Michaela Coel tells Gemma Dunn about her latest BBC One drama, I May Destroy You.

Whether writing it or starring in it, Michaela Coel has made a career out of making distinct, bold choices - and her latest self-penned drama is no different. She tells Gemma Dunn more.

In 2018, Michaela Coel decided she wanted to write a drama about consent.

The starting point, she said, would be the rape of a woman in a nightclub, from which she would broaden the story out into a wider examination of gender, race, sex and exploitation.

Fast forward two years - and many drafts later - her forward-thinking has led her to I May Destroy You; a fearless, frank, provocative 12-part series, snapped up by HBO and BBC One.

"It started just like with other things that I write - so like Chewing Gum and like my poetry, it's grounded in some source of reality," begins 32-year-old Coel, who created, executive-produced, co-directed and stars in the piece.

"Something inspired me from real life and then as I began to ask other people questions, both women and men, I realised that I wasn't alone in wondering why the lines of consent were always blurred - there were so many different experiences.

"So, I took on the challenge of creating a show where I explored how different forms of sexual consent can be stolen."

I May Destroy You is reportedly inspired by Coel's own experience of sexual assault by strangers in 2016 - an incident that happened whilst writing for her semi-autobiographical Bafta award-winning hit comedy Chewing Gum.

"It was horrific," Coel told Vogue.com last year of the incident. "I needed two and a half years away from the event to write about it." Of engaging with fans on Instagram who have also suffered a similar trauma, she added: "I really wish to give this as a gift to them."

It's even more crucial, then, that she was allowed to tackle the subject with candour.

"From the very beginning, I had the easiest time ever!" she says of the process. "I didn't have to write a treatment, I didn't have to write a pilot; I went in and I met Piers [Wenger, controller of BBC Drama] and we spoke - well, I basically spoke at him for an hour about what I wanted to do - and he said, 'Okay'.

"He then emailed me saying, 'We want to give you a green light straight to series and you can make this as near to the knuckle and as honest and as true to your voice as you want'," Coel remembers. "And they really stayed true to that email. Then HBO joined, and they were also brilliant.

"What was quite tricky, I guess, is the process of redrafting. I loved every second of it, but it wasn't easy. It was a labour of love."

The series itself follows London-based writer Arabella (Coel), who finds herself feted as the 'voice of her generation,' with an agent, a book commission and a helluva lot of pressure.

But life as she knows it is flipped on its head when she's spiked with a date-rape drug and sexually assaulted in a nightclub, leaving the usually carefree millennial to reassess everything from her career to her friends, and even her family.

In addition to the question of sexual consent, it explores how, in our modern landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation, the synopsis reads.

While Coel leads the cast, she is joined by the likes of Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Adam James, Sarah Niles and Ann Akin, among others.

"For Arabella, it's about how it impacts her - that's the main thing I'm exploring," Coel reiterates. "This show is about how trauma changes you, affects you, contorts you, suppresses you, reduces you, makes you explode."

Of her research, she follows: "I did speak to people but sometimes it would be something as small as hearing a sentence on a bus and creating a plot line from it.

"I also spoke to my stepmum, who works at a sexual assault referral unit; I spoke to the Wellcome Trust; to psychologists about PTSD, about drug-facilitated sexual assaults, about how drugs can affect memory - but I have to say it is a fictional show."

To orchestrate the sex scenes and create a safe space on set for the entire cast, Coel recruited acclaimed intimacy co-ordinator Ita O'Brien.

"When we were doing rehearsals with Ita, during some of the [other actor's sex] scenes, I would say to my co-director, Sam [Miller], 'Come on, let's try it and do what they're doing so we can feel that it's safe'," she recalls.

"Because it also then takes away this line of directors watching actors do things; it was like, 'No, no, get stuck in and try it too'.

"I think you have to be willing as content makers, now more than ever, to change things the minute you sense discomfort in actors," she notes. "It's about seeing, 'Does this person seem a little bit uncomfortable?' and going in and checking.

"I don't know if we're always going to get it right, but the point is we have to keep relentlessly trying to make sure that by the time this comes on TV, the actors feel proud rather than cringing at a memory where they had to do something that they felt uncomfortable doing, because it ruins it for them.

"We also had a therapist on retainer, so she was paid to just be there if anybody ever wanted to talk to her," confides Coel, who also starred as the lead in Hugo Blick's hit BBC drama series Black Earth Rising.

"In case it started to feel overwhelming or triggered memories for anyone - even people in the crew."

While a second series is not yet considered, next Coel hopes to revisit an invitation from her screenwriting inspiration Jesse Armstrong - when safe to do so, of course!

"I'm a big fan of Succession and a few months before lockdown, I bumped into him!" she shares excitedly. "I asked him if I could shadow him in his writing room, just to see how he does that, how he runs a table.

"I've never been in a writers' room; I've never worked with another writer!" she exclaims. "But I'm so blown away by Succession and Peep Show, obviously, that it's like, 'I want to see how you do it?'

"He said I could but obviously things have changed," she accepts.

"Maybe in the future I'll be allowed to peep over his shoulder and see how he works... [and other than that] I have always adored Hugo Blick - and ironically enough by 32, I've already ticked that off my bucket list, which is crazy!"

I May Destroy You starts on BBC One on Monday, 10.45pm.