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Photography Aham Ibeleme

I May Destroy You’s Weruche Opia on Black joy, struggle, and triumph on TV

On Michaela Coel’s chaotic and caustic millennial drama, the British-Nigerian actress shines as the vivacious Terry – here, she discusses Black friendship, consent on screen, and researching MDMA for those wild party scenes

I May Destroy You is proof that when Black Brits get to tell their own stories and are given the space to take risks, it results in authentic, multi-dimensional magic. “A lot of the time, (as) Black people, we’re not given the space to fail – for ourselves and from the industry,” Weruche Opia, the Nigerian-born actress co-leading the BBC and HBO series, says. “I'm at a point now where I'm almost fearless. I'm gonna try everything and anything that I can do.” 

Created, written, and co-directed by Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel, and based on a personal experience after her drink was spiked, I May Destroy You is the messy millennial rollercoaster digging into the uncomfortable truths of consent, trauma, and assault, all from the perspective of young Black Londoners. While Arabella (played by Coel) tornados through the story, it’s her acerbic-tongued and passionate best friend Terry, an aspiring actor played by Opia, who is the glue and often the voice of reason. One of the true triumphs of I May Destroy You is the shirking of sidekick stereotypes that are usually relegated to Black actors, as Terry and Kwame (played by Paapa Essiedu), tackle the breadth of their own vulnerabilities and issues as much as protagonist Arabella.

Through Terry, the 32-year-old Opia perfectly portrays the calm undercurrent to Arabella’s thrashing waves – who faces her own reckoning with sexual power and dynamics throughout the drama, after a holiday threeseome. “There are situations where people don't know where exactly they want to fit into, which are these grey areas,” says Opia, and that's what I think Terry experienced.”

Her first major TV role came on British police drama The Bill about a decade ago, with parts on the celebrated Top Boy and Bad Education. It was on the hard-hitting east London series Top Boy that Opia really flexed her talents, and where she first came into contact with Coel when they shared a spot on a second season episode. Auditioning for I May Destroy You kickstarted a professional, creative, and personal relationship between the pair, who met again when Opia was on in the third round for the part. I May Destroy You is surely a significant narrative marker in Opia’s acting career, with the series already receiving widespread critical acclaim. When we speak on a Zoom call on a lazy afternoon from her London home, she’s relaxed and just as chirpy as her on-screen counterpart,  often throwing her head back laughing when she recalls moments on set, and more than comfortable to say when she’s feeling peckish mid-thought. Below, we discuss heartwarming, Black millennial friendships on-screen, working with triggering content and  aftercare, and filming that drug-fueled scene in Italy. 

So what first drew you to I May Destroy You

Weruche Opia: Obviously written by a Michaela Coel, so you know, it’s going to be something definitely interesting. I said yes to it before I actually read the whole script. When I read the script, it was extra confirmation that I had to be part of something so monumental, something so timely, even before we knew when it was going to come out.

Your chemistry with Michaela onscreen feels so natural and organic – does it reflect any elements of your friendships with Black women IRL? 

Weruche Opia: When I first ever read the script line, ‘my birth is your birth, my death is your death’, I was really touched by it. That is verbalising how I feel about my best friend. Michaela and I became friends, and it’s reflected in the show. Soulmates don’t have to be particularly romantic, you can have friends who are your soulmates. 

It went from being really caring and intimate, to lots of laughs, to, like, ‘I'm gonna change my tampon in front of you’. 

Weruche Opia: I mean yeah! It happens!

“It’s a reality of some Black British millennials. I think this was Michaela’s time to show we can be multifaceted” – Weruche Opia

It’s really beautiful to see Black millennials really represented. There’s a scene when you're in Italy and you're taking party drugs, I don’t think I’d ever seen that before on TV. Why do you think it's important to show that side of Black British millennials? 

