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Introducing… Michaela Coel

Published 21 July 2014

“I’m just lazy,” Coel tells me towards the end of our interview conducted in a snatched 25 minutes as she escapes the rehearsal room for a working lunch. My mouth literally falls open, and so will yours by the time you get to that quote in the interview below.

A poet, actress, award-winning playwright and singer, at just 26-years-old Coel’s career has already seen her perform at the National Theatre four times and have her hugely successful playwriting debut staged at not one but three London theatres. Oh and she’s on commission from one of the capital’s most exciting new writing venues and has filmed a pilot she wrote and starred in for Channel 4.

Lazy is not the right word for this rising star. She is a self-confessed hard worker – it’s a person’s right to be self-contradictory – and is as funny as she is bright, as talented as she is savvy. It’s no wonder the National Theatre has sat up and taken notice of this graduate who chose a fringe theatre in Hackney over performing in front of agents at drama school and sites selling out her own show as her career highlight over working with some of theatre’s most exciting theatremakers.

As she prepares for tonight’s opening night of Medea and her debut on the Olivier stage, read on to discover how Ché Walker persuaded her to apply for drama school and why Laurence Olivier indirectly transformed her life.  

CV in brief:

2012: Leaves Guildhall School of Music and Drama

2012: Coel’s one-woman debut play Chewing Gum Dreams premieres at the Yard Theatre before transferring to the Bush Theatre

2013: Appears in Three Birds at the Bush Theatre

2013: Makes National Theatre debut in Nadia Fall’s production Home

Jan 2014: Appears in Nick Payne’s high-profile Blurred Lines at the NT

Apr 2014: Performs Chewing Gum Dreams at the NT

Apr 2014: Returns to the NT to reprise her role in the revival of Home

Jul 2014: Makes her debut on the NT’s Olivier stage in Medea

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in between Hackney and Tower Hamlets, just going back and forth in flats there.

What first got you interested in acting?

I was a performance poet and I had a gig at Hackney Empire. A guy called Ché Walker [the playwright, actor and director] was there and he literally just said to me ‘You should be an actor’. I had no interest in anything to do with acting, but he’d let me come to his master classes for free. He said to me ‘These are drama schools, you should go and apply!’ I did and I got into Guildhall.

That must have been incredible!

Well I mean at the time I didn’t know who anybody was, he was just a really tall white guy, I didn’t know anything! [Laughs] I’m still learning things that people take for granted that everyone should obviously know as an actor.

You were awarded a prestigious Laurence Olivier Bursary to help fund your final year at drama school. What difference did that make to your life?

A massive difference. Apart from drama school, I’d never auditioned for anything before. It was the first time I stood on a stage and did something for people and sort of felt that my work was recognised a bit. I remember going in and they were so friendly… I was supposed to have a piano and all that stuff and I didn’t have the sheet music so I did it a cappella, and they were really warm and really lovely. I remember going into Guildhall and being told I’d won… That paid for my final year, so for me, that was life-changing. It was amazing.

What attracted you to appearing in Medea?

I think it’s such a powerful play. It’s a woman – Helen [McCrory] – playing Medea with a lot of gravitas. You don’t really see female characters that strong and, for me, the fact that it’s so rare, I wanted to be part of it. Originally I wanted to be in the Chorus. I was offered the Chorus and I was like ‘Oh my God, yes!’ I just wanted to be part of this play; Ben Power’s adaptation is incredible… And then [they] asked me if I would do the Nurse instead. I did have to take a second and think ‘Am I ready to stand on the Olivier and be the Nurse?’ but before I reached a conclusion I just said ‘Yes’!

Since graduating, you’ve appeared at the NT in four productions. Did you ever expect that to happen?

No. In our final year we got to go on stage at the Globe, at the Old Vic and on the Olivier and speak a line. I remember coming onto the Olivier, doing a line and my voice teacher was basically like ‘Yeah that’s really sh*t, you’re not good enough’ [laughs] and I remember thinking ‘That’s alright, I’m never going to be on this stage anyway. I don’t care!’

