There’s a lot resting on the shoulders of “Looking,” HBO’s new series about three gay friends navigating life in San Francisco. The show, starring Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett, has, because of its subject matter alone, been given the mantle of being the new gay show.
But as star O-T Fagbenle tells Zap2it the show hopes to look beyond its characters sexuality and, instead, examine them as humans. Fagbenle stars as Frank, Augistin’s (Alvarez) boyfriend who convinces him to move in to his Oakland apartment. In anticipation of the show’s debut, on Sunday (Jan. 19), we spoke with the actor about a wide range of topics including those pesky “Girls” comparisons, the aforementioned pressure placed on the show and whether we should be worried about poor Frank. (Slight spoiler: Augustin doesn’t seem too into the domestic life.) What follows is our full Q-and-A with Fagbenle.
Zap2it: Congratulations on the big Los Angeles premiere. How was your night?
O-T Fagbenle: It was really great actually. To be able to share it with the people you made it with and certain new people, it was heartwarming.
Did you get a chance to talk to anybody who hadn’t seen it before last night and gauge some reactions?
Yeah, I had a couple of guests come to see the show, so I had a couple of friends. They were really blown away. It a funny thing about the show — people get blown away in a really subtle way. It’s like, it’s not all flash bang explosions, but it’s very moving in a very subtle, unexpected way.
I’ve watched the first four episodes and I think what is so stunning about it is how quiet it is, and so natural. There’s been a lot of talk about how it’s a “revolutionary” series because any series that focuses on gay people is always talked about in that way, but I loved the fact that it was so quiet and so intimate. There’s such an intimate feeling to the show.
I think that’s exactly the right word. It is intimate. And it kind of draws you in. What’s interesting — and I’ve watched the pilot a couple of times now. And what’s interesting to me is it’s so quiet and so intimate, it draws you in so much. You never feel bored…you’re excited to see what happens next in a way that I guess you’re not used to with a lot of television. It treats its audience with a little bit more sophistication and trust that you’ll experience these more intimate moments that arise and recognize them without big arrows pointing to them.
The show has received comparisons to a handful of cultural standpoints. There’s the “Queer as Folk” comparison, it’s been compared to “Girls,” and there’s a “Sex and the City” comparison, as well. Having watched the show myself, I don’t see much in those comparisons. How do you explain how the show distinguished itself from the shows that it’s been compared to?
I think, first of all, it’s an honor to be connected to those shows. Those shows are amazing shows in their own right, in different ways. But I think anyone watching this show will immediately, like you did, see a difference. Ultimately what makes this show different, I think, is the realism. I was talking to someone the other night and they were saying how, “I can’t believe those words that were coming out of those characters mouths. I’ve said them. I’ve heard my lover say them. I’ve heard my friend say them.”
A lot of people find these secret moments that they never see on TV, those we keep to ourselves and are spoken between the sheets, they see them spoken here on this show. I think really the intimacy and realism is going to be what distinguishes it from those other shows.
There’s sort of an unflinching realistic portrayal in it.
Yeah, it doesn’t try and sex it up. It’s like, life is confusing and heartbreaking and sexy enough, we don’t even have to, like, make it up. Let’s just actually have a look at it. It’s really exciting.
Going back to the way that it does feel very natural, there’s often a question of whether, because the conversation feels so natural, if there’s some sort of improvisational nature to the show, or if it’s completely scripted. Was there an opportunity for you guys to improvise within the situations? How tightly was it scripted?
I’ll tell you what was amazing about working with HBO in general, but in particular, Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, is that there’s no ego involved. They’re just concerned with telling a story, they’re so concerned with letting a character live, that there’s improvisation going in and out of the lines, changing the lines — all these things happened a lot during the course of making the series.
And in a way, them trusting the artists they brought on board, [from] the cinematographer to the actors, really showed their trust in what they were creating. So we had these amazing scripts and they were kind of fulfilled through these artists being given the freedom to express themselves.
