Getting the chance to speak with O-T Fagbenle for a second time (after the first very memorable time at The Handmaid’s Tale season two press day) was quite an honour.
Fagbenle discussed with us his extremely personal project Maxxx (based on a series of pilots we actually discussed at that very same press day). The show builds on the pilots in a way that really runs the gamut, as the series, about a possibly washed-up pop singer (played by Fagbenle, one of the many roles he has in the creation of the series), is funny, cool, sad, serious and above all, it’s musical, which seems to be a constant for Fagbenle. The man of many talents is currently quarantining in Tanzania, and the following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation discussing Maxxx, The Handmaid’s Tale, and oh yeah, a slightly anticipated Marvel movie by the name of Black Widow.
Brief Take: Where does this project fit within your career arc? How does this series build on the pilots?
O-T Fagbenle: It’s probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I have some great compatriots in the process. My brother Ludi is an executive producer and he’s got a very creative mind, and I worked with a lot of different pro actors. Basically getting to work with people really helped me expand the world and fill it out.
BT: How did you come to work with Christopher Meloni, who is also on The Handmaid’s Tale?
OF: Well, do you know what? I had never worked with him on Handmaid’s. What happened was we were trying to cast this part and my brother says to me: “What’s your wish list?”. And I said: “I don’t have time for wish lists, we’ve got to cast this thing in the next two weeks, let’s get someone great who is achievable”. And my brother just pushed me on it, and said: “No. O-T, if you could have anyone, who would you have?”. And I’d just watched Happy! and I thought that Chris was so good in it, and I was like: “Well, if we could get Chris Meloni, that would be a good”. And he was like: “I’m on it”. And the next thing I know, he’s on set.
BT: How did you decide on Jourdan Dunn to play herself, was it a similar wish list?
OF: Well, funnily enough is Jourdan, we got her and I took it as like…I was unsure that she wouldn’t be an amazing actress, so I limited out what she would have to do. And I remember we did our first rehearsal and I worked a lot with improv and She. Killed. It. And I came back to my producers and I was like: “We’ve got a problem”. And they were like: “What do you mean?” And I said: “Well, we’re going to need more of her in this, she’s so good”. We had really good chemistry. So yeah, I just felt really lucky like that, the whole cast are extraordinary artists who are really dedicated to their craft.
BT: What was the most fun that you had filming the series?
OF: I did get to have a fight with a fake dove in a later episode and that was quite funny, I was able to channel my inner Jim Carrey. Yeah, that was quite fun, I was able to channel a bit more of the slapstick element.
BT: How tight do you make the script?
OF: Well I’m of the inclination that once I’ve cast it, the people I’ve cast are the role. And so then my job isn’t to try to bend the actor to the role in my head, but it’s rather to kind of liberate the best of that actor playing this part. And so because of that, new things come up and so when you’ve got Helen Monks, this incredible improviser, this new joke flow would come out and then it’s a problem in the edits because you have to decide one take or another.
BT: How many different hats are you wearing for this series?
OF: I’m writer, co-director, exec. producer. I wrote some of the music and creator and I also did catering on Thursdays.
BT: When you’re writing the songs, it’s such a delicate balance, because how do you write a “good bad song”?
OF: I know. It’s a really thin line and it was one about which there was quite a lot of debate. Because one way or another, music is so subjective and one can be a really terrible song to one person and a classic to another. Ultimately, we wanted these songs to be fun, but particularly with the main song, that we wanted there to be some heart in it, as opposed to attempting it to be a pop song.
BT: What was the process of songwriting like in terms of the episodes?
OF: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. It kind of differed. The main song I wrote half of it ten years ago and then one of my writing partners came in and helped me finish the song before we started shooting the “bad” song, as it were. We found this cool, corny track and then halfway through the process, I finished writing them back. And then ‘Scene Two’ was written after we finished shooting everything and we were trying to find something that we liked.
BT: How do you feel when you’re dressed as Maxxx and you’re filming it?
