Tika Sumpter is having a full-circle moment.

Sitting in a booth at Nava restaurant inside Soho House, West Hollywood, she recalls a tough time, just before her dreams began to take shape. Thankfully, she can laugh about it now.

“When Soho House, New York, opened in 2003, I worked as a guest list manager,” she says between sips of lemonade. “The concept of a members-only club was new, so even though everybody wanted to be a part of it, some people were turned away—celebrities included.”

Cue the verbal abuse, which, over time, became too much for the now 36-year-old actress to bear, so she left—with teary eyes and no safety net. A few days later, her agent called with the news she’d landed a four-year contract on One Life to Live. She has been climbing ever since. On August 26 Sumpter slips into the role of a twentysomething lawyer by the name of Michelle Robinson who just so happens to find herself on an unofficial first date with her then colleague and our future president, Barack Obama (portrayed oh, so convincingly by newcomer Parker Sawyers). Along with starring in the film, which she fittingly refers to as a “love letter to the Obamas,” Sumpter is proud to have earned her producer stripes. “I’ve always wanted to create openings for myself and for others,” she notes, “but I didn’t really know what it took to be a producer until I actually did it. It’s nice to be in the room, at the table, where decisions are being made…and I want to continue to be in the room and at the table.”

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Born in Queens, New York, and raised on Long Island, Sumpter, the middle child of seven, grew up beneath the watchful eye of her mother, who, after splitting with the actress’s father, went from being a stay-at- home mom to working as a correctional officer. She would also remarry. “I was so young when my parents got divorced that I don’t really remember much about that time,” says Sumpter, who’s expecting her first child.
What she does recall is sitting in front of the television as a little girl thinking, I want to be in that thing. I don’t know what it is or how I’ll get in there, but I will. And she has, scoring small-and big-screen credits ranging from OWN’s Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots and HBO’s Bessie to Get On Up and Ride Along. But always, her father is on her mind: “He passed away when I was 13. I feel like his dreams were deferred. He’s a reason why I do what I do.”

Southside With You opens in theaters August 26.

This story originally appeared in the September issue of ESSENCE Magazine.