EXCLUSIVE: O-T Fagbenle is ready and woke.
The British-Nigerian actor is no stranger to the silver screen or the theater stage. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, O-T Fagbenle has starred in everything from The Color Purple to HBO’s Looking. Named one of Backstage Magazine’s “Actors to Watch,” Fagbenle has most recently led the UK shows, The Interceptor and The Five.
However, with his latest role in Hulu’s critically acclaimed series The Handmaid’s Tale, Fagbenle is using his voice to tell an entirely different story. Based on Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of surivial told from the perspective of one handmaiden named Offred (Elizabeth Moss). The series is set in the near future in a world where the United States government has been overthrown and replaced by the tyrannical and oppressive Gilead that stamps out women’s rights and religious freedom. Offred is a handmaid who is kept around solely for reproductive purposes. On the series, Fagbenle plays Luke, Offred’s husband from the world before Gilead.
Recently, JETmag.com chatted with O-T Fagbenle about The Handmaid’s Tale, why the series is so important and what he’s up to behind the scenes.
JET: Hey, O-T. How are you?
O-T Fagbenle: I’m great. How’s it going?
JET: I’m great, thank you. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
O-T: A pleasure.
JET: What drew you to The Handmaid’s Tale? You’ve done so many different works in terms of theater, television, and film, why did you choose this specific project at this point in your career?
O-T: It’s very rare that you get an opportunity to work on material that excites you artistically and fulfills you politically and socially. It’s just a rare opportunity to really speak quite explicitly about what happens when dogmatic governments get into power, what happens when patriarchy gets out of control, to think about the ways that men exploit and take advantage of women and their position in society. These are just things that I think are essential. We’ve lived too long in a world dominated by men and where women are exploited, and to be some small part of that conversation was just a chance I couldn’t pass up.
JET: Had you read or heard about Margaret Atwood’s novel before getting onboard for the series?
O-T: No. Embarrassingly enough, I hadn’t read it. Around the same time we were looking at doing the project, I read the novel and immediately fell in love. It’s an extraordinary novel. I really recommend people who watch it to read the book, because I don’t think it will spoil their enjoyment of the series. I think it’s really worth it.
JET: For sure. Previously, you said that you don’t like to label The Handmaid’s Tale as “timely” because issues of feminism and this sort of government have always been a part of the conversation. However, I do feel like it very eerie for this series to come out now. Does it feel eerie to you also, considering the political climate that we are in now in the U.S.?
O-T: Yeah. I think in some of the ways that it’s more timely now. We’re in an age of I think greater dogma, and also an age which has, in terms of politically, less cachet for intellectualism and actual facts, and rather it’s this bombastic charisma-led politics. That is really dangerous, I think.
JET: Yeah, extremely.
O-T: Once we abandoned those empirical principles that allowed us to develop sophisticated democracies and to come out of an age of slavery, and out of an age of segregation. I think this kind of fascistic dogma which exists in some parts of politics is leading us backward
JET: I can’t believe we’re cycling backward. But for your character specifically, Luke exists in the past so far, he exists in Offred’s memory. How did you prepare for this role?
O-T: I prepared for the role in I think a similar way you prepare for life, which is that nothing exists in the past. Everything exists in the present for the person experiencing it.
JET: For sure.
O-T: All we can do as people and artists is engage with the present as actively as possible.
JET: Absolutely. We are at this moment where we’re all very, very busy living our lives, and as a result, things happen around us. In The Handmaid’s Tale, The Constitution was suspended. How do you think that we as people ignore things, even though they might be glaring at us? Even when Offred loses her job and all her money is transferred over to Luke, it’s a joke for him. It’s not something to be taken too seriously at that moment.
O-T: Yeah, complacency is a real concern for progress. It reminds us that you cannot move forward fast enough on these kinds of issues. There is a sense of urgency that you deal with them. That’s in a way the bad news; we don’t have time to waste.
