I May Destroy You was almost instantly hailed as show of 2020 when it was released in June. The 12-part “consent drama” written, directed by and starring Michaela Coel, centers around Arabella (Coel), a writer who is sexually assaulted and her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). But as the series progresses, I May Destroy You is revealed to be about more than just its protagonists.
Just like in real life, the supporting characters – the housemate you only chat to in the kitchen or the person you went on two dates with back in 2017 but still watches your Instagram Story – have the power to change the course of your life.
I May Destroy You is no different. Arabella’s flatmate offered a sense of calm in her chaotic life in their east London home, Kwame’s Tinder date shocked viewers when she turns out to be a casual homophobe; and in the season finale, viewers were forced to empathise with Arabella’s attacker.
This is what the actors who played some of those smaller – but integral– characters in I May Destroy You had to say about how they got their parts and filming that ending.
Reeves played David, Arabella’s attacker.
“When I read the script, I thought this could either be really amazing or go completely the other way. On a personal level, I was a bit scared because we all worry about how we come across. She’s talking about systemic abuse – that’s a really tricky road to navigate and can I pull it off? But it was really interesting writing because what Michaela is doing, especially with my character, is essentially building empathy for a rapist.
“When you’re playing really menacing characters, it’s so intense – you have to find enjoyment in it, otherwise I think you drive yourself a bit crazy. In between takes, I got on really well with Michaela, we’d put music on and muck about and have a dance. Keeping that light energy and that banter made it a lot easier when we had to do the darker scenes.
“I loved that interpretive ending, but honestly, my first initial thought was ‘what the hell is going on?’. It took me a while to piece it together. I sent a couple of emails, asking if this was the angle so I could see it from Arabella’s perspective.
“The whole thing was amazing, though. I’m so impressed by Michaela. She was exemplary with every single person, from extras to producers. She had time for everyone, I was like, ‘Michaela, you must go home and club baby penguins because you can’t be this nice all the time’. It was just good energy. All of our scenes had an intimacy director as well, so you felt comfortable doing stuff where you might feel a bit timid or you don’t want to make the other person feel awkward.
“I wasn’t expecting the reaction to it to be so positive. My initial worry was people wanting to beat me up or something, but no, I only had one awkward encounter. I had my music in, walking down the street and this one girl ran over the road and was like, ‘Oh my god you’re the rapist!’. I’m there like, ‘Jesus Christ, not really though.’”
Niles played Officer Funmi, the police officer Arabella reports her attack to.
“I’ve always been a fan of Michaela’s, so just to get an audition and be able to read the script – I was so excited to work with her and be a part of I May Destroy You. The way she looked at class and the multiculturalism of London was fascinating. The last time I saw that was probably in the 80s, with filmmakers like Horace Ové, but it’s disappeared now. There’s definitely an appetite for it, though, and I don’t think people will stand for anything else.
“With Officer Funmi, Michaela did something that made me go ‘Oh my gosh’. She’s put a black woman and a white woman in this scene, but she’s given Officer Funmi most of the lines. On top of that, she’s given the capacity for Officer Funmi to have a life outside of work, where she’s pregnant. It’s interesting that she’s given these women something beyond their roles as police officers in a short space of time without going off-piste into another story.
“When we were filming, I just tried to be in the moment because her reaction is what I felt the story was about. It wasn’t about me trying to play the best police person, or bring a backstory. It was about me listening to what she’s saying. I’m actually still processing a lot of what happened in I May Destroy You. I got quite emotional filming, I remember giving Michaela a hug, I started crying and then she started crying. We were just doing a scene, but I felt it very deeply.”
Williams played the teenage version of Terry, Arabella’s best friend.
“It was my first TV role, so I phoned my parents first and they were really proud of me. I was so excited to be working with Michaela Coel as well. I’ve followed her writing and I was a fan since Chewing Gum.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was a teenager, so it wasn’t too difficult to get into playing teenage Terry. We were in the school uniforms and had the Just Do It bags, everything was so authentic and we were filming in a school as well, so it felt like I was actually back in secondary school. We [all] clicked really well and quickly, especially in the classroom scene where we were just throwing around the popcorn.
“I had been sent all the scripts for the series so I was familiar with what ‘older Terry’ would be like as well. I only met [Weruche Opia, who plays Terry] once, after I had filmed most of my scenes, but just from reading the scripts, I could see how realistic it would be and what these characters represented.
“When you’re training to be an actor, it can be a scary thing. It’s like, what if I’m cast in a role and I’m playing a stereotype? When you see so much negativity surrounding a subject, you kind of think that there’s no space for you. So being able to be part of a project like I May Destroy You makes you see it’s more than within our capabilities to be able to create the changes that we want to see.
“Also, I was a Poet Laureate when I was younger and Michaela is a poet as well, so it’s shown me the possibilities of how far you can go if you’re multifaceted. It’s good to be able to be in creative control of your projects and pull on other talents that you have to be able to head an entire project from writer, director, actress, producer.”
Chanda plays Nilufer, Kwame’s homophobic Tinder date.
“I originally auditioned for Francine [Arabella’s financier] and didn’t have any scripts. Then they said that they’d like to see me for Nilufer and I read all of the scripts in about 24 hours. I just couldn’t stop, it felt unlike anything I had read before and so important.
“Remarkably, the scripts didn’t change all too much, which is a pretty rare thing these days. There were tweaks but when I was watching it, I was like, Michaela really cared about the structure of each segment. I hadn’t read anything like it before, so I was really excited to work with her on this. I think she’s a bit of a genius. She had so many characters and I haven’t read a script where there’s been so much cast and yet, you don’t feel lost.
“It’s amazing how strongly people feel about certain things in the show. I was with a friend and her boyfriend when it came out and she hated Nilufer but her boyfriend felt completely differently. He was like, ‘I can completely see her point of view, wouldn’t you be upset?’ I thought wow, the strength of feeling is incredible and that I did not expect.
“The sad thing about Nilufer is that she is so stuck in her own set of beliefs and her own narrative and doesn’t really have the compassion to see beyond it. In one of the scripts I saw originally, Kwame kind of said, ‘Look, I think you need to rethink the way you’re going about this, because from my point of view it’s this, but I’m really sorry I hurt you.’ She goes, ‘OK you’re right’, but then Michaela changed it – I think, for the better actually, because I’m not sure how true to life that version would have been. I think that’s what we’d like people to do but very seldom does that happen.”
Wight played Ben, Arabella’s mild-mannered flatmate.
“When people have asked me about Ben, the only way I can describe him is like the eye of the storm, just totally calm. Usually I like to analyse the whole script, but for this I intentionally said I’ll read it once and that’s all. I wanted him to be this glimpse of calm – just that sweet and lovely Ben.
“I’m not on social media at all so I didn’t see the reaction to Ben, but my wife got some messages from friends saying ‘Is Steve the rapist?’. You know, I think that’s really fascinating! Maybe it’s a reflection of society that everyone’s suspicious of someone just being nice, but I put that down to the power of what Michaela wrote.
“Rarely do I watch things I do, but I did watch this because I saw the reviews and even while we were shooting it, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to want to watch this one because I’m really intrigued by Michaela’s vision and what she’s doing with it’.”