AUP EP.18: Taking Over: O. T. Fagbenle

Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

Jul 15, 2021

Cortney Wills: Hello and welcome to Acting Up, the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our communities, and our stories. I’m your host, Courtney Wills, and this week we’re speaking to actor O. T. Fagbenle, star of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the upcoming MCU blockbuster Black Widow. In it he’ll play a weapons expert and if that is not impressive enough, he’s also gearing up to play Barack Obama in Showtimes upcoming series, The First Lady, due out this year. 

Cortney Wills: [00:00:35] also Helmes his own Hulu series, Maxxx. That’s Maxxx with three X’s, which he writes, directs and stars in as well as composed the music for and produced. I am literally counting down the moments until I get to see O. T. in Black Widow. I just cannot wait. And I’m also really looking forward to seeing him as Barack Obama on the First Lady, which is also going to star a former Acting Up guest Lexie Underwood, who’s going to play Malia Obama. We’ll get into what his journey through Hollywood has been like and find out how he’s managing everything that comes with his booming career. If this man isn’t on your radar, he definitely should be.

Hi O. T.! OK, so, wow, I have so many things that I’m dying to talk to you about, you’ve done some really incredible work since the last time you and I spoke, which I think was after maybe season one of The Handmaid’s Tale.

So much to talk about with that show, but also these other projects that you are working on. You’re coming into the Marvel Universe and that something that is just so impactful when it comes to representation for our community specifically. And then you kind of get a little bit of history over there directing and creating and producing your own series, Maxx. And I feel like as popular as The Handmaid’s Tale is, I still feel like there’s a lot of Black people that are not paying attention to that show or the two leads of color in it. And I’m talking about yourself and the lovely Samira Wiley. Yes. I mean,this is such an incredible show. Talk to me about what it’s like to be a part of it all. 

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:02:26] Oh, well it really is one of my greatest honors as an artist. Of course, Amanda Bruegel is in it as well. She’s an actress and a lot of people don’t know. But Max Minghella, who plays My Love Triangle E he’s a half Asian as well. So, yeah, it’s amazing to be a part of the for me, the two best things about it really are part of a show which is part of a bigger conversation about inequality and patriarchy and the troubles of populism and cults that’ve gotten out of proportion, but also to be able to work with so many great actresses and directors who I’ve learned so much from. [00:03:05][39.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:03:06] You know, The Handmaid’s Tale is a show that I got into late. Like, I feel like I didn’t really start watching regularly and catch up until, like, mid season, too. So I got to binge a lot all at once and was kind of devastated when I ran out of episodes. But it also really was the first project in a long time that gave me nightmares. Like, it gave me real nightmares almost. I watch TV till I fall asleep, so it was always like the last thing I was thinking about. But at the time Trump was our president and everything I was watching felt so terribly possible, you know, like actually tangible that that feeling of being under threat and like, yo, every single right, we think that we have, like, it can be stripped away and it can happen fast. That’s what The Handmaid’s Tale was giving me at that time. And it was like a very real fear. And I noticed that this time around, Trump is not in power anymore. And watching it while it’s still so riveting and still gives me so many emotions, it doesn’t it doesn’t feel so freaking possible, like tomorrow. And I wondered for you if you can think back to that time where it was a lot more tumultuous, I think, around the world and here, like, what did it feel like to be showing us something that at one at once is very far fetched and also not not that far fetched? [00:04:34][88.3]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:04:35] Well, you know, the funny thing is because a couple of people have mentioned something similar to me, but for me personall, I look at the world and go, are we dealing with huge inequality of power or are we dealing with patriarchy are women, especially children, victims of terrible violence? How do we fix that? No, we haven’t. It’s it’s still a completely intolerable levels. And so for me, I kind of feel like this show and the issues that it deals with is as present today as ever. And sometimes I feel we kind of you know, we look at leadership we don’t like or we look at headlines we don’t like, actually the real issues that are happening between people inside families and between gender and race and all that kind of thing. It’s still there. And the need for our activism is present as ever. [00:05:26][50.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:26] Yes. Yes. Do you think that Gilead, and that the show The Handmaid’s Tale, like, are they in a post-racial world? Because, of course, there are people of color who are leads, but their actual race so far to me hasn’t necessarily presented a separate obstacle to those characters of color. So what do you think about that? [00:05:48][21.8]

