they are, how they're treated and what they need to thrive.


SANDERS: I want to get into so much from the book - this analogy of the moth, so much stuff. But I think we have to start by talking about misfits. A big theme of the lecture and the book is this idea of misfits. And you define them in the book. How do you define misfits?

COEL: Well, in the book and even now, I define - a misfit is someone who either feels ostracized by society because they don't fit into whatever ideals the society has established as normal, whether that be to do with gender, sexuality, size, hair color, faith. But also, a misfit is someone who simply looks around the world and sees it in a way that's different. So perhaps you recognize that, oh, there's this thing that's considered normal. And the fact that something is considered normal means other things are considered abnormal. If you're aware of that, then I consider you a bit of a misfit. Because I imagine you're not quite satisfied with that being the reality that we live in.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, so much of the book deals with the way that creative fields treat misfits - you know, TV, movie, art, music, whatever. All of these fields and these endeavors - they want the misfit. They want what the misfits can create. They want that different world view. But they don't know how to treat the misfits once they bring them in. They don't know how to care for them once they bring them in. And you talk about how you experience this yourself. And you create this really vivid image of a ladder in the book, a ladder that the misfits are climbing. And it's not fun. And you wrote at one point - and this stuck with me - quote, "Many of us in the entertainment industry in this world are on creaking ladders, climbing, surrounded by noise, stress and nothing real, not even the ladder itself." Wow. What do you mean by that?

COEL: Well, it's like - I wonder whether it relates to something later in the book, which is about understanding that once you have your basic needs met - food, shelter, water, clothes, you know, people around you that love you - that everything else is a bit of a game.


COEL: And sometimes, you know, 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 - is not necessarily necessary, really. Nonetheless, we climb it, you know.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Well - and you know, when you talk about the ladder not even being real, so much of it, I think, for these misfits brought into these creative spaces with really powerful people, the ladder is not real because we're having to make up everything as we go.

COEL: Yeah.

SANDERS: There were no parents telling us how this works. There were no elite institutions that's trained us since we were born on how to do this. We're making it up, and we're performing as if we have agency and as if we know exactly what we're doing. We don't.

COEL: Correct.

SANDERS: And also a lot of these misfits are broke in the meantime, so it's all a ruse. You know, I kind of think a lot about ducks in the water. A duck on top of the water seems serene and perfect, but you look under the water, they're paddling a mile a minute just to stay up.

COEL: Yup.

SANDERS: And that's what I felt when you were talking about this imagery of, like, a creaking ladder that isn't even real. We are trying so hard just to stay afloat.

COEL: Yeah, correct.

SANDERS: And these fields that bring us in don't see that.


SANDERS: They see smiling Michaela Coel and "Chewing Gum" getting the BAFTA.

COEL: And you know what's interesting is, I think for misfits, especially misfits from working-class backgrounds, Black people, it's like the society that we are making work for, sometimes we're making work for us, but sometimes we're employed by people who aren't us to make work. We - like, nothing we do will ever be good enough, so we paddle. But it's like we have to paddle faster. And I think this is something that we tell ourselves. I often hear from my friends, you know, who are creatives - very successful creatives - nothing is ever enough. Nothing will ever be enough. They get to the next goalpost, and then they realize it's not enough, as if we're waiting for society or whoever - we're waiting for someone to tell us, no, you've done a great job, you've done enough. But that will never come.

And so we keep climbing higher and higher, and the ladder gets more and more wobbly. And I think it can lead us into quite dangerous places. And I also think it can lead us into forgetting the core of who we are. When you climb that high and you look down and all that's there is a blur because you're so high, there's a forgetfulness that can occur, I think, and that can lead to a lot of identity confusion.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Have you gotten off the ladder yourself?

COEL: Honestly, I think I have.


COEL: I know.

SANDERS: It's good to hear that.

COEL: Yeah.

SANDERS: How'd you do it? Tell me your secrets.


COEL: I wonder whether - I think "I May Destroy You" maybe destroyed my ladder (laughter). It's - I realized during the process of making "I May Destroy You" that - OK, so, first, I'll talk about being a writer, that the story for me is like God, and that relationship exists outside of whatever person is going to listen to your story, whatever audience is going to watch it, whatever commissioner or producer is going to read it. The process of finding the story is a very spiritual and individual journey.


COEL: And it - nothing else matters. It's like, that's your bread. That's your wine. That's your water. But also in terms of sharing, I suppose, my pain, in a lot of ways, sharing that much pain was quite healing. And it means that, you know, I've been so listened to and so cared for, there isn't much of a need to prove myself in this way anymore.

SANDERS: You know, one of the things that happened in the lecture and in the book is this questioning of the entertainment industry, of the TV industry, of the creative fields. And at one point, you write, quote, "Why are we platforming misfits, heralding them as new, sly, rich successes whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility?" You're basically - and, like, you go on to kind of say, like, why do y'all bring in these misfits and then don't care for them and then don't see what they need and then don't make sure they're OK? That question, I think, is just as powerful then as it is now. Do you think the industry has begun to answer that question yet or fix it?

