The Handmaid's Tale star OT Fagbenle: “You can judge a man by the size of what offends him”
The actor talks feminism, race, life as a nomad and giving in to a love of cardigans
“I’m not averse to a bit of travel,” OT Fagbenle tells me, in the understatement of the century. “I would say that, literally, in 15 years I don’t think I've lived at the same address for more than seven months. I have an apartment in London, but I’m a Californian resident and right now I’m in Toronto.” The actor also grew up in various corners of the world – from Nigeria and Canada to Spain and the UK.
The “nomad” lifestyle is something that Fagbenle shares with his character, Luke, in dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale. Until last Sunday’s episode, Luke was but a distant memory to his wife June (Elisabeth Moss), appearing solely in flashbacks of the life she led before she was forcibly made to reproduce for the upper echelons of society and change her name to Offred.
We were filled in on Luke’s story in episode seven over the course of a high-intensity-hour that focused on his escape to Canada. We discovered that he did not fall into the clutches of the regime, as Offred had feared, but instead ended up working with resistance efforts across the border.
When Fagbenle and I catch up, it’s 8am Toronto time and he’s feeling a little sleepy. “I just woke up about 30 minutes ago, so I'm kind of getting into the day... Listen, it's not even that early, I’m so soft,” he puts on a faux-luvvie voice, “I’m an artist. So it's like, ‘Oh my god, 8am.’ I mean what am I, a farmer?” Fagbenle lets out a whooping, contagious laugh – the first of many during our interview.
Fagbenle, who appeared as a laddish chancer in NW, and played a tough guy in The Five and The Interceptor, is particularly amused when I bring up the influx of marriage proposals he’s been garnering on social media. He reveals that depending on the show he’s just done, the nature of the propositions change. After Looking – a US series which has been described as the “gay version of Girls or Sex and the City” – he says there was “a whole different demographic” of admirers. To give you an idea of the fervour surrounding Looking, there is a fan video on YouTube of the kisses shared between Fagbenle’s character Frank and his lover Agustín that has been viewed 33,000 times
I can’t say I’m surprised. Fagbenle is 6ft tall with a formidable jawline, flawless complexion and eyelashes to rival Bambi’s. He modestly insists, however, that any attention he’s received after Handmaid’s Tale is down to Luke. There aren't many good representations of men in the series, and the commander and Nick are seen as evil because of “the very fact that they are indelibly linked to this patriarchal fascism”. Whereas Luke, he says, “is the one character who isn't. So I’m kind of set up, to be honest. I don’t take it too personally.”
Even the enormous cardigan that Luke sports in the US drama isn’t enough to put people off. Fagbenle tells me that at the ripe old age of 36 he is “slowly coming around to the idea” of knitted garments. “The older I get, the more I dance like my dad and I’m finding that suddenly cardigans are becoming more attractive to me.”
Musings on knitwear aside, Fagbenle undertook research to inform his portrayal of Luke. His character is a man on the run, distraught at having been separated from his wife and young child, and so Fagbenle read up on the experience of refugees fleeing persecution. He had looked into PTSD before for his role as the first mixed race officer in the British Army in Walter’s War, and was able to recycle some of that insight to play Luke.
Race has been one of the many talking points surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale. In Margaret Atwood’s original 1985 novel, upon which the story is based, there was a white supremacist aspect to the regime, which dictated that black people were forcibly resettled outside of Gilead and therefore not present in the plot. In the series, Offred’s best friend Moira is played by Samira Wiley and Fagbenle himself is of Anglo-Nigerian heritage.
The series' creator, Bruce Miller, explained in an interview with Variety the reasoning behind swaying from the book’s original racial premise. "I think some of the largest debates we had surrounded the racial mix of Gilead. In the book, it’s an all-white world where people of colour were sent away," he explained. "We considered and ultimately decided to change that. In a book, it’s easy to say they’ve sent off all the people of colour — but on a TV show, seeing it all the time it’s harder.
"Honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?" Miller asked.
I recount this to Fagbenle, who says he finds it interesting when people are concerned about fidelity to a book and when they're not. He points to Ian Fleming’s hero as an example of double standards. “We have James Bond played by an actor with a Scottish accent then a British accent, and one is 6ft-something and one is 5ft 8. It doesn’t seem that there’s a whole stampede and hoo-ha about that. But there's a hoo-ha when it comes down to race.” In a recent Radio Times interview, Joanna Lumley caused controversy when she said she didn't think Idris Elba was "right for Bond, who is quite clearly described in the book".
Fagbenle says that it depends what variables people think are really essential to the character. “So with a character like Luke – I’m mixed race, I have a black father and a white mother. So Luke's father was black. Does that essentially change the fundamental dynamic of his and Offred’s relationship? No.
“What difference does it make apart from one's own sensibilities? I think you can judge a man by the size of what offends him.”
Fagbenle speaks with equal eloquence about the issue of feminism, a theme which is central to The Handmaid’s Tale. Although he does call himself a feminist, Fagbenle points out that “words can be an act of reductionism”. He is more interested, he says, in “people's actions than people's titles”.
When I ask Fagbenle about working with Moss and Wiley, at first he deadpans: “Oh it was painful. They're really boring, dry.” Having recently met Moss in all her quirky glory I can confirm that the opposite is true. He describes her as “extraordinary, one of the greatest actors alive, man or woman”.
Four out of five directors on The Handmaid’s Tale are female – and six out of seven writers, too. Fagbenle grew up in what he describes as a “matriarchy”, so he is used to being surrounded by powerful women. He describes his mother as a “real force of nature” who brought him and his siblings up to believe that “anything was possible”. He adds, though, that “it wasn't without hardship".
"I mean, we did live in levels of financial poverty at times. But there was an abundance of love and I was very fortunate in that way”.
Fagbenle’s nomadic tendencies started out from a very young age, and he tells me a story of when he was seven or eight years old in London and “my mum saying, ‘Hey, where shall we live in the world?’ We had a map and we started choosing our favourite places. Canada was on the shortlist actually, and we ended up moving to Spain where we lived for a couple of years.”
At around the age of 12 and back in London once more, a young, saxophone-playing Fagbenle was introduced by his father to African theatre practitioner Rufus Orishayomi whose support, he says wistfully, “changed the course of my life”. Orishayomi – “Papa Ru, we used to call him" – gave him a part in a Nigerian version of Macbeth, and so his acting career began.
Fagbenle went on to attend Rada and built up a successful stage, television and film career – he starred in his first feature film, Breaking and Entering, in 2006 alongside Jude Law and Juliette Binoche. Now in Toronto, he’s writing, directing, co-producing and starring in a comedy series for Channel 4 called Maxxx.
Despite his worldly ways, Fagbenle feels very close to his London roots. His apartment in the capital is “right opposite” Grenfell Tower, which caught fire last month and has claimed the lives of at least 80 people. Fagbenle has been vocal about the fire on Twitter, and says he thinks it’s “shameful that we've allowed a set of circumstances to exist” where a disaster such as Grenfell can happen.
The day we speak, Grenfell residents demand for police investigating the fire to make arrests and call for the resignation of the new leader of Kensington and Chelsea council. “This isn't just some awful accident. This is negligence,” says Fagbenle. “I think you can often measure a society by how it treats its most vulnerable.
“Since Grenfell there are people in that tower who are still having rent taken out of their bank accounts, people who don't have proper access to therapy or homes which are accessible to their work and school. That's the second part of the tragedy for me.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is on Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4