Interview with Michaela Coel
What's Chewing Gum about?
It's about Tracey, a girl living on an estate who’s been brought up in a really religious household. At 24 she decides she wants to be a normal person and do the things all the worldly people are doing, so it's about going through adolescence in your mid-20s.
How did the series grow out of your 2012 play, Chewing Gum Dreams?
I got an agent after writing the play as a monologue at Guildhall [School of Music and Drama]. [Chewing Gum producers] Retort read it and said they wanted to meet me. TV wasn't on my radar at all. I’ve been in a couple of shows [Top Boy, Law and Order UK] but never went fishing for it. Now I like television a lot - it reaches so many people. We made a 15-20 minute taster, cast it and we invited Channel 4 to a reading about 18 months ago and they gave us the money for two Comedy Blaps. Then we got the green light for a series last August. I had a lot of freedom, a surprising amount. I was always told by other writers that I'd lose control, but it didn't really happen.
Tonally, the play and the series are quite different, even though some of the characters overlap.
The play goes from extreme laughter to tears, but this is a comedy so I had to make a completely different show. Tracey's name is the same and she has an innocence about her. She was 14 in the play and now she's 24 and the wool hasn't quite fallen from her eyes yet.
How would you describe Tracey?
Curious. Naive. Brave. Strong. You see in the first episode, she's very subservient, quite timid and desperate to please. Then she breaks out of that and you see she's got fire. She's likeable but not perfect. She makes mistakes, tells lies, she's jealous, envious, insecure. But she's happy with her life, happy to spend it wishing she looked like Beyoncé.
Beyoncé and Jesus are Tracey’s two touchstones, aren’t they?
Yeah, those conflicts are the base for the entire show. God is omnipotent and omnipresent, great and powerful. But for Tracey, Beyoncé is all those things too: we see Beyoncé in her bra and knickers, she's got the most talented boyfriend ever and she's the prettiest girl in the world. So for Tracey, it's: can I have both?
Chewing Gum is like nothing else on TV. Were you setting out to do that?
No, I wrote based on the life I've lived, which I guess isn't a life you see very often on TV. It's based on real people, my life, school, friends. I wasn't trying to do something no one's ever done.
Community spirit is so important to the show.
Exactly. On my estate, it’s economic circumstances that give people a particular culture. It's not about the colour of your skin. I wanted to make Tracey’s estate a place where people would want to live.
How much of you is in Tracey?
I don't know whether she is me or the complete opposite. I grew up in a very particular culture and area, then going to drama school where you're sitting next to people you don't really talk to… The three years before I realised these guys were friends for life was awkward. Tracey's the same, she's been wrapped in cotton wool. When you've been playing someone for that long [on stage and screen], you become very close to them. Every role I play, I take a bit of the character with me.
Was it hard to go from writing a monologue to writing for lots of different characters?
No. We auditioned for a long time, and when the right person came in, they took the character to a place I never imagined. It's brilliant. But they’ll tell you, I give them notes in the middle of scenes, I'm throwing things at them…
No! [laughs] Just adding lines and stuff. They've got used to the way we worked. We had two weeks of rehearsals. I'm there on set and very vocal.
A lot of the cast were new and inexperienced. Were you all learning together?
Yeah, but I just wanted the best people. We also had people like Tanya Franks and Maggie Steed, but it's not inexperience that makes you willing to collaborate. It's humility. People fresh from drama school can be more precious than those guys.
How do we get more young black, female voices out there?
I feel like telling all the people who look like me to start trying to write. You don't know it's possible to do because it's not often in front of you. If there was some tannoy I could use to say, “hey, try and write – see if you're any good!”, I would. A lot of it's about schools. I had a really good English teacher and that informed where I am now.
Who inspires your work?
I don't follow anyone consciously. Something about Amelie is dear to me and I don't know why. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is incredible. I learn from watching her, especially on stage. Lucian Msamati is brilliant, Simon Russell Beale, John Keats. It's really random.
Will you watch Chewing Gum when it goes out?
I'll be in Bulgaria. I've never watched any show I've been in. There were a couple of nasty comments with regards my appearance on Top Boy, so I might stay away from Twitter until it's done. The hype is great but I have a tendency to remember the bad stuff.
Did you have a wrap party?
Unofficially. I rented an Airbnb flat with a roof terrace and we went to a pub where they were doing hip hop karaoke.
What's your karaoke tune?
R Kelly, Bump N’ Grind. Many children have been conceived to my performances of that song.
Was it awkward watching everyone responding to you in the pub?
It was an over-18 crowd, consenting adults. I don't judge.
Chewing Gum is due to TX in October on E4.