O-T: The good news is that we show that there are methods which work, and these methods include boycotting and resistance and civil disobedience and talking with your dollar as well as your vote. There are lots of ways that we can engage, and that’s on the larger scale. On the smaller scale, having conversations with young men about issues of consent and of women’s rights, and finding opportunities to volunteer and to support vulnerable people in your community. There are ways that we can engage, big and small, and we don’t have to do everything, but I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to do something.
JET: Definitely. This is your second time working with director Reed Morano, and I know you guys worked together previously on HBO’s Looking. How differently have you both approached this particular series versus Looking?
O-T: She’s extraordinary. I approach all pieces the same, which is entirely unique, because to some extent you have to. I think the artist’s first resource is their intuition, and you have an intuitive response to the material. You follow that down, and somewhere along that line, you engage your tools of your art to finesse some things. My intuitive response to Looking had lots of room for improvisation and stuff like that. Something like Handmaid’s is different more because of the style of the text and the way that writing influenced me specifically, rather than a change in personnel.
JET: The color palette of The Handmaid’s Tale adds to the unease for the viewer as you’re watching it because you’re constantly afraid that something’s going to happen. It’s like a thriller or a horror film in that way. The handmaids wear a striking red, there are the grays of the kitchen women, and then the wives who are in this turquoise color. Have you thought about that at all? In the past, where your character lives it’s very gray and muted, but this new world is very vibrant in a very odd way.
O-T: Yeah, I really can’t talk kindly enough about director Reed Morano and our production designer, particularly Ane Crabtree, who was our costume designer, who’s my new sister in this world. She’s just so extraordinarily talented in telling stories through color and shapes, and really what was great about it is they’ve got so much integrity that they go for. They’re trying to tell the emotional story through color. It’s not like, “What’s the biggest picture we can make?” Or, “What is the coolest look?” They understand, much more than I will ever understand, how color and form and flow affect people’s emotion and their engagement with storytelling. That’s what they did incredibly.
JET: Wonderful. This is both a human and feminist story. What do you think we can learn from it, why is it important for people to watch?
O-T: I hope this isn’t too much of a cop-out, but I once said to an artist … We’d go to these art galleries, and go, “What does this painting mean? What does this painting mean?” She’d be like, “What do you think it means?” I’m like, “No, no, what does the painter think? What was their idea of what it is?” She would also tell me that it’s irrelevant what the painter intends. The only relevant thing is what you get from it. What is the story it tells you? I think this story, The Handmaid’s Tale, is dense enough and deep enough and eclectic enough that people will learn things about their relationship with their husband and their relationship with their child. People will learn things about some of the abuses of gender which happen in their own country and abroad. I almost wouldn’t want to put in a box what people will take from it because actually, I think there’s so much that they’ll discover for themselves.
JET: Why is it important, do you think, for millennials specifically, to watch it?
O-T: I think engaging in classic works is important. The Handmaid’s Tale is a wonderful, nourishing resource. The number one reason I think for millennials is just they’re going to love it. I personally have a lot of faith in young people. I have a lot of faith in millennials. I think if you look at everything from Standing Rock to the protests that go on and then the marches, the innovation that’s coming out… I’m not going to stand here and teach any lessons. I think The Handmaid’s Tale is just an amazing piece of art, and I think art can teach everyone something.
JET: For sure. What’s next for you after? I know The Handmaid’s Tale just got a renewal for season two, which is amazing but are you working on any projects outside of Handmaid’s?
O-T: Yeah. Right now, I’m developing my own material. There are not enough brown people behind the camera in production. That’s not my reason for doing it, but yeah, I’m definitely engaging in that challenge. Right now, I have something in development with a network in England, and there’ll be some things being released very soon. If your readers catch me on the Instagram or the Twitter, as O-T Fagbenle, then they’ll get that, and in the next month, they’ll get to see a whole different side.
JET: Wonderful. Thank you so much for speaking with me, O-T, and congratulations on The Handmaid’s Tale and all of your other wonderful projects that are forthcoming.
O-T: It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.