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How O-T Fagbenle Perfected His Uncanny Turn as Barack Obama in ‘The First Lady’

He did a lot more than just watch footage of the 44th president

The particular difficulty of portraying Barack Obama is that his entire presidency has been documented on the internet. Every speech and every public moment was put on display in real time for the world to see.

So, people are intimately familiar with the idiosyncrasies that make him, well, Barack Obama. And there hasn’t been an actor who has taken on the challenge of embodying him throughout his entire time in office, until now. 

“This is kind of like the first extensive portrayal of Barack,” O-T Fagbenle, who gives an uncanny performance as Obama in Showtime’s “The First Lady,” told TheWrap. “So it kind of felt like freshly trodden ground, which to be honest, is somewhat of a relief. I mainly focused on the footage of him, which is readily available. In some ways, the extent of the footage of him is both a wonderful tool, but it’s also a big challenge because people are so aware of the specificity of his speech.”

“The First Lady” tells the story of three influential women who have inhabited the White House — First Ladies Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson). As such, the presidents take a supporting role. 

Not only was he tasked with portraying one of the most recognizable presidents in American history, but he also had fewer moments to make an impact. That meant Fagbenle had to get a bit creative.

“I started listening to a lot of his impersonators, because what impersonators do is they kind of a lot of times hook on to the most idiosyncratic parts of someone’s speech patterns, someone’s idiolect, and exaggerate them and do them over and over,” he explained. “And so that was a useful starting point for someone who knew nothing about how to do a specific person’s idiolect. I actually reached out to a couple of his impersonators who gave me some tips, and then as I became better and more accustomed to the act, I started working with actual dialect coaches and getting into the nuances of the nitty gritty.”

What pieces of advice did these impersonators give him?

O-T Fagbenle Photo credit: Emily Assiran

“One of them is really listening to the pauses that Barack takes and where he takes them. The other thing is … he can go slow at the beginning and then get really fast at the end,” Fagbenle said. “I think also his voice placement is a very particular thing. And that took a long time to try and feel comfortable within my own physiology.”

But Fagbenle wasn’t simply tasked with doing a singular impersonation of the 44th president. Instead, he had to hone in on Obama’s specific tendencies throughout the eight years that he was in office. 

“My God, all the challenges, because, you know, his voice subtly changes over time. The way he moves his body very subtly changes over time,” he said. “And also, I think … he gets a little bit more grounded, perhaps a little more, you know, you can see — they say heavy lies the crown — you can see the weight of the office on him. And so, finding a way to kind of navigate those subtle changes without kind of doing broad impressions.” 

In addition to learning from impersonators and a dialect coach, he also turned to someone whose impression of a real-life person he has long admired.

“I think David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, I just thought that was extraordinary. I loved that and was really inspired by that. And in fact, I called him up to ask for some advice, and he was very generous with his time around that.”

Another actor’s embodiment of a historical figure that he studied was Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. That performance “was seminal to me in my adolescence,” Fagbenle said.

However, the actors didn’t get to connect about their roles just yet. Fagbenle joked: “I’ve never met him, if you can arrange it.”