Parker Sawyers knew it was a big deal when he was cast as Barack Obama in Southside With You, an independent romantic drama that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. But it wasn't until Sawyers' wife came home from an eye doctor appointment that the 32-year-old London-based actor fully grasped the magnitude of what he was about to attempt. "She told her optometrist that I had won the part," Sawyers told BuzzFeed News at the festival. "He's an Indian immigrant. He's been [in London], like, 30 years. He cried. He loves Barack Obama that much. … It was like, all right, I better make this guy jump off the screen."
And that is exactly what Sawyers did. Most of his previous acting credits were for small, nameless parts in films like Zero Dark Thirty and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, but in his first lead role, Sawyers needed to play the most powerful man in the world at one of the most formative moments of his life: his first date with a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on a warm Chicago summer day in 1989. His performance as the 28-year-old Harvard Law student is uncanny, filled with subtle Obama trademarks — his loping gait, his halting laugh, the way he uses his hands to cut through the air when making a point — without ever falling into caricature. In Sawyers' initial audition, however, the Indiana-born actor presented a full impersonation of the now 54-year-old President Obama's public persona, which was totally wrong for the naturalistic approach first-time director Richard Tanne was going for.
"It was a scene where he talks about his father. And, man," Sawyers continued, shaking his head and slipping into a spot-on imitation of Obama's familiar vocal rhythms, "it was…very…slow, aaannnd talking…like…this."
Despite Sawyers’ vocal imitation falling flat, Tanne's casting director advised him to watch Sawyers' audition with the sound off. The actor's narrow face, high cheekbones, and lean physique instantly conjured Obama. "I called him up," said Tanne. "I gave him the note to drop [being] the president. You're just a guy who's trying to get a girl. He said, 'OK, I got it.' … The tape he sent back showed an actor who's capable of playing just about every single level in a performance. He was charming. He was serious. He could play intellectual, he could play goofy. It was the first time that I said, 'OK, I think we have a real shot at this,' because the character of Barack needs to pull out every trick in the book to convince Michelle that he is worthy of her attention. And Parker as an actor was capable of pulling out every trick in the book."
In truth, Tanne had many more hurdles in front of him for making Southside With You. He had first grown keen on the idea of making a movie about the Obamas' first date during the 2008 presidential campaign. "It was really that look that they give each other," he said. "There's a real special connection between the two of them that's just authentic and alive and kind of sexy, even. I find that rare in people, and I find that especially rare in public figures." He explained that it wasn't until years later, when he fell in love for the first time, that he knew how to approach that story as a feature film.
Prior to Southside With You, Tanne's experience in filmmaking was largely as a producer of micro-budget indies — he'd even starred in one of them. To help convince others that he could write and direct this story, he composed a one-page outline that covered how he wanted to approach it. And that is when the project came to Tika Sumpter's attention.
An established actor — she plays Ice Cube's daughter in the Ride Along movies, and stars on Tyler Perry's OWN series The Haves and the Have Nots — Sumpter was nonetheless hungry for a role black actresses rarely get to play in a movie black actresses rarely get to make. "[I was] not seeing enough of a person like me being complex, being intelligent, and also vulnerable at the same time," she said. "And also falling in love." She was "intrigued" by Tanne's outline, and set up a lunch with him.
"He described his vision for it so clearly, and I was like, 'You need to write this,'" she said. "He wrote the script. I read it. First draft, I was like, 'Yes, we're getting this made. I don't know how. But we're going to make it happen.'” In addition to wanting to play Michelle in the film, Sumpter agreed to produce the project with Tanne, and by late 2014, they’d secured enough financing to start preproduction on the film.
And that's when the media attention first started. Independent movies with a modest scope and no stars like Southside With You rarely receive any press whatsoever before shooting begins, but making a movie about the first date of the president and first lady is the kind of unprecedented undertaking that generates headlines. But Tanne, Sumpter, and Sawyers all insist that they did not let the added scrutiny get to them.
"There are so many things that are piled onto their legacy," said Sumpter. "But that wasn't what was going on [when they were] 25 and 28. They were just two people who were ridiculously smart and striving for the best."
"It was a great exercise in acting," added Sawyers. "It really forced you to focus on the moment."
