By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In “Southside With You,” Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter play President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (nee Robinson), respectively.
Sawyers is an up-and-coming American actor living in Britain and Sumpter is best known for role as the Kevin Hart character’s girlfriend/Ice Cube’s character’s sister in the “Ride Along” comedies.
The romantic drama, based on true events, re-imagines the sunny summer day in 1989 in Chicago’s Southside neighborhood, where Obama, then a fledgling attorney intern courted Robinson, a higher-level attorney at a Windy City law firm. On their way to a community organizing event, Obama tries to woo this smart young woman who lives at home with her parents. Michelle is wary about dating a co-worker and refuses to call their outing a date. Yet as the day goes, and they visit an art exhibit and see the sites around Chicago’s working class neighborhood, her heart opens to this idealistic young legal eagle, especially after he makes an impassioned impromptu speech to working-class residents at the meeting.
Sumpter, 36, studied with a vocal coach to adopt Michelle Obama’s Chicago-accented speech pattern. She also studied video of the First Lady, to adopt her physical movements and gestures.
Similarly, Sawyers, 33, who also appears in the upcoming Oliver Stone drama “Snowden,” playing a CIA interviewer, studied the President’s speech patterns and looked at early footage of the Obama’s speeches to capture his persona from 25 years ago.
In person, the actors have an easy on-screen chemistry, not unlike the characters they play. The film is written and directed by first time feature filmmaker Richard Tanne, who said he wanted to make a film about “a connection between two people.” They just happened to later become the President and First Lady.
Q: Although President Obama is in his eighth year of office, this is the first feature about him. What do you think of being the first out of the blocks with an intimate portrait of the President and First Lady?
Sumpter: From the beginning, we didn’t want to do a parody or caricature or imitation. We wanted to embody the essence of what they were at that time. Richard knew exactly what he wanted and we trusted that. And humanize them.
Sawyers: He was a law student. He was an intern. He was just a guy trying to get a girl in the summer of ’89. As long as I focused on that and played the truth of the scene and made sure he was flirty and playful and let my intentions be known it was a little easier not to go into the caricature.
Q: What was the pressure coming into this project playing these high-profile people?
Sawyers: I didn’t feel that much pressure. I’m still a young actor in the sense that I’ve only been acting for five years. I just jumped at the chance to be a lead in a film. I was more concerned with finishing it in 17 days. We had a lot of dialogue so I just focused on the work. When I got into the character, it was just a law student and he really wants to get to know this woman. Once I focused on that, the pressure went away.
Sumpter: Once we got it greenlit, it was like “Holy cow, I’ve got to play Michelle Obama. Actually, Michelle Robinson. Once I stripped away Michelle Obama, and got down to the studs of Michelle Robinson, the girl from the Southside of Chicago, who just like me has been told “no,” many times about what she could and couldn’t do by society, it made it very clear to me and I felt very connected to her and her family and all that stuff. I feel the reason why a lot of people connect to this movie is because they feel right at home in it. There’s some sort of realness in the relationship that’s like sitting on your grandma’s favorite couch. That’s how I felt playing Michelle. Once I stripped it down, I was cool. I was Michelle Robinson.
Q: What would you change about your performance?
Sawyers: I’d take my hand out of my pocket a little more. I based that on a video of him when he’s speaking at a rally at Harvard when he was 29, and his hand was in his pocket.
Q: How was it working on location in Chicago?
Sumpter: Being there, you don’t always hear the best things about the Southside of Chicago. But when we were there, the people were like, “Hey, Michelle!” The people were so warm. They really embraced us and let us film. They were quiet when we needed them to be quiet and people were excited. There’s an energy there and a community there that you don’t always get to see.
We filmed around the corner from Michelle’s real house. I just felt like I wanted to live there. There were all these bungalows and families. It felt very lived in. I felt like, “I know that block. That’s my family’s block.” We couldn’t have made this without the support of Chicago.
Sawyers: There was a spiritual support from the community. Anytime you told somebody that you were making this film, they were so excited. We had to do it quickly but it was a smooth ride.
Q: What went through your mind when you had to shoot the speech Barack gives at the church?
Sawyers: It was a surprise. We were going to do the entrance to the church on Wednesday and shoot the speech on Thursday but there was a scheduling mishap and we had to push the speech up to Wednesday. It was OK because I had rehearsed it in my hotel room over the weekend.
Sumpter: It was amazing to be in the church watching him. Everyone in the audience was just staring at (Sawyers), like, “It’s Barack.” They were in a zone. It was amazing to be there because he was fantastic.
Sawyers: How many first dates do you get to impress your date in that manner? (He laughs.)
Sumpter: You see that she came around to him after that speech. “So Barack!”
Q: Parker, do people mistake you for the President?
Sawyers: I got it when I started acting. I was working on his voice and a little bit of the mannerisms for a while. But I also do that with a few other people I like to play. So I was a little prepared.
Q: You’re good at impressions and with numbers?
Sawyers: I am. I’m really big on observation.
Q: What’s next for you?
Sawyers: I’m looking for something positive and uplifting. I think that’s going to be my thing for a while. I think the world needs it so I’m going to do that.
Sumpter: I’m reading scripts and about to work with John (Legend) again on something that we’re putting together. It should be out there soon. Just creating and making good content and playing great characters for you guys.