O-T Fagbenle is a versatile British actor, best known for playing Luke – husband to June (Elisabeth Moss) in The Handmaid’s Tale. We’ve also seen him as fixer Rick Mason in Marvel’s Black Widow, optimistic and tragic Felix in the BBC’s terrific adaptation of Zadie Smith’s NW and narcissistic, deluded former boyband star in cringey comedy Maxxx, which he also wrote and produced.
But his new role in The First Lady takes him into a different league. Barack Obama is one of the most instantly recognisable people on the planet. Playing the 44th President of the US opposite Oscar winner Viola Davis as Michelle Obama comes with unique pressure. But Fagbenle has been winning rave reviews for the role, in a series charting the life and influence of three former First Ladies.
THE BIG ISSUE: How do you go about preparing to play one of the most recognisable people on the planet?
O-T Fagbenle: Because Barack Obama has written three biographies, there’s immediate access into his perception of himself and quite intimate details of his childhood, his marriage, his relationship with his kids. So the start of it is going, “What do you think of you?” And then you branch out from there.
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How do you deal with the pressure of playing such well-known people as Barack and Michelle Obama?
The main thing is putting aside the crushing weight of expectation! But if one doesn’t capture the physicality and voice enough, it can distract from the stories you’re trying to tell. We’re not absolute facsimiles. But when people are like, Viola doesn’t look like Michelle or I don’t look like Barack – well, yeah. It’s make believe. It’s play. You want to see Barack? Go on YouTube. But capturing the essence of someone does help people go on that journey.
What part of their story are we seeing in this series?
It follows the lives of three First Ladies – Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama. It’s exploring their contribution to the American conversation – and they made extraordinary contributions to it. Michelle Obama is played by the wonderful Viola Davis, and I’m playing Barack opposite her. I think Michelle left an extraordinary legacy. I’m very inspired by her.
How are you enjoying the range of roles you are getting at the moment?
I grew up as a theatre actor and always got to play such a diversity of roles. So to now get that in TV, playing the range from Luke in The Handmaid’s Tale to Maxxx to WeCrashed [upcoming movie with Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway] and now Barack? It is a dream. More Marvel? I can’t talk about it, but I do think the character Mason is really well set up to potentially do more…
Have you spent much time in the US over the years?
I did my first job there. Weirdly enough it was a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s in this project as well. It was a movie called I Could Never Be Your Woman. I saw Michelle at The First Lady premiere and we laughed about being the movie that never came out. Anyway, that was in 2007 so I’ve been going back and forth ever since.
Do you take a close interest in politics?
One of the things – and this is something Obama talks about – is that I’m wary of being involved in the soap opera of politics, where my relationship with politics is one where I’m angry, I’m sad or elated and it’s like a show that I’m watching. I think if one genuinely wants to be involved in politics, getting involved on the local level is a really effective way of making change.
I’m in Toronto right now, so recently I partnered with a charity called Moorelands Kids, which provides support to new mothers facing financial difficulty. I’m especially passionate about helping young people from disadvantaged communities have access to education. I try and keep my politics as practical and as personal and as local as possible.
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One episode of The First Lady deals with a mass shooting.
Yes, it covers Sandy Hook. It’s a terrible irony that as it comes out, we have another two shootings, in Buffalo and the school shooting in Uvalde. It’s tragic, because one can see quite a straightforward way of preventing these kinds of things. But there are conflicting interests, conflicting priorities – and those end up with the horrible traumatising murder of a lot of people and the lives of their families and friends around them shattered.
How do you think Obama will be remembered – has his legacy been in any way tarnished by the fact Trump followed him into the Oval Office?
Obama in many ways epitomised the intellectual president. And what’s interesting is that a lot of people don’t want an intellectual president. That’s not to say they don’t want a smart president, but some people feel alienated by the intelligentsia.
But Obama ultimately saved America from the greatest recession the country faced in generations. He instituted access to healthcare for millions of people. And he was also a living embodiment of Black excellence – which is a beautiful thing to see, to have him as an inspiration for people of the diaspora, and indeed African-Americans. And I don’t think any of those things were undermined by the election of Donald Trump.
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