Southside With You: How Richard Tanne Cast Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson

southside_with_you_posterInspired by accounts of the first couple’s first date, Richard Tanne’s romantic and intimate directorial debut Southside With You brings audiences along for the ride as charming first-year law associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) takes reluctant attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on a daylong excursion in and around Chicago’s South Side.

Casting the First Couple:
While Richard Tanne knew early on that Sumpter was his Michelle Robinson, finding an actor to play Barack Obama was more complicated. “I needed somebody who could play intellectual and weighty, somebody who could play goofy, who could play charming and also somebody who could play a little arrogant — and be able to alternate between all of those things on a dime.”

Parker Sawyers

Sawyers wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. But Sawyers’ agent, who also represented another actor being considered for the role, suggested the filmmakers take a look at the newcomer. No one questioned the young actors’ uncanny physical resemblance to Obama, but it took two video auditions for Sawyers to win the role over roughly three dozen other candidates. “His original audition was a very good but mimic-y impersonation of the president,” says Tanne, “and that’s really what we weren’t looking for. We wanted someone to really bring himself to the part. I just told Parker to get the president out of his mind. I told him: ‘You are just a guy trying to get a date with this girl.’  The next day he sent in a new tape that was pretty much the performance you see in the movie.” Sawyers recalls speaking with Rich two hours before he recorded his second audition video. “I just relaxed into it — this is a person, this is not the president. This is a 28-year-old red-blooded man, who is extremely smart but really has a crush on this woman he is working with and allows himself to feel like a teenager, but one who speaks like a 28-year-old and carries himself like a 35 year-old. He’s got a lot of layers.”

Sawyers, who, like Obama, is married with two children, moved with his family to London in 2008. He grew up in a Republican household in Indianapolis, Indiana. Despite the difference in politics from the Obamas, his parents, local politician Paula Parker-Sawyers and teacher and community leader James Sawyers, shared Barack and Michelle’s commitment to public service. “The social conscience they instilled in me helped with the speech he gives in the movie,” Sawyers says. “I could connect to that for sure.”

Tika Sumpter as the Young Michelle Robinson

With far less of a physical resemblance to her character than Sawyers had to his, Sumpter had to find a different way to convey the persona of the young Michelle Robinson. “Parker has this essence that I think is naturally Barack,” says the actress. “I didn’t want to imitate Michelle, but I studied the way she enunciates every single word — she is very precise. She has this cautious way about her. She doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with this hotshot guy who is coming into the firm. And being a black woman at a law firm in 1989 — we were dealing with a lot of stuff for her.” Sumpter adds slyly: “Barack wasn’t her only option, either.”

To prepare for the role, Sumpter read A Game of Character, the 2010 book by Michelle’s older brother, basketball coach Craig Robinson, which gave her an intimate look at the Robinson family. Instead of focusing on the first lady’s TV appearances, she watched recordings of Michelle’s speeches at various colleges. “I felt like she let her guard down in those speeches,” Sumpter says. The actors say their dynamic on set was much like that of Barack and Michelle in the movie, with Sumpter concentrating on her work and Sawyers doing his best to get her attention with his antics. “I’m pretty happy go lucky in general,” Sawyers says. “She was quite serious — focused, I should say. I focus in a different way. We have incredible chemistry. I tease her a lot. Two days into rehearsals in Chicago she was like, ‘You don’t turn off, do you?’ Nope. I’m always on!” Sumpter agrees. “We had this crazy relationship,” she says. She chuckles at Sawyers’ complaint that she didn’t always respond to his attempts at humor, the same way Michelle sometimes rolls her eyes at Barack’s obvious attempts to be charming in the film. “I laugh all the time — but if it’s not funny, I’m not laughing.”

 

Cast

Tika Sumpter (Get On Up, “Bessie”), Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming To America, What’s Love Got to Do With It).

Credits

The film is written and directed by Richard Tanne (You Never Left, “Cinema Cool”).

Producers are Robert Teitel (Soul Food, Barbershop), Tika Sumpter and Richard Tanne.

Executive producers are Stuart Ford, Glendon Palmer, Matt Jackson,  John Legend, Mike Jackson, Carrie Holt De Lama, Tracey Bing, Zanne Devine and Rosanne Korenberg.

Patrick Scola (A Beautiful Now, Here Build Your Homes) is director of photography.

Production designer is Lucio Seixas (Never Forever, The Sleepwalker).

Film editor is Evan Schiff (Everly, The Time Being).

Costume designer is Megan Spatz (Unexpected, American Fable).

Music is by Stephen James Taylor (Maya Angelou and Still I Rise, Phantom Punch).

Tracy “Twinkie” Bird (Fruitvale Station, Jumping the Broom) is casting director.