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'Southside With You': An Interview With Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter

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Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in Southside With You. Photo credit: Matt Dinerstein. Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions.

With the upcoming release of Richard Tanne’s first feature film, Southside With You, Academy Art U News got to chat with actor/producer Tika Sumpter and actor Parker Sawyers, who play Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson—two people that became iconic political power couple. The film, with it’s detailed character development and careful plot beats, takes the audience on a walk with Barack and Michelle, before they were “the Obamas,” during their first “kinda-sorta” date.

Sawyers and Sumpter shared what drew them to the project. “It was a chance for two intelligent black people to be on screen just talking to each other. Their accomplishments were just a part of their story. It wasn’t a main focus of the movie,” said Sawyers.

The actor also commented on the fact that the film is a “beautiful love story” that plays with your mind, because we all know who the two people on screen become. “[It’s nice] to see their humble beginnings at the start of their journey together,” said Sawyers. Sumpter was affected by the “simplicity and charm of these two characters walking and talking … [it’s] just humanizing and accessible.”

The film carries an awkward quality to it with the chemistry between the two main characters. Like any first date, things can start out a bit rocky and the audience can feel this. “We wanted to take you on a journey and the awkwardness is part of any date story,” said Sumpter. “Thanks to Richard Tanne … there’s a simplicity but there’s a complexity to it. There had to be some sort of drama and tension to get where you needed to go.” Sawyers added that it does feel awkward in the beginning, but as the two open up on screen, that tension begins to melt away.

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Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in Southside With You. Photo credit: Pat Scola. Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions.

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Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in Southside With You. Photo credit: Pat Scola. Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions.

Tanne did extensive research for the writing of the film and although the dialogue isn’t exact to the conversations the couple had on their first date, Sumpter said that he created “relevant conversation and topics and the cultural environment at the time in order for us to have something to talk about and be interested in.” Although the film only follows two characters talking, we’re still interested in the outcome.

Both Sawyers and Sumpter did their own research when stepping into the Obamas' shoes. “For me, I researched her story and I read her brother’s book, Game of Character,” Sumpter shared. “That really informed me of who she is and was at the time.”

Sumpter also read accounts from friends of the First Lady from Harvard Law and Princeton. “I think her actions equated to the quality of the character that she is and was in school,” said Sumpter. “I tried to strip away the Michelle Obama and really get to know Michelle Robinson. … She spoke her mind all the time and that when she walked into a room, you knew things were going to get done, even then.”

Sawyers read both of Barack Obama’s books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, but didn’t want to do any research on Michelle so as to keep genuine reactions when learning information about Sumpter as Michelle. “I really wanted it to be fresh, and I really wanted to learn about her through the script,” Sawyers said. “I wanted to react to Tika’s portrayal of her the way they would have in real life.”

Because they are playing public figures, the actors weren’t allowed to embellish the dialogue. However, they did get to express themselves mainly in their mannerisms and banter with each other. “To have those parameters … sometimes that breeds more creativity. … We didn’t always know we were doing it,” said Sawyers. Sumpter explained that the film really shows how both Barack and Michelle are equals in their partnership, how smart they both are, but how their conversations are “accessible at the same time, where you understand it; it’s not over your head.”

An important detail to Sawyers was that he recently learned that Obama’s mother never disparaged his father in front of him. Instead of an intense hatred for the man, he “didn’t know anything about him to dislike,” he said. “That gave me insight to the measured man we know.”

Sawyers was intrigued with Obama’s determination and confidence, that at only 28 years of age, it was very clear what path Obama was on. “He had an inkling that he could go pretty far in U.S. politics and possibly [become] the president,” said Sawyers. “He knows where he is going and knows that he really needs this woman in his life and that they can both do so much together.”

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Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in Southside With You. Photo credit: Matt Dinerstein. Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions.

Southside With You opens in San Francisco on Friday, August 26.