Four days after the devastating school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, The First Lady reminded audiences just how little has changed in the past decade. In its first season, the Showtime series — which recontextualizes significant eras of American history through the eyes of its First Ladies — foregrounds the ongoing battles for equal rights, health care, and gun control through the eyes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. In episode seven, “Nadir,” the Obamas are confronted with the perils of gun violence in America, first with the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy, in which a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Connecticut and killed 20 children and six teachers, and later with the news of a street shooting in the South Side of Chicago that killed Hadiya Pendleton, a young girl who had performed at President Obama’s inauguration. In the aftermath of the former, Obama gave a televised statement in which he wiped away tears, a moment recreated in Sunday’s unfortunately timely episode.
Vulture spoke with O-T Fagbenle, who embodies Barack Obama as a jovial and wise-cracking president, about sprinkling in the required moments of seriousness and stoicism, tackling such a relevant topic, and the videos he relied on to capture the essence of the 44th president.
So much of the Obamas’ story is public knowledge. What research did you do beyond the public record?
The most intimate understanding of Barack came from his biographies in which he was very frank. But what’s extraordinary about that time is that it was when social media was exploding. Video cameras and people’s phones were ubiquitous, and the quality of it was getting better and better. Obama did a lot of press, and there’s a lot of footage on YouTube. One video I used was his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld. There was something quite specific about his rapport with Seinfeld, which showed a really different side to me — like I was getting to see what he was like with his buddies. Some of the veneer came off, and he was playful in a way I hadn’t often seen. There’s also this really incongruous video of him talking about Malia meeting one of her teen-idol crushes. Something about him, physically, was very loose. It felt like a peek at what he’s like when he’s not so conscious of being filmed.
It’s really satisfying to hear you as Barack swearing since the public never saw that side of him. What made you want to embody such a well-known figure?
I was intrigued by how the writers wanted to tell this story — that we would get both this original insight into the halls of American power through the eyes of these incredible women but also tell a story that wasn’t glossy. We were going to really understand the people involved and look under the fingernails.
We did a fair amount of improvisation, but I also knew from sources I’d managed to speak to — and also through his own admission — that Obama had a sailor’s mouth. The Barack we know is available to everyone online. One of the things that’s most intriguing about the show is that we get to see, or at least imagine, what he’s like when the doors are closed.
You really mastered not only his speech patterns but also his voice and mannerisms. I read that you used his voice while playing video games; how else did you prepare?
[Laughs.] There’s a virtual-reality game I play sometimes, and I used the voice. But the most useful thing was “hot seating” with some of my actor friends, where you inhabit the character and are subjected to questions like, “What did you have for breakfast?” “What’s your biggest fear?” “What’s your biggest dream?” You’re forced to expand the entire world and the character within yourself. My friends would drill me, and we’d work on the minutiae. It was very useful to inhabit him and explore what it’s like to live in his body and his voice.
For most of the series, you play Obama through almost a comedic lens. That approach changes in “Nadir” as he reacts to the Sandy Hook shooting news. What was your first reaction to the script?
Obviously, it’s a terribly tragic event. We had these wonderful actresses, Saniyya Sidney and Lexi Underwood, playing our kids, and I think both Viola and I felt a sense of on-set family between us. Dealing with Sandy Hook hit on so many levels — obviously the tragedy of what it is but also the tragedy of any shooting and any innocent child killed. Connecting that to the Obamas’ quite real experience of their family facing death threats and the real-life terror of that, I’m sure it would have been very triggering for them on many levels.
Obama gave a famous, tearful speech that day, which is recreated in this episode. Walk me through filming that scene.
It was actually the last day of shooting, and our directors were split between two sets at the time, so there was this different energy on set. We knew we were coming to the end. The shooting schedule was tight, and we knew it was an intense scene. And my mom was on set — no pressure like Mom’s pressure. All of that added up to quite a charged environment.
But there was a lot of support and space for me to explore it. It’s a very fine line to tread when you’re trying to be an emotional father dealing with terrible news about innocent children and trying to hold your sense of presidential-ness and also have that be reflective of what Obama actually did at the time.
The episode centers mass shootings and the ongoing need for gun control. How did it feel to be in Obama’s shoes when there’s been so little policy change since then?
Obama is an idealist as well as a pragmatist, but it’s quite disheartening to feel that there was a wind behind the effort to change gun control and that was still not enough sentiment to make a legislative change. It’s kind of heartbreaking.
Did you have any conversations with the real Barack Obama?
I tried to get in contact and failed. Maybe that’s the silver lining. At the end of the day, I felt it was somewhat better that I didn’t have time with him because it allowed me a little more objectivity and a little less need to feel like I was trying to please him. Ultimately, I wanted to serve the story first. And the funny thing is that he is a professional politician who’s been grilled by the best interviewers, and all those interviews are available online. So to be honest, I was skeptical that I’d be able to discover anything new. I was just excited by the potential of chatting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.