Apart from a brief stopover a few years ago, this is Michaela Coel’s first time in Los Angeles. And it’s pouring out. Not by LA standards, either—this is an apocalyptic, raining-sideways kind of storm.
Yet Coel hardly seems to mind: as sheets of water pummel the floor-to-ceiling windows of this nondescript conference room in Burbank, someone delivers the bread-and-olive oil snack that the outspoken—but by no means healthy, she insists—vegan requested. She abruptly loses her train of thought to it in the most charmingly on-brand manner possible:
“Woo, great, bread! Thank you so much,” she says, pulling the plate towards her. “Oh my god, it's so warm. Thank you so much, oh, amazing. Thank you. Oh my god, this is perfect bread.”
It’s this weird, over-the-top, yet deeply relatable enthusiasm that has made audiences fall in love with Coel, now 29, repeatedly since she entered the public eye, first as a slam poet, playwright and stage actor in the U.K., and then, in 2015, as the showrunner, writer, and star of the celebrated, semi-autobiographical, half-hour comedy Chewing Gum. She can turn almost anything she says into a good joke with a slight tweak of her facial expression, whether it’s raising her eyebrows and bugging out her eyes or turning her big grin into a pasted-on, please-kill-me grimace. This, coupled with her brand of gangly, often-taboo slapstick—which seems to come as naturally to her as walking or talking—makes it hard not to think of her as a comedy legend-in-the-making.
But for the moment, she’s on vacation from all that—Chewing Gum’s second season just finished its U.K. run, and she’s earned the break. Soulquarius, a R&B festival featuring Erykah Badu, DMX and Willow Smith, is going down this weekend. For Coel, it was the perfect excuse to visit—and to finally hang out with Issa Rae, the creator and star of the also-critically-hailed HBO series Insecure. As the only two millennial black women in Hollywood who write, run, and star in their own TV shows about eccentric, hilariously awkward protagonists navigating young adulthood, it was virtually impossible to avoid each other. (Luckily, they also organically clicked.)
Unfortunately, however, the sky is falling today, just as Chewing Gum season two hit Netflix, in the U.S. and internationally, on April 4. So perhaps it’s not so bad that her agents suggested she take on some meetings and interviews—and a couple photo shoots—at the offices of the production company that distributes her show internationally.
“This is the easy day, the day where it's just: chat to people, put on some clothes, boom!” Coel explains, gesturing to the hairstylist packing up her things from the shoot they just finished. “I got a free wig—hello. Come on!"
She’s got a free hoodie, too: a blonde Netflix employee dropped by earlier to offer Coel the official swag, along with a few starstruck compliments, a selfie request, and an assurance that should she want anymore Netflix stuff, to just ask. Coel loves it.
“This is the first time, doing the work side of LA. It's way different from London,” she explains. “We’re very polite in London. You don't go tipping over into anybody else's department. But people here are like, ‘I'm gonna fucking call this person, cut out the middle-man, because we've got to [get it done].’ The first day I came here, I was like, ‘This is like an episode of Black Mirror.’ It was so surreal.”
It’s funny she would mention Black Mirror, since that’s the other thing you might remember Coel from. In the dystopian show’s latest season, she plays the sickly-sweet, passive-aggressive airline employee who keeps a desperate Bryce Dallas Howard from boarding a flight to her frenemy’s wedding. Since then—and especially since winning two BAFTAs for Chewing Gum in 2016, for Breakthrough Talent for Writing and Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme—Coel has become an increasingly omnipresent character in the public eye, from her delightfully energetic Twitter and Instagram accounts to her fierce Guardian op-eds about Adele’s Beyoncé nod at the Grammys.
“Everyone, suddenly, was respecting me."
In real life, Coel doesn’t talk as quickly as her Chewing Gum avatar, but it’s a pretty close call. A Beyoncé-obsessed twenty-something in the vein of kindred oddballs like My Mad Fat Diary’s Rae Earl and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch, the shameless (and regrettably still-virginal) chatterbox Tracey Gordon narrates her working-class life through the fourth wall as she bounces along, from abandoning her family’s Pentecostal beliefs to navigating a weirdo relationship with a weirdo white boyfriend, to seeking a career beyond her mini-mart job. In addition to the myriad micro-aggressions of everyday existence, Coel has described her own history with religious evangelism at length, including leaving it—and the loved ones she converted along the way, including her ex-boyfriend and Ghanaian mother.
