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Michaela Coel: Our leading lady

UNSTOPPABLE: Michaela Coel’s career has been going from strength
to strength

MICHAELA COEL is in a league of her own. The 31-year-old actress screen- writer and poet is known for her ability to innovate, push boundaries and champion black talent in a way that is celebrated among her peers and fans alike.

“All I can do is open the door I have. I never leave it closed and I try to serve the people coming after me rather than not thinking about them,” she says.

DETERMINATION

Michaela Coel was born and raised in London to Ghanaian parents, and states her love of the arts started at an early age and continued throughout the years as she worked regular jobs to keep pursuing her dreams.

“I was a cleaner at a food court, I was a cleaner at a bank – I worked normal jobs and for a period of time I was sleeping in my car.

“But those things didn’t matter to me because I was so consumed in my art and that’s were all my attention went,” says Coel.

And that determination proved successful with the Londoner’s breakthrough TV series Chewing Gum, which catapulted her into the public sphere following its debut in 2015.

The show, starring and written
by Coel, became a cult hit and showcased black womanhood in a different scope, which transcended stereotypes and assumptions often placed upon them.

“Chewing Gum was my baby,” recalls Coel. “With that, it was a bit like watching your kids graduate – you’re very happy but also incredibly emotional.”

Since Chewing Gum, the Bafta winner has seen a meteoric rise to success, starring in projects including the Rwandan genocide-inspired drama Black Earth Rising and her most recent project, musical movie Been So Long which was originally a stage play written by Che Walker in 1998.


MUST WATCH: Michaela Coel with Arinze Kene in Been So Long

“When it comes to taking on a role, it’s never that I’m looking for a particular thing to do, but I’m looking at the stories and the affects,” says Coel.

“I want to do something that communicates a meaningful message that might do something to the audience. I don’t
know what it’ll do, but it does something when I read it and I want to be a part of delivering that to the person watching.”

And her latest project certainly does just that. Coel plays a
single mother, Simone , who falls for unexpected love interest Raymond, played by Arinze Kene.

And it wasn’t just the appeal of seeing two black British leads singing their way around authentic Camden that drew Coel’s attention.

“There wasn’t a script when I joined the cast but I’m very familiar with the play and the soundtrack – I’ve been listening to it since it came out,” Coel reveals.

“Che Walker, the writer of the film, brought me into the industry, Arinze Kene I’ve known for 10 years and Ronke Adekoluejo, who plays Yvonne, is my best friend of like five years. So there were many pulls [to accepting the job].”

CAMARADERIE

This commonality and camaraderie among the cast plays brilliantly on screen as the authentic energy among the cast – Arinze and Michaela in particular – is hard to ignore.
“A lot of Been So Long is improvised. We had three weeks of improvisation and all of it was recorded,” she says. “It was really different and I’ve never done anything like it before.”

This unfamiliarity proved both a benefit and a challenge for Coel, who took on acting, singing and dancing to play the role of Simone – all talents that the Ghanaian-Brit has developed at one time during her creative history.

“When they offered me the role I said, ‘You really need to hear me sing because you don’t know whether my voice is good or not’, and they said, ‘Oh no, we’ve seen videos of you singing’.”

“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that was from nine years ago, so you really need to hear me sing’,” laughs Coel. “The singing for me was a challenge for sure but the director liked the brokenness of my voice, which was kind of a voice that is trying to survive and the character is trying to survive. So they saw those parallels and saw it as how much range and power I have.”

Those similarities between Coel and her character extended beyond her vocals. “I think Simone kind of built this facade of impenetrable independence and for a period of my life - probably around the time I was shooting - that was a lot of me," she shares.

But also she does let herself be vulnerable and allow herself to love at the risk of pain and I think I’ve taken that with me.”

Coel’s demeanour – both bubbly and fierce, vulnerable and strong – encapsulates the reason why she receives praise from fellow black women who see themselves in this leading lady – a role that is rarely occupied by dark-skinned black women from the UK.

“I think about what my presence in this industry as a dark skin black woman represents every single day throughout the whole day,” says Coel.

“But I love being aware of that because I want to give a mes- sage that will feed people. I want to be of benefit and make this space comfortable for other people to come in and play and be creative.”

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