Created and written by Chewing Gum star Michaela Cole, I May Destroy You instantly became must-see television in 2020 with its frank discussions about consent and the complexity of trauma following sexual assault.

The critically beloved drama, which features a predominantly black cast, follows Arabella (Michaela Coel), a young influencer-turned-novelist who meets up with friends one night, only to not remember what happened to her when she awakens the next morning.

Theater alum Paapa Essiedu plays Kwame, Arabella’s close friend who helps her recollect the events of the night before, while also going through his own messy sexual encounters. Essiedu is effortlessly genuine as he talks to us about his love for the show and longtime friend, and collaborator, Cole. Their shared history also brings an intense authenticity and depth to the friendship in the series as the fictional world of the show and reality collide.

“It was difficult, me being myself as Michaela’s friend and me being Kwame as Arabella’s friend,” Essiedu shares. “It’s hard not to let the two bleed into each other.”

Essiedu spoke with Awards Focus about how, and precisely where, he processed the news about his first ever Emmy nomination, his thoughts on creating his character Kwame, and having a big fake fight with his very real friend.

Awards Focus: First off, congratulations. The show has been such a huge success with positive reactions from critics and audiences alike. Did you do anything special to celebrate your first-ever Emmy nomination?

Papaa Essiedu: (laughs) When I actually found out about the nomination, I was on my way to doing a voice over assignment at my girlfriend’s house. She wasn’t there, so I was by myself. During lockdown, a lot of actors are doing voice-overs in cupboards. Locking yourself in a cupboard and putting a duvet over your head and speaking into a microphone. So really, I actually just sat in a cupboard for an hour just by myself, trying to process it all. It was such an overwhelming moment. I think my response surprised even me.

Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia in I MAY DESTROY YOU
Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia in I MAY DESTROY YOU (Photo Credit: Natalie Seery/HBO)

AF: The show very much practiced what it preached – discussions about consent and being safe in vulnerable situations, respecting each others boundaries. The same was done on set, you had an intimacy coordinator and a therapist on set at all times. Could you talk about the influence that kind of environment has for you as a performer?

Essiedu: I think it’s becoming more commonplace nowadays. I’ve been doing this for a million years and I still remember a time when we were making it up as we went along. When it comes to those more intimate scenes, they’re terrifying for everyone involved. Regardless of your position — man, woman, 20 years in the business, 20 minutes in the business. It’s really difficult.

So, with scenes like we had in I May Destroy You, which were very delicate scenes that really required the actors and the characters to really go there, we needed to create an environment that was safe and had clear boundaries.

Ita O’Brien was our intimacy coordinator and she was fantastic at doing that. We always knew what we were trying to do, when we were trying to do it and who was touching what where. It ultimately releases you to focus on the task at hand, which is performing the scene.

AF: You met Michaela Cole in drama school and have been friends for a long time. Could you talk about the professional relationship the two of you developed? What was it like being directed by your friend?

Essiedu: Actors are forever wishing that the writer was in the room so they could explain why that line or that word or that intonation was in the screenplay. We are always trying to deliver what the writer wrote eighteen months ago in the moment, so it’s amazing to have the person or the fountain from which all these thoughts and feelings came from there in the room with you.

Paapa Essiedu in I MAY DESTROY YOU
Paapa Essiedu in I MAY DESTROY YOU (Photo Courtesy of HBO)

AF: There’s an intense fight between Kwame and Arabella in episode 9, during the Halloween scenes. I really felt that scene as a viewer, it was painful to watch. What was it like to film it?

Essiedu: It was difficult, you know. The line between reality and imagination in a show like this is very thin. We were kind of operating on the edges of our tolerance levels. But we had created a space where we could really go there.

Michaela wasn’t holding back, and I had to really open myself to what she was accusing me of. It’s a kind of difficult thing to do and you can’t really mess about with it too much. You have to give it the respect it deserves. It’s when the fact that we were all very close and we all had a kind of shared ownership of what we had created comes into play, because afterwards we know that we’ve achieved what we came to do even though in the moment it cost something.

AF: I also want to talk about Kwames clothes. That massive jacket he wears for so much of the series feels symbolic of him. It feels like hes hiding, putting a thick layer between himself and the world. Would you say thats accurate? How much does clothing inform your work as an actor?

Essiedu: 100%. I had a lot of discussions with Lynsey Moore, our fantastic costume designer. She’s a real genius and at the top of her industry for a long time and very actor orientated.

For me, Kwame’s clothes were a part of his armor, a part of his mask. Throughout the show we see so many different versions of him, we see him when he’s vulnerable, we see him when he’s defiant. It really comes through in his wardrobe, and I think he’s got a physical connection to what he wears.

That jacket took on great significance because of what happened to him when he was wearing it. There comes a point where you either can’t wear an item of clothing that holds trauma and pain for you, or you try to reclaim it or deny it or suppress it by kind of persevering with it.