[This contains spoilers for Black Widow.]
For a solid year, a portion of the Internet was convinced Black Widow actor O-T Fagbenle was playing Taskmaster, the mysterious villain central to the Marvel Studios film. The myth became so persistent that Fagbenle’s personal trainer even bought a Taskmaster action figure for the actor to sign, despite Fagbenle’s protestations.
In the end, Fagbenle was telling the truth when he told people that he was playing Mason, a private contractor with a romantic history with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). That history was something that was found through conversations with Johansson and director Cate Shortland, as well as in the editing process, which ultimately cut a moment that was more intimate than what made it into the film.
After completing filming in London, Fagbenle was given another scene during additional photography and flew to Los Angeles from Toronto, where his Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale films.
“Originally I wasn’t in that final scene,” Fagbenle tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was told secretly that test audiences liked seeing me and Natasha’s character together. There are bigger things than that, that make up the decisions for Marvel, but that was part of the decision. Then we got that final scene. That was a huge compliment.”
July has been a big month for Fagbenle, who not only made his Marvel debut, but was also nominated for an Emmy for his work in The Handmaid’s Tale this week for his role as Luke. In a conversation with THR, the actor talks about how Mason evolved over the months he was involved in the film, and also looks ahead to playing Barack Obama in Showtime’s The First Lady, opposite Viola Davis.
You were writing your TV show Maxxx while on vacation in Mexico when you got this audition. Was your hotel self-tape a scene that ended up in the movie?
Basically, it was a completely different character that I was up for. There were moving parts in the script and people wanted things differently and so the written Mason that we meet is a completely different character than the one I auditioned for. I’m so curious. If someone ever saw that audition, they wouldn’t recognize it.
So there was enough there for them to say, “this is our guy.”
I have no idea what went into picking me for that. But I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
What kind of preparation do you do? Do you have a backstory of what you and Natasha were doing? Does Cate give you stuff? Does screenwriter Eric Pearson give you stuff?
I didn’t have all the information at first. I eventually got the script, and then the script changes. So I am doing what I normally do, which is create my own backstory. But also, I knew I was going to have to go in there. There was a day when Cate and Scarlett and I sat down around the table and we just spoke about it. “What was your idea? What do you think happened between them?” Between the three of us, and obviously with Eric’s script, we figured out what their backstory was.
There are a couple of nods that they had a romance. And now they are “friends.” Did you have to play with that much to get to how much you wanted to suggest to the audience that they used to be more than friends?
Exactly that. But also the fun of the subtext. And knowing Marvel audiences are sophisticated audiences and they are going to pick up on stuff like that. They are going to look at every little detail. There was a scene [where Mason has been napping in Natasha’s bed]. That scene used to start with her coming in and laying next to me on the bed. Then we had a longer conversation on the bed where you find out even more about the past of their relationship. Part of that decision making was made in the edit as well. How much do we reveal about their past?
Was Mason always British, or did you ever consider an American accent?
There was talk about it. I like playing American, but it was fun to play British. One of the things about the show is it has international voices. Russian accents and the American accents, and of course, the British.
You were in L.A. for Black Widow reshoots just before the Oscars 2020. So you did the bulk of your stuff in London and then jetted in for a few days?
Exactly. It was to shoot that final scene. It was so great because originally I wasn’t in that final scene. So to be told, “Listen, you’re going to be in it.” I was told secretly that test audiences liked seeing me and Natasha’s character together. There are bigger things than that, that make up the decisions for Marvel, but that was part of the decision. Then we got that final scene. That was a huge compliment.
I assume the Avengers jet is not there with you.
We just got posted in the middle of a field. “Yeah, the Avengers jet is going to be around there.”
You work with a lot of great people, but how special was it just a three-person scene with two Oscar nominees in Florence Pugh and Scarlett?
It’s probably the best part of my job, getting to work with some of the best artists in the world, the most extraordinary, experienced, detailed, passionate artists. It’s one of my favorite things.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was an important career highlight for you when you got to perform it on the West End. That play is something you shared in common with Chadwick Boseman, who starred in the Netflix adaptation. Did you ever meet Chadwick at Comic-Con?
No, I didn’t meet him there, but now I’m doing First Lady, which Viola Davis is in. Of course Viola had the most extraordinary performance in Ma Rainey [opposite Boseman].
Back in the old days Marvel might say, “We might need you for other movies.” As the lines blur between flm and streaming, does the deal now say, “We might need you for streaming and oh also, we might need you for a movie” as the lines blur?
There’s definitely been talk of where Mason fits in and will that include TV and will that include movies? That’s a testament to how the industry has broadened. I think it’s a great thing, to be honest.
You are entering this realm where you could be playing Mason for ten years. Who knows with Marvel. Have you given consideration to that?
I love him, so I’ve got no problem with that. We’ll see what happens. For now I’m enjoying this moment and enjoying being a part of it, to learn about what it is to be part of the Marvel Universe. More Mason. I’m here for it!
Before the movie came out, you told me there was a scene screenwriter Eric Pearson saved on the fly. What scene was that?
I’ve only watched the movie once and I was kind of in a blur. “I’m in the movie!” But basically it was during that last scene. There were only like four lines of dialogue but we had to get Natasha and me from the side of the road where she drops her motor bike off to the middle of the field where she finds the airplane. And so we didn’t have enough dialogue and we were trying to shoot, catching the son that was going down. We had to find lines to fit us for that journey, so that was the thing Eric came and Supermanned himself into.
A lot of people online thought you were playing Taskmaster. Did you observe that?
I saw some of that. It was fun. Ultimately, that’s part of the fun of waiting for something to come out, is your imagination fills that vaccum. I thought it was so exciting to see fans. It’s the same with Handmaid’s, it’s the same with me when I’m waiting for my series. “What happens?”
A friend of mine was maintaining for a solid year that you were Taskmaster, and he had me convinced, too.
I had a personal trainer, a guy called Sergio, who was helping me out get ready for it. He was like, “You’re Taskmaster. “I’m not. I’m not Taskmaster.” He was like, “I hear you. You’re taskmaster.” He got me to sign a Taskmaster doll. “Bro, I’ll sign it, but I’m not the Taskmaster.”
What is the process when you found out you are in the final scene?
I remember shooting the last day with Scarlett on the first block. She turned me and said “see you for reshoots in January?” I was like, “What do you mean?” Obviously she’s done it so many times she knows that one way or the other, there are going ot be reshoots in a few months. I was prepared for it. Suddenly I get a call from my agent. “They are going to do some reshoots.” And then trying to figure out the flights from Toronto to L.A. and the length of beard and all that kind of stuff.
They tell you the perfect beard length?
Yeah, because Mason’s hair is shorter than Luke’s hair and when both of them are longer than Barack’s hair. So there is beard-age to be able to figure out. The intricacies of of filmmaking.
What has the experience of playing Barack Obama in The First Lady been like?
Really interesting because ultimately if people want to watch Barack, they are going to watch a documentary on him. I think what the point of making a drama is to get to see the clay feet of our gods. It’s challenging. I’ve got such play partners that … I’m having the best times with it.