Honestly, we should have pressed O. T. Fagbenle about who he is playing exactly in “Black Widow.” Officially, the pandemic delayed Marvel Studios blockbuster lists him as playing Mason, but there are rumors and fan speculation that he’s actually the mysterious and villainous Taskmaster. As for now, the 40-year-old actor was only willing to comment on whoever “Mason” turns out to be.
“I play this character called Mason. It’s really cool, actually, because you know you get those characters, like in James Bond you’ve got Q, and in Batman, I guess, you’ve got Alfred, and in some ways, I think Mason is that person who helps facilitate Black Widow’s missions with all the cool shit that she needs,” Fagbenle says. “But very much unlike Q and Alfred, there’s a kind of energy between them that you pick up. Like, ‘Is it all business, or is it not?’ So there’s something really fun about that; that kind of dynamic between the two characters. I hesitate to say that he’s a little fun. It’s quite a fun character, although you might get a sense he’s got a dark side. But yeah, I can’t say too much.”
What Fagbenle can finally talk about, however, are the major plot events on his day job, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Last week saw June (Elisabeth Moss) finally make it out of Gilead to the relative safety of Canada. It also meant she was reunited with her husband Luke (Fagbenle) after five horrific years apart. The latest episode, “Home” (released on Wednesday, May 23 for those avoiding spoilers), tackled the aftermath of their emotional reunion for both of their characters.
Fagbenle is also prepping another high-profile gig as none other than President Brack Obama in the new limited series “The First Lady.” The Brit reveals the pros and cons of researching the role, which finds him starring opposite Viola Davis as Michelle Obama. Not a bad gig, is it?
The Playlist: This is a really interesting season for you, and Luke has to deal with the emotional reaction to reuniting with June and after so many years apart. Were you aware this plot point was in the works?
O. T. Fagbenle: Well, I was kind of given the heads-up. It’s all a bit cloak and mystery, but I was giving a heads-up that June would make it back, and so I was like, “Ooh.” I was so curious about how they would manage to keep the show’s heart and bring it into Canada because the heart of the show is so Gilead-centric. I think the writers have been so ingenious in finding a way to grow the story out of that seed that Margaret Atwood gave us and kind of let it blossom into something else. Something new, something bigger. A whole universe. So, that was exciting.
I was impressed with how the writers focused on the reality that they haven’t seen each other in five, six years?
Yeah, like five years. Exactly.
Where do you think Luke is mentally before June’s arrival?
Well, obviously, it goes without saying that the victims of Gilead, the most direct victims of Gilead, are the women who are under that horrific regime. But oftentimes, with refugee populations, the ones who escape also have their own kind of trauma: the trauma of being torn apart from his daughter, the trauma of not knowing, and the fear and anxiety, and definitely guilt; survivor’s guilt. So it’s incomparable, like I said, to what June’s been through, but he’s kind of traumatized himself and is full of doubts and fears about who the person coming back is going to be. Indeed, the stories that come back of June don’t sound like the woman that he married. But, also think one of the main things that follows Luke is his guilt [over] his incompetence. Ultimately, for the last four years, a lot of fans have been like, “Why isn’t Luke doing more?” On the one hand, he is. He’s not like Rambo. He doesn’t know how to get a machine gun and invade Gilead. He’s just like an everyday guy, which is one thing that I really liked about the character, and so he’s just left in his incompetence, and he carries around huge guilt about that.
I think the other exciting thing about this season is there’s a major flashback episode, or a bunch of flashback scenes, sort of dwelling on the fact that Luke had a failed marriage before he married June.
It sort of wants to sow doubt a little bit about whether they can last long term.
Maybe he’s not meant to be with someone long-term.
Hmm. Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it like that myself. It is, I suppose, interesting in that, at the end of the day, most people have relationships, even if they don’t consecrate their marriage before they get married. So most people in the world face many “failed relationships,” one. Two, I don’t necessarily know if relationships that don’t last until you die can be considered failures. It depends if things are right, and two people can grow out of a relationship that doesn’t last until the other person dies. So, anyway. That’s just philosophy. But I think, with June, from Luke’s perspective, he’s met someone who he really fits with, genuinely fits with, and, just like lots of people, the last person he was with, it wasn’t a perfect match. So there may be doubt in the audience’s mind, but from Luke’s mind, there isn’t.
But do you think, in the context of the series and after so many years apart, after all the trauma that they’ve both been through, clearly June more than him, that fans should even expect that they would reunite?
I’m so not neutral in this. I’m so biased. All I know is Luke’s perspective, which is that he loves his wife, and he’s willing to love her through basically anything and everything and stick by her and make it work. That’s the beginning and end of it, really. Of course, that’s tested and challenged. Of course. It’s not like some kind of blind faith where there’s never any doubt, but he’s a very committed person, and he really wants to make it work. In this series, June acts in ways that really test that, and that testing is yet to come.
I don’t know what happens in the last two episodes or the series going from episode nine on. Of course, as a viewer, I have this fear that she’s somehow going to want to go back to Gilead. If she would want to do that, do you think Luke would support it? Would he even be able to understand it?
Well, if she did, it would depend on what reasoning there was. Ultimately, they have a joint project that they’ve both committed their lives to their daughter, Hannah. If Luke has a commitment to anything over June, it’s a commitment to Hannah, and he’s willing to lose his life and everything in the fight to make sure that she has the best life possible. So, he wants his relationship to work, and for a relationship to work, they have to be together, but he also wants his child to be safe.
Have the creators or writers given you any insight about where Luke’s journey might go past season 4?
No, I honestly don’t know, and I’m quite happy for the ignorance. Otherwise, I’ll be thinking about it all the time. At some point, as we start revving up into production for Season 5, I’ll probably chat to Bruce [Miller] and figure out some idea of what the trajectory of those wonderfully warped and genius minds have come up with story-wise.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Season 4 premiere was the most-watched episode ever in the history of a show on Hulu. Are you surprised that the show is still this popular this far along?
You know what? I was blown away by that. I guess it’s just testament to number one, the incredible actresses that we have and writers, and that audiences are really up for TV that challenges them and makes them think and make them feel deep things. I’m really encouraged by that, that there’s a real appetite out there for that kind of sophisticated but-heightened drama, I guess, that “Handmaid’s Tale” provides. Whenever I watch the episodes, and I get to see the fantastic work of Ann Dowd and Yvonne Strahovski and Lizzy and the whole cast, I’m blown away by it.
I believe you all started shooting “Handmaid’s Tale,” and then COVID hit, and there was a long break. But you’ve also been waiting for your Marvel debut in “Black Widow” now for over a year. I don’t even know what year you shot it in. Was it 2019?
Gosh. Well, you know what? It must’ve been 2019. It must’ve been 2019. The bulk of 2019, yeah.
Can you talk at all about your role in “Black Widow” and who you play?
Yeah. I play this character called Mason. It’s really cool, actually, because you know you get those characters, like in James Bond you’ve got Q, and in Batman, I guess, you’ve got Alfred, and in some ways, I think Mason is that person who helps facilitate Black Widow’s missions with all the cool shit that she needs. But very much unlike Q and Alfred, there’s a kind of energy between them that you pick up. Like, “Is it all business, or is it not?” So there’s something enjoyable about that; that kind of dynamic between the two characters. I hesitate to say that he’s a little fun. It’s quite a fun character, although you might get a sense he’s got a dark side. But yeah, I can’t say too much.
Is there a chance that he might appear in a future MCU project down the road, or did you feel like this was a one-off for him?
Well, I don’t know how much I can say about it, but I would say there’s probably space for this character to grow.
You’ve also been announced as playing president Barack Obama in the new “The First Lady” anthology series.
Was it the sort of role you had to audition for?
Yeah. You know what? I didn’t so much audition. I had a really good meeting with the director, and we spoke a lot about it. It’s kind of funny because it takes so much time to really understand a character that’s so specific, and so I think if you were audition people, what, are you going to give someone a week to transform? So, on some level, I guess they’ve got to take it on faith, which we’ll see how well that plan works out for them. But yeah. Look, I’m really excited about it. The scripts are great. Of course, Viola Davis, Queen Viola, is an inspiration. I feel that, at the very least, I’ll stand as a window that she can shine her light through and on and all over the place because she’s just so remarkable. Of course, you’ve Aaron [Cooley], an amazing director. So yeah, it’s only a little stressful having to play one of the most charismatic, intelligent, and articulate people of all time, but I’ve got a lot of help around it.
Have you actually shot it yet? Or is it just still in the planning stages?
They’ve started shooting, and so I start very soon.
Is there any particular reference or anything that has helped you prepare to play him?
Yeah. You’re very lucky because he’s got three autobiographies, and Michelle’s book has a really great chapter, and more, about their relationship and the start of their relationship. So, those really have been the best resource, I’d say. There’s so much footage of them. What’s great about it is there’s so much first-person, firsthand material, but there is very little of him before he started creating his public persona. There’s very little of him, video footage of him when he’s not aware that he will be running for public office. So, one of the challenges and opportunities that this role is creating a person that no one has seen. On one level, you want to create the person that everyone’s seen. Hence, they recognize, “Hey, that’s Barack Obama,” but really, what I’m interested in doing is kind of exploring the side that no one has seen because very few people have seen Barack Obama when he’s not aware he’s being watched.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is now airing on Hulu. “Black Widow” opens July 9.