MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a new romantic comedy just out, the kind Hollywood doesn't seem to make very much anymore. It's about two interesting people at the start of their adult lives, circling each other trying to figure things out. Oh, and you might know the people at the center of the story, Barack and Michelle Obama.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU")
TIKA SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) Barack, you seem like a really sweet guy. But how many times do I have to tell you we're not going out together?
PARKER SAWYERS: (As Barack Obama) Well, Michelle, thank you for saying that. You seem like a real sweet girl, but I have to correct you. We are in fact out, and we are in fact together.
SUMPTER: (As Michelle Robinson) But not on a date.
MARTIN: The film is called "Southside With You," and it stars Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama and Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson. It's loosely based on the first couple's first date in Chicago in the summer of 1989, when they were just young associates at the same law firm. Joining us now are the stars of the film Parker Sawyers as the young Barack Obama and Tika Sumpter who plays a young Michelle Robinson. And Tika Sumpter was also one of the producers of the film, and they're with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
SUMPTER: Thank you.
SAWYERS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Tika, can you take us back to the beginning when this idea came to you through Richard Tanne who directed and also wrote the screenplay? What was it about his idea that hooked you so much?
SUMPTER: Well, I just read a synopsis of it. It was one page, and it was the perspective that really intrigued me. I love that Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama - they were 25 and 28 at the time, and I just thought, wow, this would be really interesting to see the origin of, you know? And I was hooked from there, and then once he wrote the script, I just thought it was so smart, so, like - it was funny. It was everything that a romantic film could be and more. It was just so nice, especially being a black woman in Hollywood having a romantic lead that was very charming, very sweet, very smart. Even if you took, say, the Obamas out of it, it was just about these intelligent people unfolding before each other. And I just so badly wanted that, and I haven't been reading scripts that were for me like that. I've seen other women do it who have gotten the chance many times over to play that role, but I haven't. So I decided - I said, you know, we definitely have to get this made.
MARTIN: All right. Parker, also this is your first big leading role as well, and you've only been acting for five years. What was it about this that attracted you?
SAWYERS: Yeah, again, I mean, I jumped at the chance to play such a three-dimensional character with an entire history behind him and a future ahead of him. I was over the moon doing the role.
MARTIN: Have people told you before that you do resemble the president?
SAWYERS: Yes. Yeah. I had heard that probably for five years, and then more when I got into acting and if I put on a suit and I'm clean shaven. We do resemble each other, of course.
MARTIN: Do you like that or has that been annoying?
SAWYERS: Well, I think he's a very good-looking guy.
SAWYERS: So yeah I like it.
MARTIN: Well, the director Richard Tanne also wrote the script. I've seen in interviews where he said that your audition tape sounded a little too much like President Obama and that you had to kind of dial it back to get to the young Barack. Could you give us a little bit of an example of like how you dialed it back, like where you started out and then where you brought it to?
SAWYERS: Now, of course, I can, Michel. (Imitating older Barack Obama) Now, if I slip into it right now, you can understand that as the older Barack Obama, everything is considered, and he joins words with the croak in his throat as such as I'm doing right now.
(Imitating young Barack Obama) And then as a younger Barack Obama and then he's just - I would just loosen it up a bit. And so then it's just like, OK, it doesn't have to be, all right? Now, it's not a date, but just 20 more minutes, Michelle, now.
You know, that kind of thing. And then - but then on set, I mean, I started off with a strong impersonation and like every morning I would sort of recite some of the words that President Obama said in his voice, and then when I got to set, I'd just drop it all and just try to play the truth of the scene.
MARTIN: That's interesting. Tika, what about you? What was your process in getting to Michelle Robinson?
SUMPTER: Yeah. Well, I read a lot of books. I read her thesis, which I'm still trying to understand.
SUMPTER: She's - the intelligence is at a all-time high. And, no, but I read her brother's book "A Game Of Character," which really helped me to see how she grew up and who she was during that time, and I got to have some fun with that. And her voice, for me, was the most challenging part because, you know, she's just very hard on her - you know, her words. And she means every single thing, and so, yeah, I was just making sure I was on top of that, but not too much but that it just came through. And if you closed your eyes, you saw her, and you opened them and you saw the same thing, so yeah.
MARTIN: Was it scary at all taking on a - not just a live person, but a person, you know - the president being the president has many people who impersonate him.
MARTIN: I mean, there are people who are trying to impersonate him for, you know, car commercials or whatever.
SUMPTER: Yeah (laughter).
MARTIN: You know what I mean?
MARTIN: That kind of comes with the job, but the first lady is a little different and people...
SUMPTER: Yeah, she is. I mean, at first, I guess, it is if you put on the heaviness of the Obamas of it all and who they are now. But for Michelle Robinson back then, for me, because she's a girl from the, you know - the South Side of Chicago trying to make it like everybody else, super smart, but still dealing with issues that we still deal with today. So I think that's what makes her very accessible to millions of women around the world. You know, her very humble beginnings. And there's a confidence that just kind of comes through, not kind of - that comes through in this presence. And I found that she had that for a long time. I mean, her parents instilled this amazing self-esteem in both her and her brother. And even Barack said, you know, when she walks in the room, she just is who she is, and that's how she's always been. So I just wanted that to be conveyed, rather than imitating her.
MARTIN: Parker, what do you hope this film will do?
SAWYERS: Yeah, you know, I think - I hope it's refreshing for viewers, for audiences. The themes are family, forgiveness, working for something you believe in, ambition, and it highlights the humble beginnings of the Obamas. And so I think people can take from it a reflection of their lives as well.
MARTIN: Tika, what do you hope this film will do?
SUMPTER: I totally agree with Parker. I think a lot of people, even if he is polarizing or the family's polarizing in any way, whatever political stand you take, it's not a political film. It's just - it's the origins of this amazing couple, and I think anybody who have - who has ever fallen in love can understand or who's going through that can get it.
MARTIN: That was Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, the stars of the new film "Southside With You." It's in theaters now. Tika Sumpter was also one of the producers of the film, and they were kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
SUMPTER: Thank you so much.
SAWYERS: Thank you.
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