HBO's "Looking" might follow the lives of gay friends in San Franscico, but one thing that drew star O-T Fagbenle to the show was the way the stories resonate with people of any sexuality. Many people have had restless partners, for example.
Fagbenle stars as Frank, the longtime boyfriend of artist Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez). As the series began, Agustin moved to Oakland to live in domestic bliss with Frank. That lasted about 10 minutes. Agustin since has initiated a threesome and, after meeting hunky man-hooker CJ (TJ Linnard), is currently flirting with the idea of becoming a sex worker himself—or at least doing something "artistic" with CJ.
The British actor says it may look like Frank is OK with Agustin's adventurous side—he did participate in that threesome—but he's really feeling a lot of anxiety and just wants to keep his man happy. Like many people in relationships do, Fagbenle said, Frank is making compromises.
"Then if you give them an inch, they'll want another seven," he joked, adding this little tease about Frank's patience: "He has a lot of tolerance. But everything can snap."
In other words, Frank could be looking for a new boyfriend soon.
Fagbenle talked more about what's coming for the couple, how he prepared for the role, and what he thinks of the negative reactions about the show.
"Looking" airs at 9:30 p.m. Sundays on HBO.
Tell me a little bit about Frank and how you approached playing him.
I guess I just spent a lot of time with the script. Michael Lannan has written this lovely, sweet kind of character who wanted to domesticate his wild man. I spent a lot of time just reading the script and then also thinking about where he came from because there are little clues all about in it. Like Frank has a tattoo of Ohio on his bicep. I'm a big researcher, so I researched Ohio. I came to San Francisco early and went to some of the bars that Michael told me that Frank might have gone to and listened to the music that Michael told me Frank might listen to. Yeah, just stuff like that to try and get myself into a certain mindset.
You like to do the research of that sort?
It can get me into trouble sometimes. But yeah, I'm a big researcher. I believe in practical research as well. You know, like going to places and experiencing things first hand as much as possible.
You filmed in San Francisco. Did you sort of explore the city before you started too?
Yes sir I did, and how. [Laughs.] Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I had to. I did lots of things. I walked around a lot. I went partying a couple of times ... like clubbing or whatever you call it. That was interesting. Yeah, a fair amount of drinking involved, and talking to people. I take my work seriously. [Laughs]
Did you spend any time in Oakland since Frank lives in Oakland?
Yes I did. In fact that's the only place I get my hair cut is Oakland. ... Oakland was great. Oakland's got a lot of character. ... Maybe I didn't see the worst parts of it, but the bits I did were lovely.
I feel that Frank is the most centered and the calmest member of the group. Would you agree with that?
You know what's funny? A lot of people have said that to me, but I never really thought of him as being like that. I feel like Frank has got lots of anxiety to do with his love and Agustín and how the relationship is going to go. I think he's quite good at hiding it and dealing with it. Ultimately Agustín and Frank have been in a relationship for a long time and he's had to find ways of not freaking Agustín out because you put too much pressure on him and then he'll go away. You have to kind of look quite chill. But I think you're right, though, he has a lot of tolerance. But everything can snap.
Do you think Frank is going along with Agustín with the sexual adventurousness just to make him happy, or is he OK with it?
I think that the reason that people open up relationships are kind of varied. And I think for Frank, it's not his first choice but he's open to it. He wasn't bullied into the situation, but there is a sense that I think he's trying to appease Agustín. He wants to make him happy. And I think most people kind of do things out of their affection for their partners. But ... how far do you go?
Right, to make your partner feel comfortable, you mean?
Yeah, what can you do so that your partner stays. And then if you give them an inch, they'll want another seven.
I kind of feel for Frank actually because I fear that something bad is going to happen coming up. When you were seeing the scripts did you feel that he was going to be very disappointed at some point?
I'm aware that all drama is conflict. And even so we didn't know when we started the series how exactly everything would turn out, I think I went into it knowing that there's no drama without conflict. There's no TV show sex without fire.
I don't understand what Agustín's deal is because Frank's a good guy. Were you thinking that, too?
Well, the funny thing is, I think, is the wonderful and talented Frankie J. Alvarez is actually a lot more like Frank in his life, and I'm actually a little more like Agustín.
I think it's interesting to that the two straight guys of the main four are the two who play the coupled gay guys. Did you guys have a laugh about that?
We did at one point. It is funny in a way, but ultimately, there's far much more in common between gay love and straight love then there is different. Like, we still kiss and we still caress and we still hold each other. There's a difference, but it's only quite slight. So I guess it was funny, but actually on a fundamental level it didn't feel, like, a million miles different.
Because of the sort of political side of the "gay" show, did you have any reservations or any extra worries than any other role you would've done?
I think I did, to be honest. Because I guess in a way it's quite the unique opportunity. There are lots of groups of people who don't get their stories told traditionally. They haven't had their stories told. And I think gay men are a group of people who haven't had their story told as much as it should be told. And so I was aware that "Looking" was a great opportunity. But ultimately I think if you try and go into kind of an artistic endeavor with some kind of political point to make, then I think you end up doing a disservice.
I think for me it was just important for me to understand my character as a real human being, a three-dimensional human being. A person whose most interesting characteristic isn't his sexuality, it's his openheartedness and his feelings about being in a relationship. And it's all these things which I can relate to and play. And I feel by trying to create a fully rounded, three-dimensional character who I relate to, who I care for, that will kind of do the important work of kind of representing people correctly.
The performances, including yours, seem very natural. I was wondering if there was a lot of going off script, sort of like a Mike Leigh type of thing, where "here's what you should be thinking but say whatever you want to say" type of thing.
