When Michaela Coel was in drama school, teachers told Coel and her classmates they should become ‘yes’ people if they hoped to make a living as storytellers, and that they should expect to be poor forever. Coel—most famous for writing, directing, and starring in HBO’s smash hit I May Destroy You, a fragmentary, terribly lucid gut punch of a series based on her own rape—initially loved the concept. “All of us united,” as she puts it. “Climbing towards storytelling at the risk of poverty, screaming ‘Yes!”
But as Coel would soon learn in a bizarre in-class exercise, she was the only person in her cohort whose parents weren’t homeowners. Shaken, she went home and did what a ‘yes’ person never would. “I wrote about the resilience borne from having no safety net at all,” she says. “Of having to climb ladders with no stable ground beneath you.”
Since her drama school days, Coel has navigated this highwire act to make a living as a storyteller, centering the narratives of those traditionally on the outside into the mainstream. She has struck— and turned down—major deals with the likes of Netflix and HBO, spoken out consistently to critique the inequities within the industry she loves, and—in her latest coup—become Marvel’s newest superhero for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
And now, with her first book—Misfits: A Personal Manifesto (out tomorrow)—Coel is distilling her experience into an ethos that should be required reading for artists, power brokers, and self-proclaimed outsiders everywhere. Based on a keynote speech she delivered for the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 2018, Misfits is Coel’s cri de coeur for inclusivity and transparency in storytelling. On the eve of Misfits’ publication, I spoke with Coel in London from Los Angeles, Zooming with her about outsider art, religion, money, loss, friendship, and how to thrive within spaces you’re dedicated to changing.
You write in Misfits about how early in your creative life your default was to write about things like rape and poverty with extreme compartmentalization. “To recount horror with a smile.” And about then becoming an artist who can speak from a place of honest fragmentary darkness, rather than catering to the world’s expectations of linearity and light. How do you get to that place of dark artistic integrity as a creator, while also living your life as a person in the world?
It’s a very accessible place for me, particularly with certain types of darkness, because I’m well practiced. It’s almost like meditation, where it becomes easier to get into a meditative state the more you meditate. Perhaps because I’ve spent a few years forcing myself to sit with the darkness of some uncomfortable truths, it feels easy. The weight of the reality of my life is as present to me as the joy.
You talk about how you loved the Bible’s metaphors and message of hope growing up. Do you see any continuing influence of that in your work and life?
Definitely. Chewing Gum is about this girl who’s given a Christian upbringing, but only really displays the behavior of the character of Jesus when it comes to friendship. Arabella behaves similarly at points in I May Destroy You. There are so many biblical references to friendship. It isn’t the rules of Christianity that resonate for me, but the character of Jesus. There are so many forms of how we can be as humans, and I think the character of Jesus is a fundamentally decent one.
Friendship feels a bit left behind artistically. Like it’s often given second billing to romantic love and family.
Friendship has influenced me massively. I’m always concerned with the lives of those who don’t seem to fit. And when those of us who desperately wanted to be a part of mainstream society are let in, we feel like complete imposters. So we create a sort of society of imposters within mainstream society. These misfits have often been my friends.
People say you don’t create art to get rich, but there’s tremendous privilege in that. Not needing your art to pay your bills. Do you think it’s an asset or a demerit, artistically, to work without a safety net?
It’s both. But I will say that sometimes the more you ostracize someone and other them, the more you end up empowering that person. There is pain and loss, and from this removal of being in the crowd, you force the person to find a way to empower themselves without the group. Which is making art they wouldn’t have otherwise been able. There is pain in being a misfit, but also value.
You talk about how people in positions of power now say they want outsider art, but in a way that’s still palatable to the traditional power structure. What was your experience of this like making I May Destroy You? Did you get pushback on Arabella or the way the story was told?
No, but what I got were questions. We have to really consider when we get questions whether it is pushback, or questions that script editors would give to anyone. That these questions may not be loaded with change, but with a desire to understand where you’re coming from. I had many questions, but they were not based in change this, they were based in help me understand. It helped me practice the art of explaining myself. What I was lucky to get was an exchange—while I explain, you also explain to me what you are doing, so that transparency is an added value to this exchange.
How do you reconcile the single-mindedness required to create art with the personal desire to generate social change?
I think the creating of the art is the social change. If everyone is doing their jobs—if you are an outsider and serving this outsider story, and making sure you’re not bending your story to the will of the status quo—than you are social change.
You talk about the power of saying no, particularly in an industry where what is taught is to always say yes. To expect to struggle, and be grateful for anything you get, even if it’s a scrap. I was struck by how much Misfits itself feels like a no. Like making a point to course correct the industry where you could, rather than just being grateful. Do you see the lecture in that way?
I definitely thought it was important to thank the [lecture] board for the opportunity to speak, because it enabled me to truly consider my circumstances. And yet with that, I did say no to the way this lecture was “supposed to go.” Instead, I wanted to be useful. What I have to say cannot be what pleases everyone.
You write that the lecture ultimately helped you find “death to coping so successfully that I put my ability to process life and to grieve in jeopardy.” You were writing the lecture and I May Destroy You at the same time. How did the lecture influence I May Destroy You?
I hadn’t thought about that before, but one absolutely had a knock-on effect on the other. With these works and opportunities, it always does. Kate Ashby [the character Coel played in Black Earth Rising] had a huge effect on who I was when I wrote the lecture and I May Destroy You. She’s a curious, inquisitive person, who keeps going down the rabbit hole even though it’s a bold dangerous place to go. And the lecture—maybe it did help me get to that final draft.
You write about losing your sense of smell for a time. What do you think loss of any kind enables? Whenever a void or an absence arises, do you think that leads to an imperative to create something in its place?
I think so. From pain and loss there is a desire to fill the void. As a creative, you fill the void with art. When you lose something, it’s like you’ve fallen to the floor. Art is a process of trying to get back up.