British actor, writer and director Olatunde Olateju Olaolorun Fagbenle, who goes by O-T, comes from a family of achievers. His brother Daps has directed music videos for everyone from The Migos to Davido. His sister Temi is an Olympian and WNBA champion. His other brother Luti is the owner of London’s premiere production companies, responsible for some of the industry’s most popular music videos, including OTR II from The Carters.
Fagbenle, whose father is Nigerian, attributes his and his siblings’ success to a family ethos. “There’s a family culture of both high ambitions and expectations and also mentorship and helping one another attain our goals,” Fagbenle tells ESSENCE.
The mentorship piece is something Fagbenle passed along from a former teacher whom he notes was instrumental in his personal journey. “Ms. Quinn was an extraordinary person. She was a powerful teacher. We became friendly. Then it came that her teenage daughter passed tragically. When she found out that I was going to drama school, she said that she would sponsor me. I didn’t have money to go to drama school. We didn’t have money. I was on scholarship. And to pay my way, I would [take odd jobs] to try and make up the balance,” he recalls.
The money Ms. Quinn gave Fagbenle came without stipulations. Ms. Quinn told him, “You can spend it any way you want. My daughter was interested in the arts and now she’s gone. Now that she’s gone, I don’t know what to do with my money so I want to give it to you.”
Her investment paid off. Fagbenle performed in the theater for many years before leaving his hometown of London and coming to the United States where he landed roles in acclaimed series like The Handmaids Tale and in films like Marvel’s Black Widow.
Fagbenle made history in 2020 when he became the first person to write, direct, compose, star in and executive produce a series premiere on a major network. The show, Maxxx, which is a collaboration between Fagbenle and his brother Luti, follows the life of a former boy band member trying to prove to his supermodel ex that he’s not a has-been.
For his next role, Fagbenle is portraying someone far more beloved. He presently stars as President Barack Obama alongside Viola Davis in the new Showtime series The First Lady which debuted Easter Sunday.
“To be honest, when it first came to me, I was a bit reluctant,” Fagbenle admits. “It was a chance that it would be a bit soft–like a fluff piece. But Susanne and Showtime are not interested in that. They’re really trying to reframe the idea of American history through the eyes of these powerful women. And telling these complicated stories was really inspiring to me.”
President Obama, the first president to take office during the internet age was visible in a way his predecessors were not. With so many people being so familiar with his mannerisms and persona taking on this role could be a challenge. But The First Lady shows the former president in his home life. It was this aspect that ultimately made Fagbenle take the role.
“I was really intrigued by President Barack’s almost entanglement of intellect and playfulness, of soul and sobriety,” Fagbenle says. “He’s so eclectic. One of the challenges is to find how those attributes manifest in his private life. How do they intersect with the intellect of Michelle Obama? That was one of the things I was really curious and passionate about.”
Not to mention he had the chance to work alongside the incomparable Academy Award-winning Davis.
“There are so few people who have as much talent as her,” Fagbenle remarks/ “She’s just an artist at the top of her game who has been so exceptional for so long. And that, in and of itself, would be enough to be a privilege. But what really took it over the edge is that she’s a really beautiful person. Compassionate and smart and generous as an actor. I couldn’t say enough nice things about her, really.”
With the success of his series Maxxx, it was reported that Fagbenle is currently developing other projects. Though details are currently scant, what Fagbenle did share is his interest in seeing and telling stories from the motherland.
“The diversity of that continent has yet to be fully explored,” Fagbenle says. “We usually get this impoverished view of Africa and Safaris. But it’s so much more than that. In a way, I don’t even want to say that there’s one story that I want to see. The point is, there’s a thousand stories of Africa we need to see.”
Photographer: Max Hemphill (https://maxhemphill.com/)
Groomer: Red (https://www.instagram.com/theartistred/)
Stylist: Scot Louie (https://www.scotlouie.com/)
Shirt, pants and Jacket by Versace
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