O. T. Fagbenle1: [00:05:49] Yeah, you know, I sometimes do wonder about the kind of, I guess, lack of intersectionality about it. And it can be frustrating sometimes wanting, you know, especially when, like myself and you, we we come from a certain group and we want to see that part of our existence represented on screen. And I guess for me, my way of engaging with that was to kind of like you were saying before, was to start writing myself, start to write to myself and my show, Maxxx, which is on Hulu now. I feel like we deal with race and gender in a way that I would like those discussions to go, and, of course, that’s just me, I’m just one person. But for me, that’s the way I’ve engaged in wanting to have those discussions a bit more present on screen. [00:06:32][43.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:06:33] Yeah, but, you know, The Handmaid’s Tale never left me and doesn’t now leave me feeling like that is missing. Like, I don’t feel like, gosh, they’re really missing an opportunity or I wish they’d go down that road. It’s actually the opposite. It’s actually kind of cool to see. I mean, anything based in reality can’t ever present a post-racial world because we are not right. It’s just right. Yes, but a lot of shit in the handmaid still doesn’t exist. So it’s plausible. And it’s kind of interesting to see and sadly. But like the oppression is colorblind. You know, June, this lead white woman is no less oppressed than Samir Wyly’s character. And that’s kind of interesting to me. You know, like I’m not, I’m not mad. I just think, like, wow, it’s one of the few shows where I can look at these characters and actually not consider their race as another element of what’s happening. [00:07:25][52.1]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:07:26] Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a really interesting take. [00:07:28][1.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:07:28] When I spoke to you, gosh, years ago, just before George Floyd, before the protests, before everything that’s going on, you told me a really cool kind of anecdote about how you dealing with the police, depending on where you are, what country you’re in. You’re accent kind of came in handy sometimes. Like you almost felt like depending on where you were, it was like, you know, it might benefit me to not be perceived as a Black American right now. And I wondered, I mean, you were thinking about that back then. And after everything that has happened, I don’t know if right now you’re in the States or you’re overseas-

