Talk about pressure! Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers smiled as they were asked about the challenge of portraying two of the most famous living people in the world: Michelle and Barack Obama in the Chicago-made film “Southside With You,” opening Friday.
Even though they are playing the then-unknown Chicago residents as they embark on their first date, Sawyers noted, “it was really important for us not to do a full impersonation or caricature of President Obama and Michelle,” though the two actors acknowledge they do possess certain physical characteristics allowing them to play the then-Michelle Robinson and a youthful Obama in the movie.
“This was not ‘Saturday Night Live.’ We tried to play the truth of the scenes. It was all about a guy trying to get a girl and the girl deflecting — and then just bring ultra-realism to it.”
At the time, the future president was a summer associate at Sidley & Austin, the large corporate law firm where Robinson was his supervisor.
“You have to see this in the context of the time,” said Sumpter, who along with starring in the film has made it her feature producing debut. “It was 1989, and she was surrounded mostly by men — and white men at that. She probably had to constantly prove herself and she didn’t want her talent to be overshadowed and undermined by some hotshot from Harvard Law. She understandably feared that by dating Barack, she could lose all that she had worked so hard to achieve.”
While she said she did not want to impersonate the first lady, Sumpter did want to capture a key aspect of her personality she has long sensed.
“She has what I’d call a quiet strength, but you always know it’s there. And, if she is forced to whip it out, and go, ‘Let me tell you something, brother!’ — you know she can do that,” said Sumpter with a big laugh.
As of last week, neither Parker nor Sumpter had met the Obamas. “No, we’ve not met them — yet,” said Parker, with a sly smile, clearly hoping that opportunity looms large in the near future.
That admission led to an obvious question: What would they like to discuss with the First Couple?
For Sumpter, it would be “the obvious thing. I’d like to ask them, ‘Was our movie at least a little bit close to what it was like for you? Did we hit on any things that actually happened?’
“It would be details that I’d love to hear about. I’d like to hear the stories about what it was like for both of them living in the world back then. I’d want to know about the challenges, the fun times, all of it.
“We know the broad strokes, but I’d like to hear their perspectives on the details of what was going on with them at that point in their lives.”
Sawyer then piped up to add, “I’d also like the president’s take on Tika’s performance as Michelle, and have Michelle critique my performance as Barack.”
For the two actors, it was important that “Southside With You” not become some kind of political film, promoting the Obamas’ agenda for America.
“That was important to all of us, especially [writer and director] Richard Tanne. We didn’t want it to take away from the origin story we were trying to present. Are there themes throughout? Of course, like the conversations anyone would have. But it’s definitely not a political story. It’s a love story,” said Sumpter.
That was also important to executive producer John Legend. The music superstar pointed out that “even though this film is about two people who are seen as so political now, this film is not political. It really is just a love story — a first date movie about a couple we all know now, but at the time they were unknown. Both were already smart and talented, but who knew what they would become.”
Legend noted that “maybe they would not have become what they became unless they met each other and came together to make each other better. … I don’t think they would have become president and first lady without each other. I think she pushed him to be a better man, and he did the same for her.”
On a lighter note, Legend chuckled as he remembered the wreck of a car Barack Obama showed up in to pick up Michelle Robinson for that first weekend get-together she so arduously insisted was “not a date, until I call it a date.”
“I’m sure when she got into that clunker of a car with the rusted-out floorboard, Michelle never dreamed she would one day be riding around in Air Force One on a regular basis.”