Exclusive Interview: HBO’s I May Destroy You star Paapa Essiedu on his groundbreaking queer character “me & Michaela Coel wanted to create someone that felt real & truthful”

I May Destroy You, a co-production between HBO and the BBC, is fast becoming one of the most talked about television series of the year on both sides of the Atlantic. Centring authentic Black voices and exploring frank and nuanced questions around sexual consent and exploitation it is compelling and essential viewing. Written and created by Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel, she also co-directs and stars in the the twelve-episode present day London set dark comedy drama. The series focuses on Arabella (Coel) as she struggles to finish the first draft of her new book and begins to piece together fragmented memories of being drugged and raped on a night out. As she confronts her trauma, Arabella is supported by her two best friends, aspiring actress Terry (Weruche Opia) and gay fitness instructor Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), whose life is also impacted by a sexual assault (in episode 4) at the hands of a man he met on Grindr. In the episodes that follow, I May Destroy You juxtaposes Arabella’s handling of what she’s survived with how Kwame processes his own experience, his reluctance to discuss it and the dismissive treatment that he receives when reporting it to the police. Kwame’s narrative arc from the effervescent and sexually liberated gay man we meet in the early episodes to the shell of himself he becomes by the middle of the season is heartbreaking and sensitively portrayed by Essiedu with rich, layered character work. Through Kwame, I May Destroy You offers an all too rare intricate screen portrayal of a contemporary queer Black man, while the themes which Coel explores in her writing have the potential to expand the mainstream conversation around sexual assault.

Weruche Opia, Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You. Courtesy of HBO.

Before taking on this ground-breaking queer character, Essiedu, who studied alongside Coel at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, received acclaim taking on major stage roles. Early in his career he understudied Edmund in Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale at the National Theatre, before being cast in that role by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2016. That same year he became the first Black actor to play Hamlet for the RSC in a sold-out production at Stratford-upon-Avon that earned him rave reviews and went on to tour the UK before a run in Washington D.C. He also portrayed the title role in Romeo and Juliet at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. He didn’t always have a passion for Shakespeare though, as told The Queer Review in our exclusive interview: “I thought it was so boring and so elitist and so exclusionary”. His perception of Shakespeare and his own potential future in theatre shifted when he was taken to see Chiwetel Ejiofor play Othello at London’s Donmar Warehouse over a decade ago. “I didn’t even know there were Black characters in Shakespeare, but this guy [was] so much better than everyone else in this play”, Essiedu tells us. In 2018 the East Londoner was named on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. As well as a cameo in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, Essiedu has appeared on screen in series such as The Miniaturist, Kiri, Black Earth Rising, Press and Gangs of London.

Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet. Photograph by Manuel Harlan. Courtesy of RSC.

When lockdown restrictions came into effect in March he was appearing at London’s Kiln theatre in the UK premiere of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, inspired by Waiting for Godot and the Exodus saga, the play was written partly as a response to the 2012 fatal shooting of Black teenager Trayvon Martin. Essiedu is clearly an actor drawn to work that has something significant to say and he hopes that this forced period of closure presents an opportunity for the theatre community to “remould” itself into something that is “more representative of the voices that contribute to it”.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Paapa Essiedu about his mother’s reaction when he changed his mind about becoming a doctor, finally getting to work with his friend Michaela Coel, the potential I May Destroy You has to expand the conversation around sexual consent, the importance of working with an intimacy coordinator on the sex scenes, and using Kwame’s moments of silence and solitude to explore the character.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How did you get into theatre and how did the performer in you first manifest itself?

“It came to me really late actually. I never did acting as a kid, I never went to youth theatres or anything like that. They didn’t really have any of those things in the area that I grew up in. I did a school play kind of on a whim. I was playing like a postman or something and I did this bit and people laughed at it, and I was like, ‘alright!’”

Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You. Courtesy of HBO.

Getting that laugh is important isn’t it! Addictive too.

“Yeah, I’m a bit of a whore I guess! I was going to be a doctor, but I ended up not doing that and going to drama school, then graduating and working in theatre for a while before doing more screen work. So it’s been a very gentle, gradual progression I’d say.”

