Michaela Coel on her genre-spanning career and how ‘I May Destroy You’ became a comedy

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Back when she was in drama school, Michaela Coel grew tired of acting in the same-old period pieces. So often set in the predominately white worlds of the past, these plays just weren’t relatable for Coel. So, she began to write her own.

“At that time, I didn’t feel like I was able to authentically portray [those types of roles],” said Coel—the multi-talented English actress, screenwriter, director, producer, poet, and singer––who spoke at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen virtual summit on Tuesday. “I started writing stuff that I felt I could do. So, that was the beginning. In my final year of drama school, I wrote a play called Chewing Gum Dreams.”

Chewing Gum Dreams would eventually lead to the hit Netflix comedy Chewing Gum, a two-season show which Coel also wrote and starred in. While working on the show, Coel suffered a personal tragedy––a sexual assault––which ultimately served as the inspiration for her next project.

“Quite quickly, I knew I wanted to write something, maybe in a way to process it, maybe in a way to distance myself from it,” Coel said. “My agent at the time managed to set me a meeting with HBO Comedy. I’m not sure how I actually was allowed into those offices, because I hadn’t really done much yet.”

Out of that meeting came Coel’s latest television hit, I May Destroy You, which she wrote, co-directed, executive produced, and starred in as a fictionalized version of herself. However, Amy Gravitt, executive vice president of HBO Comedy Programming, who spoke alongside Coel at Tuesday’s summit, remembers that original meeting a little differently.

“We were begging to meet with you and were thrilled that you were coming into town,” Gravitt said to Coel. “Just given the subject matter, I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I want to work with her so badly.’”

Gravitt said she didn’t think there was any way that the show, which focuses on a woman piecing together the memories of a sexual assault, would end up as a comedy rather than a drama. But after writing an average of 10 drafts per episode to get it right, Coel said she was confident she had successfully woven humor into the seriousness of the plot.

“I always knew that it was going to be funny, that I wanted it to be funny,” Coel said. “I remember that was one of the things I said when [I] first met with [Amy]. … I don’t think anyone was convinced by it until the actors started to say the script.”

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