What was great about working with Andrew and Michael is they weren't precious. They're most committed to telling the stories correctly. And so they gave us a lot of flexibility to do that. And to be honest actually it's tough, because you end up improvising a lot and they throw away some of our favorite bits. I'm like, "Oh no, they cut everywhere where I improvised." So there was a fair amount but it wasn't nonstop. It's a great script, but there was also a lot of flexibility for us to bring our own thoughts to it.
Did you guys hang out a lot before filming started just to get to know each other?
I tried to. HBO was kind enough to get me over to San Francisco early so I could do some of my research, and also to give Frankie J and I an opportunity to hang out. So we went on some man dates to spots where we thought our characters would hang out. He's also basketball fan so we went to a couple of game together.
When you went to those places you to hang out, do you have any interesting stories from there?
You know what, they were pretty low-key. I did certainly meet some interesting characters out and about. That's the thing, now I wish I had some salacious story to talk about.
I wasn't talking salacious but I thought maybe one of you would be recognized or maybe there was a big "Quarterlife" fan in one of the bars or something like that.
Oh, actually funny enough, I did do a movie called "Double Wedding" and I got spotted on the street by a nurse; she was a big fan of it.
That's cool. What do you think about sort of the criticism that's been leveled against the show? Have you been reading of this stuff about it being boring?
I have heard some of that. I think basically different strokes for different folks. What did I read? Oh God, I read "The Tale of Two Cities." Do you know that book?
It's boring. It's so long. But I'm aware that there are people who read that and think "genius." And this is the thing about art: It's subjective. One man's genius is another man's waste of time. And so I would much prefer to be part of pieces of art which challenge people, as people loved it/hate it, then be in some kind of average, mediocre, dumb old TV program, which everyone is like, "Oh, that's OK."
The thing that I like about the show is that even though it's sort of like a "slice of life" type thing, but there's a real subtext in it about what the gay community expects from its members I guess. Have you learned a lot of things from doing the show?
Let's go back to what you were saying because I think you really hit the nail on the head there about the subtext. There are some people who turn on the TV and they want "wham-bam, thank you ma'am." They want explosions and they want fast-paced and they don't need it to be real and that's fine. That's entertainment.
But there's another type of art where in between these subtle gestures between people, in between unsaid, unspoken words, there's the feel of life that you recognize. You recognize yourself and moments, which kind of go, "Yeah, I know what it's like to feel that awkward," or "I know what it's like to be in a relationship like that." And that sense of recognition is quite a satisfying thing when you see it for real.
"Looking" isn't the show that kind of slaps you over the face with it. "Looking" is the kind of show that lays it down and you get to kind of look at it and see, "Oh, look what I can find between the edges." So I think you got it right about the subtext being there and people who can appreciate that and see that and have a taste for that and really enjoy the show.
"Queer as Folk" started out as a British series and then it was redone as an American series. Do you think that can happen in the reverse for "Looking?"
Basically I don't know. Did they ever do that? Do they ever take American shows and make English versions of it? ... The thing is that with Americans do a lot of television really well, they just do it really well. And I think "Looking" is that kind of thing. So when something is done well at that point it's like copying it. So I'd be surprised if they did an English version of "Looking," but it might inspire a kind of sister type show, a kind of show around the same kind of issues but differently.
Is there any place in Britain like San Francisco? I mean San Francisco's such a big part of the show so they would really need to find that same kind of thing I think.
I really don't know. That's one of the wonderful things I think about America is that it's just so eclectic; it's so broad. Whatever your fancy, whatever your taste you can pretty much find it in this big country of yours. I don't know if we have it on the same scale in England. There might be streets or areas, but I don't think there's any cities like San Francisco.
Let's get back to your character and Frankie's character. Now Frankie and viewers have met CJ the sex worker. So give me a little hint about what kind of problems CJ may cause without spilling too much.
Take a look at him, for goodness sakes. Take a good look at him and those crystal blue eyes and you tell me what problems can happen. [Laughs.]
But how far will Agustín be able to push Frank into that territory?
Well, I think it's fair to say that Frank is a pleaser and he wants his man to be happy.
Even if Frank's not?
Well, I think the most important thing for Frank, and I think it could be said for a lot of relationships actually, which are kind of open, is that the important aspect is honesty and transparency. And those are kind of like the deal breakers. And everything else is up for negotiation.
Was Frank already a musician before you got cast or did they realize your musical background and say why not?
No, no, he was a musician first. In fact I played my saxophone at my audition. ... But I think we decided that Frank plays the keys. But I do play keys a little bit as well.
Do you feel that even though he may be different than you that you're able to find some of O-T to put into Frank?
You know, I feel like within each of us is a million different people that we could reveal and that we can be sometimes ... And for me the process of acting isn't so much about finding the person outside of myself and mimicking them, but rather releasing parts of myself and adding them to the character. So Frank is me. He's just me with a cocktail mixed differently.
Can you tell me the origin of your O-T? Is that your initials and why the dash?
Strictly speaking, it's an abbreviation. My full name is Olatunde Olateju Olaolorun Fagbenle. I was named after my grandfather. It's Yoruba, which is like southern Nigeria.
Any plans to get back out to the theater?
I really want to do Broadway. That's next on my list. ... I don't know if they'll bring it back, but the part I'm really trying to do is in a show called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the August Wilson play. There's a part in it called Levee and I'd really like to play it.
Anything else coming up we should know about with you?
Yeah. I'm releasing my first short film called "MOTH" and it's coming out soon. Yeah, so basically I will be releasing that and now I'm developing it into a feature.
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