Though HBO’s “I May Destroy You” premiered more than a year ago, Michaela Coel’s existential sexual-assault odyssey remains of the Emmy race’s most provocative entries. Vying in the Limited Series categories, the show is inspired by Coel’s own assault while writing her 2015 British comedy series “Chewing Gum.” While her character Arabella’s journey is the show’s emotional anchor, a supporting cast of friends including Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) experience their own encounters with sexual exploitation. Opia, a hopeful in the Limited Series Supporting Actress race, plays Terry as a scrappy rising actor struggling to land fulfilling roles, a challenge that Opia said she could easily run with.
“It’s been 10 years now, constantly going on auditions, constantly being told no,” the Nigerian actress told IndieWire on a phone call from London. “I was lucky enough that I was still confident enough to go into the room every single time, even if I wasn’t going to get it anyway. I felt a connection and relatability to Terry in those instances where you just have to keep going on this dream.”
She said before “I May Destroy You,” which has opened the door to being more choosy about her work: “I was taking everything and anything I could get, because a girl’s gotta eat.” (Next, she has a role in Francis Lawrence’s still-secret fantasy adventure film “Slumberland.”)
By the end of the 12-episode series, Terry does land a role, in one of several hopeful but never saccharine endings for the main characters. “I love the fact at the end of the series that she does book a job, a commercial, which I’ve done quite a few of. I can understand that world, how it can be a rotating door, just in and out, but it does pay off,” she said.
“I May Destroy You” is easily Opia’s biggest role yet, with the actress serving as Coel’s stumbling, party-loving sidekick. But well before the series began filming in 2019, Opia had a brush with creator Coel when they both had supporting roles in the 2013 British crime drama “Top Boy.”
“We didn’t have any scenes together. I would see her in the green room, with loads of people in there, but we didn’t have any one-on-one interaction,” Opia said. But years later, she said, “I got the call for the audition for ‘I May Destroy You,’ I had two auditions before my final one with Michaela, which was more of a chemistry read. As soon as I entered the room, it was kind of automatic, this energy in the air. Then we did a scene together [set the night after Arabella’s assault], and it was just so realistic, very casual, and then after that, we just had a chat, and I remember leaving like I’d just been on an incredible first date because the chemistry was right there from the get.”
It helped that Coel and Opia became fast, very real friends while on the set, as the series takes them both to dark places that confront (for many, radical) notions of what consent looks like, and the grey areas within. In Episode 3 of “I May Destroy You,” Arabella and Terry meet up in Italy for a wild night out on the town that culminates in Terry experiencing her own discomfiting brush with being sexually exploited: She ends up entrapped in a threesome where, it turns out, both men knew each other without telling her.
“The whole show taught me so much about sexual assault, consent, and the ‘grey area’ where you yourself weren’t sure whether what happened was all right or no,” she said. “I did see a lot of people on social media, say it also made them reflect on their own experiences, or somebody they knew where they thought they were in control of the situation, but in fact, may not have been. ‘I May Destroy You’ definitely informed me and taught me even more about the importance of consent, and the way people can not be sure.”
Still, Opia said she felt safe on the set during such harrowing moments, with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien serving as an architect for a comfortable environment during the show’s often graphic and disturbing sex scenes.
“As for the character itself, Terry was uncomfortable in that moment, but Weruche, playing Terry, I was very comfortable in that moment,” Opia said. “I had a body double for Terry’s sex scene. I’m not comfortable acting out sex or nudity onscreen. From that moment, where then was that discussion to make sure I was comfortable, I knew this was going to be a safe space. That was my only concern which was crushed almost immediately.”
Coel is currently working on a new show with links to “I May Destroy You.” While it’s unclear whether Opia will be part of that journey, she keeps in touch with Coel on a regular basis. “We FaceTime when we can, we visit when we can, whenever we’re in the same country,” Opia said. “We started off as fake friends, but ended up as real friends, which I’m happy about, because we vibe.”