HBO

How 'I May Destroy You' co-star Paapa Essiedu helped make the year's most poignant new series

In I May Destroy You, the critically acclaimed series from Michaela Coel, thorny questions about sexuality, consent, and authorship are unfurled with a stunningly imaginative flare. Coel, who also stars in the series, unpacks a singular moment — a sexual assault at a nightclub — to a near subatomic level. I May Destroy You's finale, which airs this week in the United States, offers the type of emotional resolution no series has accomplished to date. In fact, over the course of the show's 12 episodes, a robust picture of how trauma seeps out into the world, from carriers to hosts and everyone in between, gives way to a novel understanding of how we interact with each other.

Paapa Essiedu, who plays Kwame on the show, is a personal friend of Coel's both on and off the screen. Their characters parallel each other, too. Midway through the series, a Grindr date goes awry, forcing Kwame to come to a deeper understanding of his own trauma. Though, not without some bumps along the way.

Ahead of the show's finale, Essiedu spoke with Mic about working on the year's most poignant series.

The series has concluded in the UK and now in the US. So, you must've experienced this whole phenomenon twice over.

Yeah, in a way. Probably more than twice over, maybe like 10 times over. Because obviously, I experienced the first time when I read it and then you experience it doing it. And then it coming out for the first time, and then it coming out again. There's so many different stages of development and digestion of it. I'm glad that it's taken a little bit more time in the US.

How did you get involved with the project from the start?

Michaela's a friend of mine. We've been friends for a long time and went to drama school together and have been friends since. So, obviously I knew she was writing this thing and she's been writing it for so long. More importantly, I knew what she was writing about. That's where my focus was, thinking about what that would take out of her and how she was coping with that. We never spoke about the series or the character from the perspective of someone who's an actor.

Then I got a call from the casting director, not even from Michaela being like, "I don't know if you know Michaela Coel, but she's written this new thing. She wants you to be involved in it." And I was like, "Of course I know Michaela." Then I rang Michaela, and I was like, "Why am I getting calls from other people who are asking me to be in your thing?" It was a kind of roundabout way to get to it. But, we've got a really easy creative dialogue and relationship. So, from the jump-off, it felt like something that was really easy and fruitful.

The show is centered on first-generation immigrants sorting with these issues of sex and identity. What was your response to the script when you initially went through it.

It's interesting about children of West African immigrants, specifically on television. Because for me, that's me. That's me. That's my family. That's my friends. We do have these conversations and we do face these challenges, and so it felt right, and it felt very recognizable to me when I read it for the first time. But also, the show is really complex, and it's not done in the normal way that shows are done. It's not particularly linear or particularly plot-driven. There's lots of full flashbacks and et cetera. So when you read it for the first time, you're really thinking, "Wow, this is something different, and this is something that could work or could not work," but it felt real. And I felt that the characters were real and three dimensional and it felt exciting in its honesty. So, I didn't have to think twice.

But, I don't know who can judge someone who's in a moment of bouncing back from severe and unattended trauma.

Was there a moment during the filming process when you really felt like, "Oh, we have something here"?

I don't think any of us ever think in terms of, "Oh, this is definitely going to be a hit necessarily, or people are going to watch it or whatever." But we did have confidence in what we were making, and we understood the story that we were trying to tell and how we were trying to do it. That felt like something that was worth pursuing and investing time and energy into. All the way through the process, we thought that. But, it was a really good group of people, both front-of-the-camera, and behind-the-camera. It just felt like everyone was brilliant in the bigger roles, and in the smaller roles. Whenever someone turned up, they just smashed it. That's when you start to feel excited about the potential of how it might be received.

It's around episode four when Kwame goes through his own assault, what was your reaction to getting into that role of this character who goes through this challenge, from a male perspective, and also a queer perspective?

I immediately took a step back and tried to see Kwame and his journey from a removed perspective. From the top, I was really keen not to put any demands on Kwame or to make any definitive decisions about how he had to be, or how he didn't have to be. I think when you've got character on the page that has got so much freedom and flaws and life, I think it's the temptation is to be like, "Oh, he's definitely this kind of guy, and he definitely will respond in this way to that kind of thing and et cetera," but I really wanted to allow him to emerge organically. I always feel this for a characters anyway, but particularly this character, I just really wanted to make him real and really wanted to make him honest and authentic. I wanted to avoid any cliches or stereotypes of him. I wanted him to be someone with flaws and with good qualities and everything in between. So yeah, I was really lucky to be working with Michaela and everyone else that had the patience with me to be able to work in that way.

