O-T Fagbenle On Playing Obama In The First Lady, His Possible Future With Marvel & More [Interview]

Sometimes, actors just seem to catch a wave. They are the right person at exactly the right time, and they have a moment where they just pop and everything seems to come together. That very much seems to be the case for O-T Fagbenle, who TV lovers may well know from "The Handmaid's Tale." But over the last year, Fagbenle has been involved in a small handful of truly high-profile projects that have put him on another level, including last year's Marvel film "Black Widow" and the recent series documenting the rise and fall of WeWork titled "WeCrashed." The Emmy-nominated actor is also set to star as none other than Barack Obama in the upcoming series "The First Lady" for Showtime, which is sure to get people's attention.

With all of that, it seems Fagbenle is on track to become a much bigger name and force in the business. But this isn't an overnight success story, as the man has been acting for years and grinding it out, starting in theater and slowly making the transition to the small screen and now big-budget blockbusters as well.

I recently had the good fortune to speak with Fagbenle in honor of "The First Lady" debuting on Showtime this month. We discussed the pressures of playing President Obama, what it means to be successful as an actor, whether or not we'll see Rick Mason return in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more.

"I'm resistant to an idea of quote-unquote making it"

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. It's lovely to, I guess, not meet you, but speak with you, man.

Yeah. You too, /Film is great.

You've done a tremendous amount of work in the past couple of years. But it's interesting to consider, when you were getting into acting, you were like, "Okay, I want to be an actor." But it seems to me that the amount of time you actually spend acting relative to doing stuff like this is pretty minimal. Did you consider all that before getting into it?

Yeah, no, I suppose I hadn't really considered it at all. When I first got into acting, I was really only interested in doing theater — or that at least was my focus. There isn't a huge press junket for plays usually. So I've learned about the press side of things as my career has gone on. But I guess the lucky thing is that, for the most part, I've been doing shows that I'm really proud of, and shows that I think have deeper societal and cultural context, than just pure entertainment. Quite often. I'm quite glad for the opportunity to talk about them.

Looking over your recent resume, it's pretty impressive. From an onlooker's perspective, it definitely feels like you're having like a bit of what you might call a moment. Do you feel the gravity of the moment right now? Or does it just feel like you're just at another point on the gradual on-ramp?

I guess I'm aware that I'm getting to work with some really extraordinary talents over the last year. Scarlett Johansson, and Viola Davis, and Jared Leto. These are people who I really admire, and I had the opportunity to learn a lot from. So I definitely think of that. But at the same time, I'm resistant to an idea of quote-unquote making it. I feel like when I first started acting, I was just doing community theater, and I was doing plays and old people's homes, and I felt I made it at that point. I felt like, "I'll get paid to be actor, I'll get paid to do the thing I love." I guess one's idea of quote-unquote making it changes as time goes on.

But I like to feel like wherever I am, wherever that is, whether I'm doing a TV show with Viola Davis, or back in the day when I was doing the work that I was doing there, making it is more about where you are, and your relationship with where you are, rather than something in the future, which you can't tick a box yes or no for.

I don't know that everyone has that. Not to compare it, but I'm lucky enough to do what I love for a living and it's interesting, that idea of making it, or that notion of just, I'm happy doing what I'm doing. "So long as I can keep doing this, I'll feel like I'm okay." It's interesting how that can evolve over time, but in the moment, you're just like, "I just want to keep doing this."

Right. And by the way, I mean, that's what I aspire to. I say that all time. I take on other people's ideas of success, I buy into ideas of what I should be doing, which aren't true to me all the time. What I'm talking of is what I aspire to be, or rather the mindset that I tried to resist. So I can be more present and appreciative of what's in front of me.

"My job isn't to contemplate the immensity of the task"

Speaking of what's in front of you, part of what we're talking about today is "The First Lady," and this is a big deal because someone calls you and says, "Hey man, do you want to play Barack Obama?" What is that call like? What was the process like? Did you have to audition or how did that go?

No, actually I didn't have to audition. I just had a conversation with Susanne Bier, who is a wonderful director. We spoke about what she was trying to do with this project, which was really [to] reframe the idea of marriage and politics through the perspective of these three extraordinary women. We spoke about Michelle [Obama] and Barack, and what would be interesting for people to watch and get out of seeing the parts of their relationship that are hidden from the public. I think by the end of that call, we found a common goal and a shared way of looking at trying to do a piece like this, and pretty soon after that, we were off to the races.

I'm not an actor, but obviously when you're playing any real person, that takes on a bit of a different type of weight. But there are people that are known, and then there's Barack Obama, who was at one point arguably one of the most recognizable people on the planet. Do you feel the gravity of that when you take on the role? Or as an actor, do you just have to stuff that aside and go, "This is just a role, I've got to just treat it as a role?"

I think both. I mean, one is obviously aware. I still think across the world, because we can be in a bubble in the west, with who the famous pop star is, or who the famous television star is, but Barack Obama transcended that. Across the world, you could go to Tanzania or Singapore, and he was so well known. Possibly the most beloved American President worldwide of all time. So that of course is really daunting, but at the end of the day, my job isn't to contemplate the immensity of the task, it's just to take the next right step. That's what I just tried to do, each day I had separation in each day of filming.

The other side of that coin for "The First Lady" is Viola Davis, of course, as Michelle Obama. Is she as wonderful as I hope she is?

I mean, probably more wonderful, to be honest. When someone is that well known and revered, the pressure of fame can be so distorting to a person. I'm surprised in a way that there are not more celebrities who are just complete egotistical narcissists who have no conception of real life. She is so grounded. She's so empathic, so compassionate, so present, she's humble. Fierce, intelligent, and passionate about the world and life. I was just really inspired by her.

