Writer-director-actor O-T Fagbenie's family connections keep him quite busy.
O-T Fagbenie is all about family.
There's his real family, including 11 siblings, and his family on The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu's award-winning series.
The Handmaid's Tale focused on Elisabeth Moss's character of Offred, the handmaid of the title. In the land of Gilead, fertile women are forced to become the "handmaids" of the rich and powerful to keep the society going. Handmaids are taken from their homes and lives and forced into servitude, where they are impregnated in ritualized rape, called "the ceremony," for the benefit of their "Commander."
The series tells the story from Offred's point of view, bouncing back and forth between her previous life and her life as a handmaid.
One of the elements of her previous life the series explores is Offred's relationship with her husband Luke, played by Fagbenie, and their daughter.
Fagbenie sees the parallels between the dystopian world of Gilead and our own. He says, "We live in a world where there's lots of horrific things going on, and I think it's easy for people to choose what's comfortable over what's right. And there's a cost to that. There's a short-term benefit that we don't have to face that discomfort, but then a long term cost."
Luke, then, is one way of exploring that dichotomy. "Luke is kind of part of that. He's a literal minded thinking person who loves his family very much, so he wouldn't ever want an outcome like Gilead, but through his inaction and his procrastination, he is part of what allowed such a thing to come about. And I think that causes really interesting tension as a person, as people, as we come to terms with the results of our lack of action, our inaction."
But, even though the story has strong resonance with the world today, Fagbenie notes that in the process of shooting the show, the actors have more immediate things on which to focus.
"We definitely are cognizant of the kind of interpersonal politics of it all, and also the relevance of the politics of it, but really, I think when we're shooting a scene you have to kind of concentrate on the micro and concentrate on the emotional relationships and something that Bruce [Miller], our head writer and Lizzie [Elisabeth Moss] are just genius at, having such a palette of emotional tones to pick from, and nuances in relationships that very often we get into conversations about that.
"But, really, I think at the same time, everyone's about, yeah, I have something to do, and let's just focus on that."
That focus is fostered by the closeness of the cast and the way they work together. Fagbenie says, "It's a really lovely, lovely group. So many of us have got our own lives, children, partners, so, outside of the work, that takes up a lot of time and energy and stuff, but I really feel there is such goodwill and joy on the set amongst those involved, and that kind of extends the other way.
"The people at MGM and Hulu, they're really so lovely and so supportive, they're so personable, and so supportive. It's all very happy family. "
While that kind of closeness is not always the case in television and film projects, knowing the people with whom he works is an element in the way Fagbenie chooses roles and projects, along with, of course, the writing. "The first thing is the quality of the writing. The last play I did was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, by August Wilson, one of the greatest American playwrights of all time.
"You read one page of a script like that, and you know you're dealing with genius. And Bruce wrote a genius script [for The Handmaid's Tale]. He left out so much, in terms of what people would say. He's almost obsessed with brevity in terms of language, but through that he leaves so much scope for the audience and so much scope for the actor to fulfill their part.
"So, I would say that number one is the quality of the script, and then the character and those involved. I'd worked with Reed Morano before in HBO's Looking, and I loved working with her. She's a visionary. So, it was an easy choice."
That vision will continue into the upcoming second season of the series, according to Fagbenie. "Well, one of the things that Bruce is really great at is that the script is so full of gems, and Bruce knows how to take a character off and make the necessary cuts. And when you have that kind of resourcefulness, there's really quite a bit of the book that wasn't mined the first series.
"And what I found fascinating and getting more about the second series is how Bruce has taken elements that weren't in the first series but are in the book. I've been encouraged to see these parts of the book extrapolated in the most wonderful way."
In addition to working on the second season of The Handmaid's Tale, Fagbenie has a number of other projects in the works. "I wrote and directed the comedy shorts called Maxxx – you can find them on YouTube – and I've placed them on Channel 4 in the UK, and now they've decided to create the series. So, once I'm done with series 2 of Handmaid's, I'll write and direct this series for channel 4 at the beginning of next year."
And that family connection hasn't been forgotten. "Through the writing and directing process, I have a couple of projects I've developing with a couple of networks in the UK, and I do that with my brother Luti who runs his own production company. Luti has a few billion views on YouTube with the content that he does, so it's really exciting to see a family member who's doing so well. He's BAFTA nominated, so this is a really exciting time."