O. T. Fagbenle: Yeah, I’m in Atlanta.

Cortney Wills: You’re in Atlanta. OK, so now what now is that even more kind of like prescient? Like, gosh, like now being a Black man from the United States almost feels like you’re taking a risk when you get behind the wheel. So I guess my question is, does the palpable kind of tension that exists here in the States, does it right now exist other places when you are in London or when you are in Tanzania, or is it more palpable here right now? [00:08:35][66.6]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:08:35] You know, it’s really challenging because, again, I took my individuality, like the way I experienced racism as a light skinned Black person may be different from a dark skinned person. The way I experience it as someone who sounds identifiably middle class in England, for example, it will change the way that I experience racism. And so I would be cautious about kind of trying to say that my experience is representative of others experience. I know that that is the institutional racism that exists, which can just be measured by the outcomes. You can look at the outcomes. What’s the count for that? As long as you don’t think that a Black person, white person are inherently different, that there is something responsible for that which is larger than the individual, there’s something at least heavily influencing that. And I think that’s present in England present in America, I would say my experience of the states is there is a lot of racial– like there needs to be a lot of therapy, like the national therapy done around race and racism, because, you know, it’s just so horrific to see an agent of the state being involved in, you know, almost legitimized by the state violence. It is really scary, I think, for people and very traumatic, even if you are the sucker of it, to watch it and go, well, that could be me. That could be my family member is really traumatic and scary. [00:09:56][81.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:09:57] Yes, absolutely. I’m so excited to know that you have joy in the Marvel Universe, and it’s such an interesting time to talk about and think about Black superheroes and Black actors being cast in these really popular, beloved franchises. You’ll be one of the stars of the Black Widow, which we’ll get to see in July alongside Scarlett Johansson. And I was doing a little research on that. And I realized that, of course, we’ve got Anthony Mackie killing it in the Winter Soldier. We’ve got Tiana making a lot of moves over with Wondavision and we have you coming to Black Widow. But of course, it all started really for us with Black Panther and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. And that impact of that film, you know, kind of changed everything and I think really opened the door for Hollywood to know that Black superheroes were marketable, bankable. There was a huge audience dying to see ourselves in these kinds of projects. And then I realized that you also had an award winning stint as as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you know, on the stage. And so that kind of parallel to feel like, gosh, you were doing that role before we all saw it in a film version on Netflix with Viola Davis. You’re going to play Barack Obama alongside Viola Michelle in Showtime’s upcoming project The First Lady, and then you’re stepping into the Marvel Universe at a time where our first real huge Black hero is gone. Have you ever thought of all of that connection between, like you, Viola, Chadwick? It’s crazy. [00:11:41][103.6]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:11:42] Yeah. I don’t know if I’ve seen it quite like that. That’s amazing. As you say, all out loud, I mean, at the end of the day, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And really, I think African-American playwrights are really some of the greatest playwrights. And so huge inspiration for me as a young actor. And I think a lot of Black actors came through the theater and had that kind of exposure to that. But, yeah, I don’t know. I just feel really privileged. I was privileged to play Levee. It was a dream of mine to work with Viola, who is just such a huge inspiration. And then, of course, to be in Marvel, I’m I’m really kind of humbled by all the opportunities coming my way. I’m just trying to make the most out of it and make people proud of that. [00:12:29][47.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:12:30] As we are. We are definitely proud. I mean, what goes into that? What goes into prepping to join, you know, prepping to join the Marvel Universe? Like, what was your reaction when they asked you? What did you think? [00:12:44][13.8]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:12:45] Well, you know, it’s really funny is that I was kind of I was already kind of was prepping for Maxxx, my TV show. And and Maxxx was such a project of love and heart for me. And it looked like it was going to clash with Marvel. And I was kind of being given this Sophie’s choice of like, will I want to do Maxxx or what I want to do Marvel. And that was really challenging. There was no way I could have let go of my baby at that point. Luckily, Marvel kind of like stepped in and made time for me to be able to do both them and have my stuff together. So I love the preparation for- part of it, to be honest, I was just stopping thinking about the fact that it’s Marvel and stop and thinking that, like, you know, because it can be overwhelming in a way. You start thinking, Marvel and Scarlett Johansson in your heads thinking about Marvel and Scarlett Johansson but really you should be thinking about is the character and the script and how you’re going to engage with that. And so part of my work was just kind of letting go of all the hoopla around it and just engaging with text, which I’ve done for a long time. And luckily we had a great script, great writer who created a fantastic script. [00:13:46][61.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:13:47] Do you feel now that Maxxx is out there, you kind of birthed this baby of yours, do you feel torn between continuing further down that road of directing and producing and creating versus you being the talent and doing the acting thing [00:14:03][16.7]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:14:04] I want to do it all I really want to do all I work a lot with my brother Luti. He has his own production company. And I just want to make I want to make content. I want to make content I love see. I love Africa. I’ve got two projects in development at the moment which are rooted in Africa. And so that’s a huge part of what I want to be able to do is I can an artist in this world. And so, yeah, hopefully sleep less, work more get some good stuff. [00:14:31][26.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:33] You know, you talk a lot about representation here. And I think that it’s really interesting because, of course, your work. It doesn’t only give us a place to see ourselves on screen, but also you are really like a citizen of the world. And I know that you’ve dedicated a lot of your time and a lot of your philanthropic work to supporting women in tech in Africa. And I wondered, like, how do you feel like what’s your temperature right now on the way that Africa and actual Africans are represented on screens big and small here? I’ve talked to several people here. We’ve got Yvonne, Orji and Folake and, you know, some stars who are rising, who are making sure to, I think, capture their identities and make that part of their story and highlight their unique experience as Nigerians. But where do you see that? What’s the trajectory look like for you as far as representation of Africa and Africans? [00:15:33][60.7]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:15:35] And there’s so much opportunity, like it’s fertile ground, people trying to create content that Africa there’s a billion people on that continent. You could fit the United States into Africa a couple of times. That’s how big it is. It’s so diverse. You know, it’s got snow capped mountains and cities like you could party for days in Ghana and Accra and Nigeria and like like the the music Afrobeat that’s coming out of Africa. You know, some of the fastest growing economies are in Africa. And so, like the diversity and the potential for stories, I come from Nigeria, so many different ethnic groups and traditions, religions. So I’m really excited by the potential of Africa. I think it’s such an untapped potential on a on a cultural and creative level. So I’m going to be at the forefront of that. I mean, obviously, there’s so much that’s come already but I want to join that, join that line to bring in Africa more into people’s imaginations. [00:16:27][53.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:16:28] Yes, I want to see more of it. You know, it’s so rich and it’s such a tie to a history that so many of us as African-Americans don’t know don’t have any connection to think that for me, you know, Beyonce’s Black is king was more powerful than I expected it to be because I’m like. Is that what my great, great, great grandma might have looked like, worn, been doing? I’ve never seen it. I’ve actually never thought about it. And there and after that, I felt like, oh, my gosh, there’s so much missing and it’s not actually gone. It exists. We can find it. We can we can figure it out. And I do like Hollywood’s missing that opportunity. [00:17:14][45.7]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:17:15] Yeah. Yeah. And I would really recommend people go on vacation. Go on vacation. I went to I was in Tanzania for Christmas. It was gorgeous. You know, I did New Year’s in Ghana a few years. It’s so nice out there someplace which is safe and gorgeous. And like, you’re absolutely right about the historical part and that connection. But the modern cities that are coming up and it’s also true for a lot of African-Americans who have spent time like always questioning in public spaces, is that racism being involved in Tanzania all the judges are Black all the police officers are Black all the teachers are Black, like all the politicians are Black. You know, like it’s it’s a very different experience, I think, for a lot of African-Americans who go and spend some time in Africa. And even if you’re not African American, go visit after. I can’t I can’t recommend it enough. I I’ve been to the north, east, south and west and each time I have this amazing experience so get out there! [00:18:09][53.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:09] Absolutely. Yes. And, you know, we at theGrio have done a lot of coverage and work about traveling to Africa, how to do it, different agencies that can help you map it out, help you afford it. But I do think that the lack of representation, the lack of seeing what you just described on screen, it still lets so many of us put Africa in this box of like “Unless you’re ready to go on safari, you know, don’t go there.” We don’t know what it looks like. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know what there is to do there. Where do we start? I mean, it’s not a country. It’s a continent. Right. So, like, if I knew very little to nothing about the United States, I’d be very scared to land in Biloxi, Mississippi, if I was shooting for Los Angeles. [00:18:54][45.5]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:18:55] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And that’s that’s why I’m really excited about being part of. Now, one of the projects I’m developing is almost about that. It’s just showing just how exciting cosmopolitan and modern certain parts of of Africa are. So, yeah, I’m really excited. I’m really excited about it. [00:19:12][16.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:19:12] Oh, amazing. Well, what do you have to say about this kind of racial reckoning that we’re seeing in Hollywood as far as so many studios have made huge declarations to diversify the writing room or the people behind the camera or the executives? I’ve talked to so many actors who disagree, but some feel like, you know, they are having more agency. They feel a little more empowered at the bargaining table than they did two years ago. And they feel that this kind of sudden thirst for content from Black creators and creatives and others are like, no, like, you know, it’s all talk like I’ll believe it when I see it in my check or I’ll believe it when I see it at the academy. Where do you kind of fall right now as far as are there shifts happening in Hollywood that you can actually perceive as positive as you navigate this industry? [00:20:03][50.7]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:20:04] Undoubtedly, I think particularly in front of the camera, we’re getting to see the rise of some incredible talents, which I don’t think they had those kind of opportunities existed 20 years ago when I first came up. Yes, but, you know, you have to be careful about how much backslapping we do before we look at the executive producers on the show. Go look at how many writers, how many creators of shows are Black. And, you know, we may get sometimes disproportional press to give us an idea. Oh, it’s everywhere. I’ve had people tell me, you know, opportunities been taken away from other people. But but if you actually look at the numbers and the numbers don’t lie, the amount of show runners is the amount of execs at the top of the studio. We are still really underrepresented there. And so we cannot let up. And the main thing comes out, not just because I visited box exercise. You know, let’s make everything that we’re missing out on great talent. My goodness. You know, the incredible directing, the incredible actors that we never gave an opportunity to twenty five years ago. And, you know, I was thinking about, well, Hamilton, you know, those Black. And I’m thinking like, if we always just let the same people, you know, older white guys tell the story of Hamilton, we would have never got that musical. Like, it’s not just for fairness. We’re missing out on brilliant talent when we don’t give power and agency to people of color, to women, to people with disabilities. So, yeah, it’s necessary. There’s still more to be done. [00:21:33][89.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:21:33] Lastly, I want to talk about something that I talk about with a lot of people recently, Daniel Kaluuya. I’ve talked to Letitia, I’ve talked to McKeyla. I feel like there is like a Secret society of Black British actors just like doing the damn thing across across the board, like, do you have a John Boyega like you have? Are you part of that little secret clique that I want in so bad, too? [00:22:07][33.3]