I’ve worked really, really, really hard and I’ve stayed really open to saying yes to things, to do loads of things for free and it’s allowed me to meet people after people after people, and I feel amazed and grateful that I’m here, but I also do still recognise that if I didn’t decide to do a lot of things that I did, I wouldn’t be here.

It’s your first classical show at the NT. Should people expect something quite traditional?

I don’t feel like it connects itself to any sort of style, which I think is kind of amazing. I wouldn’t say it was done in a traditional way, it’s not, it’s really earthy, it’s specific, it’s dynamic, it’s very different. Helen, in the middle of misery, manages to make you laugh and I’m hoping I fit into that world.

You worked with Medea’s director Carrie Cracknell on Blurred Lines. How was that?

That was an experience. There was no way of hiding in that play, which I’m really grateful for. Also I write poetry and I was able to perform two things that I’ve written, which was great… I remember turning up on the first day and looking at the other actors and thinking ‘Was this a mistake? Was there an error? Did somebody accidentally call the wrong number and I’m here!’

Would you like to do more plays that raise questions and are political like that in your career?

I kind of feel that as a woman; as a black woman; as a black woman who’s come from a really poor area with immigrant parents etc, it’s kind of impossible for me to do anything that doesn’t say something political. Because I tend to write from instinct, I’m drawn to things that have a lot of heart within them. When I look at all the work I’ve done since I’ve left drama school, they’ve all had some sort of political edge either on race, gender, class… I can’t escape it and I’m happy not to escape that because I think it’s important.

You also sing. As a musician, has it been exciting to work with Goldfrapp on this production?

That woman, Alison from Goldfrapp, is just amazing. I remember the first day in rehearsals and they played us the ideas they had and everyone was just shivering. It’s great, great, great music.

What inspired you to write Chewing Gum Dreams while you were still studying at Guildhall?

In your final year you have the option to do all the six big shows on the stages for the agents and all that stuff, or you can take yourself out of one of the shows and do something in the studio in the basement, and I decided to do that… It’s kind of based on – part fiction, part real life – the people I grew up with and went to school with living in East London. Now I’m writing a play for the Bush at the moment and I’m on a commission with the Royal Court.

Tell me more about the play at the Bush.

It is a play about a family. It’s about what you do to keep secrets secret, it’s about religion and how religion can sometimes enforce the need to be okay and to not address the things that are actually really fu*ked up and to instead focus on the joy, the joy, the joy. Hopefully [it’ll be put on] next year, 2015. But you never know, nothing’s confirmed yet. I’ll hold my breath!

Do you think you’ll always want to continue to do everything; acting, writing, singing and poetry?

I feel like poetry is probably slipping away from me a little bit. I enjoy writing plays and I enjoy acting, and I particularly love acting in things that I’ve written. I’ve also written a pilot for a Channel 4 series, which is based on Chewing Gum Dreams 10 years later. That was amazing, so I find out in the next couple of weeks if Channel 4 are going to take it further.

Do you have any aspirations to do a musical?

The problem is, as much as I’m a singer I can’t sing the way Rosalie Craig sings. What that is is discipline and practise. She wasn’t born with that, she worked hard. Cynthia Erivo – she’s one of my best friends and I’ve known Cynthia before I even knew what acting was – I knew her before she was singing like that… she just works her arse off. So I can’t be annoyed, I’m just lazy. I can’t put that many hours in! But maybe if there’s some sort of weird, folky musical that requires very little range [laughs], I’d be up for that!

If you had to pinpoint the highlight of your career so far, what would it be?

The one that I’m drawn to say the most is putting on my play at the Yard Theatre, because that’s not like the National Theatre in that there’s a marketing team and there’s people to do everything for you. I had to build my set, design my set, design my flyers, print my flyers, hand out my flyers… I did that and my play sold out for the five days it was on. I think having worked that hard and then seeing all those people enjoy a story, and at the end of it stand up and clap, for me that’s the pinpoint that I can think of now.

What would you be doing if you weren’t working as an actor or a playwright now?

I’d probably be working in somewhere like Marks & Spencer.

"I feel amazed and grateful that I’m here, but I also do still recognise that if I didn’t decide to do a lot of things that I did, I wouldn’t be here."

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