COEL: No, I actually don't. I think that the industry is sort of hearing the question and discussing the question but not necessarily doing much to solve the problem. You know, producers, networks, broadcasters, they wonder why writers don't meet their deadlines and end up paying back their commissions and failing to deliver. But it's often because the writer is paid so little that they have to take four writing jobs. And it's actually really quite impossible to deliver four things at a time. And I just think if the - if you show the writer that you care about their well-being beyond the delivery of the script, beyond the job, that you care about the life of the writer, even that, it might make their process of writing easier. It might leave them finishing a project with their mental health intact. And I don't think there's enough of that simply because of the writers that I speak to and the actors that I speak to. It isn't really happening.



SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and this thing that you describe in the book that I see happen so much - you know, a young creative of color - someone sees their talent and says, well, come in and make this stuff. But then they don't tell you how to do it. So at one point, you've been commissioned to make "Chewing Gum" a TV show. They say, go ahead and write it. And then I think - was it a friend of yours who says, OK, who's your script editor? Who's going to edit the script? And you realize they never gave you someone to turn your words - really help you turn your words into a TV script. Because you don't know how to write a TV script. You hadn't written one before.

COEL: Yeah.

SANDERS: And it took months for you to say to them, maybe I should have a script editor. Like, wow.

COEL: Fumbling in the dark.

SANDERS: Yeah. And you know, I think a lot of times when these industries take in misfits, they mistake raw charisma and talent for distinct and explicit skills in a certain field.

COEL: Yeah.

SANDERS: But those are two different things. I might have all the talent in the world, but if no one's showed me how to actually write a screenplay in the format of a screenplay, I cannot do it.

COEL: Yeah. And it doesn't - you know, I think some people think, oh, but their talent is so original. If we show them methods and like, blah, blah, blah, it's going to ruin the original. This is nonsense. You know, I remember once being told - when I wrote "Chewing Gum Dreams," the play, I performed it. I think this was in Rotterdam. And someone said, don't read too many plays because it will take away from your talent. And I thought to myself...

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness.

COEL: Like, what do you think this is? Like, no, no, no.

SANDERS: (Laughter) That's not how that works.

COEL: Correct.


COEL: But I think there's a lot of that. I also think right now, you know, there's a lot of Black people who don't want to be writers, necessarily, but they want to be producers. They want to be line producers. They want to be executive producers.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

COEL: And so they're brought on, you know, to, like, shadow someone. But the person they're shadowing doesn't quite let them in. So literally...


COEL: ...The person they're shadowing acts like a shadow, and you can't see.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COEL: There's no transparency. So it's kind of like you've brought these people here, but you're not showing them how you do it. It's the same thing that is happening...

SANDERS: Exactly.

COEL: ...Across the field. And you know, so far, the only way I can think of helping dissolve this is by talking about it and publishing things like the MacTaggart lecture to try and...


COEL: ...Rinse the nonsense away.


SANDERS: Coming up, what's it like to process your trauma through art and then see that art become a huge success?


SANDERS: Another thing that's discussed in the lecture and in the book and in the show, "I May Destroy You," is the sexual assault that you experienced. While writing, while on deadline, you left the writing table to go have a drink with a friend. You end up drugged and sexually assaulted. And then you have to get back to writing because deadline. That assault informed the lecture, the book, the series. And now you're up for several Emmys for that series, "I May Destroy You." And I've just been wondering, since seeing you get the nominations, given the subject matter of that show and how traumatic a lot of the material in there is for you and for others, how does celebrating the success of "I May Destroy You" look for you? I imagine it's complicated.

COEL: Well, you know, I've - you know, the nine Emmy nominations are not for being raped. They're for making the show, you know? So (laughter)...

SANDERS: That is true. That is true (laughter).

COEL: You know, the nine Emmy nominations are for a project in which - I think it's something like 278 people were employed to make that thing happen. You know...


COEL: ...It is a huge thing. And 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, of then having to work - to go through all those steps to suddenly see that the show separated my pain from the fictional version of what we created. And that is what is being nominated for nine Emmys. It isn't really...


COEL: ...My pain and my trauma and my survival. So it feels bizarre. It feels weird and trippy.


COEL: But it's always in a positive way. It's not, like, scary or nerve-wracking. It is, this is fantastic.


COEL: You know?

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, hearing you talk about it, it feels like you have done a lot of the work that it takes to process and live with such trauma. And I bet there's a lot of listeners who perhaps may not have gone as far in their journey to process trauma as you have. Any advice for them on how to make this stuff fit into your life and not control your life and to...

COEL: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Possibly make art of the devastation?

