O-T Fagbenle on the Social Relevance of ‘Maxxx’ and Almost Having to Choose Between His Passion Project and ‘Black Widow’

O-T Fagbenle behind the camera for "Maxxx"
Luti Media

O-T Fagbenle’s six-episode comedy series “Maxxx” makes quite a statement when it says, “The only way for a Black man to stay safe is to become famous.”

It is quick and witty in the moment of the show about a former boy band member trying to reclaim fame, which Fagbenle wrote two years ago and was in production on in 2019, but it takes on even more poignancy now that the show is finally launching in the U.S. “Maxxx” premieres July 28 on Hulu after weeks of Black Lives Matter protests and calls for justice and police reform in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s (among other) murders. Its U.S. home comes from an acquisition; “Maxxx” was originally created for Channel 4 in the U.K. and aired there this past spring.

“I was keen, in what was ostensibly a half-hour comedy about a pop star, to try and delve deeper into certain issues. In Episode 1, it’s about, what is death and the death of the body, and in Episode 2, what is race and is race something that is cultural or biological?” Fagbenle tells Variety.

But even beyond the subject matter of the show, Fagbenle says what feels the most relevant to him about “Maxxx” is that they made a production from a Black-owned company (his brother Luti Fagbenle’s Luti Media) that features a number of Black heads of departments from makeup to locations, in addition to Black producers and writers.

“I routinely play ‘Spot the black person’ when I go on set,” Fagbenle says. “People feeling that they are racist or not racist is secondary to the way that we all contribute to the systematic racism. The numbers of Black writers, directors and people behind the camera is way below what is commensurate with a demographic of America or England. And there’s no excuse for that.”

The lack of Black directors is a particularly sore spot for Fagbenle. “When we were making this, I was trying to find a Black person who directed a first episode of a sitcom in England — ever — and to this day I have not found it. In the history of British comedy. So maybe I’ve missed the math and maybe there’s one or two but where are they?” he says. “There is so much room for improvement, which is exciting because there is opportunity there.”

Fagbenle made his small-screen directorial debut on “Maxxx” after previously directing a few short films. It is not the first project on which he pulled multiple duty — writing, producing, directing, acting — but it is the highest profile one to date. In it he stars as the titular pop star, who, by the show’s start, has become better-known for tabloid headlines about drugs and a very public breakup. The first season follows him on a journey to make people stop thinking he’s dead, but also to win back the woman he thinks is the love of his life. He balances being a single dad to a son he adopted in part for the publicity with trying to to write a new hit song, all while being haunted by the ghost of a former friend as well as being haunted by his own past.

“I can honestly say there was no specific [inspiration], but we all recognize that personality. If anyone hasn’t watched the Bros documentary ‘When The Screaming Stops,’ put that on. It’s so fun and funny. I was well into writing ‘Maxxx’ when that came out, but it felt like a documentary version of Maxxx in a way,” Fagbenle says.

The idea first came about in 2016 while he was working on a play, and he juggled the development and pre-production of the passion project around other work including Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Marvel’s “Black Widow.”

“‘Maxxx’ was my baby, and I wanted to put it on, and then I got the Marvel job. And they just literally crossed each other. They did not work; they were bang on top of each other. And everyone was like, ‘Well I guess you can’t do “Maxxx” then because it’s Marvel!’ And I was like, ‘I have to do it,'” Fagbenle says. “At a point I was in this heart-crushing thing where it was like, ‘Oh the biggest job of my career or my baby!?'”

Due to some scheduling shifts, he was able to keep all three projects going, with “Maxxx” giving him the opportunity to move beyond being “the professional boyfriend on TV” that he has long-joked with his friends he has become.

“I’ve had some great parts, but they were all very nice guys, basically — Frank in ‘Looking’ and Luke in ‘Handmaid’s — and I think troubled characters are genuinely more fun,” he says. “And so I was interested in playing someone who wasn’t as likable and who was more challenged.”

The show also gave Fagbenle the chance to incorporate elements of his real-life into the character, most notably the fact that he’s so often mistaken for Craig David and that he has some strong musical chops.

“People have much harder crosses to bear than looking like a pop star, but when he first came out, literally 20 times a day if I was walking down the street. And people would get aggressive — because if you tell them you’re not Craig David, they’re like, ‘Don’t try to f— me around, bro.’ It’s a very humbling thing, actually, because you get a bit on TV and someone comes up and asks for your autograph and you feel like, ‘I’ve made it, Mom!’ And then they think you’re someone you aren’t,” he says.

When it came to incorporating music into the show, though, Fagbenle made Maxxx play three instruments that he didn’t actually know how to play prior to pre-production, including the drums and the guitar. He took lessons so it would come off as if Maxxx had true talent in these areas — and had for many years — because he wanted him to be a genuine musician who just got distracted by the wrong things in the industry.

Inspired by Stephen King’s “On Writing,” Fagbenle says: “Stories are fossils in the ground and it’s the job of the writer to chip away at the fossil to bring it out. To some extent that was my feeling around Maxxx: He has to play guitar, I couldn’t have him play piano, because that’s not what the fossil was. So I was pushing myself to try and honor what I felt already in my subconscious, and try and bring my skill level up, and collaborate with brilliant people to help me do that.”