To that end, both actors studied their respective real-life counterparts closely. Sumpter worked with a dialect coach to capture Michelle Obama's own particular speech patterns. "She talks with her tongue toward her mouth, and she enunciates every word," said Sumpter, impeccably articulating every vowel and consonant in her speech. Sumpter read A Game of Character, the memoir by Michelle's brother, Craig Robinson, and studied video of Michelle to pick up certain physical nuances, like how Michelle holds her hand to her chest when talking about something she loves dearly, or how her posture is often a bit stiff when she's on her guard. That last bit of physicality played into Tanne’s script, with parts of the action emphasizing how little Michelle wanted to go on a date with Barack in the first place. But Sumpter was focused on keeping her character from sliding into a rigid cliché. "I wanted people to still love her and know that she's a complex person," she said. "She's not hard. She just has standards — very high standards. But she wanted love."
Sawyers similarly paid attention to small details about Barack, like how he gestures with his right hand during speeches even though he's left-handed, or how his mind can appear to be on other things while he's talking. "I'm genuinely thinking about something else [during a scene],” he said. “It was just being busy in the head, because they're super smart people." (Beyond his preternatural resemblance to the president, Sawyers also has more than a passing familiarity with politics: His mother served as the deputy mayor of Indianapolis — as a Republican — and he worked for the lieutenant governor of Indiana out of college. “And then I almost went to law school, but opted to model instead,” Sawyers said sheepishly, causing Sumpter to burst into laughter.)
Sawyers also lost weight for the role. "Man, I had some muscles," he said with a chuckle. "Check out my Instagram. I'm struggling to get them back. I stopped working out. I started thinking, All right, he just studies all the time. On top of that, he's probably reading history books about former presidents. So I was like, all right, just live like a nerd, just sitting indoors and reading. So I did that for two months."
Tanne, meanwhile, made sure his script highlighted certain established beats of the Obamas' first date: They visited the Art Institute of Chicago, took in a screening of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, and ended the night with ice cream and their first kiss. While Obama chronicled much of his own life in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, Tanne made a point to say he drew the material for his script from the public domain, noting that Southside With You ultimately is a work of historical fiction. Which meant, of course, that he had to invent the particulars of what Barack and Michelle might have discussed on that date. More crucially, he also folded in a visit to a community organizer meeting, which he admitted may not have been a part of that first date, but did fit well into his story. It’s an emotional centerpiece of the film, when Barack uses his natural aptitude for public speaking to help win over a highly skeptical crowd — and a highly skeptical Michelle.
"It was maybe the most fun I had in writing the script," he said. "By the time I got there [in the writing process], I just felt like I knew the character so well, and I sort of just felt — I'm not trying to be glib — but it just felt like the character was kind of writing himself. That just comes from being connected to the material."
That connection proved crucial for Tanne, who had to authentically re-create not only Obama's natural charisma as a community organizer, but also the very specific concerns of the predominantly black community in which he was speaking. "I think the beauty of the opportunity of making the movie is that I got to step outside of myself, and I got to step into the shoes of two people who had experiences different than my own," he said. "I was able to embrace cultural nuances and racial nuances that I never would've thought about or engaged in if not for being attracted to telling this story and telling a love story. … I think so much of writing is just empathy. It's about reading and listening and opening yourself up to the voices of people who are different than yourself."
Southside With You has not yet secured distribution, but Sumpter said that "a very reliable source" told her and Tanne that the president and first lady are aware that the film is playing at Sundance. "They are, I think, baffled by it, and also excited about it," she said. Sumpter added that her agent managed to get a copy of the script to someone in the Obama administration before filming began. "We can't say that they read it, but somebody read it," she said. "There's no official OK. It's just kind of like, 'OK, we're not going to come shut you down in Chicago.'"
Sumpter and Sawyers’ intimate portrait of one of the important couples in American history made a big impact on their own friends and family. “Everybody was just like, 'What?! I want to see that movie!'” said Sumpter. “Seeing people of color falling in love — that's important. The head of our country touching his wife, holding hands, and fist-bumping — you're like, wait a second, they talk. It feels like, in bed, he's like, 'Yo. I can't today.'”
Back home in London, however, there was at least one person in Sawyers’ life who needed more convincing that playing Barack Obama was a big deal. “I have a daughter,” said Sawyers. “She was born in 2008. In her life, she's only known a black president. When I got the role, everybody around the neighborhood was so happy. She was like, 'What is the big deal?' I had to explain to her. I was like, 'Well, slavery, civil rights…' And finally, she was like, 'Oh! Congratulations, dad!'”