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O-T Fagbenle on YouTube Research and Going Out in Public as Barack Obama in Preparation for 'The First Lady'

As if the dystopian drama of 'The Handmaid's Tale' isn't daunting enough for one career, O-T Fagbenle's 'The First Lady' role is former president Barack Obama.
by Amy Amatangelo — 
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O-T Fagbenle

Courtesy of Persona PR

Most television viewers know O-T Fagbenle best from his role as June's husband Luke on Hulu's Emmy-winning dystopian drama The Handmaid's Tale, which he will once again embody in the upcoming fifth season. But this month, audiences can see a very different Fagbenle when he stars as Barack Obama opposite Viola Davis' Michelle Obama in Showtime's The First Lady, premiering April 17. 

The show follows three former first ladies in very distinct time periods and political administrations. In addition to Obama, who depicts the most recent White House resident, there is Michelle Pfeiffer's Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson's Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tackling this role of not only a former president, but also the first Black president, was "about as daunting as it can get," the British actor tells Metacritic. "Barack's legacy is really an international legacy. I don't think there's been an American president who is more significant around the world than Barack Obama."

Here, Fagbenle talks to Metacritic about what it was like to play — as he puts it — the "world's most beloved man."

How did playing Barack Obama in The First Lady come about for you?

Susanne Bier, our wonderful director, gave me a call and we spoke about the project. We were joined on this idea that we weren't interested in making a fluff piece, but really engaging in the challenges and the vicissitude of the Obamas' relationship and the intimacy and the love of it. And, of course, on the bigger picture of really looking at American politics through the lens of these three extraordinary women. By the end of the conversation, I was pretty much all in.

Barack Obama is such a recent historical figure and one who is still very present in our lives. How did that impact the choices you made as an actor?

He may be the most recognizable voice and person of all time. All you can do is try as hard as you can to reach towards it. And also to some extent relinquish the idea that you are going to be able to perfectly replicate the person, but rather you try as an artist to express something about your feeling of their soul, their heart, their connection, their energy.

How did you begin to tackle portraying him?

My friend and foe is YouTube. I think I watched everything on YouTube that had Barack Obama. And I started seeing patterns and I started editing together my own video of Barack — his leg movement positions, his arm movement positions, his head position. And then I would make audio files of how he says his Rs, how he says his ls, how he says his Ms, and his cadence. I was blessed to have a number of people who helped me out and who would allow me to go out of the house as Barack. And a terrible Barack, by the way, because at the beginning of the process, there was so much to learn and ultimately just working through the humiliation of being at the beginning of a very long journey. They were generous enough to help me along that way.

And am I understanding you right that during this time you also went out in public as Barack?

Yes! There's also this multiplayer VR game and you talk to your teammates. And because I like to work while I play, I would go into the VR game as Barack a couple of times. It caused a stir.

Did you work on the different elements of Barack Obama — the voice, the way he walks, et cetera — concurrently or consecutively?

The first thing I worked on was just comprehension. I wanted to understand him. I had read his autobiographies before. I read them all again. I read Michelle's autobiography. I watched the documentaries on him. My first step was trying to understand, "What is the trajectory of his life?" If I know where his grandparents came from and what his life was like in Hawaii and then he goes to LA, then he goes to New York and then he goes to Chicago, then when I hear those elements in his accent, I know where they came from. So, the first thing was comprehension then I started adding in dialect work and movement work.

How long did the physical transformation take?

It was about an hour-and-half in and a half an hour out each day which I took as an opportunity to meditate to listen to Barack's voice so it wasn't too arduous.

What did you learn about Barack Obama that you didn't know before doing this role?

A million things. I guess one thing that I found really curious — and this is my interpretation of it — is how reluctant Michelle was originally for him to become president. There was a risk to Barack's life, a risk of disruption to their kids' life. She didn't seem to be the biggest fan of politics at all. I was fascinated with that. I was fascinated with the way that they, like great couples do, found ways to compromise and found a way through the challenge of being the first Black president.

Did you learn anything about American politics while filming the series?

I was made even more aware of the crushing difficulty of what it is to be a leader of a country like America and balancing the interests because there is quite a polarity of political opinions and [he is] a person who wanted to unify the United States despite the polarity within it. The gargantuan challenge of that is something that is obvious to anyone looking at American politics, but spending a lot of time seeing it through the perspective of Barack, I think I became even more aware.

I read that you had wanted to meet him but haven't had the chance to yet.

To be honest, it probably worked out for the best. I wanted to meet him because who doesn't want to meet Barack Obama? But it took off some of the edge of the responsibility to portray him in a certain way. I still hope I get the chance to shake his hand sometime.

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O-T Fagbenle and Viola Davis in 'The First Lady'

Showtime

Tell me a little bit about working with Viola Davis. You two really bring us inside the Obamas relationship.

Viola is one of the most talented actors of this generation. She's also such a wonderful, generous, and thoughtful human being. We had a natural person-to-person chemistry from the very start. It's impossible to pretend that. That made it easy. We had a natural rapport. We would debate each other and joke with each other, even a couple of times had a good old song and dance. We had a shared sense of purpose and a shared sense of craft that really made the experience of working with her special.

Barack and Michelle were two fiercely intellectual people and yet two compassionate people and playful people. Barack has a bit of comedian in him. We know what that looks like from the public stage but what does that look like behind closed doors? I really hope people do get that from the show because there is no internet or YouTube from behind closed doors.

This month viewers can also see you as Cameron Lautner, a no nonsense investment partner in AppleTV+'s WeCrashed, about Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and his company WeWork. Luke, Cameron, and Barack couldn't be more different. What do you think has allowed you to play such diverse roles?

It was so much fun playing that character. Adam Neumann had such a rule of the roost so being able to come in and play the antagonist and such a mercurial character it was just a lot of fun. The producers and writers of the show gave me a lot of room to express my vision of Cameron Lautner and playing opposite Jared who is just a genius and unpredictable and fluid so that itself was a learning experience and also a wonderful challenge. 

It is something which I've actually pursued. I get offered a lot of Luke type roles and basically I just try to say no — saying "no" to the same kind of thing again and again and saying "yes" to the challenges. The part in WeCrashed, when I first was offered it, it was actually smaller than the one you saw. There was something about Cameron which I really liked. I want to play this type of role. And so I actually turned down a lead in a movie to play this smaller role on WeCrashed. As they saw what I was doing and the way Jared and I connected, the part got bigger and bigger. I think trying to say "yes" to roles that inspire me rather than roles that are easy. 

The First Lady airs Sundays at 9 p.m. beginning April 17 on Showtime.


Get to know O-T Fagbenle:
In addition to The Handmaid's Tale (Metascore: 82) and WeCrashed (65), Fagbenle also stars in Maxxx (71), a comedy series he also writes and directs. In the past, he has appeared in roles on Doctor Who (77), Looking (74), and Quarterlife (53) on TV, while in film, he had a memorable role in Black Widow (67).