From council estate to outer space: Michaela Coel's career is going stratospheric. You'll know her as the writer and star of the adorably filthy, funny, London-set comedy Chewing Gum, a sleeper hit for Channel 4 that went worldwide after being picked up by Netflix. But the 30-year-old is next to be seen in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. And while coverage must be tight-lipped to avoid spoilers, her episode of the dystopian techno-drama, titled "USS Callister", is one of the boldest yet.
“It is – successfully – an ambitious episode,” she nods. But it’s no spoiler to say it’s set aboard a Star Trek-like spaceship, captained by Fargo's Jesse Plemons, with fellow crew mates including How I Met Your Mother's Cristin Milioti. And we’re talking 1960s Star Trek, all clipped accents and shonky dialogue, plus full beehives and tiny skirts for the female staff…
“The eyelashes weighed a tonne, each,” laughs Coel when we meet in a hotel in London; she’s wearing a pretty damn fabulous turquoise cut-out jumpsuit which isn’t a million miles away from her Black Mirror outfit. It brought its own challenges, mind. “The costume was no respecter of your bladder. If you needed to pee it was like, well, you should have done that an hour ago.”
This is typical of Coel: she’s a woman without a filter, as outspoken on Twitter as she is envelope-pushing in her TV show. Not that, for the uninitiated, Chewing Gum was especially dark or gritty: it’s a bright comedy set on a colourful estate, and focuses on Tracey, an extremely horny, extremely naive 24-year-old virgin desperate for a shag.
It’s partly autobiographical, but Coel just doesn’t seem to get embarrassed – excruciatingly funny scenes involved awkward blow jobs, getting turned on inserting a tampon, awkward threesomes, amorous cousins, awkward sex parties…
“I grew up in a female household, I went to a girls' school, so there was no need for any filter,” she says. “I was walking round my house naked; in my school, people would fart into their hands and go ‘smell that’.”
Black Mirror takes advantage of Coel’s natural comedy chops, and there’s something about her hugely expressive face and buoyant physicality that makes her as irresistible in an interview as onscreen. But this episode is also far more than just a Trekkie spoof; as you’d expect, it goes to some bleak places in exploring our appetite for technology.
“No one actually thinks about what is the future of technology; we just blindly go ‘Oh iPhone X, let’s get it!’” she says. “And [Brooker is] going: ‘Enjoying your toys are you?’ It does uncover a subconscious anxiety that we have.”
2017 has been a very actorly year for Coel – she has a tiny role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and leads Netflix musical Been So Long, out next year. Now, she’s looking forward to getting back to writing, and is working on an autobiographical dark TV comedy, and a film involving astrophysics.
“Writing almost feels like going into the wilderness: the big journey, say goodbye to everyone, you’re going in! It’s really important to me. When I was writing Chewing Gum, the storylines would move me to tears. My own storylines! C’mon, Michaela!” she concludes with a massive laugh.
There’s been a degree of controversy recently over whether Chewing Gum will return: Channel 4 announced not; Coel claimed on Twitter it would. What’s really going on?
“I read it in the paper like everyone else!” she says, with a groan, before blaming Channel 4 for dragging their feet. “My offer came months after it was out, and I’d already got another job.” But seeing the horrified reaction to the news of its cancellation, she went back to the channel. “I think we will do it, but it’ll happen with a writers' room; it won’t be me writing the whole thing.”
Coel is still a rarity in British TV: black, female, working class, the child of immigrants. “Being black and female… it’s perplexing. It is! I can only be what I am.” But it’s also been the key to her success, she suspects: “Writers from working class backgrounds are incredibly rare and unique and like diamonds. That’s what we want to hear, don’t we – a different story?”
We discuss the need for diversity in writers’ rooms, and if Coel spends a lot of her life calling out others’ blind spots, she’s also quick to hold her own hands up.
“Messages people didn’t intend about sexism and race and disability can just sneak in there,” she says. During the filming of Chewing Gum, an actress auditioning for a Malaysian part afterwards wrote to say it played on Asian stereotypes. “You have two minutes of going ‘How did this even get to me?!’ And then you go to this other place of… ‘She’s kind of right. I have to rewrite the character'. And there’s a little space in-between that feels unbearable. But you’ve got to enjoy the process of being wrong.”
Still, the show obviously got much right, with Chewing Gum’s overshare honesty seeming to chime around the world after it was picked up by Netflix. “I’m on Instagram, and I’ve got messages from complete strangers from many, many parts of the world who really understand the show. It’s like they have my same brain.”
Yet it seems very British – very London, even – in its vision of a multicultural estate, not to mention all that awkward sex. Was she surprised it connected in other countries?
“I was thinking about Britain when I wrote it. I didn’t think about, y’know, Indonesia! That was like ‘What the fuuuuuck?’” she says, eyes wide in disbelief. “I’m very ambitious – I’m delusional with ambition! But I honestly can’t even think about it that much because it would overwhelm me. I’d just get very confused.”
Black Mirror is on Netflix from 29th December