© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Southside With You': Meet The Actors Who Portray Barack And Michelle Obama

This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Tika Sumpter (L) and Parker Sawyers in a scene from "Southside With You."
Matt Dinerstein
This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Tika Sumpter (L) and Parker Sawyers in a scene from "Southside With You."

A new romantic comedy hit more than 800 theaters on Friday, the kind of film that Hollywood scarcely makes nowadays. It's about two interesting people at the start of their adult lives circling each other trying to figure things out. Oh, and chances are you might know the people at the center of the story — Barack and Michelle Obama.

The film is called SouthsideWith You and it stars Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama and Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson. It's loosely based on the couple's first date in Chicago in the summer of 1989 when they were just young associates at the same law firm.

Directed by Richard Tanne and executive produced by Grammy Award-winning singer John Legend, Southside With You is already getting rave reviews for its smart and nuanced take on life, on love and its dead-on performances.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke recently with the film's stars Sawyers and Sumpter. The latter also helped produce the movie.

Interview highlights contain some extended Web-only content.

Interview highlights

On what about the film's director and screenplay writer Richard Tanne's idea hooked Tika

Tika: It was the perspective that really intrigued me. I like that Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama were 25 and 28 at the time. And I just thought, "Wow, this would be really interesting to see the origin of." ... Once he wrote the script, I just thought this was so smart, it was funny, it was everything that a romantic could be and more.

On what made this film a passion project for Tika

Tika: One, it was a really big lead role for me, I've never played the lead. I've had the girlfriend role, I've had the wife role. I've had those kind of sidekick roles, but it was just so nice, especially being a black woman in Hollywood, having a romantic lead that was very charming, very sweet, very smart. It was about these two amazing characters, even if you took the Obamas out of it. It was just about these intelligent people unfolding before each other.

On what was it that attracted Parker to the role

Parker: I jumped at the chance to play such a three-dimensional character with an entire history behind him and a future ahead of him. Also, I needed a break and I was looking forward to a lead role or a strong supporting role in a major film to give me that break. And this came along and I was over the moon to win the role.

On if he'd heard in the past that he resembles President Obama and about his process in portraying the younger Barack

Parker: Yes, I'd heard that, probably for five years and then more when I got into acting. If I put on a suit and I'm clean-shaven, we do resemble each other. ... As the older Barack Obama, everything is considered, he joins words with the croak in his throat. ... As the younger Barack Obama, I would just loosen it up a bit. ... On set, I started off with a strong impersonation and every morning I would recite some of the words that President Obama said in his voice and then when I got to set I would drop it all and try to play the truth of the scene.

On how Tika was able to channel Michelle Robinson

Tika: I read a lot of books. I read her thesis, which I'm still trying to understand — the intelligence is at an all-time high. I read her brother's book Game of Character, which really helped me to see how she grew up and who she was during that time. ... She has such a distinctive voice that I got a dialect coach, we wanted to make sure that I was on top of that as well. That and just looking at some videos of some of her mannerisms to put in the character as the young Michelle. But I got to create who I thought she was during that time from personal accounts of other people because there aren't any videos of her at 25. ... Her voice for me was the most challenging part because she's very hard on her words, she means every single thing.

On if it was scary taking on the role of Michelle Robinson

Tika: At first, I guess it is, if you put on the heaviness of the Obamas and who they are now, but not for Michelle Robinson back then, for me. Because she's a girl from the south side of Chicago trying to make it like everybody else, super smart, but still dealing with issues that we still deal with today. I think that's what makes her accessible to millions of women around the world, her very humble beginnings.

On why Parker thinks President Obama is such a polarizing figure

Parker: There's the black factor, I think that has something to do with it. And also, he motivates and inspires a group of people, even abroad. ... And he's very successful in motivating people to get out — to get out to the polls, and the petitions. And he's opened up the White House and a lot of people don't like that.

On what they hope the film will do

Parker: I hope it's refreshing for audiences and at the end of the summer and we've been inundated with CGI film and all of the action movies so I think this is a nice respite from that. The themes are family, forgiveness, working for something you believe in, ambition. And it highlights the humble beginnings of the Obamas and so I think people can take from it a reflection of their lives as well.

Tika: I totally agree with Parker. I think if he is polarizing or the family is polarizing in any way, people who are Republicans have walked in and walked out different. ... They didn't want to walk in there and when they walked out they said, "It's just a love story" with many different themes. I hope it just makes people smile. And I hope they feel refreshed and I hope they feel some sort of connection. I think whatever political stand you take, it's not a political film. It's the origins of this amazing couple and I think anybody who has ever fallen in love can understand.

On Tika and other African-American actors taking on the role of producing films

Tika: I think a lot of the times roles aren't created for them and with them in mind and people are tired of feeling dismissed or ignored. ... I think people are just taking it into their own hands and saying, "This is what I want to do," and having the power to actually make it work and the passion to make it work and stories that really matter to them. I think it's a trend that's not going to go away and I think that more and more actors are going to try to create their own lanes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.