"You know at the beginning she may feel that she has her life together, she has this pink wig, but the wig is falling apart, it's fraying," Michaela Coel tells PEOPLE

By Robyn Merrett
July 21, 2020 12:44 PM
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Michaela Coel as Arabella
HBO

I May Destroy You's creator, co-director and star Michaela Coel is opening up about her character Arabella's "symbolic" hair change.

As fans of the show recall, Arabella was introduced to viewers with a vibrant pink wig, but after being raped following a night out (when taking a break from work) and then sexually assaulted by a man she was having casual sex with, she decided to shave her head, a purposeful switch-up meant to represent the drastic changes in her life.

"Everything about the hair journey is very symbolic," Coel, 32, tells PEOPLE. "You know, at the beginning she may feel that she has her life together, she has this pink wig, but the wig is falling a part. It's fraying."

"Her life is already kind of hanging in the balance. She shaves off her hair and I'm exploring this concept of realizing how wronged she's been as a woman and how deceived," she adds. "She almost shaves of the symbol, this pink hair that's kind of wrapped into femininity, so she always had this pink hair that she abandons and then picks it back up. She's constantly trying to do something with her identity and her aesthetic."

I May Destroy You not only explores a journey of personal identity but also tackles the subject of consent and what happens to someone after they are sexually assaulted — a traumatic experience Coel knows all too well. Arabella's arc is loosely based on her own life after she was raped in 2016.

Weruche Opia, Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You
HBO

"It's close, but it's not exact," Coel tells PEOPLE. "I was working through an all-nighter in the office of the production company I was working for and went out to meet a friend. I took a break and had a drink and my drink was spiked — very similar to Arabella in the flashbacks. But there were differences in details. In terms of her as a character through the series, it's very hard to define how much [we are alike] there's a strange merging of reality and fiction that is quite hard to separate to know, but at many time we are moving in the same direction."

"At times she's a mirror," Coel continues. "At times she's a window to the past, at times she's completely, the things she does, are completely made up."

While Coel and Arabella are not identical, the process of writing the role and show became a part of Coel's healing from her own assault.

"It was definitely therapeutic, and I think therapy is triggering. But, it was great and I've been encouraged to journal anyway — writing is a form of therapy and writing this show it was triggering, it was joyous, it was rewarding, it was challenging," Coel explains. "I also did have therapy all the while and still have therapy now."

The HBO series certainly offers teachable moments by raising provocative questions about rape and consent, but that isn't necessarily Coel's goal. She tells PEOPLE that she just wants viewers to "think."

"I really don't know if the show is trying to answer a question about rape or get people to ask a question about rape. I'm definitely showing it, and I guess I'm asking us to think about it," she says.

"There's no definitive. I'm wanting the audience to think and actually think beyond the act of rape as you go forward in this series, you'll realize there is a lot more going on. I'm just constantly asking the audience to have introspection to think and try being curious beyond our own understanding," Coel adds.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You
HBO

Coel also manages to tie in themes of Blackness and representation, specifically in the scene where Arabella realizes that her publisher Susy Henny is a Black woman.

"Susie is not only a Black person in Arabella's field of work, she is at the helm. She is the leader that everybody is terrified of. We have a conception of who that might be and then she reveals herself and I just find that very interesting that the boss you may assume is a particular thing — male, white — every now and again may surprise you and be a Black woman," Coel says. "She's her Oprah. I also think for Arabella, I think that's why she's very excited about it. She's saying 'I'm seeing myself reflected in a leader.'"

Despite the heaviness of the series, Coel says it "was amazing" to work on.

"I had a brilliant team. A very mindful team. I think I arrived to I May Destroy You with a lot of baggage from Chewing Gum," Coel says of the British comedy she wrote and starred in from 2015-2017. Chewing Gum followed Tracey Gordon as she tries to lose her virginity and was Coel's big break, but she has since opened up about feeling disrespected on set.

Michaela Coel
Karwai Tang/WireImage

"I [also] arrived thinking in order for this to be great, I am going to have to fight to be heard. And on I May Destroy You, they kind of let me know, 'Michaela you don't need to fight,'" she tells PEOPLE. "So, that was beautiful and it also enabled me to see how TV shows run, to see where I can be of service and to allow all the different departments to base their work from my vision and it was very nice to be held accountable, to be responsible because that's what I wanted."

"I was responsible for the project in the first place, so it was very nice that everybody either saw me as having one of these responsibilities. I loved Chewing Gum, I loved it so much. I think the crew and cast have happy memories but also there are not so happy memories and sometimes, it was interesting running the show from a position of disempowerment. So, it’s a relief to run [I May Destroy You] from a position of having power. It’s nice," Coel adds.

I May Destroy You airs on Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to online.rainn.org.