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Film

Pre-POTUS Love: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers and 'Southside With You'

Actors Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers talk about what it's like to step into the shoes of Barack and Michelle Obama.


Southside With You

Director: Richard Tanne
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Year: 2016
UK Release Date: 2016-09-30
Us Release Date: 2016-08-26
Trailer

In theaters now is a movie that serves as an unexpected but welcome respite from the current political firestorm of absurdity and anxiety that’s engulfed the entirety of the United States. Southside With You follows young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on their first date back in 1989 as they roam the streets of Chicago and have philosophical jousting matches inspired by their culture-rich surroundings.

Those familiar with Richard Linklater’s Before series will immediately recognize the film’s tried and true walk-and-talk courtship formula, which proves as effective as ever. Director Richard Tanne keeps the tone warm, the cinematography unadorned, and the story rooted in emotion. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the movie is that it’s a heartwarming, super-sweet date movie whose real-world, presidential context plays little to no part in its success.

During their trip to San Francisco, I sat down with star/producer Tika Sumpter and star Parker Sawyers to talk about stepping into the FLOTUS and POTUS’ shoes, why the movie couldn’t have come at a better time, and which parts of the onscreen date actually happened on that fateful day in 1989.

***

This movie arrives at an interesting time. The political climate is as ugly and intense and absurd as ever, so to see a romantic movie about the President and First Lady feels like a welcome respite from all of the election craziness.

Parker: The timing was a coincidence, really. Rich had the idea in 2007 or 2008. But I agree that it is a welcome refreshment. It’s light and it makes you feel good. It reminds you of love and the humble beginnings of some of our politicians.

Tika: We keep hearing that it’s refreshing. People say, “It’s so nice! I smiled the whole time!” Everyone knows who these two characters eventually become, but somehow we were able to draw out feelings of awkwardness and weirdness. People just need a break from the political stuff and even from the big blockbusters coming out this summer.

To be honest, my fear going into the movie was that your performances would come across as impersonations. That wasn’t the case: Your performances are quite nuanced and tasteful. How did you approach your respective roles?

Tika: From the beginning, Rich and I did not want to do an impersonation. We wanted to embody the essence of who these two were. Speaking to my character, I wanted to get her diction. I wanted you to know I was Michelle, and I wanted it to be about the moments. She gestures to her heart a lot. We never wanted it to be a parody. It could have been a really bad movie.

Easily.

Tika: Easily! I think people go into the movie like, “What is this?” and then they come out and say, “Oh. They’re human!” We wanted to humanize them with our performances. The words were there, but we were able to capture nuance through the way we looked at each other or didn’t look at each other. It’s that sense of awkwardness.

Parker: Rich was very particular about not doing impersonations. The very first time we rolled camera, apparently, I did do a kind of impersonation. He was like, “Hey, man... too much Obama.” [laughs] But to get to the character I thought, okay, he’s a Harvard law student. He’s working, doing long hours. So I was reading Sapiens, this book about anthropology, because I was thinking about books he would have read. It explains his naturally slow speech. I didn’t think it was a weird thing. He’s just thinking about so many things. I wanted to overwhelm my own brain with intellectual things on set.

One of the natural reactions coming out of the movie is to wonder whether their first date actually happened the way you portray it. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what’s accurate and what’s not.

Tika: Fact check time! [laughs] You’re right, but most of the date actually did happen like we show it. They did go see Do The Right Thing, they did go to the Art Institute, they did go get ice cream. The African drum circle didn’t happen.

Parker: The community meeting they go to was early in their courtship but wasn’t necessarily on their first date.

Tika: The meeting made her look at him differently. That was the turning point in this movie as well. Rich did a lot of research, and he was able to build a lot of cool conversation around the places that they did go to.

The movie’s ongoing concern seems to be the romantic, emotional aspects of the story. It’s not about an accurate reenactment of an important day in US history -- it’s a fun date movie.

Tika: We never wanted to do a wink-wink, “You’re going to be President” thing. Thank god we didn’t do that. That’s when people would be like, “That’s so dumb.” Let them be in this one slice of life. That’s all we need to see. It was really important to us.

Parker: It’s two people getting to know each other. They’re intellectual equals, and I think that draws them together. Michelle’s witty, sarcastic, and can keep him in check. For anybody who wants to see two people fall in love and remind themselves what it’s like to fall in love, this is the perfect film.

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