‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Star O-T Fagbenle Talks His Love for Dystopian Drama and Formative Roles

Classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), actor O-T Fagbenle worked for years in English theater and in a number of on-screen roles projects before crossing the pond to try his hand at work in the States. When he first arrived on the US film and television scene, he considered it “unchartered territory” because there were no well-known black British actors to show him how it worked. Fagbenle booked roles in movies (“I Could Never Be Your Woman”) as well as TV (“Happy Endings,” “Looking”). Now, he is enjoying success in the second season of dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

What made you decide to give acting in the States a shot?

My family is very nomadic — my mom in particular traveled the world as a young person, and her father before that, and I guess I have that inside me. I came to the States less to find fortune and fame and more to kind of have a life experience of seeing something new.

Were you looking for something in particular for your career at the time?

I’ve always had an explorative drive to my art, as opposed to wanting to achieve some certain goal. I’m interested in working with great people and exploring great themes in different mediums. I was always aware there was the possibility of getting on a great television show like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but I was up for any adventure.

Before you booked “The Handmaid’s Tale” many of your US projects were lighter fare, if not outright comedies. Were you intentionally looking to diversify your resume?

In England I did a movie called “Walter’s War” where I played the first black officer in the British army, who suffered from PTSD. I had done some quite heavy dramas at the Royal Court Theatre before that — if anything I think it was a surprise after RADA that I was doing comedy when I arrived in the States. But I found there was that opportunity.

Was the chance to get back to drama the attraction of “The Handmaid’s Tale” for you?

I spent three years studying Shakespeare and Ibsen and really hardcore, classical texts at drama school, but to be honest, I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to dystopian dramas. I’ve read lots of those books and listened to podcasts and all that stuff, so I was really excited to take part in that genre that I love.

Being a fan of the genre, did you have specific elements of character with which you wanted to infuse Luke to keep him grounded?

Stephen King talks about finding stories as if they are fossilized dinosaurs and he has to kind of get them out as intact as possible, and Michelangelo talks about chipping away every thing in a piece of marble that isn’t David, and I’m nowhere near either of those two masters, but I feel like my job is to discover who my character is. I’ve got to chip away at him and also who I am in him.

What helps the most with that discovery?

Bruce Miller writes this extraordinary script from this amazing source material from Margaret Atwood. The hard work is done. My job is kind of like being a window to let people see through me to what’s already there. I try as much as I can not to have an agenda. I think there’s everything out there to discover. I come with what I come with, but I don’t have to be too cognizant of that. And also, Elisabeth [Moss] is this extraordinary person and a talented artist, and I always discover so much about Luke and the situation just being opposite her.

The second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is without the template from the book because it’s expanding the story beyond what happened in the book. How early do you feel you need to learn Luke’s arc in order to keep your performance consistent?

It’s one of those things where in theater you just have the play and that’s it — no one’s going to come and rewrite the play in the middle of it. But in television that happens all the time where, “Oh wow, now I have to incorporate that into the backstory.” But we’re lucky with Bruce and the rest of the writing team that they think of everything and with so much detail that I’ve never had a time with “Handmaid’s” where I thought something that happened in the past was weird. It was all really congruent.

What was the most challenging aspect of season 2 for you?

There’s a moment where Luke is faced with something which is terrifying and very upsetting, and because you do so many takes, it can be challenging to react to news as if you’d just heard it for the very, very first time. It was a fun, exciting challenge, but it was challenging.

How do you get through that?

I think it’s like a point of focus, where you allow your focus to exist in a different head space so you can be pulled or jerked back into a new reality. I find a lot of acting is just an ability to put your focus where it needs to be — most of the time on the other person. I had an acting teacher who always used to say, “Everything on you and nothing on me,” and what it means is as actors we can tend to become a little bit introspective and all about what I want, but his whole philosophy is everything you need is in the other person.

June and Luke have been separated for a long time and have both been through some horrible things in that separation. Do you think they would still recognize each other and have their connection if and when they finally reconnect?

That’s really the challenge for anyone who’s gone through this kind of separation, but I know I have friends from 10 years ago who if I see we slip right back in with each other. From what I take with the relationship between Luke and June, they have an eternal connection. And I think really for those on both sides of the Gilead war, faith has to guide them. There has to be hope.

Who were some of your earliest influences?

Rufus Orishayomi, who was an African theater practitioner and wrote an adaptation of “Macbeth” in Pidgin English, which very few people could understand. He gave me theater, really, and gave me my first roles and put me on stage for the first time. I used his writing as my audition speeches to get into RADA. He was instrumental. And then Spike Lee, because he was an actor and a director, and I grew up on his films — I was into basketball and politics as a teenager, so some of his films were transformative to me.

When you reflect on some of the roles that personally meant a lot to you but were also career-defining in some way, what comes to mind?

They’re mostly theater, to be honest. I did a play called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is an August Wilson play, and I got to work with such an extraordinary cast and director, and like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it had such a modern resonance. It was a transformative experience. I often don’t delineate between my life and art — they kind of inform each other — and that was a big one for me.

Have there been any projects that you get recognized for that surprises you that’s from where people most recognize you?

I’d done a production of “Romeo & Juliet” which had toured England but not so much in big theaters in London, and a young actor who I admire actually told me he’d seen me on stage as a teenager and gone, “Oh that’s what I want to do!” And he took one of the speeches I did and did that inspired by me. That kind of stuff is really cool — when people see some small project you did. It’s really gratifying.

You also write and direct. What first inspired you to step behind the camera, too?

I had always written, just for myself — music and poetry and stuff like that. But filmmaking came about during a terrible bout with unemployment [where] I was terribly frustrated and annoyed and not getting what I wanted. I was sitting at home watching Quentin Tarantino [on TV] talking about, because mobile technology is so accessible and cheap now, if you think you’re a writer or a filmmaker and you haven’t written or made a film yet, you’re full of s—. I was like, “F— you, Tarantino!” But in a week of that I had made my short film. I made it on a budget of $200, and I spent $180 on pizza and $20 on a pole to hold the microphone, and everything else was begged, borrowed and stolen. And I felt like I had discovered something I was in love with and was definitely going to pursue.

Obviously you’re very busy with “Handmaid’s,” but how do you see yourself expanding your career as a writer and director, as well?

I really love collaborating with people — I love encouraging people to bring out their own skill and work together — that’s just a really exciting thing to do. And I’ve also got really weird stories bumping around my head. I kind of lived an odd life at times. So for me, it’s almost a life experience thing again. I’m an explorer at heart, so I’m curious about continuing to explore these sides.

What advice do you have for people just starting in the business today?

I think too often we think success is when we get the job [but] success is really when we audition. I think it’s really important, going into auditions, preparing for [them] in a way that makes you proud of your performance and your professionalism so when you come out of it you can slap yourself on the back. So much of your life as an actor is failure because you don’t get that job and you don’t get that job — we will get so many more “nos” than “yeses” — but taking ownership of one’s success and being able to say, “I have, at my disposal, all of the means necessary to say I won today,” then you can just live in success for more of your life.

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