O-T Fagbenle on ‘First Lady’ criticism: ‘You’re seeing an artist express her interpretation’

The First Lady is currently airing Sundays on Showtime

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Showtime’s latest release, The First Lady, is causing quite the stir among viewers of the project that stars Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt. 

The project takes a deep dive into the personal and political lives of the iconic women and explores the ways in which they navigated their responsibilities to their families and their country. 

After the first episode premiered on April 17, Twitter erupted in criticism for the way Viola Davis portrayed Michelle Obama. While many noted that Davis’ performances are usually beyond reproach, some insisted that she missed the mark with her pursed lips and suggested her attempt to nail the former First Lady’s mannerisms was just too much. 

(L-R): O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in THE FIRST LADY, “Voices Carry”. Photo credit: Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME.

O-T Fagneble stars alongside Davis as Barack Obama in the series and the actor didn’t seem too concerned by the criticism during a recent interview on Acting Up. 

The Handmaid’s Tale star admitted that pressure to portray the beloved Obamas was extremely high.

“I would say it’s just borderline crippling, the trepidation,” he says. “A substantial amount of energy has to be put into kind of quelling one’s anxiety around it—just so you’re not kind of struck by analysis paralysis and you can actually get down to the work of trying to step closer to the man.”

Fagneble noted that he was inspired by the opportunity to work alongside Davis.

“Of course, Queen Viola, you know, it’s just an opportunity to learn from her and through her process and to kind of try and create something together.”

When it comes to the criticism his costar has received for her performance in the series, it’s clear he’s not losing any sleep over it. 

“It’s going to sound flippant a bit, but I don’t care. I’m an artist and I’m trying to do my best expression. I’m not trying to imitate. The example I’d give is like a painter painting a forest. He’s not trying to make a facsimile of the forest. He’s trying to say, ‘This is not [how] a forest makes me feel. This is my experience in the forest.’ And I told my experience of Barack Obama and Viola painted this wonderful image of Michelle Obama,” he explains. 

O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama in THE FIRST LADY, “That White House”. Photo credit: Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME.

“Some people are going to not like Kandinsky or Sydney Pollack or Picasso, and they’re going to go, ‘I don’t like straight lines.’ Oh, fine, you don’t have to like it. But one way or another, when you see Viola’s performance, you’re seeing an artist and you’re seeing an artist express her interpretation of a person. And I personally just love it. And it’s also fine for people not to like it.”

When it came to tackling his portrayal of Barack Obama for the series, Fagneble says he was more focused on finding the former POTUS’ energy than nailing his look.

“The first challenge is that I don’t particularly look like him,” he says. “I don’t know how important that is. You want to get a sense of someone. You’ll get an energy of someone. And he has a certain gait in the way he walks and he has a certain smoothness in the way he uses his hands.”

“In fact, I studied him historically and he started changing the way he used his hands the further he went in politics, I guess. So at some point someone teaches you don’t do certain hand gestures, and of course, he’s a smoker. And so he plays with his lips in certain ways, and you notice the small little details, which kind of create a fuller image.”

Stay tuned for more with O-T Fagneble on next week’s episode of Acting Up. 

The First Lady airs Sundays on Showtime.  

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