Yes, you got offered a place to study medicine at University College London, UCL, didn’t you? I studied English there actually. What was the reaction at home when you said ‘even though I’ve got into this amazing course that’s very hard to get on to I’m not going to do that’?!

“Well, at least outwardly the reaction wasn’t…I didn’t get kicked out of the house let’s say! My mum was always like ‘look, whatever you do, you just have to make sure that you do it properly, properly give yourself to it. So don’t give up medicine to mess about pretending to be an actor. If you’re going do it you’ve got to study it properly, you’ve got to put your all into it and take it seriously.’ So she was always really supportive and instilled a strong work ethic in me that I hold on to today.”

Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr in Pass Over. Photograph by Marc Brenner.

You were in the middle of a run of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over when everything locked down in London weren’t you? What was that experience like of suddenly having to stop midway through the run?

“Yeah, I think it was probably quite important that we did that because I’m pretty sure all three of us came down with coronavirus the week after we got shut down. So I don’t know if we were pre-symptomatic, but I wouldn’t say it was a safe space for us all to be shouting and spitting and fighting and all of that stuff. So I think it was a necessity. But I’m obviously really concerned, even though there’s been a stimulus package this week, I’m really concerned about the safety and the jeopardy that theatres are in right now and hope that they come back stronger, but also it’s really a chance for us to remould the theatre that we make, and to make it more representative of the voices that contribute to it.”

Weruche Opia, Michaela Coel and Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You. Courtesy of HBO.

Tell us about Michaela Coel, I know you were in the same year at drama school, and then I May Destroy You came about, what was your reaction to it and why did you want to get involved?

“Yeah, I’ve known Michaela for a while now. Michaela and I have never worked together though. There have been loads of near crossovers in our careers, we were at the National Theatre at the same time, we were both in Black Earth Rising, but we never had scenes together, and we went to Guildhall together. So our lives have been parallel and nearly crossed over, but this was the first time for us to be able to do that which was really exciting. Especially when you’re working with someone that you really respect and value as an artist, but also as a friend. It was great to work with someone who was like ‘I actually think you’re good, so I don’t need to worry about that side of things’.”

She uses your surname in the series at one point doesn’t she? Did you know that was going to happen, that was in script I guess?

“Yeah, that was in the script. That’s how you know that she didn’t envision casting me in the part! The idea that she was going to use my name gives me the impression that she wasn’t thinking that I was actually going to be in it! I suppose it’s also a nod to our friendship, which I’ll take.”

Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You. Courtesy of HBO.

Kwame, your character in I May Destroy You, has such an interesting narrative arc, he goes on such a journey doesn’t he throughout the series. I know that when Michaela was writing she always kept all twelve episodes in her mind and I wondered if you had a similar experience as you were approaching the character. Did you keep the narrative arc in mind the whole time, because it is such a distinctive one?  

“Yes and no, because the thing about Kwame particularly is that he’s really responding in real time to what’s happening. He’s almost playing catch-up with what’s happening to him and he’s not even able to think forward. So it was quite useful for me to engage with him on a moment to moment basis, really invest in the moments that he’s going through, because he’s in this survival mode. But definitely pre-episode 4, I was thinking about the journey towards the end of episode 4, but that also is a narrative arc which ends in something that quite significantly shifts the goalposts for him. And after that it’s always treading water and hoping that you don’t drown.”

Fehinti Balogun and Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You. Courtesy of HBO.

The series is beautifully written, poignant and often very funny, but there’s also a lot of interesting things happening in the silences and moments of solitude. And I think that’s probably true for all of the characters, but I found that particularly with Kwame. For instance when he’s on the phone to Arabella at the end of episode 4, and before and after that call. I guess it’s useful to have moments like that because you can express a lot about the character when you’re not speaking, because sometimes we’re masking stuff when we’re talking to other people aren’t we, whereas when we’re on our own it’s behind the masks?

“Yeah, it’s so interesting because when you’re reading a script, especially for the first time, you flick through it to see where all of your lines are. You’re looking for the bits where your character speaks as if that’s a kind of indication of the size of your part, or the significance of your character, but so much of a character and so much of our personalities is about what we don’t say in conjunction with what we do say. And with Kwame particularly I think there are points where he feels empowered and capable of speaking, and points where he really doesn’t. The kind of shifting between those two things gives us a real insight into the kind of person he is, but also the point in the journey that he’s at. It was definitely something that I was really interested in exploring and delving into because I thought that it provided some real depth to his character.”

Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You. Courtesy of HBO.

One of the impressive things about the show is the way that it explores the idea of consent with such nuance. Could you talk about that aspect as far as Kwame’s story is concerned, the idea of consent and the reporting of what happens to him?

“Yeah, I think in terms of at least the mainstream conversation around consent, or the mainstream portrayals of consent being stolen from people by assault or rape, we’re so encouraged to see it through quite a binary perspective of this being something that men do to women in heterosexual relationships, and I feel like that excludes such a huge number of people’s experiences. That exclusion, that erasure, contributes to an invalidation and as artists, as people putting things on television particularly, seeing as it’s something that is so easily and so widely accessible, we’ve got a responsibility to respect and to honour the whole spectrum of people’s experiences and the help that affects those dynamics. So it was really important for us to do that question that you’re talking about, to really ask everybody to do it justice in our execution of it.”

Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You. Courtesy of HBO.

What reservations, if any, did you have about taking on a queer character?

“The only thing I was ever really concerned about – and I was never really concerned, just because of the way that it was written – was just about it being authentic and us never reaching for low hanging fruit in terms of looking for something that felt stereotyped, or clichéd, or tropey. Me and Michaela both from the off wanted to create someone that felt real and felt truthful and had three dimensions, or at least three dimensions, and was able to exist independently from anyone’s perception of him. I just always wanted the space for him to emerge organically and to be created on his own terms, and if anyone is going to be a facilitator in making that happen it’s Michaela. So any concerns were very quickly quashed.”

Was there anything specific that you asked any queer friends or anything helpful that they told you as you were researching and preparing to play Kwame?

“I spoke a few of my friends both queer and not queer about their experiences of assault and especially the aftermath of it. The main thing that I gleaned was about how there is no right or no correct way to respond to trauma, and it’s completely different for everybody. It kind of has to be different for everybody because there’s no way of reading a book on recovery that says ‘if you do stage three like this and stage four like this, then in four months you’ll be absolutely fine’, it doesn’t work like that. I don’t think that’s a healthy approach to have towards trauma and I think that really applies to Kwame because some of the responses that he has are maybe quite predictable, or expected, and some of them are really not. And I felt that mimicked the reality of people’s experiences.”

I like how non-judgemental the writing feels when it comes to Kwame’s sexual freedom. Could you talk a bit about the way he uses Grindr, his relationship to it?

“I think it changes over the course of the series. Especially to begin with he’s fully in control of it and it’s about his expression, it’s a means for him to actualise. He lives his life on his own terms and his use of Grindr kind of facilitates that, so he can have hook-ups when he wants them and not when he doesn’t. But it feels like once he gets into this aftermath of what happens to him, and he’s trying to figure out a way to get himself back on a level playing field and process what’s happened in a way that allows him to move forward, he starts needing it as a kind of crutch, like sex becomes to him a means of making himself feel in control of himself. Or making himself feel valued or making himself feel worth something. It becomes something that ironically is a little bit more out of control than it is to begin with. Which is why when he comes into contact with Tyrone in the tenth episode I think he’s almost blindsided by the idea that what’s being suggested to him is something more fulfilling, or something more worthwhile and something more disconnected to the more consumer like pick it up and drop it off when you want approach that he’s had to sex up until then. It takes a lot for him to properly see that and feel that and give himself up to that. I think that’s a big moment for him.”

Yes, it’s interesting because I was thinking you obviously have quite a lot of sex scenes as Kwame in the series, but probably the most intensely intimate scene is between him and Tyrone, played by Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, when he’s made Kwame dinner and a cocktail.

“Yeah, one hundred percent and he’s just not ready for it. That’s why you see him reacting to it, he thinks it’s a prank or he thinks it’s a joke, or he thinks it’s part of the erotics of the scene. But when it turns out that it’s something real and it’s someone showing genuine kindness or tactility towards him, it’s a big thing to allow yourself to give yourself to it if you don’t think that’s something that you’re necessarily worthy of. I feel like in his mind he’s making a big leap into the unknown, but he really needs it. The whole second half of the series he’s desperate for something that’s safe and something that’s assured and something that’s caring, so when he asks for a hug it feels like that’s what he’s been wanting to say for six episodes before that and it just comes out of him.”

