'Southside With You' Stars, Director on Overcoming "Presidential Pressure" of Making a Movie About Obamas
Parker Sawyers, who plays Barack Obama, explained that the conversations his version of the future president has with Michelle Robinson "felt real" even though this information isn't public record.
Southside With You is just a romantic movie about a first date between two 20-somethings in Chicago, who happen to go on to become President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
But while writer-director Richard Tanne first had the idea for the film in 2007, he didn't start writing the script until 2013. Still he wasn't daunted by the prospect of making a movie about two of the most powerful people in the world.
"They were sort of baked into the American narrative at that point and time," Tanne told The Hollywood Reporter at a Cinema Society screening of Southside in New York earlier this week. "I never really thought about the after; I only thought about the before. The characters that I was crafting for the script were always the same because they were the 1989 versions of them, so whatever was going on in public life was not affecting the screenplay."
Actors Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, who play Barack Obama and the-then-Michelle Robinson, also were able to dismiss the larger-than-life future profiles of their characters.
"I just focused on the job as an actor, like learning the lines and making sure I could show up every day and got enough rest and so forth," Sawyers said. "There wasn't so much presidential pressure. It was more like, 'We're using natural light, so let's make sure I hit my marks and do my job and get everything we need.'"
Sumpter, who also served as a producer on the film, called the feeling of making a movie about the first couple "more exciting than anything," pointing out that her character wasn't the wife of the first black president in U.S. history when she went on that first date with her future husband.
"When you strip down the Michelle Obama of it all, it's Michelle Robinson, who is a girl from the south side of Chicago who came from humble beginnings — and I think that's why [the Obamas are] very accessible to a lot of people now — who was inspirational," Sumpter said. "She climbed from humble beginnings, where she was to the presidency with her husband. The pressure wasn't that much because it was at a certain time in her life when she wasn't Michelle Obama."
Still there was plenty about the smart, driven young woman to impress Sumpter.
"I already knew she was smart, but she graduated Harvard Law pretty early, at 23, and she was a [lawyer] at one of the biggest firms in Chicago when she met Barack, and she was his advisor. I think that's a big deal. She was just so laser-focused about life. She never dimmed her light for anybody."
While much of Michelle and Barack Obama's biographies are well known and many of the details of this date, including where they went and what they did, are public record, smaller elements, like specific conversations the two had on their outing, aren't known. Sawyers, though, said that even those more creative parts "felt real."
"Rich did such an amazing job writing it that it felt like very much what they would talk about. It felt real," he said. "Because I did my research, I knew the things [Obama] was saying were fine. And I didn't do any research on Michelle. That way I could listen to what she was saying in the movie and I'm learning along with the audience."
When asked — on Wednesday night, two days before Southside opened — if he'd heard anything further, Tanne simply reiterated that executive producer John Legend, who's a friend of the first couple, "had a conversation with the president about it and [Legend] told [Obama] it was a great movie and [Legend] thought they'd enjoy it."
While Southside With You is in theaters now, it remains to be seen whether the president will listen to his friend John Legend and take a trip down memory lane.