I felt that the characters were real and three dimensional and it felt exciting in its honesty. So, I didn't have to think twice.

Were there any parts that were challenging about getting into this role?

I think it's all challenging. I think it's very clear, or to me at least, it was very clear, what he was going through and who he was or at least the front that he was trying to put for himself, the mask he was trying to wear. And then the challenge is to dig deep and see what's percolating underneath. What is he like when he's by himself? What is he like when he doesn't feel at the center of attention? What is he like when, in those moments of quiet and silence and introspection and reflection? I think with time and patience, those things kind of emerged, and actually moved towards the front of what we were doing, and made up a big part of the character that you saw on the screen.

You come from a theater background, did you find yourself leaning into some of the skills from the traditional theater setting?

I guess that kind of pursuit of depth and that pursuit of nuance comes from a grounding in theater. Because obviously in theater you do a play, you do it again, and again, and again, and again. The idea is not to do it the same any night. So, you're always looking to push the work further and make it go deeper and become more nuanced and more truthful. There's something about that pursuit underpinning what was a five, six month shoot. It allowed me to continue searching really, as we got deeper and deeper into the shoot to find more layers and more nuance and depth to his character.

As the series progresses, you can see that as the viewer. Towards the end of the season, when Kwame goes on a date with a white woman, and almost flips the roles of what had happened to him prior. What did you think of that dynamic in that situation?

Yeah. I think that moment is like an intersection of a lot of different things. We're thinking about race politics, sex politics, gender politics. But, he's in a real moment of desperation, he's really, really desperately searching to re-empower himself in whatever way he can. And, there's so many instances up until that point in the show where he feels like he's been disempowered, and he's been invalidated, and his experience has been deeply undervalued and he wants to do whatever he can to wrestle that back for himself, which leads him into the situation in which he's like, "Maybe I can be with a woman in this way and well, okay. This woman is actually like treating me in a very questionable way, but let me just kind of like try and push through." And then they get down to actually having sex and he's triggered and reminded of what was done to him. Then he internalizes that and thinks, "Maybe this is the right thing to do," and tries to do it to her.

There's a lot happening, and I think he's in a moment of really fighting for survival. I think he might look back on it and think, "Yeah, maybe I made some decisions or allowed some things that I shouldn't have done." But, I don't know who can judge someone who's in a moment of bouncing back from severe and unattended trauma.

You guys worked with an intimacy coordinator, what was the experience like of working with someone whose job it was to make people comfortable on set?

I think it just makes sense really. We had a woman, Ita O'Brian, who was very thorough and attentive in her job. And of course the show, it delves into the scenes that require a lot of courage, or braveness, or vulnerability. There are ways to do those scenes and because we wanted it to do those scenes in the way that we did them, it was crucially important that we had someone who was going to allow the frameworks to be built around those scenes in the way that was safe, and allowed people to feel trust, trusted.

And ultimately it just allows you to focus on actually doing it. And, if you really want to cut to the vulnerability or cut to the truth, or the pain, or the fear of what's going on there, you need to make sure that you're always in the safest environment possible. And, our intimacy coordinator allowed that to happen. I can't imagine what it would have been like otherwise. I just can't imagine it.

Did you learn anything in the process of shooting the series? Did you come away with any sort of deeper understanding of trust and intimacy with others?

I think all of us learned a lot, like the fact that the show is not black and white, and it's kind of confronting questions around consent or questions around assault. There are certain things that you know, and there are certain things that you don't even know that you didn't know until that's put in front of you.

And for me, I'm on whatever my own journey of self-improvement or self-knowledge or awareness is. And, it'd be remiss for me not to be open and understanding of all of those things. But, I think all of us are learning as we go along.

What the biggest takeaway from the series is, as it wraps up.

I would say the series is generally looking at a lot of people's journeys towards self-love and self-acceptance, and there are many challenges and impediments along the way that will try and block you away from that. But, ultimately it's that love that will set you free, and allow you to be happy in yourself.

I think self-love is the real pursuit, and I feel that's more pertinent at a time like this than any other really.