It is intimidating portraying someone people admire especially when that person is very much alive.
So when Tika Sumpter chose to play a young Michelle Obama in the upcoming film Southside with You, she stripped away the real-life FLOTUS’ iconic status and focused on her humanity. Southside with You, which arrives in theaters Friday, beautifully spotlights the first date between a then 25-year-old lawyer Michelle Robinson and her suitor Barack Obama, an ambitious 28-year-old summer law associate/future U.S. President back in 1989.
“At first, it’s a little daunting. But because the script was so well written, I trusted that we would do it in such a dignified and loving way. It was handled well,” Sumpter recently told Essence.com about the movie written and directed by Richard Tanne. “I took off the Michelle Obama of it all and just focused on Michelle Robinson and that kind of took the pressure off. We did so much homework.” “She was the prize and she was reluctant,” added Sumpter, whose credits include Ride Along and Bessie. “They challenged each other and even though she didn’t like it, he held up a mirror and she held up a mirror. He got her to talk about doing more and he got her to let down her guard. It was about being vulnerable. She went on a journey and every actor wants to go on a journey.”
For Sumpter, 36, it’s a journey that had her doing a ton of research on Mrs. Obama, a woman she has never actually met. There are also things that can’t be researched like the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Sumpter and Parker Sawyers (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), who does an incredible job playing our Commander-in-Chief.
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Here are five things the always charming Sumpter learned about the First Lady in preparation for the role:
1. Family comes first: “I’ve read about her in the past and knew that as a Black woman, the first Black First Lady, she had to deal with a lot,” said Sumpter, who is pregnant with her first child. “But what I didn’t know before working on this was how much family matters to Michelle. Her family was really involved in her life. They were the fabric of her life and her dad meant so much to her and she was there to help take care of him. I love the fact that her parents instilled such self esteem that she and her brother really felt like they could do anything.”
2. Michelle Obama’s father was a local politician: Many have heard that Michelle Obama’s father, Fraser Robinson III, struggled with multiple sclerosis. But what some people don’t realize is that Robinson was a city water plant employee and a Democratic precinct captain. “The Robinson family definitely had their hands in Chicago politics which helped Barack over time,” Sumpter said. “Michelle had a lot of political relationships in Chicago because of her father.”
3. Michelle believed in taking her time when it came to romance: “What is for you is for you and as audiences will see,” Sumpter said. “Michelle and Barack were made for each other. They complemented each other. She trusted the universe and realized that the person who is for you, will come to you. If he didn’t have his zeal and passion for life and wasn’t as dedicated as she was, I don’t know if it would’ve worked. She was a force and she made things happen at a young age.”
4. Michelle knew real love takes work: “Everything is not going to be perfect,” Sumpter said. “She didn’t like cigarettes and her brother, Craig Robinson, tells a story in his book about their parents once and a while smoking cigarettes in the back of the house. But they would only do it once and a while and they ripped the cigarettes up. That kind of thing informed her opinion on Barack. Michelle knew that he could quit smoking because it was something her parents overcame.”
5. Attraction is more than skin deep: “Michelle was attracted to his character,” Sumpter said. “She was attracted to his intelligence. They also have this fun and sarcastic relationship where they go back and forth and bicker and you can just see her rolling her eyes like, ‘OK, Barack.’ They had this chemistry that was there and it set the tone so that everything else fell into place.”
Southside with You premieres in theaters Friday August 26.