O-T Fagbenle has been keeping busy the last 12 months, between the release of Marvel’s Black Widow, the return to production for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5, and working on his own projects following the 2020 release of the original series Maxxx, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Not only that, he’s also now in the Emmys this year conversation for two very different roles: The very strategic venture capitalist Cameron in WeCrashed and modern symbol of hope Barack Obama in The First Lady.
In the interview below, transcribed and edited for clarity, the actor and writer reveals why his career has included so many supporting roles of late, and what was key to playing arguably one of the most famous men on the planet. He also explains why he didn’t mind getting asked about Black Widow for the years leading up to the Marvel film’s release (even though there wasn’t too much he could say about it).
You’re back in Canada now to film The Handmaid’s Tale — at this point, does returning to the show feel like just getting back to the grind?
No, never. Never, being a part of The Handmaid’s Tale is such a lucky thing to happen to my life. I get to work with some of the best actors and actresses. The most amazing directors on the show, which is socially relevant and impactful and meaningful to people’s lives. And when you get to play a nuanced character like me, no I can’t take that for granted.
I was a big fan of Maxxx — is there talk of doing anymore for that?
Actually, right now I’m in talks to do another musical, probably. And so I’m kind of spring-boarding off of Maxx, which is available on Hulu, and I’m really excited about this project. I’ve been waiting to be able to announce it, but I haven’t been given the thumbs up yet.
Gotcha. So is it another lead role for you?
No, actually, to be honest. It was a bit distracting, actually [directing and also starring in Maxxx].
I ask, because you’ve got a lot going on right now, and an interesting thread throughout it is these are characters that are by and large in supporting roles. Is that something that just kind of happens, or is that something that you actually seek out?
Well, to be honest, how big the role is isn’t ever really the most important thing to me. I’m much more receptive to projects that I think have a meaning, projects which I get to work with people I’m inspired by and projects I get to play a character which I’m excited to play. Challenged to play. Or scared to play. And so, those are the main things that draw me in, rather than how many words I get to say.
Talk me through your work on WeCrashed — which emotion inspired you to sign up for that role?
I mean, I definitely think that that is a great example of what all three. It’s obviously a really interesting piece about business and corporations. And then there’s Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway who are right beside me, and that show has great writing in it. And then, the part, I’m really kind of interested in playing I guess some edgier characters. So, Maxxx is an example, but I kind of feel like Cameron, who I play in WeCrashed, is a branch off of that same tree.
What feels edgy about Cameron for you?
He’s prickly and he’s obstinate and he’s an antagonist to the protagonist. And I was quite attracted to this person who came with hard edges and who himself, emotionally, still had some work to do.
Yeah. Given that the character was essentially an amalgamation of a couple characters, was there any sort of development process with the writers and directors in terms of creating the character?
Yeah, you know what, they gave me a lot of space from the very first time to create it, which I really appreciated. And also working with Jared Leto kind of made that kind of environment. One of my best friends is an investment banker. And through him, I had a chance to meet lots of people in finance, because if I want to hang out with him, I’m hanging out with his friends often. So, I took lots of inspiration from that, and called him up and did other research on what that world is and the kind of personalities that exist within it.
I’m going to pivot from that to another role where you had to do a little research, which was of course for The First Lady. Talk to me about signing on to that show.
Susanne Bier, she’s the director, she called me up and we had a conversation about it. And I think we were really of the same mind of trying to create something which wasn’t a fluffy… Something that was complex and nuanced, kind of the discovery of their relationship from Barack’s point of view. Of course, the show itself was more of a revolutionary way of looking at power in American politics and the role that each of these women played within it. And I think by the end of the conversation I was pretty excited about it.
So, when Susanne called, did she give you a sense of why she thought you’d be a good Obama?
No, she didn’t. It was really just a conversation about the piece and what the tone of it would be and what we’d be trying to achieve through it. I don’t know, in a weird way it wasn’t about me or her, but more about the show that she was being inspired to create.
So, you had this conversation — it sounds like it was a great conversation. But at what point did the reality of playing Obama sink in?
Oh, I mean, it is still sinking in. I think to some extent to take the challenge, I had to ignore the enormity of the significance… Not ignore, but try to put at bay the significance and the enormity that he played in people’s lives. That he played in my life — I teared up at his inauguration and I’m not even American. So, to some extent I had to put that down and focus on the actor’s challenge, which is on the page.
Do you feel like your perspective on Obama as a character was affected in a good way or a bad way by not being American?