As someone who just loves this stuff, there's certain people you're drawn to, and she's one of those people that the work speaks for itself. I don't need to talk about, "Oh, Viola Davis is a wonderful actress." No one needs to hear that from me. But when you watch her talk, and when you watch her speak as a real person, she's got that X factor that you're like, I love her and I can't quite put my finger on it.

Yeah. I think it's that she's just connected to the source, and she has an unfiltered way about her, where you feel like you are really speaking to a real person there opposite you, but also a person who is just wise and encouraging. I don't know, I've run out of superlatives to adjoin to her. She's incredible.

You were also on "WeCrashed," which is about the whole WeWork operation. Jared Leto is another guy that has this weird mystique around him, especially in the public eye. But again, as someone who was in close quarters with the guy, what is a guy like that actually like?

To be honest, I don't really know. He stays in character the entire time he's working. So I got to know his portrayal of Adam Neumann pretty well. I spent a fair amount of time with him. I only really met Jared at the premiere. We had a very brief conversation, and he was very generous. Like you say, he has this enigmatic air about him. But working with him as an actor, I really took a lot from it. I learned a lot.

"With Marvel, I'm never sure how much I can say about stuff"

So another thing I find interesting looking over your career is that you've done what I guess would be considered a lot of prestige TV. But then you also more recently dipped your toes into the world of gigantic blockbuster filmmaking with "Black Widow." So what, as an actor, is the biggest difference between going from something like "The Handmaid's Tale" to doing "Black Widow?"

That's an interesting question. The thing is, "Black Widow" was directed by Cate Shortland, and Cate is an indie film director extraordinaire. Indie movies are so tense, they're so intimate. In a weird way, although Cate had all the toys of a Marvel movie, it was a Cate Shortland movie. So it felt grounded and felt connected to real people. So actually there was, in some weird ways, more in common than different.

Getting a little more specific, you play Mason, and you find out he's one of Black Widow's go-to guys. I've been a comic book nerd in my whole life, and what I found interesting about that is, you see how much of Mason you see in the movie, but it's very clear that this is a guy that has a much bigger contact list in his phone. He's doing this for a lot more people in a lot more places than we see. Have you had any conversations or thought about is there any chance for Mason to pop back up in further movies or TV shows? Or was this really just discussed as a one-and-done thing?

I mean, you know what, with Marvel, I'm never sure how much I can say about stuff, but I'll just say that it wasn't a one-and-done conversation.

How much did you actually research the source material? Or did you just go, "No, I need to be loyal to what the guy is on the page?"

Yeah. I mean, to be honest, I did start to do all of that. I had conversations with Eric [Pearson], who wrote "Black Widow," who become a friend of mine, he's a genius and a beautiful person. In our conversations, in some ways I feel like this incarnation of Mason is an Eric creation ... so although I did have a little peek at the original, I very soon just became focused on what Eric created for "Black Widow."

You sometimes see people complain that the adaptation wasn't exactly faithful to the comics, but changes are necessary when you adapt things for another medium. I also think, what fun is it if it is exactly what you already know? There's something nice about the idea of, "Oh, it's another medium and we can do something a little different."

Absolutely. I mean, and also, it's just interesting, even if you take — I mean, it's DC of course, but if you look at the Joker and you compare Jack Nicholson to Joaquin Phoenix to Heath Ledger, I mean, which one of those is the right Joker? They are completely different characters, basically. They've got obvious similarities, but that's what an adaptation is. That's what happens. You filter it through a new medium, you filter it through a new artist, and you get new interpretations. And I think we should relish that. There's a great opportunity in that.

Especially as people have been talking about the superhero movie bubble for 15 years now, and it just doesn't seem like it's going to pop, we'll get to do different interpretations of these characters and stories. But I imagine in your case, it's fun. You get to be this guy who, you don't have the weight of playing the Joker on your shoulders, but you're just like, "Okay, I have this cool guy who I can be the interpretation of that character in people's eyes."

Absolutely. No, I missed out on that wave. I did have to play one of the most popular men of all time with Barack Obama. I think the pressure gods have found an equilibrium there.

Playing the Joker probably would pale in comparison in some ways to playing Obama. So originally you were like, "If I can just do theater, I'm happy. This is making it." Now you're are doing all these frankly incredible things. What haven't you done yet that you look at your career?

Oh, well I guess, there are two answers there. One is that, I wrote and directed a show called "Maxxx," which is available on Hulu, and I really loved that. I love the idea of creating more content, and I'm in talks right now with a number of companies in the States about developing some more content. So that's something I'm really passionate about. And the other is comedy. "Maxxx," my TV show, is a comedy, and I haven't done a comedy movie yet.

I could absolutely see you, not to pitch you anything here, but for some reason, Mason to me lends himself ... I can see you doing a buddy cop comedy with, I don't know who the other guy or woman would be, but you in a buddy cop comedy to me seems like, I would watch the s*** out of that.

I am here for it. Let's call up Tiffany Haddish.

Oh my God. There it is. That's exactly who it is.

Well, I'm here for it. Let's put it out into the universe.

Just before I let you go here, you have "The First Lady" coming out, but is there anything else you're working on? Anything else you've got coming up that you'd like to talk about?

Well, I can't actually say what the name of the project is yet, but myself and my brother are just finalizing talks on a project, which is going to be a television project, which has got African themes and is going to be a lot of fun. So yeah, that's what I'm working on next.

"The First Lady" premieres on Showtime on April 17, 2022.