If Michaela Coel isn’t soaking up the sweet smell of success at this point in her career, it’s only because she can’t smell anything. ‘I’ve had anosmia for three or four months now,’ she says of the mysterious condition that robs you of smell and taste. Is she fazed by it? ‘Not at all. I can’t smell my own shit. I can’t smell anybody’s shit! It’s kind of great.’
It’s the kind of unselfconscious, upbeat thing Tracey Gordon, the sex-starved, Beyoncé-worshipping character Coel wrote and played in her breakout TV show ‘Chewing Gum’ might say.
To the crushing disappointment of its army of fans, the cult show is all done now, but this east Londoner is just getting started. I catch up with her in a rare quiet moment to chat about her latest on-screen adventures: Netflix musical ‘Been So Long’, billed as Camden’s answer to ‘La La Land’, and gritty BBC thriller ‘Black Earth Rising’. She’s the brightest star of both of them, belting out tunes across NW1 in one and delivering a stonking turn as a Rwandan-born war crimes investigator in the other. She’s been in a ‘Star Wars’ movie too – if only briefly. ‘I had a line of dialogue in “The Force Awakens”,’ she says. ‘I had to say, “They found us.” It was pivotal.’
This summer, Cole gave the MacTaggart lecture – a kind of TED talk delivered to media bigwigs – and peppered it with deeply personal memories of growing up in Tower Hamlets, her experiences of racism and sexual assault, and her growing pains as an actress and playwright at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was candid, emotional and, for the assembled creative types, probably a bit chastening. Here was a young black woman with a lot to say telling a whole industry to hurry up and help her say it. In person, she talks fast, laughs loudly, and is a ton of fun to shoot the breeze with. She’s unlikely to forget her roots any time soon, either.
Has fame changed your life in London and the way you connect with people?
‘A lot of people find it harder to connect when their careers get prolific, but I find it easier. I feel so comfortable here. I had a period where I got very anxious but then I did a lot of thinking and I feel so grateful for the position I’m in. I see it as a beautiful way of serving the place I grew up in. It also means you’ve got a really big microphone, so it’s made me very careful in terms of the stories I create and the jobs that I pick. A lot of people are listening. It comes with lots of responsibility.’
So, no drunk tweeting, then?
‘No drunk tweeting! And even if I drunk tweet, I’ll just tell everyone, “I’m drunk, hey!” It’s just about being yourself.’
What was the cause of that anxiety? Was it professional or personal?
‘It was a mixture of both. [As you become famous] your professional life starts to change your personal life because your anonymity has gone and that can make you anxious. The only thing that makes me anxious now is when somebody grabs me before I know they’re there. Because I’m a small person, there’s an initial fear.’
Do people feel like a bit of you belongs to them?
‘A bit of me does belong to them, and I don’t think that’s bad. I think a bit of everybody belongs to everyone. A bit of the audience belongs to me; I think of them when I write. What I loved about “Chewing Gum” was people reading layers into your show that you only spot when they tell you. So much of writing is subconscious and it’s amazing when people help you figure out what you were talking about.’
I love that people now treat you as an unofficial sex advisor on social media. You had a tweet asking for advice on the protocol of dry-humping.
‘Oh, hilarious – and that was just one.’
What’s the weirdest thing someone has been in touch about?
‘I’ve been asked to send someone a picture of my feet! I get lovely messages from people saying they want to write and asking how to get started. I just tell them how I began and tell them to write down all their memories.’
Who was your Michaela Coel when you were a kid?
‘There wasn’t one. I never saw a black British working-class actress. Did I even see black women from the UK [on TV]? I know there was “Desmond’s” but I never saw that.’
What sitcoms did you grow up with?
‘I liked “The Golden Girls”, “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Girlfriends”. Those are my three favourite sitcoms.’
Did you always want ‘Chewing Gum’ to be a corrective to all those bleak on-screen portrayals of London estates?
‘I wanted to do a happier take. I had great times growing up – and bad times – and I wanted to do a show where everyone was together, regardless of their race or their religion. It’s not a black show or a white show, it’s just a show.’
Do people still ask about a third season?
‘Season 3 is 100 percent not happening but I get messages about it every day. Sometimes it’s “I miss ‘Chewing Gum’!” and sometimes it’s “Bitch, where the fuck is season 3?” I say, “Well, write one. Do your version.” It’s not my show any more but that’s a good thing.’
Tell me why you picked ‘Been So Long’.
‘It was the first musical I saw when I decided to become an actor. Ché Walker, the writer, let me watch at the back five or six times. I met my co-star in the film, Arinzé [Kene], through “Uncle Ché”. He’d do fundraisers for WAC – Weekend Art College – in Belsize Park and we’d perform to raise money for it. In the same way that “Chewing Gum” is my baby, this is his baby because he’s a working-class Camden guy. I wanted to give something back. Without him I wouldn’t be here.’
