From creator/executive producer/writer/co-director/lead actor O-T Fagbenle, the wild and crazy comedy series Maxxx (streaming at Hulu) centers around formerly famous boyband star Maxxx, who’s looking to turn his life of tabloid fodder around to make a comeback, with the goal of winning back his famous supermodel ex-girlfriend. But the road back to stardom is never easy, especially when you throw in the distractions of drugs, sex, insecurity and a need for validation that’s stronger than the desire to put in the work necessary to return to the top.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Fagbenle talked about how he came to be wearing so many different hats on this project, that Maxxx is the kind of wild character that he loves to play, balancing an unlikeable character with vulnerability that makes him relatable, what he was most nervous about being able to pull off, the craziest scene he had to shoot, and what he likes about collaborating with his brother, Luti. He also talked about being a part of a project as important as The Handmaid’s Tale, and his experience on Black Widow.
COLLIDER: To do what you did with this series, with all of the hats that you wear, it really takes a certain level of determination and ambition, as well as a definite vision. What was it like to be creator, writer, producer, co-director, lead actor, and a singer/songwriter, all on one project? Did you ever stop to think about how completely wild that is?
O-T FAGBENLE: Oh, yeah, because it’s totally unfeasible as a thing to do. But I had the help of so many great artists, not the least of which was my brother Luti [Fagbenle], who was such a support. It was my first time creating television, so I think the network, Channel 4, was a bit nervous. At a certain point, they just let go and let me try to make what I was creating, which was in my head. So, we were quite lucky like that.
It seems like it would have been an insane amount of work. When you started on this journey with this project, did you know that you would be doing so much of it yourself?
FAGBENLE: Well, the funny thing is that, when I made my first short film, a long time ago now, I fell in love with directing and I knew I would direct. And then, I was told by some of my mentors, “Look, they won’t let you direct, unless you own the material. You need to have leverage.” So, I started writing to direct. And then, when I started pitching TV shows, the commissioners were like, “Well, if you act in it, that will help get it made.” So, I had to act in it and write it, to get to direct.
How were the show and the character born? Was there something that inspired all of this in particular?
FAGBENLE: It was a combination of things. One thing is that I became fascinated with the fact that we live in this world where fame is often mistaken for respect and genuine connection is often superseded by Instagram likes, and I wanted to write about that phenomena. Also, on a personal level, I had just gone through a couple of bad heartbreaks and I wanted to write about that. And then, finally, from an actor’s perspective, I wanted a chance to do some of the characters that I get to play in the theater. Television is so often typecast. They meet you and go, “Oh, you’re a nice guy. I’m gonna cast you as nice guys.” But I really like playing maniacs, so I really wanted to write the kind of part that I wanted to play.
Were there things that you specifically wanted to make sure to avoid with this character, and were there things that you intentionally wanted to play up?
FAGBENLE: On the face of things, he can be a really unlikable character. He does a lot of despicable things. He’s not a great father, he’s not a great boyfriend, and he’s not a great artist. It was like, why would you like this guy? It came down to being able to expose some of his vulnerability and share the moments where we see the crack in his armor.
Were there things that you were most nervous about pulling off with a character like this, or did it all feel like a fun challenge?
FAGBENLE: In the show, the character plays three instruments. He plays the drums, the bass, and the guitar, and I don’t play any of those. I was adamant that it had to be those instruments, when I play other ones, so that was really tough because, while I was doing everything else – finishing up the writing and preparing to direct – I was also doing drumming and guitar lessons in the evenings.
Were there ever any points on set, where you were like, “Why did I write this for myself? I could just go rewrite it and have not have myself do this”?
FAGBENLE: Yeah. Well, no. Honestly, there was a feeling that’s a rare feeling, when you feel like you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. As challenging as it was, there was a sense around it that this was what I had to do.
You’ve previously said that Christopher Meloni was your first choice, for the character of Don Wild. What was it about him that made you want to get him involved?
FAGBENLE: When I saw him in Happy!, he was so zany, so intense, so unpredictable, and so charismatic that I was like, “I wanna unleash this guy on this script.”
What was it like to do scenes with actors while you had so many other aspects of production to think about? Did you have a way to deal with that, on set, so that you could be in the moment, as an actor, and not have to think about everything else?
FAGBENLE: Yeah, honestly, the hardest part of it is to be present, as an actor, but also have a mind for what the other actors are doing and what’s going on, on set. That was really challenging. I didn’t find a way to give a hundred percent to both. You vacillate between one or the other. But it really helped to have Nick Collett, the co-director, who could really support me. He was my rock.
How did you go about approaching getting a co-director and who that would be? Did you know, from the beginning, that you wanted to have somebody there, so that part of it wasn’t all on you?
FAGBENLE: We went through different iterations of it. There was the point where there was the possibility of me directing all of it, and there was also a point where certain powers that be were pushing me not to direct any of it. I was adamant that was something that I wanted to be part of why I wanted to do the show. And so, through various negotiations, we ended up with me putting my hands on the first two episodes.
There are a lot of wild things that happen in this show and in this world. Was there a moment or a scene that you felt was the most outrageous or crazy thing, that you had never thought you’d actually find yourself doing?
FAGBENLE: Being part of a threesome with a strap-on, with Chris Meloni, was definitely one of the weirder experiences that I’ve had.