OF: You know, Joanna (Hir), our costume designer, but it was more than just finding great costumes, like in episode two, it’s kind of this deviant party and we’re getting frustrated because we couldn’t find weird enough outfits, so you actually have to go to people, people who are involved in the kink community, and you hire them with their costumes. And she was just extraordinary, she brought so much value to the show.
BT: How do feel about doing episodes of different length and getting away with a lot in terms of content?
OF: Yeah, we were really supported by Channel 4 in that respect because we sort of go out on a limb in certain aspects. To be honest, the bit of the production side which I found most challenging was the edit. Trying to decide how to get the pacing right, trying to decide which storylines stay and which we don’t need any longer, and once again, we had (producer) Ali (Bryer) Carron and Nick Collett, the co-director, who really helps to steer the ship.
BT: What did it mean to you to be a part of the editing process?
OF: We had editors doing it, but we were just kind of ceding into them. But I was there for the whole process. From start to finish, it was a bit of an obsessive labour of love.
BT: How much does it mean to you to be able to have Maxxx out in the world?
OF: I feel like it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done professionally. It’s a kind of crazy thing to try and do, to wear so many hats on a production. And it was hard. It was really challenging. But yeah, I managed to get through it and along with the help of some great artists, we got to the end.
BT: In what way do you think that it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever done professionally?
OF: It’s a lot of things, really. Maslow talks about the hierarchy of needs, and at the top you’ve got self-actualization, kind of expanding yourself to the greatest version of yourself. And for me, I felt like that process was beyond me, like it was something that I wasn’t necessarily able to achieve. And through some grace, and as I said, a lot of help, I managed to do something that I thought would be bigger than my capacity to do it.
I think that also on a personal level, lots of the themes of the show—fatherhood, heartbreak, existentialism, race, they’re kind of dear to my heart, they’re kind of something that I wanted to explore. Not too intense, but within a comic setting, have a look at some of the things that have formed my life experience.
BT: Did you have a favourite moment of filming?
OF: I guess in season one in which he goes on this diatribe about how he’s over his ex. I think that part of the origin of the show is a couple of bad break-ups I’ve been through and that’s what really fuelled me through the first half of the writing process. I connect to Maxxx’s desperate heartbreak.
BT: How do you balance feeling sorry for him and rooting for him at the same time?
OF: There’s this great British tradition of these anti-heroes, from Blackadder to Fawlty Towers to Ricky Gervais in The Office and I did quite a lot of studying. But one of the things is that they managed to find moments of vulnerability so that they could be so awful, but you knew deep down that they wanted something desperately and I think we all want something in our life so desperately and so can all connect to that. That was part of my way in to mitigate with some of his worst characteristics.
BT: Could you describe the filming process?
OF: The filming process was a rush, because we had to shoot the series and we had to challenge ourselves to get great production value, which means we were zipping all around London trying to get some great locations. Our locations manager pulled some crazy stuff out of the bag. But it was intense, [chuckles] because also we were trying to find opportunities to shoot things on the fly, there’s this huge TV talk show host called Jonathan Ross, an opportunity came up last minute to shoot with him and within six hours, we kind of arranged to go and shoot on his television set, and it was that similar type of style that allowed us to shoot with the Backstreet Boys and Larry King. There’s organization here, but there’s also inspirational chaos to it. [laughs]
BT: This is a series about an artist with a somewhat dubious team of management. What does your team think of it?
OF: [laughs] You know what? They’ve been very supportive. And my team are great. Of course I’m always of the belief that you should take the opinions of people you pay with a slight pinch of salt, but they’ve been really supportive and back it a lot.
BT: So it airs on Hulu first and the U.K. afterward?
OF: Yeah, yeah. Originally, it had to show on Hulu after it showed in England, but because of the pandemic, that kind of messed with all the schedules. And so in England, they wanted to hold it, but Hulu were really eager to have it on. So with a little bit of negotiation, Channel 4 very kindly gave us permission to premiere it.
BT: How do you feel that this show is on Hulu alongside The Handmaid’s Tale?