Look, it’s one of the wonderful things about America. It has the polarity of viewpoints. And so, I imagine there’s as much diversity in opinion about Barack in America as there is outside of America. I definitely think my experience as being brought up internationally and in different communities and moving around and having an African father — I think these things helped me into Obama’s psyche more than having a different passport.
What was it like meeting Viola Davis for the first time?
Well, she invited me down to her place and we sat and we talked and chatted about the series, the actor’s challenge. She was so warm and generous. She’s so smart and thoughtful. I came away from that first meeting just buzzing thinking I was going to get to work with this extraordinary person for the next few months.
What were those conversations like? Were you essentially just talking about your own perspectives on the Obamas?
We spoke about a range of things. One of them being, what we saw in their relationship. What we thought their dynamic was, how that dynamic changed over the years of their long relationship. What the effect of the presidency was on their relationship. I think those were some of the things we spoke about.
One of the things that I feel comes out in the depiction of the Obamas within the show is this idea that gets floated around a lot online about the prototypical “wife guy”— just a guy who is really in love with his wife. Was that something that was a part of the development process for you?
One of the most endearing things about Barack is his love for his wife. And, to be honest, it’s very inspiring. It’s optimistic, that they have such a long relationship that has endured a lot of stress, unbelievable stress. And yet, they have playfulness and romance. One of the most remarkable things about that relationship is the enduring ability to find compromise.
In terms of refining the performance, what were the most useful things that you found in your research?
I think the kind of blessing and curse of playing Barack is that there’s just so much footage of him online. And that both means that there’s a wealth of information about his dialect and his cadences and the way he moves his body. It’s that everyone is so intimately knowledgeable about those aspects of him. In a way, he was the first online politician. And potentially the most successful one at it.
So what that means is that there’s a wealth of information of how he moves, how he talks. But it also means that every single person on the planet is intimately aware of those things as well. So, it creates a challenge on the one hand, not feeling the need to try and mimic him exactly as he is, but on the other hand, doing enough so that people recognize who is being played.
This feels like a show where you could get really caught up in the details, just all the costume elements, the production design elements. Was it at all hard to focus in on the human aspect?
No, I think in a way, it’s the opposite. We were surrounded by great practitioners from costume to great production design, and they had a handle on all of those details. But the way Susanne works is really about people and relationships and trying to get to the core and honesty of that. So, of course, both Viola and I and Susanne had done extensive historical research, but we weren’t trying to make a documentary. We were trying to make a historical fiction, which told the stories of real people on a heart level rather then necessarily on a documentary level.
Gotcha. Of all the phases of Barack’s life that you got to play, do you have one that was a particular favorite?
I liked playing young Barack. That was my favorite. I felt a little less threatened by the heaviness of the crown of the presidency. But, I liked playing older Barack, because then once we had all the kids and we were just blessed by getting such extraordinary young actresses to play Malia and Sasha. I really appreciated working with those actresses.
Before I let you go, I’m curious. When it comes to Marvel projects, I’m very used to talking to actors and them never being able to say anything before the film or show comes out. I’m sure you spent years answering Black Widow questions without actually being able to talk about Black Widow — what that was like, basically having to wait that out?
You know, it’s so funny, people ask me that question, but I’m not really an “industry person.” I don’t go to a lot of industry parties, I don’t read the industry outlets really, I hardly get to watch movies… so to me there was no great burden. I’m in love with the process of making TV and making movies and making theater, and once we’ve made it, I’m kind of not associated. So that’s my answer. It was fine. I enjoyed the kind of vicarious anticipatory pleasure that others had, of the event of the thing coming out. But my love is about the process.
Of course. Were you hearing wild fan theories about who your character might be?
I mean, my personal trainer that I work with sometimes is a big Marvel guy, so he keeps me up to date with what the – all of the reddit business threads were saying. But no, I wasn’t particularly involved. I guess there was the whole question about whether I was the Taskmaster and stuff like that. And I wasn’t supposed to talk about who the Taskmaster was and so I didn’t. So, yeah, I don’t know. When I’m interviewed for a magazine, it’s not like someone’s shining a torch into my face and got a gun in their holster and I’m like, “Oh, god, the pressure to tell.”
I’m glad the experience hasn’t been too much. I always worry that actors get over-bombarded with certain kind of questions.
I mean, maybe. Look, I may reach a point in my career if I’m playing some big Marvel character that everybody wants to know about that I’ll be really bombarded. But, no, it was well within the realms of reason in my experience.
WeCrashed is streaming now on Apple TV+, The First Lady season finale aires Sunday, June 19th on Showtime, and The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 premieres this fall on Hulu.