'The' 'First Lady'' s O-T Fagbenle Practiced His Barack Obama Impression While Playing a VR Game

The Emmy-nominated actor tells PEOPLE he considers portraying the 43rd president in the Showtime series to be “one of the greatest challenges of my career so far”

O. T. Fagbenle PHOTO CREDITS MUST RUN AS: Photographer: Max Hemphill (https://maxhemphill.com/) Groomer: Red (https://www.instagram.com/theartistred/) Stylist: Scot Louie (https://www.scotlouie.com/) STYLE CREDITS: Shirt by Armani Pants by Dries Van Noten Jacket by Dries Van Noten Sneakers by Nike
Photo: Photographer: Max Hemphill

Of course, O-T Fagbenle relied on standard resources like books and videos to inform his portrayal of President Barack Obama in Showtime's The First Lady. But the British actor also brought the former commander-in-chief into his everyday life.

"Some generous friends of mine gave me time to pretend to be Obama around them," Fagbenle, 41, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I'd even practiced my Obama voice in a virtual reality game I used to play."

The Emmy nominee calls playing Obama "one of the greatest challenges of my career so far" because he finds the 60-year-old politician to be "such a loved and such a complex, nuanced person."

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Fagbenle's prep paid off according to The First Lady showrunner and executive producer Cathy Schulman.

"From O-T's first reading of Barack Obama, it was clear he could channel the very essence of our former President," she tells PEOPLE. "O-T was able to pick up the President's expressions, gestures and habits, and most importantly, Barack's joyous belief in human beings. O-T's performance is spectacular, and his interactions with Viola Davis as Michelle Obama are kinetic."

O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama in THE FIRST LADY, “101”. Photo credit: Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME.
Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME

Fagbenle also finds himself in another hit spring drama: Apple TV+'s WeCrashed series about the rise and fall of coworking space provider WeWork. The London native admits he "wasn't very well-educated on" the WeWork situation before signing on to play an investor who faces off with founder Adam Neuman (Jared Leto), but found his costars Anne Hathaway and Leto incredibly welcoming.

"Anne's this big movie star and she took me aside and was like, 'How are you finding New York? You need advice on restaurants or places to go?'" Fagbenle recalls. "She's nicer and more generous than most people you'll meet, and I was just kind of blown away by it. She was so down to Earth."

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Coming off of Marvel's Black Widow last year, Fagbenle, who's also filming season 5 of The Handmaid's Tale, feels "really grateful" for this major moment in the spotlight. "I'm just counting my lucky stars," he says.

But Fagbenle felt like he reached a career peak way before he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, received an Emmy nomination or starred in two of spring's hottest shows.

"When I started my career, I didn't even think at all really about doing television. I was really focused on theater," he admits. "My first year out of drama school and I'd got a part in a community theater play, and I remember thinking, 'Wow, I'm getting to act for a living. I've made it.'"

Today, Fagbenle considers it a "source of a lot of gratitude" to be "an artist who can live off of being an artist."

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He credits television's expansion onto streaming platforms with being able to take on more opportunities.

"There's been an expansion in television and it's led to quite a lot of diversity in front of the camera, in ways that didn't really exist when I was first coming out of drama school," Fagbenle says. "I think about the Black, British actors from 20 years ago and 30 years ago, we didn't have the opportunities that I have; the talent that never got a chance to blossom. So I'm going to try and make the most of my opportunity."

Fagbenle, one of 12 siblings, has celebrated his recent success with family. "Most of my best friends are within my family," he says.

Fagbenle's younger siblings Luti and Daps work in entertainment too, as a producer and a music video director, respectively. His younger sibling Temi played in the WBNA and competed in the 2012 Olympic Games. "Although the accomplishments of my siblings are very remarkable, for me, their greatness is measured in their kindness and their sense of humor," the Maxxx writer and director says. "They really inspire me."

He also wants to use his platform to give back through his Ally Bedford Children's Foundation — named after his mom — that gives back to communities in Africa. Fagbenle, born to a British mom and Nigerian dad, spent time in Nigeria as well as Spain growing up.

"I've been so privileged in my life and trying to create opportunities for others seems like an attempt to make an equitable distribution to the communities that I've lived in," Fagbenle says. "I've been so fortunate."

The First Lady airs Sundays (9 p.m. ET) on Showtime. New episodes of WeCrashed drop Fridays on Apple TV+.

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