Did you know Camden well when you started on it?
‘I lived in Kentish Town in 2015. I lived with my ex in the attic of an apartment and if you stood in one spot and stretched out your arms and legs, you could be in every room at the same time. The toilet, the kitchen and the living room. I’m in a flat-share in Hackney now.’
Who’s in charge of the washing up?
‘We’ve got a really good system going. We never argue; it’s very chilled. We recently got two kittens: Merlin and Mystery.’
Will they stop you moving to Hollywood?
‘I’m very happy here. The minute you’re on TV everyone asks you when you’re moving. I did spend four days in LA once.’
That was your Hollywood era?
‘Basically [laughs]. No, I’m open [to it] but I don’t have a reason to go there. My metaphor for everything is a house and I don’t want to leave without tidying the bedroom to make sure it’s ready for the next guests. There are so many creative people in London, and opportunities are few and far between, so I want to make sure the floorboards are nice so they have longevity in this house. If I go away, I’d feel like I was leaving something behind. I like being here, it’s where I was born. I understand the people and the energy of London.’
There’s nowhere quite like Camden. Did you feel that strange energy when you were filming there?
‘Normally, where incredible things are happening, there are also really bad things happening. Camden is so lively: its music scene is incredible and it’s culturally diverse, but I remember filming there and seeing the newly homeless. People who are still processing that they’re homeless and they’re crying. That was quite… [pauses] I don’t even know the word. It was the shock of Camden reality into my system. I never did the parties when I lived there anyway, I was already past it.’
Did you have a party era?
‘Oh, yes! 2015, when I broke up with my boyfriend. I went way too far: stupid actor partying. Not joyous. I still like to dance but I’m happy to dance with the lights on now. I had a birthday party a few weeks ago and it was just loud music playing in a restaurant, the lights were on, there was an age range of 18 to late fifties. It was bloody brilliant.’
Where did you have it?
‘It was at a vegan restaurant called Mooshies on Brick Lane. I went there for the first time when I lived in Shoreditch, three years ago. I take all my meat-eating friends and they’re like, “Damn, this is really good.” Get the burger called Magic Mushroom.’
How do you feel about the way London has changed since you were a kid growing up in Whitechapel?
‘I’ve never seen a still London; it’s a very changing place. I grew up in scaffolding. I think eventually it will be good for everyone but it’s such a difficult one. I’ve spent periods of my life waiting for things to change – governments, schools or churches – but only in the last year I’ve realised that I can’t change other people, so what can I change?’
Where do you write?
‘I write everywhere from the bed to the toilet seat.’
You write on the loo?
‘Absolutely. Don’t touch my laptop, it has been in the loo. A lot.’
You don’t need your own space?
‘No. My favourite thing – and I did this on “Chewing Gum” – is writing among loads of people who don’t care that I’m there. I used to go to VQ, a 24-hour restaurant in west London, and stay there for two days without sleep, writing. It’s quite intense. I’m a bit like an addict, only the drug I was taking was the story.’
Do you have a favourite spot in the city?
‘Hackney Downs. I spent all of my teenage years there and now I’m living around the corner. People think it’s dangerous there – it’s not dangerous. It’s so nice. Sometimes I’ll go at 2am on my own, just to sit there.’
Is it true you injured your knee doing ‘Black Earth Rising’?
‘I tore my MCL [medial collateral ligament]. I fell in a gutter filming in Ghana – I walked straight into a four-and-a-half-foot hole. One leg went in and the other went [makes crunching noise]. I went to the hospital but I refused to take any days off. The show has real-life importance and the world it’s set in has endured more than that. It was not a problem for me: I had a knee brace and I’d take it off to run up and down stairs and jump around. I still have pain but I don’t regret it.’
What are you doing next year?
‘I’m writing a show for BBC Two, working title “January 22”. It’s about sexual consent and dating. It’s a bit of everything – cross-genre.
It hops and leaps all over the shop.’
What do you do when you’re not working?
‘I meditate, I do yoga. I really love TV. I’m watching “The House of Assad” and I recently watched a documentary series curated by Louis Theroux. I love “Better Call Saul”, too.’
Lastly, you’ve been in a ‘Star Wars’ movie. That’s very cool.
‘Very cool. That’s why I did it [laughs]. What’s it like being on a “Star Wars” set? Amazing. I went from that to doing the “USS Callister” episode on “Black Mirror”. I almost felt bad for them because they were like, “Look at our spaceship!” and I was like, “It’s great but I’ve been on ‘Star Wars’.” ’
Portraits: Andy Parsons
‘Been So Long’ is on Netflix now. ‘Black Earth Rising’ is available on BBC iPlayer.