'The Handmaid's Tale' Star O-T Fagbenle Unpacks Luke's Need to Prove Himself and Experience Being Captured

The actor tells Metacritic about his characters fears regarding living up to tropes of masculinity.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

O-T Fagbenle in 'The Handmaid's Tale'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for the sixth episode of The Handmaid's Tale Season 5, titled "Together," . Read at your own risk!

From June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) adjusting to allowing her anger to show itself through violence, to Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) losing her power and standing in Gilead, in many ways, Season 5 of The Handmaid's Tale is all about change. And perhaps surprisingly, one of the characters who is changing the most is Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle).

For the majority of the first four seasons, Luke was on the periphery of the action by sheer geography. The show was set in Gilead, following the titular handmaid's journey, and therefore her husband, who was not with her, had to come second in the story. But he was also on the periphery of the action because he was a good, upstanding citizen who didn't pick up arms and storm the border to get his family back when they were taken. And that is what has changed for him.

"Luke has always been a kind of bureaucratic believer; it's a belief in the system type thing. And it was that kind of appeasement attitude which led to Gilead being able to get as powerful as it was and that did abet Luke's faith, but I think in this season, [his] way has failed and June's way has succeeded — everything from Angels' Flight to a bunch of other others — and maybe it's time to put down the pen and pick up the sword, so to speak," Fagbenle tells Metacritic.

It might not matter that his ways failed so much if his and June's daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) wasn't still in Gilead, being trained to become a wife. Armed with that knowledge, and after being taunted by Serena about his wife's relationship with Nick (Max Minghella), Luke has a fire in his belly. It is one that gets ignited further after he and June run from a protest at which she pulled a gun she could have used on Serena but chose not to. (Both of them claimed to not be sure if they would be able to show such restraint if given the opportunity again.)

Luke takes initiative in the fifth episode of the season, titled "Fairytale," and says he wants to cross the border, and June goes with him. For once, he gets to truly see, feel, and experience how she lived for so long: operating in secret, trying to run, being unsure of who to trust — and, in the end, seeing an ally terribly harmed, not succeeding in the mission, getting captured, and in the sixth episode (titled "Together"), experiencing abuse at the hands of his captors. 

Here, Fagbenle talks to Metacritic about Luke's experience walking in June's shoes, including getting captured, how much he feels Luke wants to prove himself, and what else may change if and when they get Hannah back.

What did you consider Luke's greatest motivation to jump into action at this point in time? How much of related to Serena's jabs about him not doing it sooner or even her talking about Nick?

I think there are certain tropes of masculinity, about which Luke on an outer level might be like, "Oh, well, that's not applicable; that doesn't matter," but ultimately, he fears that he doesn't live up to those tropes. He fears he didn't live up to them when he had to protect his family back in Season 1, and he's been unable to get June back or his daughter back, and so, he's failing to live up to that. And so, he lives with this anxiety, full stop. Then you add into that the fact that somewhere out there is this debonair, devilishly handsome man who works with the Gestapo; he's one of the most powerful, and if anyone is the symbol of that kind of action and strength and power and dangerousness, that definitely needles his insecurities when it comes to how he's viewed in June's eyes.

Do you think him wanting to cross the border is as much to prove himself as it is to get Hannah?

Proving himself may be a part of the mix, but I think, fundamentally, what's going on there is that he's realizing he's failed. It's existential. His whole view of the world and how it works and what he can do has been demolished, and he has to do something different. And that moment where he's like, "I'm going across there" is just something he wouldn't have done. A year before, he would have been like, "Why don't we go get some people who are trained?" And now he's fundamentally changed and there's nowhere else to go. He has to embrace a new him, a new direction.

Something that was really telling about just how far apart June and Luke are in their lives was when they were in the makeshift jail cells and Luke was pacing and ranting about the size of them and she was just sitting calmly and at one point noted that they're usually smaller. How did you work out how big to make his reactions and how much of them were coming from fear, but maybe fear he was trying to mask?

It's very hard to know how one would react, and there's so many different types of reactions one could have to that kind of situation. For the audience to have been seeing these characters go through this — and much, much worse — and then the characters having somewhat of, as the English would say, stiff upper lip about this, it's completely novel to Luke. His whole nervous system has been thrown for a loop. And then on top of that, the frustration. You could almost say that outside of only what's happening to Hannah, Luke's biggest fear is that he replays what happened in Season 1, which is he failed to keep his family safe. And here through his actions, he's faced with that; he literally contributed to June being back in a cage. And I think there's a shame involved in that, which isn't expressed in a direct way.

It then gets worse for Luke because he's pulled out of the cell and beaten by what is effectively a version of law enforcement. What were the conversations you had on set with Lizzie and Eva Vives, the director, about the statement you wanted to make about police brutality in that moment, especially as they talk about resisting?

That's an example of something that came out organically — that parallel. I don't think necessarily that part of the story — police brutality — was the main focus originally. But as we started doing the fight rehearsals — and I think, in a way, this is one of the reasons why diversity is useful to teams — you get different perspectives. And so, as I was acting out, I had all these memories of my own fears and interactions. And I started having conversations with Eva and with Lizzie and with the stunt coordinator about, "Is this also what's going on? Are we also watching what happens when people overstep, when people don't try to deescalate and are impatient in terms of how they deal with things? That's what we're seeing in the real world, so what would happen if we injected some of that into it?" And everyone was really into it and supportive of us having that exploration, which I was so grateful for, because it's an expression of a reality which is very poignant for me.

There is some time where we don't see Luke, so we're not quite sure how bad what happened to him was, physically. 

A big part of Handmaid's plotting is what what people don't know: what is going on in Gilead, and what do they know about what's going on in Canada, and what's going on in Canada? So, I try and close my focus to what my character knows and not think too broadly about it. It bleeds in a little, but in this instance, I wasn't thinking about that.

Obviously regardless of how OK he is physically, the emotional toll will be large, and that's already on top of everything else he has recently experienced that he let change him.

It goes without saying that the women in the show have faced the worst trauma, but Luke himself has gone through his own trauma, and part of his reaction is a trauma-based reaction. And as you know, it may take a lifetime to contend with the effects of various negative events on one's life. And so, one way or another Luke is changed, and it won't be simple if he gets Hannah back. He's going to live in constant fear because once upon a time, he didn't live in constant fear, and everything was taken away from him. And so, now, there is almost a default of being like, "Well, I must stay vigilant, I must stay must stay active."

Let's be positive and say they will bring Hannah home at some point. But Hannah is not the little girl they were raising; she was afraid of June when she saw her in Gilead, for one thing, and she may not really remember Luke. In your mind, is Luke thinking about how much deprogramming they may have to do of Hannah?

There is a scene at some point where June and Luke talk about what we think Hannah's like, and I think one can't help but think about the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario, and you try as much as you can to take what comes. That's what Luke had to do with June, somewhat. He had to take what comes or he'd go insane.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays