O T Fagbenle
“…Of course I face racism, of course I face other types of discrimination, but the one thing that I’m most concerned about generally are the lives in Africa and Asia and South America where for various reasons there is just a huge income inequality compared to the western nations…”
Words by Martine Roth
Photography: Emily Assiran
“…I’m aware that in this world there are those who have the least amount of power economically and politically…I’m not inclined to spend a lot of time talking about the, ‘Woe is me…”
It’s not often you talk to someone from the Yoruba tribe, an ethnic group from West Africa. Much less someone from said group that is starring in a soon-to-be blockbuster superhero film. So stepping into the spotlight is OT Fagbenle, fresh off of landing a lead role starring opposite Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow, the latest stand alone installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But although Fagbenle is not a household name (YET) doesn’t mean you haven’t seen him on your picture box. In fact, you’ve probably seen A LOT of him, starring as Luke in the Golden Globe and Emmy award winning drama series The Handmaid’s Tale, playing June Osborne’s (Elisabeth Moss) husband. Fagbenle also had lead roles in two UK series, Harlan Coben’s The Five on Netflix and The Interceptor for the BBC.
But Fagbenle isn’t just a television-turned-movie actor. He’s also got theater chops. And a knack for
directing. He led the National Theatre cast of August Wilson’s New York Drama Critic Circle award-winning play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, to the Olivier Award. He was also nominated for Best Actor
(alongside his alma mater Ralph Fiennes) for the illustrious Evening Standard Awards; Fagbenble’s short film Moth won Best Horror Sci-Fi at the London Film Festival. With appearances in Breaking and Entering opposite Jude Law, Robin Wright, and Juliette Binoche, and I Could Never Be Your Woman
alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd, and Saoirse Ronan, is there anything this guy can’t do?
To know about Fagbenle is to know his name, and where he came from, how his name changed over time due to colonization. “My name is originally longer, it was Ifagbenle and Ifa is the traditional religion of the Yoruba people and after that land was colonized by the British and the indigenous languages were banned, Christianity was brought in through my family hundreds of years ago and they distanced themselves from the Ifa religion.”
Born and raised in London, as well as places like Spain and Nigeria, Fagbenle played the saxophone in bands across Europe and performed at the Edinburgh Festival, Wembley Arena, and the Royal Albert Hall. At 16, he landed a role in a Nigerian adaptation of Macbeth and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. After many theater performances across the UK—national tours of shows such as Ragamuffin, Romeo & Juliet, Porgy and Bess—he garnered multiple awards and nominations and grabbed the M.E.N. Theatre Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominated play Six Degrees of Separation.
But Fagbenle is aware of his privilege and it is not lost on him. He knows of income equality and how
different the West is. And it is of concern. He won’t hide behind celebrity and shelter himself and
recently launched the charity organization ABC Foundation which is dedicated to providing tech
opportunities to young women in Africa. “I’m aware that in this world there are those who have the least amount of power economically and politically,” says Fagbenle. “I’m not inclined to spend a lot of time talking about the, ‘Woe is me.’ Of course I face racism, of course I face other types of discrimination, but the one thing that I’m most concerned about generally are the lives in Africa and Asia and South America where for various reasons there is just a huge income inequality compared to the western nations.”
“I think about injustice. I think about the injustice of sexual violence in our countries and then I think about myself. It’s hard to divide one’s time according to what’s actually important, what actually matters. It’s not always obvious.”
He has seen a change in how black actors are seen on television and in the movies. More and more
each day, the playing field in the industry is being leveled piece by piece and a large reason is our need to consume content, mainly with online streaming platforms. Good times indeed. “I just think we just live in the most extraordinary times, things are moving so fast and in terms of content there is such brilliant diversity of content and such high quality,” Fagbenle raves. “When I graduated in 2001, there wasn’t really a Black British actor that was known in America. Like there was no black movie and now we have Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Kaluuya and you have David Oyelowo. The industry has grown so large and so diverse to encapsulate so many artists.”
Fagbenle’s big role is in The Handmaid’s Tale. He got the part rather quickly and laments on how many auditions after auditions an actor will go through and not get the part. This was different. “There’s so many times as an actor you do round after round of auditions and then it doesn’t work out, but I just got the audition sent to me and they asked me to put myself on tape,” laughs Fagbenle. “I recorded a couple of scenes in my kitchen and then I got the part. I was in Tanzania when I got the news.”
Black Widow is just the tip of the iceberg. More to come through the pipeline, his life has had hits and
misses, and a few roles he wished he didn’t say no, highs and lows so to speak. One role in particular still makes him ache. “There were a couple of roles, either an audition or something I didn’t follow through on for various reasons. One was American Gods. I was asked to do short list audition for that and at the time I booked a part in a play at the Ascot Theater, a part that I wanted to play since I was 19 and in the theater the money you would make in six months is about one week you would make in one week on American Gods. I was really questioning quite hard.”
But it’s not about the roles he could’ve had, it’s about the future and his pursuit of two main projects: One is an African History project he’s developing; the second one is for his ABC Foundation, this year having delivered tech equipment to over 60 young women and helped support the establishment of a tech hub going into Zimbabwe.