“Looking” is the first time in a long time that a show has shot fully on location in San Francisco, and the city is almost a character unto itself in the series. What was it like to go shoot up there? How did the city welcome you?
I try and travel as much as humanly possible, and San Francisco was such a remarkable city. It really stands out in my mind, the city. Culturally and historically, it’s got such character and beauty. The people are so eclectic, and so it was a real joy and a wonder to film up there.
During the TCA winter press tour, there was talk about how, at one point, there was consideration of trying to shoot the show on sound stages and recreate the look of San Francisco. Do you think the show would be successful if that had happened?
You know, it’s very tempting to say this is the only way it could be done. I don’t know. I mean, crazier things have been done before, but I personally feel like I gained so much from being in San Francisco and around San Francisco. When you look at some of the shots that they got, I don’t know. You’ve really got to get lucky on those sound stages to achieve something like that.
Looking more closely at Frank and Augustin’s situation, should we be worried for Frank? I feel like, as I watch the show, I’m so scared that Augustin is going to hurt him.
Well you know, great drama is conflict. Ultimately, on the show, there is some conflict to come. The thing that I find interesting about the relationship is — anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows what it’s like to come upon a situation where there are some quite fundamental differences. You connect in all these ways, but in one or two ways, they’re starkly different from you. The question is how do you navigate that?
With any long-term relationship, it’s all about compromise and finding out the common ground, but sometimes it’s hard to find compromise. That’s a lot of what, I think, Frank and Augustin explore is how do you do that? And it’s especially tricky when it comes to things of a sexual nature.
In the premiere, you two embark on a threesome. What was that shooting experience like in your first episode together?
That was one of the first things we shot. I think one of the things, which I think is really exciting about the show is that we’ve no gratuitous sex, but there’s plenty of sex. And what we manage to achieve is that all the sex scenes are actually about character, and so in that scene, for me at least, it was about seeing how do two people negotiate a third person in their relationship when one person is less up for it and doing it to compromise or to placate the other person.
So it never really felt –There’s a part where you go, “Okay, I’m going to film this scene and I’m conscious [of] how do I look. I’m gonna have to do this thing with two other people and everything.” But then when you actually relate it to your own life and go, “Oh, well, you know, one of the times I’ve had to compromise sexually for another person that I love and want to create a relationship with.” It takes on something a lot more than just t**s and a** and flesh.
One of the things I noticed in that scene, in regards to you saying it’s not about gratuitous sex, the focus was almost more on Frank’s face reacting to what was happening, and the sex was almost pushed out of the frame.
Absolutely. It is scary filming it because, when you film it, we film a lot more of the sex than is shown on the screen, so you really have to trust the filmmakers that when they get in to edit it, they would use their judgement and, you know, make something which wasn’t exploitative. And we were so lucky to be in the good hands of that team at HBO.
Going back to the “revolutionary” mantle that’s sort of been placed on the show, ostensibly, the show is about a group of gay friends in the city, but I feel like the show is sort of beyond that. Yeah, they’re gay, but they’re people, too, and that’s the main focus. Was there a purposeful intent to make this not some preachy message show, but instead just a slice of life of these characters?
I mean, again, I seem like I’m barking on about it, but it’s a testament to the filmmakers. I mean, a lot of people who went into producing and making this show are gay people and that’s not the thing that they are first. They’re filmmakers first, and lovers and brothers and fathers and sons and all these things and friends before their sexual inclination, so I think it was quite natural when they told their stories that those were the stories they told.
They told stories of love, they told stories about friendship and they told stories about connection and missed connections. And when you factor that their sexuality wasn’t something that had to be fetishized or put out as preachy “we’re trying to make a point,” it’s just people that we’re dealing with. And it’s so great that we’re getting to a place, slowly, where we can see beyond people’s sexual preferences and see the thing that connects us all.
“Looking” premieres on Sunday, Jan. 19 at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.