This interview includes spoilers for the fourth and fifth episodes of “I May Destroy You.”
In a show that confronts viewers again and again with raw depictions of events they’re unlikely to have seen on television, the sexual assault of a young man in the fourth episode of “I May Destroy You” stands out as an especially searing moment.
The show — created by and starring Michaela Coel, and aired on HBO in the United States — is billed as exploring the issue of consent and the impact of sexual assault on a female writer who lives in London. As the woman, Arabella (played by Coel), pieces together what happened on a night that someone spiked her drink and then reports the rape to the police in the first few episodes, her best friend, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), is by her side.
Then, in the fourth episode, Kwame experiences his own trauma. Through an app, he finds a man who can host a date with him and Damon (Fehinti Balogun), who wants to explore his sexuality. But after consensual sex, the man who is hosting assaults Kwame.
“It’s so sad,” Essiedu said in a recent interview, “because the only reason that he’s in that room at all is because he can’t take this guy back to his house, because of his dad’s homophobia.”
When Kwame reports the assault to the police, an officer responds with confusion, distrust and prejudice — an experience of not feeling valued by institutions that are supposed to protect people. Essiedu expects it will be familiar to many viewers.
In a recent Zoom interview, the actor — a 30-year-old with a stage background including roles like Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company — discussed the impact of not seeing sexual assault between men depicted on TV, survival mechanisms to marginalization and his experience working with an intimacy coordinator. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How different does the show being available on demand on HBO (and the BBC in Britain) feel from some of the high-profile theater roles you’ve had?
I didn’t think about the difference until your friends’ grandparents start critiquing your work, and suddenly you’re like, “Wow, we’ve actually gone outside of the audience you might expect.” It feels like it’s reaching a lot of different types of people and ages, which is very thrilling.
There’s such a limit with theater. Even the most accessible theater in the world with all free tickets can only have a certain number of people who are able to be free at that time.
At some points, the show can be very challenging. What’s it like watching the episodes for you?
I watched a rough cut, and now I’m very tentatively rewatching the episodes on TV. And even though I’m in scenes, I’m seeing things and noticing connections for the first time.
There’s layers to this work, which means I think it will really benefit from rewatching. Because it’s so direct and some of it is so hard to watch, sometimes your brain can’t tolerate accessing the nuance that lies underneath it.
It’s good that the episodes haven’t been released all at once, because I think it’s really important that there’s time so we can properly taste it.
Were you and Coel thinking about how so many of the things depicted on “I May Destroy You” are so rarely — if ever — seen on TV?
Not really. That allows ego to interfere with what you’re doing. We were just trying to do justice to the story that’s put in front of us and trying to fill these characters with as much humanity as they deserve.
Who could have predicted that we would now not only be lockdown, but also in the throes of a political pandemic, which also affects the way that people are able to take on this kind of work?
I think it’s pointless to try and second guess the way that people are going to react. All we can do is make it as truthful as possible and as authentic as possible.
What’s your process for figuring out how you’re going to embody a character like Kwame?
This might be because I come from a theatrical background, but I’m just curious about how deep you can go with characters in terms of their psychology, their responses and what they don’t say.
You can learn a lot about a character from their moments of solitude and silence, and we see a lot of moments of Kwame by himself — even when he’s in the room with people, often you see him a little bit cut off from them.
We all have so many masks that we put on, which are essentially survival mechanisms to deal with the chaos of life and the world, which this time is teaching us is infinitely chaotic.
Kwame seems to respond to his marginalization by either being somewhat isolated and wary, or showing bravado.
Both of those versions of him are him.
To go back to survival mechanisms, in a world where it’s not even safe for you to fully express yourself in certain spaces, is it not a logical reaction to add an aspect of your character where you’re fearless and you’re confident and you’re unapologetically joyful or sexual?
It feels like that is a potentially useful survival mechanism in a world that can be hostile to you for no reason. That can kind of protect you.
We see Kwame experience further trauma in the way he is treated at the police station. What does it say that his experience with police officers is so different to Arabella’s?
In society, we’re more familiar with sexual assault happening to women by men, and we can prepare ourselves for what that means.
Considering how male sexual assault is chronically underrepresented in the news, in TV, music, literature, that will obviously mean that those structures that are meant to protect those people aren’t nourished and so those people are underserved. I think what we see with Kwame’s story is quite a brutal examination of this.
You don’t have to look very far at all to realize that the system isn’t currently in a place where it serves people in an egalitarian way.
What was it like working with the show’s intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien?
She makes any of those scenes so chill and safe. The example she sets and the practices she keeps is what makes those scenes feel real.
I did a show awhile ago called “Press,” and Charlotte Riley and I had some sex scenes in that, and we obviously didn’t have an intimacy coordinator. It was one of my first jobs of that level onscreen.
She’d already had an amazing career, so she had the experience to get us to discuss it, ask me what I thought. But if it was the other way around, or if neither of us had had that experience, it’s fully the blind leading the blind in a situation that’s incredibly dangerous and intimate.
It’s part of a language of “I May Destroy You,” that sexuality and that physicality. And Michaela is switched on, so she wants the actors on her show to feel safe.
We see Kwame have lots of consensual, seemingly fulfilling hookups before the one that becomes an assault.
Really the provocation is about the world at large rather than his lifestyle choices. I think it’s important to underline that.
Let’s not use this show as a way of making the political point of what we could be in some fantasy. Let’s live in the real world and allow people to be real and get messed up and be horny. Why should we look the other way?