OF: Amazing. Hulu’s frickin’ great, they’ve offered so much to my life and my career and I’m very, very thankful. Saying that, my challenge predominantly was to finish the show. It was to make it. That was my mountain to climb. And it’s wonderful that it gets to be on Hulu, but I was very focused on the process rather than the result.
The other part of the inspiration was to get to play roles more like I do in the theatre. In television, I very often get to play nice husbands and nice boyfriends and in theatre, I have the chance to play more maniacal, weirdo characters, which I love doing, so I wrote one.
BT: Which theatre piece has meant the most to you?
OF: The last show that I did is called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing and that was probably the work that meant the most to me. It was political, it was musical, it was really heart-wrenchingly heartfelt. But also the brothers with whom I got to work with on that show in particular, we had a special connection. It was a fraternity where we challenged each other and pushed each other and we all cared so much about the material. It was that feeling of camaraderie that you hope to get with a theatrical experience.
BT: Have you had the chance to see Black Widow?
OF: I haven’t seen it. With ADR, you get to see little bits of it and it looks amazing.
BT: What does it mean to get cast in that role and to be a part of the MCU?
OF: Honestly, it’s beyond what I expected. To be part of this modern pantheon of the Gods, to be part of the most successful franchise in cinematic history, to work with our director Cate (Shortland) and talent like Scarlett (Johansson) and Florence (Pugh), it’s just…I don’t know, it was just dreamy, really.
What was hard about it is that I was shooting it while doing pre-production for Maxxx and so that was pretty challenging.
BT: You’re an incredibly hard worker. Do you enjoy having multiple projects on the go?
OF: Yeah! Yeah. I think that for a long time I’ve had that work ethic, I think I get it from my Mum.
BT: Walk me through this Handmaid’s season and getting to work with different people.
OF: Yeah, I mean, listen, the truth is I’m a fan. I’m a straight-up fan of all of them. I just think they do the most electrifying work and luckily, they’re also really lovely human beings, and as much as anything, it was a stretching experience. It was an opportunity for me to expand and to, I don’t know, vibe off the energy of these great artists and…yeah, it’s a real pleasure to do that kind of stuff.
BT: The episode that was set in Toronto’s Pearson Airport was particularly incredible.
OF: Yeah, well, working with Yvonne (Strahovski) is a distinct honour. We had Colin (Watkinson), who’s won Emmys for Handmaid’s as a D.P. directing us and he brought Yvonne and I into a trailer to kind of talk about the scene and we kind of talked about it and there was a vibe in the room, like it was about to go down between us on set. [laughs] And he asked if we wanted to rehearse it, and we were both sort of like: “No!” Because it was just, it was there. We both kind of felt that we would discover it in the moment and she’s so generous and so surprising as an actress, it’s…yeah, that was one of my favourite moments this season.
BT: When I was speaking with Samira Wiley and Madeline Brewer, they both talked about how emotional they felt in a particular scene. When you are playing Luke, how in the moment are you feeling at these times?
OF: Everybody’s got a different process and some people just know how to turn it on. I was not gifted with that particular talent, and so I have to work myself up into whatever emotion I’m about to act. And that can be challenging, but that’s what I found works best for me.
BT: What is your process for Luke?
OF: I mean I stay in accent whenever I’m on set. It’s one thing which has helped me. There’s this phrase my acting teacher used to say, which is paraphrased into everything you need to know about your character and the situation is in the other people in the room, in the location. It’s all external and so it’s not to get too caught up with some internal thing, that if you’re really paying enough attention, you’ll be able to be moved to where you’re going to be, so that’s part of it.
BT: How much does the content have to matter to you?
OF: I think every job, there’s with whom you get to work, there’s the content of it, and then there’s the financial renumeration. I think I tried as much as possible to weigh as much as possible on the first two, with whom I get to work and the content. And being somewhat conscious about what ideas I want to put out there into the world. There’s been a number of opportunities I’ve had to do things…the money was good, some fancy names in it, but it kind of lacked a depth to it, so I’ve tried to stay away from them.
Maxxx is now available on Hulu