Weruche Opia: I think it’s a reality of some Black British millennials. I think this was Michaela’s time to show we can be multifaceted. I think she did it well, and making it non-judgmental, in a sense. I mean experimenting is what it is, you try it, you might not like it.

How did you prepare for that scene when you were in the bar? 

Weruche Opia: I’m personally not for recreational drugs, so when we were talking about the kind of high, I had to Google what an MDMA high was like. I kept thinking, ‘if anyone checks my phone history...’ I watched some videos and listened to people’s accounts of what they described as a body high, so I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to try and think of what a body high is’. At some point, our brain, well, definitely my brain – I started feeling a bit light-headed and I was like ‘girl, you've done nothing! You've been drinking water!’ It just shows you what the mind can do! It was definitely fun to play.

That was followed by the threesome scene, which split a lot of people – I guess Michaela wrote it to question those blurred lines.

Weruche Opia: Yeah, that’s what she does. She puts it out there and lets everyone decipher it however they see fit. Terry, she felt like she was empowered, she felt that she consented to a threesome only to watch the guys walk off almost hand in hand, that then raises the question – was she coerced into it? I think those are the grey areas that come into a discussion centred on consent.

Is there anything that you felt you learned about consent that you wish you had known when you were younger? 

Weruche Opia: I think it was a massive education for me. It was refreshing as well. Like, stealthing. (Arabella) didn’t know that the condom was being taken off. I had actually never heard of that either. I got to learn about it, and finding out it classified as sexual assault, which is brilliant, and I'm sure a lot of people didn’t know that.

There are lots of heavy topics – I’m sure it's triggering for audiences, cast, and crew at times. You were also in a play called Liberian Girl, where you played someone who'd been assaulted. How have you – as an actor, and more personally – learned to navigate this space and respond to these narratives? What does real care on set to do this look like?

Weruche Opia: When I did Liberian Girl, there wasn’t much available, but I do remember Cecilia Noble, (Liberian Girl’s star), an incredible actor – I was rehearsing that rape scene every day, she took me aside and said, ‘I know you’re a method actor. I’m going to tell you now that you need to find ways to get yourself out because you’re going to carry her home and carry her pain’. That informed how I treat certain topics like that in my work.

On the I May Destroy You set, there was a lot put in place. There was a therapist available. Because of the subject matter, they made it an important point to make sure that everyone there was taken care of. 

“It’s good to see Black stories being told at this time when people are more attentive, people are more willing to listen” – Weruche Opia

Terry is also an actor, there’s a scene where she's auditioning and they asked her to take her wig off. Have you ever experienced anything excruciating like that in your career?

Weruche Opia: Nothing as bad as that, thank goodness! I couldn’t tell you how I would have reacted to that. I can definitely relate to her crisis of confidence and self-doubt. As an actor going for hundreds of auditions and getting hundreds of nos, it’s hard to believe in yourself. 

Do you think things are getting better for Black women actors? Is typecasting still an issue?

Weruche Opia: Things are getting better, I get seen for stuff that’s not stereotypical, which is great. I will definitely say the US has more stories and more range. But I am hoping, naively maybe, that this show is going to allow and make way for more stories.

Self-care comes up in the show. We’re in the middle of a new civil rights movement and the coronavirus pandemic is killing Black people more than any other demographic in the UK. What is that like for you? And what does self-care like for you?

Weruche Opia: Shock, grief, anger, just nothing. At this moment right now I am at a stage of hope, being hopeful is a way to get out of it. There’s so much information out there now where nobody can really claim ignorance. In terms of self-care, I have learned to be easy on myself. I’m a Christian, so I’ve been praying a lot. I’ve been working out, I’m feeling muscles in places I did not know! 

People are reassessing their biases and seeing Black people as three-dimensional people, which we are! It’s good to see Black stories being told at this time when people are more attentive, people are more willing to listen, and then hopefully (they will) learn and change.

I May Destroy You is available to watch on BBC iPlayer