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I May Destroy You Star Paapa Essiedu On Filming the Sexual Assault Scene in Episode 4
In the fourth episode of HBO’s I May Destroy You, the character played by Paapa Essiedu, an effervescent aerobics instructor named Kwame, knocks on an apartment door to meet an anonymous stranger for sex. When the stranger, Malik, asks what he likes in bed, Kwame coyly replies, “everything,” only for Malik to insist that they have sex without a condom. When Kwame refuses, Malik replies, “I thought you were into everything,” with a tone of weaponized hurt that foretells the darkness yet to come.
Malik rolls on a condom, and the two fall into bed. Yet the afterglow takes a dark turn when Kwame makes to leave, with Malik blocking the door, pinning him to the bed by the wrists, and proceeding to rape him. The camera remains tight on Kwame’s frightened, horrified face throughout—a gutting portrait of a light within him extinguishing in real time. The episode ends with Kwame in tears on a London curb, calling his friend Arabella (Michaela Coel) to wish her goodnight, yet saying nothing of what just transpired.
Kwame’s journey through sexual trauma is deft and devastating, each moment sensitively rendered by Essiedu, who shades in Kwame’s story with deep feeling not just in what he says, but in the yawning chasm of what remains unsaid. In a series centered on Arabella’s excavation of the night she was drugged and raped, Kwame’s experience of sexual trauma provides a compelling counterpoint, with the series nimbly exploring how men and women are often treated differently in the wake of sexual assault. Essiedu delivers an astonishing performance—one fully cognizant of the fact that viewers may be seeing sexual violence between men depicted on screen for the first time.
Essiedu, 30, has appeared in other television and film projects, like Gangs of London and Murder on the Orient Express, though it’s theater where he first skyrocketed to fame. Essiedu and Cole studied together at the Guildhall School of Drama; he then went on to act in a number of Shakespearean plays, earning great acclaim for his recent performance in the ultimate role of Hamlet. Essiedu called Esquire from his home in London to discuss the process of bringing Kwame’s experience to life, from working with an intimacy coordinator to doing justice to a story seldom told on television.
Esquire: What attracted you to the part of Kwame when you first read the script?
Paapa Essiedu: I was intrigued by the potential to make something unique, but also authentic and three-dimensional. Often on paper, characters have parameters or limitations that make it difficult to really run with the story and make something that feels like a proper study of the human condition. Michaela writes with such a grasp of people’s words and the way people use language—her writing is so acutely accurate and real that it provided a foundation for me to meet her there. Then I could try create something that felt, to me, like a man that I recognized, but not a stereotype or a man caught up in the tropes we often see with Black queer men in television and film.
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Esquire: What do you bring from your theater background when you’re acting on screen?
PE: The thing about theater is that all the work you do is about depth. You do it again and again and again—it’s about mining more deeply into character, so I’ve got like an endless curiosity when it comes to approaching a character. I’m always curious about what a character says and even more curious about what a character doesn’t say—that comes from my background doing plays. All that standing around at the back of theaters, rehearsing the same lines again and again. In terms of the actual practicality of it, it’s a different medium, but at the same time, you’re always chasing truth.
ESQ: One of the things I really enjoyed about this series was the infectious warmth and depth to the very abiding love that Kwame, Arabella, and Terry (Weruche Opia) share. They have such a beautiful, lived-in relationship that felt so authentic. How did you, Michaela, and Weruche develop that camaraderie?
PE: It’s not really acting, I suppose. The three of us spent so much time together making this show. As for me and Michaela, she’s a really old friend of mine; we went to drama school together ten years ago and have been close ever since, so that wasn’t a thing that we had to fabricate. But even with Weruche, I remember the first day that I met her at the read-through, we had like a separate call afterwards and had to kill three hours together beforehand. We sat in a park in Central London eating knockoff sushi from around the corner, just chatting and chatting and chatting. She’s such a wonderful, vivacious, kind-hearted, and generous-spirited woman. I suppose those are the best acting relationships to have, if it’s that easy off-screen. They’re both brilliant actors, and it’s all made easier by the fact that they’re amazing women, as well.
Michaela Coel, Paapa Essiedu, and Weruche Opia in I May Destroy You.
ESQ: What did you think and feel when you first read the script for Episode Four?
PE: I thought it was something I’d never seen on television before. It felt like the crystallization of an experience a lot of people have had, so I felt a sense of responsibility, but also a sense of privilege, to be able to delve into that and do it justice. It’s important with stories like this, which are for whatever reason historically significant, that we do it justice and don’t shy away from it. We can’t revert to stereotypes; we’ve got to honor the truth of the moment. Those were my thoughts about it, but in the practicality of it, it was in many ways the same as shooting any other episode. We shot these episodes in the middle of winter, so with the nudity written in there, my biggest concern was how cold we all were.
ESQ: What were the steps you felt you needed to take to do the moment justice? Did you do research or speak with anybody who had experienced sexual assault?
