Michaela Coel is an award-winning actress, playwright, screenwriter and poet, who studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her theater credits include Medea, Home and Blurried Lines, all at the National Theatre. Among her many television credits, she is perhaps best known for her hit series Chewing Gum, based on her acclaimed play for which she has won two RTS Awards and two BAFTAs. On the big screen, she has supporting roles in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and, most recently, a leading role in Tinge Krishnan’s Been So Long. Injustice is her biggest inspiration. For her, at the crux of every story, of every character worth fictionalizing within any genre, is injustice.
Now of one this year’s European Shooting Stars, Tara Karajica caught up with her at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Can we talk about Chewing Gum and how you came up with the idea for it? How much is it based on you and how did you come to cast yourself in it? Does it define you? If so, how?
Michaela Coel: Well, I was in drama school, and in your final year, you do plays that agents come and watch. I found through the whole three years of being there, that the stories that I wanted to see weren't there. I wouldn't be playing any of these characters when I left. So, I decided to take myself out of one of the plays and to write my own one-woman show. I did a 10-min show instead of the main show, called Chewing Gum Dreams and I enjoyed the response so much; people laughed, they cried and I thought: “Wow! I could do this more!” So, I extended it and then it was like a 1h one-woman show and it went to the National Theatre, the National Theatre in Holland… It kind of launched me a bit. I was a poet before, so if I write something, I speak it. I was very used to if I write a play, I do the play. It's been very natural to be in my own show. Then, a TV company, Channel 4, read and said: “Do you want to try and extend it to a TV show?” And, I said yes and so began my process of two seasons now of Chewing Gum. Does it define me? No. it doesn't. I think it defines a moment in my life and then you grow and then you do a new project and that defines whoever you are then. There is a naiveté in Tracy that I think is inside me, you know. So, that would be it.
You are also a playwright, a poet and a lyricist. How does this fit into your acting career? How do you mix them? Which one do you prefer?
M.C.: Well, I never do more than one thing at a time. If I'm shooting something, I can't write, I can't even discuss writing, because I have to really concentrate. Which one do I prefer? Well, acting is easier, it really is… Writing is like Maths; it's really hard, and you're in isolation all the time. But, when you act, you get to meet actors, you get to film with them, you get to know people, you have friends… That's what's amazing about acting. I can't say that I prefer one or the other, they both inform each other so I couldn't pick, I couldn't choose. I cannot see myself writing something that I am not in.
Which, would you say, is your main talent, among those?
M.C.: I mean, I don't know. It's for everyone else to decide, isn't it? They're both really hard!
Injustice is your biggest inspiration. Can you elaborate on that?
M.C.: Well, injustice is what makes me creative. I wonder, even if you look at History when there's a great tribulation, Art is formed. I don't think I know how to make work when I'm happy. I think there's always something going on in the world that is unjust. This is not a just world. There is very little justice in this world and the more I read about the world, the more I feel the need to expose this injustice. Even as an actor if there is a character, for example in the musical that I've done, Simone, the character I play, has a child and the baby’s father has left. That's not just; it is an injustice, she has to suffer and raise her child by herself. This is really hard. I can empathize with that injustice; it kind of ignites my ability as an actor.
Talking about injustice, what do you think about the situation of women in the film industry across all fields? And, how is it in the U.K.?
M.C.: Not just women, and men too, because men are also sexually abused and men are raped too. I think that it's awful. I also think it's happening in the sports world; it's happening in the world of politics. It's a microcosm of what happens in the world. So, I cannot just think about Hollywood and rape, I have to think about the entire world. One in four women are raped, and those are the women that said they were raped. How many more women do not say they are raped? How many women do not even realize that they are raped? It's insane and it's historical. When has the world not been like this? What I love is the fact that it's being exposed on such a huge platform as sports and Hollywood. You know, I think it begins from birth. I think we need to start raising men and women differently; we have to really start paying attention to these things, but we don't. My hope is that it is what begins to change.
And, what about gender inequality in the film industry?
M.C.: Like I said, it is not a just world. And, that injustice is to deal largely with inequality, you know. Even, people with disabilities, people with mental health problems, people above a certain dress size... I don't see these people on screen. And, I should because they make up the world. So, I do believe we need to represent more on screen, but in order to do that, writers need to write those parts; in order to write those parts, those writers need to have diverse friendship groups, and have relationships with people from different parts of the world that don't look just like them. We live in a world where the majority of writers are white middle to upper class men, and they are in a cocoon or their world. They won't even think to write beyond that world. So, for me, to solve inequality you need to start telling young people who are poor, who are black, who are otherwise abled: “You have the power to be a writer; you should write your story.” And, that's what would kind of help ease inequality.
You received 2 BAFTAs. How do you feel about awards and being a Shooting Stars? Where do you think it will lead your career?
M.C.: When I have a job I dedicate my entire life to the job I have. Whatever comes after that, for me, I am proud of what I've done. So, as surreal and incredible as it is, my mom is very happy she has 2 BAFTAs in her house. But, for those that don't win, it shouldn't mean anything, because if you are proud of what you did, for me, it really is the most significant thing. For people to recognize your work, it's amazing. I've been very, very lucky. But, then I think about one day I am not going to be so lucky and I never want to feel down about that, so I always try to have a very healthy approach to awards and trophies and things like this.
It’s impossible to ignore your being in Star Wars. What can you say about this experience?
M.C.: I did two spaceships in one year. I did Black Mirror and then Star Wars, and I didn't know they'd come out at the same time. So, it's really, really cool. I never thought about sci-fi when I left drama school. So, to be able to do such things is very special. I feel very lucky.
What are your next projects?
M.C.: I can't say what they are, but I'm writing a new TV show and I'm filming a show. I've been filming for eight months now another TV show, so that too... But, I can't say what they are.
This interview was conducted in collaboration with Fade to Her.
Name: Tara Karajica
C. Photo Credit: harald fuhr_efp (2018)
Interview with Michaela Coel:
“I don't think I know how to make work when I'm happy”