And I think that feels very true, with something like Grindr that allows people to find sex quite easily it is harder to find a hug weirdly and that’s sometimes what a lot of people are actually really looking for. It’s also just that discovery of what are you actually looking for isn’t it.

“Yes, I think he’s making that discovery in the moment to himself, he doesn’t even know that that’s what he needs until he says it and until he meets this guy.”

Earlier in the year at the GALECA LGBTQ Critics Dorian Awards Olivia Wilde, who is obviously an actor and a filmmaker too, was saying that she felt directors should be sensitive enough not to need to use intimacy coordinators for sex scenes and that it was offloading their responsibility on to someone else to some degree. It is quite a specialised job on the other hand isn’t it and I wondered what your take on that was as I know you worked with an intimacy coordinator on the sex scenes in I May Destroy You.

“I think it’s interesting that she says that because I personally just don’t really see how it can negatively impact the work you’re trying to create. Other than the fact that it costs money to have an intimacy coordinator, I just don’t see how it’s a bad thing and I don’t think you would say the same of any other type of scene that required anything specialist like a fight scene or a dance scene. I was watching I, Tonya the other day, and you’d never not have an ice-skating specialist on set. For the actor, it’s amazing because it takes the pressure off you. It allows everyone to know exactly what is happening, when it happens, and so you’re not distracted by the fact that you’re worried about someone might touch you in a place that you don’t feel comfortable being touched, or you might touch someone in a place that they might not feel comfortable being touched. That’s all taken care of, so you can just focus on doing the actual scene. So I think it’s interesting that she said that because I honestly can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t use one.”

I know it’s not the case with this series, but I think that she was just concerned that it might allow a director to get away with being less sensitive in dealing with their actors, or that a director should have the sensitivity to be able to work with the actors on those scenes themselves without bringing in someone from outside the production.

“It’s really important to realise that we weren’t working with an intimacy coordinator in isolation. The director is completely entwined in that process. Before we even get to physically doing it there’s a big conversation between the director and the coordinator and the performers and the cameraperson. So I think the responsibly is still on the director to have a sensitivity to the delicacy of the situation, as any good director should do, and if a director doesn’t have that then they’re not doing their job.”

And in terms of the gay sex that depicted on the series, it’s not unusual for HBO in the US, but one of the things I find exciting about I May Destroy You being on BBC One in the UK is that it wasn’t very long ago, well during my lifetime at least, that there were questions in Parliament and media outrage in reaction to a same sex peck on the head on Eastenders in a scene with Michael Cashman as Colin and Gary Hailes as Barry. Back in 1987.

“1987. Just over thirty years ago, wow.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Othello. Photograph by Tristram Kenton.

From conversations online and in various publications it seems like a lot of people have been excited to see aspects of themselves in Kwame and what he goes through because it’s so rare that we see depictions of Black queer characters on screen, especially with such authenticity. I wondered when you saw a screen portrayal or maybe something in a play where you thought, oh, finally I’m represented in this and I feel seen. Is there something that stands out to you?

“I suppose being a Black man, like I said I never went to theatre or anything when I was a kid, and I hated Shakespeare so much, I thought it was so boring and so elitist and so exclusionary. But I remember being taken to see Othello at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007 and Chiwetel Ejiofor was playing Othello and I remember just being like, I didn’t even know there were Black characters in Shakespeare, but this guy is so much better than everyone else in this play and this is theatre, this isn’t The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or whatever, this is theatre. That forced me to change my own expectations of myself and of theatre and that came from seeing someone who I was like ‘oh, I recognise you, you’re doing something I want to do and you kind of look like me, so maybe that makes this possible for me to do it as well.”

By James Kleinmann

The first episode of I May Destroy You is available for free via HBO here. Catch up on episodes 1 to 5 on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and HBO Max. New episodes air Mondays at 9pm ET / 9:30pm PT on HBO.

HBO has set up a resource website, imdyresouces.com, for those effected by sexual violence and other themes explored in the series.

I May Destroy You | Official Teaser | HBO
I May Destroy You – Official Poster

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