Black Widow’s O-T Fagbenle on joining the MCU, behind the camera representation and playing Barack Obama

·7-min read
 (AP)
(AP)

For most actors, joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe means hours of stunt training and action sequences. For O-T Fagbenle, things were rather more laid back. In Black Widow, the long-awaited solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger Natasha Romanoff, the British actor plays Rick Mason, a fixer for Romanoff. Mason, also known as The Agent, has cropped up in Marvel comics since the Nineties, but Black Widow marks the character’s screen debut. And unlike pretty much everyone else in the high adrenaline MCU, he demonstrates a commendable commitment to getting his eight hours of sleep in. Whenever we meet him, he seems to be emerging from a sneaky power nap.

“I’m a method actor: when you see me napping, I’m napping,” Fagbenle laughs. “I fell asleep on that set many a time… But it’s like - what has [Mason] been up to before this point? He hasn’t been napping all day, he’s got ships and planes to sell. At one point, Eric Pearson, our beloved writer, was like ‘I really wanted you to be wearing a tuxedo in this scene, because then we’d be like, ‘Where’s he just come from…’That didn’t happen, but Mason’s a man on the move for sure.”

Originally scheduled to come out in May 2020, Black Widow was, like so many blockbusters, pushed further and further back because of the pandemic, and the two year gap between Marvel’s most recent release Spider-Man: Far From Home and Black Widow is the longest in the studio’s history. The film, though, is more than worth the wait, a gripping, genuinely funny action thriller that gives Johansson’s Avenger the showcase she deserves while ushering in a brand new cohort of great characters, from Mason to Romanoff’s sister Yelena, played by Florence Pugh to Rachel Weisz’s Melina, a scientist specialising in mind control (on pigs). Watching the film at Disney’s offices marked “the first time [Fagbenle] had been in a movie theatre for like a year. It was a little discombobulating… but I love that this is going to be one of the first movies that people can get to see out of what we’ve all been through. It’s a nice treat.”

Watch: 'Black Widow' star O-T Fagbenle discusses his MCU future

Born in London, 40-year-old Fagbenle grew up between the capital and Spain, training at Rada before carving out a successful stage career with critically acclaimed performances in the likes of Porgy & Bess and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. As well as spending the last few years playing Elisabeth Moss’s on-screen husband Luke in the exponentially doomy TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, he also writes, directs and produces - and when the option to try out for Black Widow came up, he “actually turned down the audition, because I was writing my show Maxxx,” which aired on E4 and Hulu last year. “I was just like, I’m not gonna get this part, I don’t think I’m gonna get it,” he recalls. “Luckily, a special person told me, ‘Look, you should do it anyway, just do it.’ And I said, ‘F**k it, OK, fine’ and did it, then I was like ‘actually, I quite like this…’”

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When he eventually landed the role, the filming schedule for Black Widow “clashed” with production for Maxxx. “So there was this big thing of like, ‘what am I gonna choose, my indie dream or my Hollywood dream?’” He felt a sense of “responsibility” to take the opportunity to make his TV show, he explains, because “we talk about representation at the moment, and diversity, and we’ve still got a terrible issue in terms of behind the camera representation, or above the line with producers, directors, writers. So to some extent, as much as it was a personal dream of mine, I also felt a responsibility - and this was an opportunity to work with my brother [Luti Fagbenle] who’s got his own production company.” Luti Media has produced music videos for everyone from One Direction to Nicki Minaj.

“The amount of times in England that a black production company, with a black writer and director, has made a television show… to be honest, I don’t even know if it’s happened [before], maybe once or twice?” he adds. “So for me, it was artistically really important, but also if you genuinely want to be part of a change in the system, then when those opportunities come, you have to take them.” Luckily, “Marvel, God bless them, Cate [Shortland, Black Widow’s director], Channel 4, they all worked it out so I could do both.”

With Johansson in Black Widow (Jay Maidment / Marvel)
With Johansson in Black Widow (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

Before joining the Marvel machine, “one of the things that I was kind of almost suspect about,” he admits, was whether the superhero hit factory would be “this big, impersonal behemoth,” but working with Shortland, “this amazing auteur director” and screenwriter Pearson assuaged those doubts. “It really felt… that things weren’t just kind of dictated to you,” he says, adding that he and Johansson had the chance to improvise some of their characters’ screwball back and forth. 

“Before the camera starts rolling, I’ll start improvising in the scene. I remember the first time I did that with Scarlett, I was so pleasantly surprised because she didn’t miss a beat.” Johansson’s decade or so with the Avengers (she made her debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2) meant she was “so chilled” about the blockbuster-making process, which she clearly knows inside out. “On one of our last days of filming, I think in August, September, she was like, ‘see you in January for reshoots!’ And I was like, ‘How do you know?’ and then fair enough, in January, it’s reshoots.” With Marvel’s Phase Four now in full swing, bringing with it seemingly exponential possibilities for new films and spin-off series, surely there’s scope to explore Mason’s elusive character further? “I think useful people should be put to use, and Mason is a useful person,” he grins. Very diplomatic.

With Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and Johansson (Getty Images)
With Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and Johansson (Getty Images)

Fagbenle spent the first half of the pandemic in Tanzania, where his mother now lives, and ended up home-schooling his nephew and niece: “A captive audience,” he jokes. “Most audiences I can’t tell to sit down.” After spending five months filming the latest series of The Handmaid’s Tale, he has just finished “moonlighting as Barack Obama” opposite Viola Davis (“Queen V”) as Michelle in US broadcaster Showtime’s upcoming series The First Lady. “It is a little stressful, I won’t lie,” he says. “Look, if you’re playing some guy who’s been dead for 200 years, people are fuzzy about what he was really like. Barack Obama’s doing press today!”

To capture Obama’s “really idiosyncratic” cadences, he “started making these audio files of every single vowel sound he makes, and every consonant sounds he makes and every melody that he does, more because I just didn’t know what to do with my time than [because it was] useful.” He “read all of his books again,” too, watched documentaries and interviewed people who’ve known the former President. “It’s funny because he’s been a politician since he was quite young, and I tried to set myself to portray the bits that we don’t see of Barack, because the bits that we do see, we know them, and they’re very polished and lovely. But I’m curious what happens when the cameras are turned off. That was part of the challenge of trying to research him but the fun of playing him.” No pressure then, but, as Fagbenle puts it, “these are the kind of problems I love to have, so I’m not complaining.”

Black Widow is in cinemas now and on Disney+ with Premier Access July 9. Disney+ subscription and additional fee required for Premier Access

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