After garnering an Emmy nomination and making his first Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2021, O-T Fagbenle continued his homerun into 2022 with roles in the year’s buzziest shows: WeCrashed, Apple TV Plus’ dive into the rise and demise of WeWork, and The First Lady. The Showtime drama premieres April 17 and reframes American leadership by bringing insight into the lives of Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Roosevelt) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis). Ahead of the limited series’ release, LA Confidential spoke with Fagbenle all about taking on the role of Barack Obama.
When your casting for The First Lady was announced in Feb. ‘21, on Instagram you said you were not sure if it was more of an honor to be playing Barack Obama on a show that honors Michelle or that you get to work with the inspirational Viola Davis. Can you elaborate on why, for you, those two things — playing Barack and working with Viola— are such a big deal?
Well, I think that Barack is such an inspirational person for so many people, and it's such an interesting story, which actually really hasn't been told before. I think this is the first real extensive portrayal of Barack as the president that has been put on television. So that's a real honor, and also a somewhat scary prospect. I think in terms of Viola, one of the things that really inspires me is to work with people who I think are exceptional and geniuses at their craft, and that’s Viola Davis.
What’s the pressure like to play not only a major political, historical figure, but one who is still alive?
And also not just alive! Jimmy Carter is still alive, but Carter hasn't been photographed, videotaped as much as Barack Obama. He may be one of the most documented presidents of all time. That provides a huge benefit because there's lots of source material for me to go from, but also the challenge of people knowing him so well.
How did you prepare for the role?
I just tried to compartmentalize some of the technical aspects, such as voice placement and dialect and code switching, in terms of voice, and then within the physicality there’s the in front of camera, behind camera with Michelle, with his family. And then there's that historical part. But I think a lot of what I was trying to get a sense for is who I felt he was as a man at his core because there's no footage of Barack when there's no cameras around, as obvious as that sounds.
He is a person and we all are aware when we're being filmed and that does alter our behavior. And what's important for us in this show was trying to reveal some of what people don't see.
I spent a lot of time watching him. You watch him and you study here and you read his history. It's like if you're and you have to paint the woods, you spend enough time in the woods and watching the woods you get a sense of the woods, which is not analytical, necessarily, or academic, but it's just your artist intuition.
And how did you master his voice?
A lot of just listening and making notes. I’d edit together voice reels of him saying certain words and I made reels of certain melodic inflections that he would do.
I did have a look actually at all the versions of him that I could find, and even reached out to a couple of impersonators for some tips.
There was one impersonator, he talked about his voice pattern and how it can sometimes be slow at the beginning and then he kind of speeds up at the end. I thought that was quite funny.
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In all the research you did about Obama, was there anything you learned about him that you found really surprising?
There were lots of little things, like that he did odd jobs in New York before coming to Chicago. He went to college in L.A. for a little while or that Michelle was technically his boss or that Michelle was reluctant for him to take on the presidency, very reluctant. There are a hundred things, which I thought were interesting.
Did you read Michelle’s book, Becoming?
In Zoroastrianism, they say the eye cannot see itself like the sword cannot cut itself. And that's the outside perspective, especially such an intimate one such as Michelle, and offers very revealing insights into both their relationship and the man himself. It's obvious that they've got a lot of love between them, but it was revelatory, especially the retelling of how they met and their getting together and also the attention of them if the decision to run for the presidency, I thought, from her point of view was really brilliant.
Why do you think now is the right time for this story to come to TV?
To be honest, there will be lots of times when this story will be interesting and relevant. But I think we are coming to acknowledge and celebrate the stories and efforts of a broader set of people and, indeed, the contributions that the First Ladies made. And just maybe because I know more about Michelle Obama in particular, Michelle's contribution, I think it's something we can all learn from and be encouraged by and inspired by.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Max Hemphill