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‘Southside With You’: Why Parker Sawyers’ Spot-On Obama Impression Almost Cost Him the Role

Director Richard Tanne talks about the importance of character and performance over impersonation.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in "Southside With You"

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in “Southside With You”

Pat Scola, Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions

Both Presidents G.W. Bush and Clinton had movies made about them while they were still in office, but nothing like “Southside With You.” Whereas Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” and Oliver Stone’s “W.” were satires, playing upon the previous presidents’ known foibles, “Southside” is a straightforward, sincere love story about the Obamas’ first date.

READ MORE: Sundance Review: Barack and Michelle Obama Make a Cute Couple in ‘Southside With You’

This presented writer/director Richard Tanne with a distinct challenge. For “Southside” to work, audiences would need to see past two actors playing the first couple,who people are used to seeing in the media every day, and give themselves over to a fictionalized story of how a young Barack won over a reluctant Michelle.

“If I was a smarter person, I would have considered that before taking this on,” joked Tanne in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was really just wrapped up in the normalcy of their first date and how relatable they were at age 25 for Michelle and age 28 for Barack.”

From the start, Tanne knew the success of the film would come down to his ability to find two actors who could not only embody the essence of the Obamas, but who could also bring his scripted love story to life.

“I needed two actors with chemistry and a commanding presence, who could be attractive, relatable, romantic leads,” said Tanne. “I thought it was less important to nail down an impersonation or mimicry, than it was to just suggest that these were the people we see on TV every night.”

Before starting the script, Tanne wrote a short outline which ended up in the hands of actress Tika Sumpter. When Tanne met Sumpter, who doesn’t necessarily resemble the First Lady, she expressed her desire to play the role, but made it clear that she wanted to help get the film made regardless if she got cast.

READ MORE: Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast: Kirsten Johnson On Being a ‘Cameraperson’ (Episode 4)

“I was struck by her intelligence, ambition and passion,” said Tanne. “She had a really affecting vulnerability beneath all of that, beneath the boss lady. It reminded me of Michelle Obama and more importantly it felt like the Michelle Robinson [who] I was beginning to write about. So I walked away from that meeting with Tika in mind for the part.”

Richard Tanne

Richard Tanne

Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions

After reading Tanne’s finished script, Sumpter signed up to play Michelle. Tanne, however, was concerned about finding an actor to play Barack, mostly because the small production had limited funds and time to dedicate toward casting. The early sessions were limited to reading a very selective group of young African American actors in Los Angeles, in addition to watching audition tapes coming for actors outside of Hollywood.

One of those tapes was from Parker Sawyers.

“The resemblance was uncanny and so was his impersonation, but that’s what it was at first, it was a ‘Saturday Night Live’ President Obama impersonation — the best I’d ever seen, but it wasn’t a performance,” said Tanne of Sawyers’ audition tape.

Because the actor so favored the President and had a real presence on camera, the director had a conversation with Sawyers and decided to give him another chance.

“I told him to completely drop the President, just be a guy trying to get a girl to have a cup of coffee,” said Tanne. “The next day a new tape came in and he’d absorbed the note, but he bettered the note, because he brought more of himself to the part. He was playing the character on the page.”

In the remaining weeks leading up to production, the two actors did their homework, researching their characters. In particular, Tanne wanted them to try to nail down the Obamas’ physicalities and mannerisms, while also concentrating on the cadence in the speech patterns. Once on set, the director instructed them to forget all of it.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in "Southside With You"

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in “Southside With You”

Matt Dinerstein, Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions

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“The only note I gave while making the film was to focus on that little space between them — they were usually very close while talking — and just listen to each other,” said Tanne. “It’s the most simplistic acting note, something they teach you the first day of acting school, but I didn’t want them burdened by the characters. The amazing part is all their homework paid off, those little elements of mimicry they studied would bubble up in just the right ways.”

Tanne says he couldn’t be happier with Sumpter and Sawyers’ portrayal of the first couple, and only in retrospect does he now fully realize how wrong things could have gone had the casting been different.

And what do the Obamas themselves think?

“I know that John Legend, who is one of our executive producers, had a conversation with the President about the film and I believe he made it available for them to see,” reports Tanne.

No word yet on if they’ve watched it.

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