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Talking With the Actors Who Play Southside With You’s Barack and Michelle Obama

This interview originally ran during Sundance 2016. We’re republishing it today to coincide with the release of Southside With You.

Once upon a time, there was a young, ambitious lawyer named Michelle Robinson from Chicago’s Southside, who lived with her parents to help care for her father, who ailed from MS. In the summer of 1989, Robinson spent an afternoon with a charismatic, cigarette-addicted summer associate from Hawaii named Barack Obama, strolling the steamy streets of their beloved city. They made, and make, a delightful couple, which is why filmmaker Richard Tanne decided to re-create the early days of their romance in Southside With You, which premiered this year at Sundance.

The film has been compared, favorably, to Before Sunrise, and it traces the Obamas’ adorable very-first date, from clashing dessert choices and Michelle’s ample skepticism to holding hands during a screening of Do the Right Thing. It will also, as Vulture Kyle has pointed out, be one of few movies of 2016 to feature a black female lead, or two co-leads of color. Vulture sat down with Tanne and his film’s Michelle and Barack, actors Tika Sumpter (Gossip Girl, Ride Along) and Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty), to discuss the fear and thrill of telling this story, why voice impressions had to be “dialed back,” and what they hope the Obamas will think (if they ever see the movie).

Richard, when and how did it occur to you to tell this story?
Tanne: Sometime back in 2007 or 2008, when the Obamas first came on the national scene. There was that look they give each other — an authentic, real look of love; even a sexiness. That’s rare in people you just meet on the street, let alone in public figures. I was fascinated with them as individuals. When I read about their first date and early courtship, the dynamic was such that Michelle wasn’t interested. So in that case, it was the classic, “Boy meets girl, boy has to win girl,” story. But I didn’t actually sit down to write it until 2013.

How much of what we see actually happened versus what you’ve conflated for the narrative?
Tanne: It is a fictional account, but indulges a lot of their biographical details. I have to say, all the credit has to go to these actors. In creating these characters, they had to push the Obamas as we see them on the news out of their minds, which was a very difficult thing.

Tika and Parker, what worried you the most about taking on these roles?
Sumpter: I just thought the story was epic. I wasn’t worried at the time about becoming Michelle Obama. She was Michelle Robinson back then. Instead it was a question of, Who was this person? I had great firsthand research to refer to from her brother Craig’s book [A Game of Character: A Family Journey From Chicago’s Southside to the Ivy League and Beyond], which talks about when Barack first came into the picture. It seemed as if no man ever really made it past a certain point into her life. She had really high standards. I seriously want Michelle’s mom to write a parenting book. They really wanted their children to think for themselves and have a voice. So, I wasn’t overwhelmed making the movie. But now I’m overwhelmed hoping they like it.

Richard, how did you find your lead actors?
Sawyers: Craigslist! [Laughter]

Tanne: No, Parker came in by a taped audition and he was by far the most qualified person for the job.

Sawyers: I’d been working on the character for a few years. I’d heard from other directors that I looked a lot like Barack. And when I’d be on other sets, as a joke, I’d practice being him. But that was the older Obama. So the tough part was not playing him as the President. I had to dial the impersonation back and be more of myself.

Tika, what was your approach to capturing Michelle’s mannerisms and cadence?
Sumpter: I wanted to do a slight variation on the way she speaks, to embody rather than imitate. I recognized that there is a distinct way she spoke after watching and hearing her give speeches, so Richard suggested, “Why don’t we get a dialect coach?” That was actually a great decision.

Tanne: We did a lot of Skype rehearsals and I remember the first time I got to watch Tika transform into Michelle; she was completely and organically locked into the character. Their first rehearsal together was like, “Oh my God. If nothing else, they are going to be great.”

Tika, your perfectly sculpted eyebrows are almost another character. How purposeful was that?
Sumpter: [Laughs] I’m glad you caught that. That was on purpose. I found the makeup person. We went through a lot of them, actually. Richard really wanted everything about her to be tight and put together.

One of the most emotional moments of the film is when Michelle and Barack finally kiss, while eating ice cream. How intense was this scene to shoot?
Sumpter: It was stressful because we knew how important it was. There was a lot of buildup. Thankfully, Richard knew exactly what he wanted and it had to be right. It was a feeling. The one [kiss] we got was perfect.

Sawyers: The main thing I remember is there were a lot of bugs that night.

Sumpter: It was definitely hot and buggy! The ice cream kept dripping.

Tanne: Tika went through 15 ice cream cones, easily.

Sumpter: I never want to eat ice cream ever again! But with all that going on, we still got it.

Tanne: They were able to shut out everything. It didn’t make any difference that lights were on them, that extras were walking around, cars whizzing by. They found that little space in between.

Did the reaction to the film at Sundance surprise you?
Sawyers: The highly emotional reactions were surprising. Also, people laughing at certain parts that, when making the film, we didn’t realize were funny.

Tanne: The sniffling and tear-wiping in the theater surprised me, too.

How much do the Obamas know about the film? In the Q&A at the Sundance premiere you said you’d heard from inside sources that, “They are excited. And they are also a little baffled by its existence.” Is there a plan for them to see it? 
Sumpter: The script was sent to their camp. There was no official thumbs-up, but it was also wasn’t like, “Okay, we’re going to track you down and shut down the whole thing.” [Laughter]

Tanne: There isn’t a plan right now to show them the film, but I really do hope they see it.

Sawyers: Obama probably wants to just wait and see it on Netflix.

Meet the Proxy Obamas of Southside With You