Weruche Opia: ‘I nearly turned down I May Destroy You over the threesome scene’


Weruche Opia is joy itself. The actor, known to most for her Bafta-nominated performance by Ella in 2020’s I May Destroy You, beams through the screen from LA. Almost every anecdote she tells of her sends her into a throaty, head-back cackle that verges on tears. She sings some of her sentences from her rather than saying them. She does accents. Ella’s hair is styled in a straight bob but do not let that mislead you. She’s wearing gold hoops, shiny pink lip gloss and a tie-dyed Coachella T-shirt. “When I saw this top, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so LA!’” she says, giggling helplessly.

The 34-year-old Londoner is in Glendale, Los Angeles, to film the Ben Stiller-produced Apple series High Desert, a comedy starring Patricia Arquette as a recovering addict who becomes a private investigator following the death of her mother. “I love it here because it’s right by the shops, and that’s my cardio,” she says, delighted. “I buy stuff, and then I take it back, and then I buy stuff, and then I keep one or two things, and then I buy stuff…” Laughter descends.

Given Opia’s temperament, it’s no surprise that she is searching for joy on screen. But she couldn’t seem to find it in her twenties. In 2013, she played a drug dealer in London gangland drama TopBoy. The following year, in Jack Whitehall’s teacher comedy Bad Education, she starred as a hostile, sharp-tongued teenager who claimed to have been kicked out of 12 schools. It was only her work in Nollywood that she opened her eyes to “stories of successful black people I want to tell”: her first role in the Nigerian film industry was a lead part as a wedding planner in the 2014 romcom When Love Happens.

“After I did TopBoy and Bad Education, everyone thought I could just do urban stories and rude girls and that was it,” she says. “Inner-city London, council estate life. Just one-dimensional Black women. The same trope, the same sad story, regurgitated over and over again. I was tired of it, and if anything was to do with drugs or violence, or wasn’t positive about black people and black women specifically, then I didn’t want to do it any more. I felt that doing the sassy girl role would put me in a stereotype that I couldn’t get out of. So I made a conscious effort to find positive roles. Not always a sob story. How about a redemption story? Or something nice? Not always trauma. Sometimes joy.”

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Opia’s latest role is a real departure from the work she was doing a decade ago. In the ITV drama Our House, Opia plays Merle, a middle-class mum whose neighbor and friend (Tuppence Middleton) comes home one day to find her husband has vanished, all the furniture is gone, and a family are moving into her house. The series – an adaptation of Louise Candlish’s bestselling novel – is set in East Dulwich, or Nappy Valley as it is known to south London locals. “I’m getting to the time of life where I can look like a mum a little bit,” says Opia. “I wanted to play an adult for once and see how that feels, and to be seen in a light that’s not ‘young, drug-taking Londoner’.” She likes the show’s Doctor Foster feel. “I was like, ‘Yes, give me some of this,’” she says, clapping. “Love a good UK thriller mystery drama vibe.”

But the show that changed everything for Opia was I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s earth-shaking consent drama. Ironically, it was Opia’s part of her as Terry, an actor struggling to land fulfilling roles, that broke her out of that very pattern herself. “It was art imitating life,” she says. “I’ve been her so many times.” Terry is the best friend of Coel’s Arabella, who is raped on a night out (Coel based Arabella on herself and her own experience of sexual assault). “Your birth is my birth, your death is my death,” Terry and Arabella tell each other throughout the series, gripping hands. “They say you just need one job to change everything,” says Opia. “I May Destroy You was that job for me. Sometimes I think about the fact that I nearly turned it down. And how different life would have been.”

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Opia, who is a committed Christian and prefers not to perform nude or sex scenes, considered dropping out of the project over a sequence in which Terry has a threesome on holiday with two men who, unknown to her, knew each other all along and had plotted to sleep with her together. After two auditions and a chemistry read with Coel, Opia was told about the scene. “I read it and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I can really do this.’ I would do PG sex scenes but nothing explicit. My agent asked me if I was alright with the possibility that they might cast someone else. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m comfortable with that. It’s my choice and my belief that I don’t want to do this and I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary.’ I knew I had to stick to my guns and I honestly believed that what was mine would be mine.”

Four months went by and, while Opia was shooting a pilot in Virginia, she got a call from her agent – ​​she’d been offered the role and a body double to perform the sex scene. Opia chose her own stand-in and was there with an intimacy coordinator when the scene was shot. “I always thought body doubles were for Scarlett Johansson and huge, huge stars,” she says, “so when I was given the opportunity to have one, that was incredible. I really applaud Michaela and the whole team.”

Michaela Coel and Opia dance in ‘I May Destroy You’

(BBC)

I May Destroy You, which won 33 industry awards including two Emmys and two Baftas, forced people around the world to question past sexual experiences that they may not have realized were non-consensual or problematic. “That was what was so beautiful and heartbreaking about it,” says Opia. “Beautiful in the sense that it brought some healing, heartbreaking in the sense that there are so many people who have had similar traumatic experiences and didn’t know that they were carrying these burdens of guilt and responsibility, when it’s completely not their fault. I’ve had so many people reach out to me to say it changed their life, and there was an experience in my life that I started to process differently. It’s definitely given me healing as well.”

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Opia remains close friends with Coel – on New Year’s Eve the pair parted together in Lagos, Nigeria, where Opia grew up. The daughter of a broadcaster mother and an academic father, Opia moved to Thamesmead, in southeast London, with her family when she was 13. “It was an interesting time being black, young, and from a different culture,” she says. “We had been to London for summer holidays so I knew it well, but it was only when I lived here that I started to understand how everyone stayed in their own culture. I didn’t know anything about racism until I moved to the UK. Being that age, I quickly acclimatized and understood how things worked.”

Opia as middle-class mum Merle, waiting at the school gates, in ‘Our House’

(ITV)

In her primary school plays in Nigeria, Opia always played the lead and she’d put on performances for her mother at home. When it came to applying for university, she knew she wanted to do drama and she had a cousin at the University of Bristol, so she planned to go there. Instead, she accidentally applied to the University of the West of England, in the same city, and did what she describes as a “horrific” degree with a disenchanted teacher. When she left three years later, she had read plenty of plays but done hardly any acting. Opia then studied part-time at London’s Identity School of Acting, based in Brixton, where she was in a class with John Boyega and Letitia Wright. Finally, she’d found her place. “It might have been a crooked path, but I got here,” she says. “And I’m so glad I went to Identity and not to a typical full-time drama school.”

She remembers speaking to Coel and their I May Destroy You co-star Paapa Essiedu about their experiences of training at a traditional institution. “They both went to Guildhall,” says Opia. “They were two of only three black people in the entire school. When I hear their stories, sometimes I’m like, I don’t want to hear about it, it sounds traumatic.” She bursts into a fit of joyful laughter. “Don’t kill my vibe, please.” I don’t think they could if they tried.

‘Our House’ begins on ITV on Monday 7 March at 9pm

Read more of The Independent‘s Rising Stars interviews here.


www.independent.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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