PE: I did some research and spoke to people I know who’ve had comparable experiences. I spoke to Michaela and to the other actors in the scene. We were working with an intimacy coordinator to choreograph the physicality of the scene. We processed and rehearsed that four or five months before we ever actually shot it, so we had done the requisite preparation, which allowed us to be more relaxed and focused on the acting when we were shooting the scene, because we felt safe, comfortable, and confident in what we were doing, that allowed us to lean into the performance.
ESQ: What does the process of working with an intimacy coordinator look like?
PE: I honestly cannot imagine a world where you do scenes that demand this level of intimacy without an intimacy coordinator. To me, it’s insane. You would never film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon without someone on set whose job it is to make sure you don’t cut someone’s head off. I think intimacy coordinators are crucial in that same way. Ita O’Brien was our intimacy coordinator; we had some sessions with her long before we started filming. Those sessions were all about us being clear with what we were comfortable doing and what we weren’t comfortable doing. We talked about how we could navigate our individual safe zones emotionally, mentally, and physically in order to create a scene that does justice to what’s written on the page. Ita is all about empowering, safeguarding, and liberating performers. It felt like a liberated, freeing environment to do what is on the surface a very demanding task for an actor.
ESQ: How did you protect yourself emotionally, going to this dark place in episode four and throughout the series?
PE: I think as a performer, you have to become adept at separating reality from work. It’s something that generally I’m not very good at, especially when I’m doing plays; I find it more difficult not to bring the experience home with me. I do a lot of stuff to protect or nourish my mental health. At the end of every scene, it’s really about checking in with the people you’re working with. At the end of every day, you go back to the makeup chair to get your makeup taken off; I always make sure that I chat to people about something other than what we’ve just shot. I make sure that we have roots in reality there. I try not to become too internally focused. I try not to cut myself off from everyone. It’s always about acknowledging what a communal effort it is to make a scene featuring even just one character. You see one person on the screen, but there are a hundred people that have worked together in collaboration to make that happen. We had group ownership over what we were making.
ESQ: Throughout the series, there are many moments where we see Kwame swiping through dating apps with a tone of desensitization. How do those apps shape a person’s dating life, for better or for worse?
PE: I think it’s important to recognize what life as a queer man on the dating scene is like. It’s not as straightforward as you might think; there are certain spaces where as a Black queer man, you’d be beaten up for expressing your love or sexuality. Not everywhere is safe for Black queer people. I suppose it’s ironic given what happens in this particular show, but in a way, dating apps can be a safe space for people to express their sexuality with freedom. As for facelessness or desensitization, that’s down to your own erotics. For some people, that is what is demanded and necessary for them to feel fulfilled. For other people, it’s less fulfilling.
ESQ: What about Kwame’s character arc throughout the series resonated most with you?
PE: I think the beauty of it is specific to the journey that he goes on. His journey, particularly, is explorative in terms of his relationship with his sexuality and discovering where he lies on the spectrum of sexuality. He’s figuring it out in real time, and I think he has the right to do that—he has the right not to be rubber-stamped as this or that. I think he and everyone else should have the right to space for exploration, so for me, that was one of the important things that we were exploring in Kwame. He isn’t set in stone as this or that–there’s space to look at everything in between.
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ESQ: Something noteworthy about Kwame’s sexual assault is the fact that it occurred after a consensual encounter. Consent given once, of course, is not consent given twice. In another scene, Arabella is violated when her sex partner removes the condom without her knowledge. The series has such a nuanced perspective on consent, and on violations that many people may not realize are forms of sexual assault. In what ways does I May Destroy You seek to challenge the preconceived notions about consent that viewers are bringing to the table?
PE: I think that doubles down to making it real and authentic. We’re desperate to see consent in a binary way, as in it’s either yes or no, and as soon as you’ve said yes, it’s consent, and as soon as you’ve said no, it’s not. Anybody who lives in the real world knows that it’s more complicated than that. Our lack of nuance in this binary consent structure allows people to take advantage and be taken advantage of—to get off by saying, “It’s a gray area. We don’t know what is right or what is wrong.” That kind of environment provides protection for people who don’t care. The show does a brilliant thing in really looking our perceptions of consent in the eye, challenging us to be real about the spaces in which we exist sexually.
ESQ: For many viewers, they will be coming to the experience of a man sexually assaulting another man on television for the first time. What do you hope those viewers take away from following Kwame through his journey?
PE: If seeing it makes people rethink things that have happened to them and empowers them to think about those situations in a healthy way, then that’s good. We are not showing these situations in mainstream entertainment; we don’t read about it in books, we don’t hear about it in music, we don’t watch it on television. That causes people to think that their experiences are not real or not validated—or not as legitimate as the ones that we do see on television, read in books, and hear in music. I would love for this to be a step toward recognition that these experiences are valid and should be treated exactly the same, even though they’re so chronically underrepresented.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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