Photo: BBC/Forgiving Earth Ltd/Des Willie

An interview with Michaela Coel

In Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising, Michaela Coel plays Kate Ashby, a legal investigator who was rescued as a child from the Rwandan genocide and raised in England. As Kate is called upon to provide assistance in a trial regarding war crimes that occurred during the genocide, it becomes clear as she searches for the truth that wider forces are at play.

I caught up with Michaela to discuss the series, her character and the lasting impact of her own show, Chewing Gum.

Hi Michaela! How are you? How has your week been so far?

Great week thank you. I arrived into the office to find out I had a week off yesterday so today I’m like wow! A day off, what does that look like for me? I don’t know!

How did you come across Black Earth Rising? Were you familiar with Hugo Blick’s previous work?

I auditioned for it. Yes, I was very familiar with his work and was a great admirer.

Black Earth Rising deals with the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the consequences of the war since. Topics such as adoption and mental health are also explored. How did you prepare for the role of Kate Ashby?

I looked into deep trauma and repression, and denial. I looked into displacement, into being adopted and taken to different continents. The thing to remember is that Kate Ashby does not remember anything, including her own original name. So in terms of preparing for the role, which is separate from broadening my knowledge on the genocide in Rwanda, that’s what I did. I also had to learn RP, learn how to scull the tiny little boats, learn how to speak some French, learn the breaststroke and learn how to snorkel.

Was there anything about the project that worried you?

Nothing about the project worries me.

I felt that a major theme of the series was the idea of agency, not only with Kate seeking answers of her own accord but also with the country of Rwanda wanting to prosecute war crimes without the help of the West. Do you have any thoughts on this theme?

Do I have thoughts on the theme you felt you saw? I think it’s great to find themes, and look for layers and hidden meanings regarding what a writer may be attempting to convey. I think agency is an interesting theme to discover. If you want to know answers you have to look for them yourself instead of waiting to be spoon-fed. However, to look for answers you need to have questions. If you aren’t taught to be curious how do you learn to really question?

There is this back and forth in the series with certain characters wanting to bury the past whilst others, such as your character Kate, highlighting the importance of knowing one’s full history to move forward. How did you feel about this theme and the importance of the past in Kate’s own journey?

I can only relate that to my own personal life. If I didn’t know who I was yesterday and the previous days of my existence I would be wondering why the hell I was on TV, why I lived at this address, why these people were claiming to be my friends and colleagues. My yesterday informs my today. However, a yesterday can also plague and cloud a today, particularly when there is little transparency about it. I think of anyone who is lucky to get the truth of their past, like Kate, like many others all around the world dealing with repression, it can heal or destroy you. It depends on the individual.

One of the relationships that I enjoyed and found interesting was the one between Kate and Florence [played by Emmanuel Imani]. There was always subtle humour in their relationship and both are still trying to reconcile their past. How did you find that dynamic?

Florence is Kate’s closest friend. Just like her, he is displaced. Both have accents that don’t seem to match their hue, both have no real sense of home. They’re very similar.

If you aren’t taught to be curious how do you learn to really question?

[Spoiler alert] In the penultimate episode, it is revealed that Kate is in fact a Hutu and was raised to believe that she was a Tutsi to allow for her safe passage to England. What was it like finding that out when you read the script? Do you understand Kate’s adoptive mother’s, Eve [played by Harriet Walter], rationale or should she have told Kate sooner, especially as I felt that being Tutsi was intrinsic to Kate’s identity?

I don’t know (for fact) if that was Kate’s mother’s only reasoning behind changing her identity, you would have to ask Hugo. But to read it was one hell of a plot twist, soul twist, ideas and ideals twist; all the twists! I think Kate realised she had designed her entire sense of self upon a thing she was told that she couldn’t remember. I think she eventually realised, a little like Florence when he throws his passport away, that for those with very traumatic histories, it is perhaps more beneficial to focus on who you want to be now, in the present. She places forming her future above trying to form herself from the little she can ever really know of her past.

What was your favourite scene to film or favourite line that Kate had in the series?

There are too many. I don’t know if there was a line I didn’t enjoy saying. It’s kind of like asking which fry I liked eating the most in a bag of perfectly fried chip shop chips; I dunno, they were all great. The French was difficult.

What did you learn from Kate? Did you notice any similarities between yourself and her?

I learned that I am incredibly powerful. And that I must use that for good, and to let it be a gift for everyone, of every colour, tribe, creed, gender etc.

Will there be a season 2 of Black Earth Rising?

That would be a question for the writer.

I consider Chewing Gum my first and second child

What do you hope audiences take away from the series and the story?

That would also be a question for the writer. I imagine he’d [Hugo Blick] say something to do with empathy and understanding. But Hugo, as a whole, for me, represents something you mentioned earlier; agency. He is, like me, a solitary writer. This was four years of life writing. I have great admiration for that kind of agency.

The characters that you have played in the past have always been varied. Is this a deliberate choice to want each character to be different from the last or is it more about the story and the director or writer? What is your primary motivation when picking projects?

I go where the scripts are great, and if they impact and challenge my life as well as audience members. I like learning new perspectives.

You have previously mentioned that you are currently writing a new project that you will also star in. Can you give any hints on the story and the type of character you’ll be playing?

No.

Finally, I have to ask about Chewing Gum. It was such a hit and resonated with so many people, including myself. I know that to this day you still get fans asking when it will be coming back for a third season although you’ve made it clear it won’t be. How do you feel about the impact that the show has had globally?

Very, very glad. Representation is important and it really did that. I consider Chewing Gum my first and second child, they did very well, and they brought joy, reflection, introspection, necessary discomfort, or solace into people’s lives, depending on the watcher. My children are awesome.

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