SAG Awards nominee profile: Michaela Coel (‘I May Destroy You’) brings more to the table than just her acting

When it comes to the Screen Actors Guild Award for television movie/limited series actress, name recognition goes a long way. But for first-time nominee Michaela Coel, nominated this year for “I May Destroy You,” pushing boundaries is the name of the game. Though she contends here for her acting, SAG voters are sure to consider that Coel also created, wrote, co-directed and produced the series when filling out their ballots.

In “I May Destroy You,” Coel plays Arabella Essiedu, a social media influencer and novelist caught in the spiral of new fame and heavy partying. After one blackout night at bars with her friends she slowly unravels her memory of that evening, forcing her to confront both the internal and external traumas of sexual violence.

With this first SAG nomination, Coel contends against one other first-timer, Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit.” They face three juggernauts of film and television that have a combined 33 nominations between them: former winners Cate Blanchett (“Mrs. America”) and Nicole Kidman (“The Undoing”), and four-time nominee Kerry Washington (“Little Fires Everywhere”).

When you look back at the names of past winners in the television movie/limited series category, you’ll see names like Queen Latifah (twice), Frances McDormand, Helen Mirren (twice), and Meryl Streep, giving the impression that SAG loves mega-stars as their winners, potentially disadvantaging Coel for a win of her own at this point in her career since a couple of her rivals have been famous for decades.

But the biggest name doesn’t always win. Angelina Jolie was the 1999 winner for “Gia,” a television movie she earned prizes for before she rose to fame later that year as the eventual Oscar winner for “Girl, Interrupted.” Jolie beat out Oscar nominees and winners Ann-Margret, Stockard Channing, Olympia Dukakis, and Mary Steenburgen that year. So there’s precedent for a newer name prevailing against veterans.

That’s not to say that Coel isn’t at all established, though. Prior to “I May Destroy You,” Coel adapted her own play into the British sitcom “Chewing Gum” where she played a young, religious and wide-eyed virgin looking to experience more in the world. But while Coel did win a BAFTA for that role, many of SAG’s American voters may not have been as familiar with her prior to her critical acclaim this past year.

That said, aside from the SAG nomination, Coel’s performance also scored her Critics Choice and NAACP Image Award nominations, as well as recognition from Independent Spirit Award voters as a part of the Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series and a win from the Gotham Awards as Best Breakthrough Series (Short Form). So she may be an awards darling in the making.

This article is a part of Gold Derby’s “SAG Awards nominee profile” series spotlighting the 2021 contenders in film and TV.

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