Over the course of eight years, we have seen the great chemistry presented by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but have you ever wondered how they first met? We will experience of Barack and Michelle’s first date in the Roadside Attractions latest feature, Southside with You, which comes our in theatres this Friday. I recently sat down with writer/director Richard Tanne, Parker Sawyers who plays Barack Obama and actress/producer Tika Sumpter who plays Michelle Robinson to talk about this wonderful film.
Richard, did you had any qualms about making the film, especially this is based on the First Couple?
RICHARD TANNE (Writer/Director): I was just really struck by the two of them as a couple, just the way they looked at each other, the way that they flirted, there was something authentic about it and vibrant and even a little sexy. I think that that is a rare thing in people and I think it’s an even rarer thing in public figures. So when I did end up reading about their first date, it just got me really excited because the conflict was she’s not interested and he has one day to win her over. That felt like a really good romantic conflict to hang a movie onto. Not to mention there’s another aspect of it that we know what they went on to accomplish together, and the history that they have made, but the two characters don’t, so there is a dramatic irony running through the entire movie. Whatever your relationship is to the Obamas you’re going to bring that to it as well. And there’s a tiny bit of almost suspense in the fact that if something had just gone wrong on that date where would we be today? It would be a different world.
How did you both prepare to play the Obamas without doing an impersonation of them?
TIKA SUMPTER (Michelle Robinson/Producer): We definitely when we started this process Rich and I said, ‘We do not want to impersonate; we want to embody the essence of who they are,’ and so for me I took the whole ‘Okay this is Michelle Obama’ off and went back to the girl who went to a Magnet High School, or was told no, that she couldn’t get into Yale, just back to that family, the essence of her family, her parents who worked really hard and related it back to my life and said, ‘okay a lot of girls can relate to her’ and that’s why she’s so accessible. Even in the dancing scheme, the drumming, it’s like look at Michelle now, she’s dancing with Beyoncé!
So I read books, Invisible Man which we thought they obviously would read in school and then also her brother’s book A Game of Character really helped me to see who she is and who she was during that time. So that informed me a lot and then about their family, like how tight they were and how they gave those kids so much confidence that they could do anything they really wanted in the world, even if the world told them they couldn’t, so that was part of my process….I think what intrigued me and what I really got from her, I just felt like she didn’t apologize for who she was. She didn’t dumb herself down.
She spoke her mind and I think a lot of the time women are constantly saying I’m sorry for the things they shouldn’t be sorry for or trying to dim their lights so that somebody else can feel greater. And it’s like ‘No, if I’m going to be here you come up here and we see each other. And so that inspires me to this day because I’m like ‘Wait, I can be just as smart, I can say what I need to need to say’ without people looking at me like ‘she is such a bitch or whatever’. It’s like ‘No, nope, I actually smart and I’m speaking my mind like you would’. So I think that inspired me and intrigued me for now in life.
PARKER SAWYERS (Barack Obama): I took Richard’s notes before I sent in my tape for the audition. He told me, ‘Just a guy, trying to get a girl,’ that’s it. And so obviously I worked on Barack Obama as we all know him now and then dialed that back and then overwhelmingly used his notes just to be a guy talking to a girl. He’s really trying to charm her. He knows he is going to graduate from Harvard and do well he knows he’s working in a law firm, he knows these things in his life, he knows he is probably going to make a lot of money but he doesn’t know if he can get this girl if he doesn’t act right and really put his best foot forward and so for me that was the goal in that film…So to normalize how I think and just to realize how normal they are, that was the biggest thing.
After playing Michelle and Barack, what was the one thing that intrigue you about them?
PS: That’s a good question.
TS: That is a good question.
RT: Well, in order to play them, in order to do it truthfully and act well, I had to strip away the President and the First Lady and what they ave done historically so far that its already one for the books. So, to normalize them I think and to realize how normal they are. That was the biggest thing that really hit home.
PS: Especially since you have this really cool cat trying to impress this young lady and hoping that she will ask you out on a second date.
TS: Right, I think what really intrigued me and what I really got from her is I just felt like she didn’t apologize for who she was. She didn’t dumb herself down. She spoke her mind. I think a lot of times women are constantly saying “I’m Sorry” for things they shouldn’t be sorry for or dim their license for somebody to feel greater. It’s like “No, if I am gonna be here and you come here and see each other. So that inspires me to this day because I’m like “Wait, no I can what I needed to say without people looking at me like *scoffs* She’s such a bitch. Nope, I am actually smart and I’m speaking my mind like you would.”
Richard, what inspired you to take on this challenge?
RT: Well, It really was about first being inspired to tell a love story and to try my hand at a movie where it could be in a unfolding mood over the course of a day. I love movies that take place over the course of one day. One of them being “Do the Right Thing” which takes place on a hot summer day. It’s one of my favorite movies. The opportunity to show the “all-the-little-moments” between two people that most romantic movies leave out. Cutting it together from the kind of quiet minutia that other movies might ignore, I really like that.
The great thing about these two actors is that with Tika, you almost could be a silent film star. Like, you can be a Lillian Gish now. I think one of the great discoveries of the movies are her facial reactions and her eyes and the way she responds to things. In a way, I wish I could go back and rewrite the script and have less dialogue. The more we made the movie, the less the dialogue was important in just the way they were interacting was. Parker, for this being his first leading man role in a movie ever. Tika’s been leading on TV shows and movies but the first time out, he was able to meet her at that level and they were able to really exist in the moment. And for a movie like this, that is what it needs to be, you needed to find those moments. They would just sit with each other and I could just roll the camera and wait for them to react and have those little moments where she looks at him and he’s not aware that she’s looking. And the she looks away and he looks back. Some of those we worked on and said “Hey, this is a turning point here, emotionally, where you’re starting to let your guard down.” For the most part, it was found organically in the moment. The fact that he was able to do that first time out and the fact that she’s a master at it was really nice to do that.
One of my favorite scenes is the museum piece which highlighted the art of Ernie Barnes. I like to know was the exhibit available at the time of filming or did you have to recreate it? How did you get permission from the family to display the art?
RT: I couldn’t find any information about what art they saw that day so I just love Ernie Barnes’ art and I took a risk in writing the scene to his art because you never know if you’re going to get the rights. Luckily, the Ernie Barnes Family Trust read the script and they really responded to the script and they’ve been incredible from the time we shot all the way through letting us use the imagery in the trailer, giving us the works for the end credits, works that aren’t even seen in the movie. I’ve always loved his artwork which I first saw in Good Times and that’s how it all came about. The “Sugar Shack” painting was in the opening credits. Then, the more I looked into Ernie Barnes’ work, the more it became clear that I shouldn’t just have…
The exhibit they visit is an Afrocentric exhibit so there are other artists there but the bulk of the dialogue could very easily derive from just looking at the Ernie Barnes’ work because it covers the spectrum of black life. And so it led to them talking about their family members and their experiences as kids and it just prompted all this really interesting discussion from the two of them.
Southside with You is the perfect date night movie. I would like to thank Richard, Tika & Parker for sharing their stories. Southside with You comes out in theatres tomorrow