The show’s addictively energetic pace—which fuses ping-pong dialogue with the beyond-cringeworthy slapstick that ensues when an East London girl enters the world with absurdly high expectations and the naïveté of a religious upbringing—made the six-episode series a sleeper hit with viewers and critics alike when it popped up on Netflix internationally in 2016. But if you ask Coel, she’ll tell you the show’s high velocity wasn’t necessarily intentional.
“I over-write!” she explains. Her scripts, which should run about 24 pages (the industry standard is one page per minute), have gotten as long as 34. It made the editing process agonizing, but the team adapted. “I'm always like, ‘No, you guys are just not speaking as fast as my characters. I'm gonna say this really quickly, and this is all just action, guys—it's fine.’”
Things were a bit different for this season. Though Coel repeated the writing ritual she began with season one by leaving town—this time to Cornwall and Berlin—to draft the next installment of Tracey’s life in isolation, this time she had two major awards, the support of a Netflix success, and the confidence of a year’s experience in her back pocket. Season two still took a bit longer than her producers would have preferred — “I was like, ‘What can I do?’ I write the show by myself; I don't have a team of people to bounce ideas off.” But when she finally returned, it was without protest. For once.
“Last year, they were like, ‘It's too fucking long, Michaela.’ This time, they were like, ‘She won two BAFTAs, we can't really say anything!’” she remembers. “Everyone, suddenly, was respecting me. Apart from that, the new season was a level up. The guarantee of a Netflix release, coupled with the fact that a six-episode season flies by in under three hours, meant she didn’t have to worry about holding a streaming audience’s attention. Suddenly, she was safe to experiment with the show’s structure. With her central characters (Tracey, her mother Joy, her sister Cynthia, best friend Candice, now-ex-boyfriend Connor) already established, she wrote without worrying about convention.
“[With the first season] there was a very strict way of, this is the way comedy works, structurally. Everything has to wrap off by the end of the episode,” she explains. This time, however, “I was like, ‘You know what? I can afford to start a story, and not finish it by the end of the episode. I can afford to leave cliffhangers.’ There are some parts of episode six, if you haven't watched five, you will not get what the fuck's going on.”
The result is just as horrifyingly funny and painfully relatable as its predecessor: Tracey, who leaves home pantsless with Connor, her now ex-boyfriend, at the end of season one, has returned as though nothing has happened. BFF Candice is not speaking to her, she’s not welcome at home until she can prove she’s right with the Lord, and Connor is now seeing a white woman Tracey likens to a hyena. The show takes her “back to the dark places” Coel had to cut from season one, including a fancy sex party (with her cousin), a humiliating encounter with racist fetishes, and a dog-sitting adventure that gets real weird, real quick. Microaggressions still abound, but now, so do a few daddy issues. Coel describes writing it as “walking an unruly dog”: “You stop being able to determine where [it goes], and then it ends, and you’re like, ‘That's fucked up. That's really fucked up.’”
That unruly and fucked-up dog is, to her, the best work she’s ever done. “The day [the first episode] aired [in the UK] I didn't feel any massive fear,” she says, shrugging. “I was really confident. I had so much adrenaline. I was like, no, I'm good. This baby's going out, it's going to be great. It's gonna be glorious. She's beautiful. My child is beautiful.”
Coel still has some time before her success becomes a nuisance. Outside of Chewing Gum, that Black Mirror bit part is her most recognizable role thus far (to Americans, anyway; she also stars in another Brit show, The Aliens). But that won’t be for long, she was recently cast in the film adaptation of British musical Been So Long, and, she spent a few days on the UK set of the upcoming Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi, though she refuses to even call it a cameo. “I'm so serious. It's literally, I [sit] on the spaceship and I say three words. And they probably didn't even make the movie.”
Anyway, running her own show, from writing and casting through post-production, is keeping her busy enough for now (while still allowing for music festival breaks). She’s just coming into her own with it, and seems to be enjoying riding the wave as it comes.
“For the first time in my life, I was papped [followed by the paparazzi] yesterday. I was papped! It was the most bizarre thing,” she says in disbelief, her cockney lilt crackling. “Yesterday—I was outside [a bar], having a chat, and this guy jumped out of a car. He's like, ‘I loved Chewing Gum!’”