COEL: Yeah. I think talking is really helpful. And also, obviously, the day I was spiked and raped is not the only traumatic thing to happen in my life, nor Arabella's. And I think there are things you need to talk about and things you need to unpack. Finding somebody that you can talk to is helpful, whether you pay that person or whether that's a friend or a family member. I think talking out...


COEL: ...Getting it out is very helpful...


COEL: ...And a good start.

SANDERS: Well, and doing that just helps you realize that you're not crazy, and you aren't the only person that experienced that thing or that feeling. So much of what's helpful for me when I'm talking through trauma and whatever with loved ones, friends or my therapist is just having one or all of them say in different ways, oh, you aren't alone. Lots of people have felt that way. Lots of people have gone through that. You aren't alone.

COEL: Yeah.

SANDERS: Just the you-aren't-alone-ness (ph) of...

COEL: Oh, OK. Do you have therapy, too? You have therapy?

SANDERS: Oh, yes, I do. Hello, Jonathan (ph). How are you? Love you. Miss you. We're talking at 3 today (laughter).

COEL: Ah, mine's Janet (ph). We're on in the morning tomorrow. Hey, Janet (laughter).

SANDERS: Yes. Yes. I know you've got to go to your next thing, but I want to get to one other big theme that is in the book...

COEL: Yes.

SANDERS: ...And I'm just mulling over and thinking about. The book deals with this idea of death very artfully. And you talk about moths in the book as this kind of symbol of death. But you go on to question, you know, like, why are we so disgusted by moths? They're just, like, weird butterflies. What's up with that?

COEL: (Laughter).

SANDERS: But the work that you're doing, writing around moths and death - I have so many questions about it, but I'll probably just ask you one. But you write in the book that even giving the lecture was, in itself, a death. You said it was, quote, "death to the habit of compartments, losing pain and avoiding emotions, death to coping so successfully that I put my ability to process life and grieve in jeopardy." I love that idea of death. And I had never thought about it in that way. Sometimes death is good. If we can say these bad habits - compartmentalizing avoidance - if we can put those things to death, it's good. What did it take for you to get to that place in the way that you conceptualize death? Because I think a lot of folks don't see it that way.

COEL: Yeah. I think this definitely relates to so many things in my life. I think leaving the church, for example, and then realizing - you know, so it was, like - it was kind of, for me, a death to my personal journey as a Christian.


COEL: But through that death, what did I discover? I'm still here. God is still here. God is still with me. What?


COEL: So being brave enough to do it, to jump, you know? I think it takes bravery. And I wonder whether it takes really feeling like you're out of other good options. Even seeing death as a metaphor is scary for people.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

COEL: But it's liberating because when you're engaging with it as an exercise, it isn't real. And so death will only lead to rebirth because you'll still be here.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and, like, it's liberating once you can begin to see death and the concept of death not as an end, but as a transition.

COEL: Yes.

SANDERS: It's a transition.

COEL: Yes.

SANDERS: It's moving from one thing to another.

COEL: As a new beginning.

SANDERS: It's not saying I'm gone forever. Exactly. You know, like, Jesus died. What happened next? Came back better than ever, you know?

COEL: Exactly.

SANDERS: It's like, how do we get past this idea of finality, you know...

COEL: It's - yes.

SANDERS: ...And begin to accept something around transcendence or transformation?

COEL: Yeah. And I wonder whether also being a writer has helped me understand the joy of death in this way. Because you know, I finish a draft of something, like "I May Destroy You" - you know, I'm talking about engaging with death as a joyful, remarkable, astounding experience - you know, obviously the exercise of it because I haven't really done it. But when I would write and I would get onto my final episode - you know, that's the end. I'm now drafting Episode 12. And I would cry and mourn to the point where I would call my family and thank them for random things they had done for me. Like, it really felt like I was packing up and leaving.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

COEL: And then I'd finish the draft. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then I would finish, and I would feel such euphoria. I would walk around London, go into a little coffee shop, a little cafe, get a cup of tea, eat a croissant and feel so happy to be alive. That experience - it goes round and round, draft after draft after draft. I can't explain what that is. But I think being a writer and going through that has enabled me to engage with this concept of death - death to this death, death to that - as a really positive thing.


SANDERS: Thanks again to writer and actress Michaela Coel. Her new book is called "Misfits: A Personal Manifesto." That's out right now. Also, she and the team behind "I May Destroy You" are up for nine Emmys this year. You can watch that show right now on HBO Max. I highly recommend it.

This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Andrea Gutierrez, and our editors for this one were Jordana Hochman and Steve Nelson.

All right, listeners, don't forget we're back this Friday with another episode. And for that one, we want you to be a part of it. Share with us the best things that have happened to you all week. Just record yourself and send that file to me via email at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. All right, until we meet again, thanks for listening. Be good to yourselves. We'll talk soon.

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