The Handmaid's Tale star talks June and Luke, the challenges of sharing scenes with a baby, and the "gift" of Marvel.
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It's true that O-T Fagbenle looks fantastic in a fedora, but that’s not the only hat he wears.
In the white-knuckled realm of The Handmaid's Tale he plays Luke, the husband of titular handmaid June (Elisabeth Moss). Luke lives in Canada, a world away from the horrors transpiring in Gilead. The distance gives viewers a reprieve from the frustration of June's continually losing hand, but the separation is hardly a relief for Luke, who fears not only for his wife's well-being, but that of his young daughter.
Though Luke is currently the character for which Fagbenle’s best known, there's a good chance that will change in the near future. It was recently reported that Fagbenle will star in Black Widow alongside Scarlett Johansson — though, per the rigid rules dictated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he cannot publicly confirm his involvement in the project. Regardless, Fagbenle himself feels like the superhero we deserve (his preferred power would be the ability to "fix the environment," guys).
Offscreen, Fagbenle’s roles are myriad: he’s a director, writer, musician, feminist, and, according to the internet, certifiably “HAWWWWWT.”
While our time together was limited, Fagbenle strikes me as thoughtful and down to earth. As a man starring in a show about women's oppression, he's done his homework — but he wouldn't dare launch into a lecture on gender politics at a dinner party.
And despite the darkness inherent in Handmaid's (and let's be honest, reality), Fagbenle is upbeat, greeting me over the phone with an exclamatory "Isabel!" as we make introductions.
The multi-hyphenate spoke with InStyle about his sex symbol status, Luke and June's future, Marvel's contribution to modern storytelling, and much more. Read on below for our full interview.
InStyle: You play a male character in a show that's about female oppression, largely at the hands of men. How does that affect your performance?
O-T Fagbenle: You know, I think the things that The Handmaid's Tale deals with are really important. In a way they're kind of central to humanity: how we treat women in society. So from an actor's perspective I think you could only really deal with the thing that's just specific and unique to that character because I guess as people we don't think in those universal ways so much. So, I think of Luke as a father and a husband and a refugee, who is trying to balance that.
You've talked about this learning curve for men that comes with understanding the struggles of being a woman, and the unique experiences we share. One of these experiences is, of course, objectification. You're becoming something of a sex symbol yourself. How does that feel? Does that make you uncomfortable at all?
Not really, it doesn't really make me feel uncomfortable. I think the fans of the show and those who follow me have been really generous and not just with compliments, but also feedback.
But I think the objectification of men and the objectification of women are quite different things in the context of our society. The objectification of women over centuries is connected to sexual violence because it's the kind of dehumanization of women which allows a lot of men to perpetuate violence. That same thing can't be said for the objectification of men in the same way, so I think it has a different feel to it.
Definitely. So, in The Handmaid's Tale, June just confessed to Luke that she and Nick were in love when Nichole was conceived and urged him to move on if he can. Can we expect Luke to take her advice to heart in any regard?
Well, you know, I've been having lots of discussions about free will recently, and unfortunately Luke's is dictated by the writers. And so, I don't know, but from my feeling of the Luke ... I don't think so. It also depends on what you mean by moving on. Can I see a world where he, I don't know, numbs the pain with the company of someone? Yeah, I can imagine that — but emotionally, spiritually, I think he is 100% holding on to that hope that his family can be reunited. And honestly, I think June is too.
I was really surprised by this, but I went on Twitter and the internet seems to be pretty divided in regard to whom June should end up with. Are you solidly team Luke?
I think, now that I think about it — yeah, I am. We have a family, we have a daughter. I understand the attraction of this brilliant, smart, handsome man who is immediately able to relieve June of some of the horror of being in Gilead, but if there was a world in which the family could be reunited, I think that would be the more profound ending.
So much has changed for June and Luke’s characters over the seasons — if they did have this hypothetical chance to reunite, do think they would still be compatible?
Yeah. I think one of the things, which actually I find most interesting or remarkable about June as a character is her resilience and her ability to maintain an integrity, a part of herself, which is somewhat immune to the regime. And I think in many ways that's what makes her a compelling character to watch, because she refuses to be broken. And I think that's part of what Luke fell in love with and I think that will always be there.
So your most prominent co-star this season is a baby, or many babies, I'm assuming. Has that led to any complications on set?
Well, to be honest, only in that I've become very attached to some of those babies. I want to hang out with them between takes. But no, we've been really lucky — we've had some really amenable babies. But look, babies are babies — they do what they want to do to some extent. But to be honest that's one of the things I love about acting with a baby. It's that you've got no choice but to be in the moment. You can't decide, 'Oh, this is the way I'm gonna play this scene ... '— if this baby's crying, you've got to deal with a crying baby. If it's sleeping, you have to deal with a sleeping baby.
Yeah, it's a fun challenge. The Handmaid's Tale is obviously a very dark show. There's really no denying that, especially considering the parallels to life in present day America. Is it hard to shake that darkness when you leave set?
Not really. I think part of being an actor is being able to have the resilience to pick up and put down characters and emotions and feelings in a professional context. And also the way you film, it's spaced out. When you guys watch the show, you experience it as being hour after hour of this torment and torture. We film about three, four, five minutes a day of footage in a twelve-hour shoot. But in some ways reading [the scripts] is a very harrowing experience, because you get to ingest everything that happens at once.
So in addition to being an actor, you're also a writer, a director, a musician. Do you think these additional skillsets affect the way you approach your role?
Yeah, in some ways. I remember when I first acted on a television set. It all felt like everything was a bit about me. It was a bit about the actors kind of thing. And when I first started directing, I realized that the acting is really a brilliant companion to the focus puller — if you haven't got the camera to focus, then that performance is trash. And so my focus puller is really important to me. And if the gaffer gets it wrong or the DP gets it wrong or the costume and makeup department ... and I got to appreciate that an actor is actually just one part of a very large machine which meant that when I go on set now I have just a little bit more humility for my part in a project.
So, it was recently announced that you'll be starring in the upcoming Black Widow film. Congratulations. Are you a big Marvel fan?
Well, officially I can neither confirm nor deny my participation in that. But one of the things I find extraordinary about Marvel is that it's given us a modern pantheon of the gods. I think that the Greeks, who have these great stories of these deities that have powers and intermingled with men and the way they conflicted with each other. And now in our kind of post-secularist world we don't have those tales — until Marvel, really. And Marvel gave it back to us. I think it's a gift.
If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be and why?
I'd really like the power to be able to fix the environment. Yesterday I was having conversations about global warming and the way that, I guess, it's hard for human beings to properly engage with a danger which is seemingly decades away and not personalized in a kind of tangible way. I think human beings struggle with such things but it's such a profound problem. So I wish I had a power that could help ameliorate that.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Oh, it was bad. I had some kind of yogurt parfait and an orange. It was not a great breakfast.
What is your favorite item of clothing or accessory?
My basketball sneakers.
What did you last binge watch?
Who have you been the most starstruck to meet in Hollywood?
Honestly, I met Juliette Binoche on my first film and I remember her just engaging me in normal conversation and I was incapacitated.
What are you reading right now?
Oh, I'm always reading two million books at once. I'm reading Russell Brand's new book,Mentors.
Is there a film, television show or performance that sparked your interest in acting and getting involved in the industry?
What's strange is I was part of a local community theater for years before I even went to watch a play. So I almost fell in love with it by watching my other co-actors.