Michaela Coel On Her Brilliant Show ‘Chewing Gum’
Photo Courtesy of Netflix.28 November 2016
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There’s a line in Chewing Gum where the main character, Tracey Gordon, tells the audience about her fear of kissing a white person. “I always thought white people were bad kissers and it's not their fault; it's just that they’ve got really small lips… and then they try to compensate for the lack of lips with the tongue, and then the tongue just ends up everywhere just flapping about, you get my drift?” It’s one of many no-holds-barred lines from the British comedy, and one of many instances in the show that writer, creator, and star Michaela Coel pulled from her own life experience for.
“It's something that I think about. I look at the size of somebody’s lips and I look at my humongous lips, and I'm like, 'How would that work?'” she tells us. “I have tried it and it does work, it's great… I had just kissed the first white guy I'd ever kissed just before I wrote that line and he was a fucking great kisser and he had no lips. And he was brilliant.”
Chewing Gum is a year-old across the Atlantic, but just arrived stateside via Netflix this month. It’s not necessarily a narrative most Americans are familiar with: It tells the story of Gordon, a 24-year-old ultra-religious virgin, as she navigates life on her estate with her evangelical Christian mother, sister, and boyfriend.
On the complete opposite side, we also have Candice, Coel’s most vulgar creation (“sit your bare pussy on his face and if he doesn’t open his mouth, just hold his nose,” she advises) and Gordon’s biggest hymen-breaking advocate. It’s the diverse characters and their many layers that help make the show so great, but it's also Coel’s genius approach to taboo topics like sex, race, and religion—and the fact that she’s not afraid to make viewers uncomfortable—that bring it over the top.
Ahead, we talk to the rising star about the show, her recent BAFTA wins, and so much more.
I watch a lot of British shows, and I feel like you guys get away with a lot more on TV than we can. Were you worried that the show wouldn’t be received in the same way?
You know, I really don't think that. I think Americans can totally do a show like Chewing Gum, for sure. I mean, yes, some people might ridicule you and tell you your taste is vulgar or whatever, but there are always going to be people like that. I think you tend to be limiting yourself. I think you just have to write the story you want to write. I don't think there are any American writers out there that want to be disgusting and embarrassing and crude, but you bloody do it.
The show is loosely based on your own life and experience. How did you go from being this militant Christian to getting into comedy?
I pretty much just went from being religious to not being religious and doing the things that I had wanted to do, but couldn't do. It happened because I went to drama school. I had to spend eight hours a day with people from all walks of life who were very liberal, free people. Rubbing up so closely with them, I realized there is nothing wrong with them; I don't feel the need to tell them they need Jesus... I want to be friends with some of these people because some of them are fucking just incredible. That is what made me drift from the church. I'd go back to church and listen to sermons, and I’d be questioning all this stuff and be like, "Technically what's so bad about being gay? I don't really get it!" After that, I couldn't sit in church anymore. I just couldn’t believe it, and then I became the sex-deprived freak that you see on your Netflix.
The show has a lot of awkward sex scenes. What's the most uncomfortable part about filming those in front of a crew?
You know what? That stuff is so much more comfortable than actually playing a serious sex scene and playing, like, actually sensual in front of a crew. Screaming, licking eyebrows, and that stuff is so fine. Everyone is just laughing. That's what I love about these kinds of sex scenes in the show; it's just fun when it's embarrassing kind of sex. I have never done sex scenes properly, like when I had to actually not be embarrassing myself. I think that would be a lot harder.
It takes the pressure off a bit.
Yeah, and I was lucky. The guy that plays Connor, I think we exchanged names, and the next thing I was doing was literally sitting on his face; he was just wonderful, he didn't hesitate at all. Very brave cast.
What I love about the show is you manage to normalize these often taboo topics that everybody has feelings about but never really vocalizes. Have you always been fairly open when it comes to sex, or did your views on sex change at all with the making of this show?
I think I have always been curious about whether other people were feeling the same things that I felt. When I was in school, I would talk to girls in school about masturbation and about, like, the throbbing that you get in your knickers when someone is flirting with you and stuff. And I went to a school where people were all quite open with that kind of stuff. I only got the sense that it wasn't entirely normal when I did the show. People were like, "Whoa, that's crazy!" and I was like, "Really? I thought everybody was talking about this shit." I am the complete opposite of a prude.
You and Issa Rae (the creator of HBO’s Insecure) obviously have totally different approaches to humor, but what’s great about both of your work is that you show black women who are imperfect. A lot of the characters on TV who are black women have to be strong and perfect and have their shit together. It’s refreshing to see black women who aren't monolithic.
Yeah, definitely, I mean that's the kind of women I am surrounded by. I am kind of repelled by women that do nothing. That kind of woman that I see in TV shows, I hate her. I have no time for that woman whose whole life is being in love with this guy who gives her everything and she has been waiting her whole life for this guy and how life is great. That girl can stay away from me because she won't like me and I won't like her. I know I am surrounded by heroes—all the women I know of all different colors and sizes and whatever are heroes, and those are the roles that I want to write for women. I don't think I would know how to write another kind of woman.
