Viola Davis, Gillian Anderson and Michelle Pfeiffer take on three former First Ladies in Showtime “The First Lady” series, which premieres April 17. But the pressure was most intense for Davis in assuming the role of Michelle Obama, who is very much alive and whose four years in the White House were far more well-documented than the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt (who’s played by Anderson) and Betty Ford (Pfeiffer).
During a TCA Panel on Wednesday, Davis admitted that – even though she had previously met Michelle Obama and received her blessing – approaching this role was more daunting than any other she’s played so far.
“It’s so specific and I had the insurmountable task [because] everyone knows who Michelle Obama is, everybody has claimed ownership of her. There is nothing about her that they want desecrated. A lot of times, when you approach a character, you want their mess, but with Michelle Obama… it’s not like she beats her husband,” she laughed. “There is a small window of exercising your creative input. It’s way too specific for that. Exactly how she uses her mouth is how you have to use your mouth. How she touches her pearls is how you have to touch your pearls.”
Despite all her preparation, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress shared, “I was terrified, I was absolutely terrified. I think I listened to her podcast probably over 100 times and I still felt terrified.”
Susanne Bier (“The Night Manager”), who directs and executive produces along with Cathy Schulman, emphasized that, although the public lives of their subjects are on the record, their private lives have been dramatized for the series. “This is fiction, let’s be completely clear, this is fiction built on real women who have lived or still live,” she said.
David added, “It keeps you up at night. You don’t want to insult [the person you’re playing] by your portrayal. As much as we feel like we know Michelle Obama – and I did everything I possibly could to research – but still in those private moments, there is some level of creative decision making that you have to take. I don’t know how she lays in bed with Barack, I don’t know how she would discipline her children. There’s small minutiae that I can take creative license with and hope I’m not insulting her with it. That’s what you have to navigate as an artist. There’s a huge amount of fear. huge. But that’s what we live for as artists. It’s huge exercise in letting go and a huge exercise in transformation.”
Getting into the costume helped Viola become Michelle. [“Costumes and wigs] are the easiest part of the job. The harder part is to capture their humanity. Everyone knows what they sound like, but not whether they would swear or not swear, drink red wine or white wine… Transformation is the first step in helping with the transformation.”
The series also stars O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama, Kiefer Sutherland as Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford.
Cathy Schulman, via her Welle Entertainment, executive produces THE FIRST LADY along with Susanne Bier, JuVee Productions’ Viola Davis, Julius Tennon and Andrew Wang, Aaron Cooley, Pavlina Hatoupis, Alyson Feltes, Jeff Gaspin via Gaspin Media and Brad Kaplan via Link Entertainment.