Michaela Coel, the British writer and star of her own raunchy and award-winning comedy series Chewing Gum, is turning up in someone else’s universe this holiday—as a space crew member in Black Mirror, the fourth season of which premiered Friday on Netflix.
As Shania, the character modeled after Star Trek’s iconic Nyota Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols on TV from 1966 to 1991, and subsequently by Zoe Saldana in the films), Coel travels through space alongside Jimmi Simpson and Billy Magnussen. The ragtag group of intergalactic crusaders known as Space Fleet brings aboard Nanette (Cristin Milioti), the newest member of the crew, and are led through the planets by their fearless leader, Captain Daly (Jesse Plemons), in “USS Callister,” a Star Trek-inspired space romp.
Coel, whose laughter in conversation can be infectious, was waiting for a screening of her episode of Black Mirror when she called me from a London hotel room to discuss everything pop culture she’s been into lately—even if she didn’t initially recognize all of the Trekkie easter eggs in “USS Callister”—as well as her upcoming writing projects, her healthy relationship to Instagram, and the anticipated (eventual) third season of Chewing Gum.
According to your Instagram, you were just in Ghana, right? Yes! That’s where my family is from. I did amazing things like bond with my dad, which had never happened before like that. I’m going back, actually. My family is about an hour from Accra.
So you were in the third season of Black Mirror for a moment as a flight attendant in “Nosedive,” but this season you have a much bigger role as a very different character in “USS Callister.” How’d you get involved with the show? The first time was just a normal audition. The second time, [Black Mirror creator] Charlie [Brooker] wrote to me to ask if I would be up for doing another character. And, obviously, yes! They re-drafted [the character] a bit to make a version that was a bit more playful, like my real self.
Are you a big Star Trek fan? No, I mean listen, only really since I’ve watched it for the first time, for the character reference; Uhura was [my reference point]. Well, Charlie didn’t even give me that reference, I think it was someone in hair and makeup. So I went and watched the relationship between Uhura and Captain Kirk, and I was like, “Oh wow!” I had never come across it.
I noticed while watching the episode, when your character kisses Jesse Plemons’ character it almost mirrors the William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols kiss on Star Trek, which I think was one of the first interracial kisses portrayed on television. Exactly! That was my reference. [Growing up] in an all-female, very African and god-fearing household, that kind of thing was never in my periphery at all.
You’ve done such a fantastic job writing Chewing Gum that watching you in this episode made me wonder: Would you ever want to write science fiction or fantasy narratives? Definitely! Well, one of my next projects is actually kind of science fiction. I’m with the Wellcome Trust, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them? Every year they give out a fellowship to a writer, and this year I’m that person. So next year I’ll be at The Wellcome Centre, which is basically the hub of science in the U.K. And I’ll have access to anyone because obviously I don’t know anything about science, I just know I have this idea that I pitched, and it’s pretty cool! What’s amazing is that now I’ll have access to anyone I need to speak to, any psychiatrist, any top leading blah-blah. I’ll have a lot of help trying to realize my vision.
I remember hearing that you wrote Chewing Gum by yourself, which is quite different from the way Americans write television with a writers’ room. Is that correct? Yeah. You know, I think for season three—which will happen!—it won’t be like that. I understand why people don’t write like that, it’s just the control freak in me that goes, “I like to finish where I started, which is in my belly.” It can be very strange in the writing phase—and only in the writing phase—but I’m going to have to learn to lean on people because people can help you.
Are there any other TV shows that you’ve been watching? There are so many TV shows! I’m watching Godless at the moment. It’s brilliant. I just finished The Sinner. I guess it was out in America first because we’ve only got the show in the last week. What else have I watched? Louis Theroux’s documentary, Dark States—it was fantastic and very eye-opening. He goes to a mega jail in America. He goes into a psychiatric prison for inmates who are found not guilty by reason of insanity. I would urge anyone to watch. Anything he has released this year, I would say watch, because I don’t know if they’re all part of Dark States. I would love to know how Americans see the show because this season it’s very America-based. I’ve also been listening to an amazing podcast called “Let’s Know Things” by Colin Wright. I fangirl over his voice when he is speaking his genius thoughts and observations on modern life. I just saw him on a Netflix documentary.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters? In the actual cinema, it could have been Planet of the Apes. Or maybe Moonlight, which, of course, moved my insides upside down and around and inside out! The most beautiful everything. To have a story so heartbreaking be so beautiful!
What’s the last concert you went to? Ooh! The last concert I went to was Moses Sumney. He’s amazing! I was in New York and my friend put me on to Moses Sumney, and the day before I went to Ghana I got a ticket [to his show]. He’s a beautiful artist and I’ve read some interviews of his about romanticism and capitalism, and it was really refreshing to see views that I share but are also very taboo. Just about what exactly is romance, aside from lust and love, what is this other thing and do I really have that? It’s nice that there’s this guy out there who makes those albums.
Have you had any songs on repeat in your head lately? Yes! Her name is Ari Lennox, have you heard of her? I hadn’t heard of her until I had my Apple Music on a R&B playlist, playing random songs. And this song came on and I had to stop like, “Who the hell is that?!” I was on the toilet and I ran to my phone to see who that was, and it was Ari Lennox. And the song playing was “Yuengling” from an album called Pho, and really every track is brilliant. There are seven tracks, and my favorite track is “Backwood,” that’s the one I have on repeat, and I do my yoga to it. I’ve been doing yoga at home and I play this track and it makes me feel really sexy, and bendy, and flexible and amazing!
Are you into astrology at all? You know what? The first time I got into astrology was being in New York. I was like, “Oh, this is a real thing here!” Now, I’ll google what your sign is and what my sign is to see the predictions of friendship and I find that really cool. But that’s the most I know. I’m very rational so sometimes I need the facts, and if I don’t have the facts then I get huffy and I move on.
What sign are you? I’m a Libra.
I think that makes sense, being a rational Libra? Well, I’m also not balanced. I’m extreme! So it’s weird. However, I do see scary truths when I look the stuff up, I just don’t understand why or how it’s true. Also, with personality type things, you know how you can google and answer 50 questions and they’ll tell you your personality type? I did mine and I was like, “Whoa, this is really quite true!”
What’s the last thing you googled? Oh! Let me see if it will come up on Safari. Oh, Black Mirror. Basically, I was like, Let me see if I can find something really smart about this show that I can say in an interview. [Laughs.]
Do you have any favorite social media accounts that you follow? Naomi Campbell! I’m pretty sure at one point in my late teens, early twenties, I was on Instagram or in the world, and I would idolize people. But they never looked like me, which meant I was constantly in a state of feeling like I have to look like somebody else. So I made the decision to follow a bunch of just dark-skinned black females on Instagram, so that when I’m on Instagram looking at the feeds of my friends, random accounts come up that reinforce my sense of pleasure of myself. I am pleased with myself, and I am enough, and that’s what Instagram can do. So all the accounts that are like “black and beautiful” or “black and bold” or “Naomi Campbell” I’m like, “Yes! I follow! I believe that!” So that’s great.
That seems like a healthy way to engage with the platform, especially being on a show like Black Mirror that can highlight the more traumatizing aspects of social media. Absolutely!
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed? To be honest, I play music! I have to go to sleep with music. And also I wash my face, put Vitamin A on my face, put on my durag, and sometimes I read. I’m currently reading a book called Homo Deus and interchanging that with The Alchemist, and a really amazing book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F— which changed my life. That’s what I do before I go to bed.