Michaela Coel: ‘The secret to relationships is be happy by yourself’

The actor and writer, 32, talks about growing up around women, winning Baftas, finding her mantra and surviving sexual assault

In 2016, I was the victim of a sexual assault. It inspired my new series, I May Destroy You. After speaking to women and men who’d suffered similar attacks, I realised my experience was incredibly common. That made me create a show exploring the line between consent and rape.

It wasn’t a painful role to play. Playing a character means you can go to dark places and none of it’s real. Writing it was the hard part, but even that pain was juxtaposed with euphoria. If I’m here to reflect on it, it means I’ve survived it. That’s a miracle to sit alongside the pain.

Lockdown is a familiar mode for me. I usually write alone in the middle of nowhere and don’t see human beings for long periods. So this is an improvement – I can go for a run, see some strangers, share a nod. Those moments feel incredible at the moment. Passing nods have become so meaningful.

My mum is on the frontline. She’s a mental health nurse and works phenomenally hard, but she’s loving the national support for carers. And if my mum is happy, I have no reason to be sad.

I grew up in an all-female household. I didn’t have to do any filtering because there wasn’t a man in a room. Into my late teens, I’d walk around without any clothes on. I suddenly had to learn that stuff in adulthood.

I stole a toy rabbit from my primary school teacher’s desk. I took it home and said I’d got it for good behaviour. I used to tell bare-faced lies. Maybe it was the beginning of my storytelling.

I was in the misfit gang at school. I was a bit spotty, wore braces, didn’t have designer trainers. I wasn’t popular or cute, but I was fine with that.

Money isn’t the key to happiness – time is. You need to be able to afford food and a roof over your head, but time is the thing. Time to be with friends and family, travel, have experiences.

I won a couple of Baftas for Chewing Gum, but getting nominated was the big moment. I’m still buzzing off that. My mum keeps the awards in a cabinet.

The secret to relationships is being happy by yourself. Don’t get lost in the bubble of being coupley.

My most shameful moment was being caught short. I was flat-hunting, suddenly needed the toilet and couldn’t find anywhere. Then I saw a block of flats with an intercom. I pretended to talk into the intercom, parted my legs and let it flow. Somebody came out and saw me pissing on their doorstep. I remember the look she gave me. It cut right through me.

If I could time travel, I’d go back to summer 2000. The late 90s and early noughties was my era. The music was banging. Craig David’s Born To Do It album had dropped. So had Where I Wanna Be by Donell Jones. I was hitting my teens and so romantically involved with music. The skies seemed bluer.

The best advice I’ve ever been given is: “Say no.” The actor Adrian Lester told us that at drama school and it stuck with me. He meant professionally, but I took it to mean everything. I was like, “Yes, Adrian! This is my life mantra now.”

I May Destroy You starts on 8 June, BBC One

Contributor

Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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