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“It’s just a challenge,” says Viola Davis of why she’s so drawn to play real-life characters versus fully fictional creations. “A challenge that brings you back to the work, brings you back to your process, scares you a great deal and reminds you why you wanted to become an actor. It’s not about failure or success but about just doing it to remind yourself that you can be brave.”
Davis debuts another installment of that bravery on April 17 when Showtime unveils its new series The First Lady. Created by Aaron Cooley and directed by Susanne Bier, the series casts Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in interweaving storylines that pull back the roof of the White House to reveal a more intimate and dramatic look at what happened during the respective administrations.
Showtime revealed the first look at The First Lady on Thursday night during a star-studded premiere at West Hollywood’s DGA Theater, which hosted the three leads alongside castmates Kiefer Sutherland, Dakota Fanning, O-T Fagbenle, Judy Greer, Saniyya Sidney, Jayme Lawson, Kate Burton, Kathleen Garrett, Gloria Reuben (who arrived with Aaron Sorkin), Kristine Froseth, Shannon Purser, Regina Taylor, Derek Cecil and others.
Ahead of the screening, Cooley traced the roots of the project back to his novel, Four Seats: A Thriller of the Supreme Court. “One of the main characters is a first lady who helps select Supreme Court nominees because she has a law background like Mrs. Obama and Hillary Clinton. Researching that character is what got me in the mode of thinking about first ladies,” explained the writer, who spent years working for late filmmaker Joel Schumacher. “Then I watched Mrs. Clinton run for president, and I thought even more about creating a show about first ladies, thinking maybe someday we could have a season about her. That’s how long this takes — six years from looking at a blank page until today — and most [shows] never get here, so I feel blessed.”
Same for Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman, who also felt blessed if not a little nervous. “I just want everyone to love the show,” she said with a smile, before opening up about how after a long career producing films, she was stoked to get a prestige series off the ground. “I’ve managed to make a switch from just producing to showrunning and writing. It’s exciting for me, but that’s also why I’m more nervous than usual. I was saying in the car, ‘God, I’ve done this 30 or more times. Why am I so nervous?’ But it’s the showrunning, writing part.”
About the writing, Schulman detailed why the first season focuses on three separate stories via Obama, Ford and Roosevelt. “We started with the theme of voice. What does it take to be heard? What is the sublimation of voice? What does it mean to have a voice as a woman? That seemed the natural place to start for a series about first ladies,” she explained.
When it came time for Pfeiffer to start diving into her role, she told THR that she went deep into the archives. “I read every book that was written about her. I read every book that she wrote. There were a lot of interviews that she had done, speeches that she gave and I looked at everything. I had a lot of resource materials. Then I worked with the dialect coach to capture her speech pattern, which was challenging because it’s a mixture of two different regions,” said the actress, who arrived with husband David E. Kelley. “I, like most people, didn’t know that much about Betty Ford, probably because [Gerald Ford] wasn’t in the White House that long. But she accomplished so much in that short amount of time.”
Pfeiffer detailed Ford’s accomplishments like raising awareness around breast cancer (after her own battle), addiction, women’s reproductive health, mental illness and more. “She saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said.
For Anderson, she told THR that she also did deep dive, a process that mirrored others she’s done to play political icons like Margaret Thatcher on The Crown, a role that snagged her an Emmy. “For me, what I’ve enjoyed and what seems to work is to start from the very beginning to really get an understanding of who they are from the moment they’re on this planet,” explained Anderson. “And then, just learn as much, watch as much, listen to as much as possible. There’s a certain point where you have to kind of let that go, and just hope that it’s still there for you to utilize when you need it in scenes.”
Davis had the benefit of playing a real-life icon who is still around, and while she has said that she had limited time with Obama on the telephone as part of her preparation for the series, she declined to discuss the nature of those chats. What Davis would offer up is how she feels about Obama now after having walked in her shoes.
“I feel very protective of her,” noted the Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning talent who executive produced alongside husband Julius Tennon, Bier, Cooley, Andrew Wang, Pavlina Hatoupis, Jeff Gaspin and Brad Kaplan. “I don’t know if that’s always a case for people who portray other people, but a huge part of that is, for me, because we’re both Black women. It’s very rare that Black women are portrayed at this level, and so I felt very protective of all of who she is.”
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