I know Cynthia Erivo has a very brief guest spot in the first season.
Yes! I've known her for over 10 years; she's a very good friend of mine. [In] that scene, which I don't think we've ever seen four black female actresses in one scene in Britain in the history of television, they're all personal friends of mine.
Did you approach Chewing Gum wanting to write a "black show," or is it just a show that happened to be loosely based off of your life as a black woman?
If I was white, Tracey would be white. The show is a diverse show; I am not even sure if there are more black people in the show than anyone else. It's London as I know it, which is not black, it's not white. I know everyone, I know every shade of person, and that's the show that I wrote. If anything, it's very female-led. There are women of all different colors that lead the show. My best friend on the show’s grandma is white; she is a strong female lead. It's full of strong women. It delves into race issues occasionally because I am black, but I wasn't setting out to write a black show. Simply by me writing the show as a black woman, which doesn't happen in Britain ever, I am already making that statement without having to really try to make the show brown or something.
Tracey talks to the camera a lot and breaks that fourth wall, which can sometimes come off as gimmicky, but you manage to make it work really flawlessly with the show. How did you decide that was something you were going to incorporate?
Well, my first way of performing was as a poet. So that is my natural habitat, it actually would've been odd if Tracey didn't talk to the camera for Chewing Gum. That's just the way I have always done it, was to talk to an audience. The other thing is whenever she talks to the camera, we find out a little bit that we wouldn't find out if she didn't talk to the camera. We find out either she is lying about how she feels about something, that she is lying to herself, that there is something another character should know but doesn't know. If we took out the camera, the show wouldn't make sense anymore, so maybe that's how the show manages to get away with being gimmicky in that every time she talks to the camera it is very necessary.
The music on the show is very old-school hip-hop and R&B, and, obviously, Tracey is a huge fan of Beyoncé. When you sit down to write, what’s your soundtrack like?
Oh, what a lovely question! I listen to lots of, well, I call this genre of music electro-chill. George Maple is an amazing artist, Petit Biscuit; I like Apple Music a lot. When I write, I listen to a lot of classical music. On Apple Music, you just select what kind of music you want to hear, and I will either listen to chill or classical when I'm writing.
You won two BAFTAs recently. Congratulations, that's huge! Do you think you have more confidence or clout after winning them?
In terms of my thoughts about the show and myself, before and after the BAFTAs, they haven't changed. I find, when it comes to praise, I kind of have to accept it and then throw it away completely because I cannot let what other people think of me inform how I feel about myself because very quickly and all too often people's opinions change. And then, if I become reliant on that, then my opinion will change of myself. So, it was fucking wonderful and lovely, but I can't let that give me anything because it means that it can take something away from me. It's an honor and I know I'm a part of a very small group of people in the world to be awarded one, let alone two, awards. But if I want to keep making work, if I want to keep making good work, and if I want to be healthy in my mind, I have to just accept that that was mine, give it to my mom who is over the moon, and keep making work and keep doing what I do.
Your show, for me, acted as a sort of reprieve and comedic relief from the political turmoil that’s been happening lately. I know that you’ve been following the U.S. election and its aftermath very closely, are there things you’ve turned to in order to shut everything out?
What I turned to was Solange's album. I hadn't really listened to it before, but it took on a whole new meaning after that fucking hell of a Trump. I was crying all day and the day after that. I was inconsolable. Literally, as if someone had set my family's house on fire; it really hit me, to the point where I couldn't really leave the house. I was gutted, really, because of the personal attacks. We live in a fucked-up world, and we always have. I've had David Cameron here, we have Brexit, people will gain followers who preach greed and if they say, "Look, you can keep everything you have, you can get even more, fuck sharing." This attracts people because we live in a time where that's what we value the most. We value possessions, we value money, and we're terrified of losing those things. So, the minute anyone capitalizes on that, they're going to get a bunch of followers. We rise in times like that and we fight and we make the most out of the situation we're in.
But it's the personal attacks that really got to me. The fact that there are a bunch of evil people in the world who are using this as an excuse to hurt. That is when my heart breaks because I'm sure even if Trump himself knew the things people were doing to other people, he would be broken hearted as well. There are a lot of evil people in the world, and a lot of them came out to play after the election. So, that was very hard, but Solange's album gave me something quite cathartic, there was something quite relieving about it. So, I played that a lot.
Where do you hope to bring Tracey for the second season?
I think she's grown up a tiny little bit—a tiny bit [laughs]. I definitely did push the uncomfortable nature of the series. So, if you really struggled with the first one, I would probably tell you to stay away from a couple of the episodes in this one, because they're a bit much. But also, it's very much the same. I managed to bring back all of the cast, which is incredible and I've also had a lot of fun. Tracey's got a new friend, he's in the first series, and is in it so much more. He's a very colorful, flamboyant guy and he is in the second series a lot more than he was in the first one. There are loads of new faces for this series. I've been pretty bold, and I guess I'll figure out how that plays out in January.