O. T. Fagbenle: [00:22:08] I mean, I know I know all the McKeyla and Daniel particularly. I know them very well. And yeah, you know, it’s funny, like coming up, you kind of know all the other Black British actors that are coming up next to you. So anyone within 10 years of me, I kind of know first hand. Yeah. [00:22:27][18.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:22:27] Thank you so much. This was lovely. I hate that I have to let you go. I could talk to you for much longer, but I appreciate it was great! Talk soon.

We’re just one week away from hearing who is going to be vying for an Emmy at this year’s awards, and I can’t let this episode end without weighing in on the shocking news that HBO has decided not to proceed with Lovecraft country for another season. I’ve made no secret that I think that is one of the most important shows that came out last year. I thought every single performance in it was just amazing. And I am rooting for everyone on that series when it comes to Emmy nominations. I’m also wondering what went into the decision not to proceed. HBO’s initial statement kind of alluded to the fact that they didn’t know what to do with the story now that they’ve ran out of book to base it on and kind of inferred that Misha Green couldn’t figure out where to take this story next. And she delivered a pretty subtle but shady plot back on social media when she released a photo of the season two buyable, obviously proving that she did have a direction for the series. And she even just some details for what would have been called Lovecraft country supremacy. I’m still scratching my head and still trying to get to the bottom of what happened there. And I will be sure to report back to you next week. And hopefully we’ll have some good news about Eminem’s by then. Until then, take care. And thanks for listening to Acting Up.

Thank you for listening to acting up, if you liked what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show. Wherever you listen to your podcasts, please email all questions, suggestions and compliments to podcasts at theGrio.com. Follow us on Instagram and acting up dot pod. Acting Up is brought to you by the Grio, an executive produced by Courtney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. [00:22:27][0.0]