What was it like on set, that day? Were there a lot of laughs?
FAGBENLE: It’s funny — on the one hand, they were doing some really funny stuff. On the other hand, you’ve gotta be really sensitive to people being in a vulnerable position. There were points where I was directing in my underwear. That was surreal.
It must be nice to make him finish a show and have it air in the UK, but what’s it like to also know that it’s going to reach even more people, streaming on Hulu?
FAGBENLE: I’m so pumped about being able to connect with the American audience. And Hulu has been so great to me. They’ve changed my career, to be honest. It’s so fitting that I get to do my first TV show with them.
What has it meant to you to be a part of something like The Handmaid’s Tale, that’s so critically acclaimed and so talked about, and really has been, from day one?
FAGBENLE: It’s surreal, but it’s also really gratifying to be a part of something which is part of an important conversation.
There’s no way to avoid the terrifyingly real-seeming possibility that The Handmaid’s Tale is not really that many steps away from our current reality. What are the challenges of living in a world like that throughout the shoot? Is it something where you welcome the thought and conversations about it, or would you prefer that, when you do the show, that it feels more like far away science fiction then how close it seems to reality at this point?
FAGBENLE: When it started, I thought, “This is symbolically representative of the world that we live in, but the extremities of it are a bit far-fetched.” But the world has just got weirder and weirder in 2020, so anything might be possible. Saying that, there’s been an extraordinary social justice movement which has brought about some significant changes, and that’s really heartened me into thinking about our ability to draw the future in the image we want it to be.
Where do things stand for you with The Handmaid’s Tale right now? Are you going to be returning, for the next season?
FAGBENLE: Yeah, as far as I know, we should be going back to shoot, at some point. We’re just waiting to find out when that is.
People who have only seen you in that will certainly be blown away by how different Maxxx is. Was that part of what led you to want to do this show, in the first place? Was it to do something so completely different?
FAGBENLE: Yeah, absolutely. I was very conscious that, often on TV, the parts I get to play are very nice guys. I personally find it so much more fun playing insecure, maniacal characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing Luke. But what I like to do as an actor, I haven’t had much of a chance to do on TV. So this is my chance.
You also got to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe and work opposite Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow. What was that casting process like? At what point do you actually get to know what the film is and who the character is and get to read a script?
FAGBENLE: Oh, it was all pretty late in the day. In fact, the scenes that I auditioned with don’t exist in the actual movie. I got offered the part, but there was a scheduling conflict with Maxxx, so I was like, “Look, I so would love to be a part of the Marvel universe, so I have to know what the part I’m playing is.” I have to say that Marvel have been great. They have worked around my schedule and let me have a look at the material. I really felt supported by them.
What was it like, when you actually did get to read the script? Did have armed guards watching you, to make sure that you don’t tell anybody anything?
FAGBENLE: There were various electronic passwords and stuff like that. They take it very seriously. I remember being on set and throwing the couple of pages of the script we’d done that day into the bin, and security ran up and were like, “What are you doing?!? You can’t do that!” I learned to be a lot more careful.
Was there anything that most surprised or impressed you about being on a set like that?
FAGBENLE: I think it was how responsive they were. The fantastic writer, Eric [Pearson], wrote some amazing lines, but he was responsive. And Cate [Shortland], the director, was very responsive. I was surprised at how such a huge organization and structure can be so responsive to suggestions from the actors.
Now that you’ve had an experience like Maxxx, where you’ve done so many of the jobs yourself, were there aspects of that whole creative process that you found yourself most drawn to or interested in, that you want to make sure to focus on and do more of in the future?
FAGBENLE: Honestly, I’m just really hoping to do more characters like Maxxx. I’m hoping that I get some acting opportunities to explore that side. But I love directing. It is a specific thrill, directing your own material.
What do you feel like you learned from this project, as a whole, that you think will affect or change the next project that you work on in this way? Were there things that you couldn’t have known until you actually did it?
FAGBENLE: Good question. I know a little bit better about how to pace myself, especially through post-production. You can prepare to do a show, and then you shoot the show and you’re like, “Okay, right, we’re basically done.” But the show is actually made in the edit. Going through that experience was a learning curve for me.
What was it like to actually finally put the show together? Did you have a moment where you knew it was done, or did you have to get outside advice?
FAGBENLE: Yeah, it’s never done. You never feel like you get everything that you want. I remember that I was at a dinner, and I happen to be sat next to this guy who’s a foreign film director, and he told me, “If I get 50% of the film that I had in my head on screen, I call that a success.” I was bowled over by that. To that extent, I feel like I got more than 50%.
Do you have another character in your head that you’d love to be able to play, in another project that you develop?
FAGBENLE: One of my first plays I did was called Six Degrees of Separation, which is a John Guare play. There’s a character in that, where I’d like to play something like that sometime.
What’s it like to work in and collaborate with your brother Luti Fagbenle? What is that working relationship like?
FAGBENLE: He cares about me, but he also cares about the quality of the work. We have a shorthand with each other. We don’t have to go through niceties, and we can tell each other when it’s not working. All good work relationships should have some conflict because you’re trying to beat out what the best ideas and options are, and push each other to say, “No, we can do better.” I couldn’t have done that without him.
Maxxx is available to stream at Hulu.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.