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Parker Sawyers & Tika Sumpter describe what it’s like to play the nation’s most powerful couple

‘Southside with You’ details intimate moments of Barack and Michelle’s first date

Sweet, romantic interactions between Barack and Michelle Obama captivated filmmaker Richard Tanne back in 2007, even before the couple occupied the White House.

In a 2012 campaign video, Michelle Obama stood next to her husband and detailed their very first date. The date began at the Art Institute of Chicago on a beautiful summer day in 1989, where Barack Obama “showed his cultural side,” she said. While there, the two had lunch before taking a beautiful stroll down Michigan Avenue. Afterward, the pair headed to a movie theater to see director Spike Lee’s new 1989 hit film Do the Right Thing.

“He showed all the sides,” Michelle Obama said. “He was hip, cutting-edge, cultural, sensitive. The fountain, nice touch. The walk, patient.”

A beaming Barack Obama stood next to his wife as she recalled the date. “Take tips, gentlemen,” he said.

Genuine happiness radiated from the couple as they shared a sweet laugh before the video’s ending.

Tanne recalls being enthralled by how the two looked at, touched and flirted with each other.

“I think that [affection] is a rare thing in life just with people you know and people you meet,” Tanne said. “It’s even rarer in public figures. Reading about the first date and seeing the dramatic potential in a story about a young woman who’s not interested, and the young man who has one day to persuade her to be interested, I found that relatable and I thought a lot of other people would too.”

It was this loving bond the pair shared that inspired Tanne to research and chronicle details of the couple’s first date in the summer of 1989.

Tanne’s 2016 film Southside with You, set to hit theaters Aug. 26, takes the audience through the intimate details of the couple’s first date that begins on Chicago’s South Side. A charming 27-year-old law associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) spends a daylong date vying for the affection of a hesitant Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), a 25-year-old attorney.

For Sumpter, 36, the role of Michelle Robinson came as a pleasant surprise. After being given the synopsis for the movie, Sumpter immediately knew the film was a project she’d want to be involved with before the script was written, even if she wasn’t cast. Sumpter loved the idea so much that she offered to help Tanne behind the scenes as a producer. Tanne agreed, but had a much larger role in mind for Sumpter.

“When I was writing it, I was writing the role with Tika in mind,” Tanne said. “I didn’t know if she was ultimately going to say yes once the script was done, but I was thinking that I was writing it for Tika to play.”

Sumpter — best known for her roles as Layla Williamson on the TV soap opera One Life to Live, Raina Thorpe on teen drama series Gossip Girl and, most recently, Candace Young on Tyler Perry’s melodrama The Haves and the Have Nots — was overwhelmed and overjoyed at the chance to take a lead role in the film as “such an amazing and inspiring character.”

“I think it’s my first real lead in a film, and it’s just something I was able to sink my teeth in fully,” Sumpter said. “It was a well-rounded part and smart and vulnerable and complex. It was just all these different things at once — emotional and hard, just so many variations that is every actor’s dream, and that is actually what I got to do. You get tired of being the girlfriend, the best friend after a while. It’s like, ‘OK, when is it my turn?’ ”

Up-and-coming actor Parker Sawyers’ reaction upon learning that he’d scored the role of Barack Obama mirrored his co-star’s. Much like Sumpter, Sawyers’ roles have ranged from small to supporting. This film affords both actors the opportunity to flex their muscles in larger, lead roles.

“[In past roles] I was a soldier, and then a soldier and then a soldier — it wasn’t beautiful dialogue,” Sawyers said. “This was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can really sink my teeth into it and also find the nuances in the dialogue.’ In order to make it interesting on-screen, you have to find the dips and the turns. It was a great learning experience.”

After being cast for the film, Sawyers and Sumpter immediately began to study their characters. The actors, especially Sawyers, may bear a striking resemblance to the president and first lady, but it took a little more time for both to learn Barack and Michelle Obama’s mannerisms and perfect their dialects and oratorical styles. Sumpter worked with a dialect coach via Skype, while Sawyers analyzed videos of a young Barack Obama.

“I’ll never forget I sat outside the mall in London and I watched videos of Barack Obama,” Sawyers said. “I just started right in, like, ‘All right. I’ve gotta kill this.’ I could only find three videos of when he was [between the ages of] 29 and 33-ish, to get the idea of how he was back then. Of course he’s quite similar, just younger. I just watched the videos and I’m a pretty good mimic. After watching it and watching it, I learned the lines and really started going through each scene.”

Both actors worked hard to embody, rather than imitate, the first couple. All the while, Sumpter still balanced her duties as both actress and producer.

“The producer hat is so different than the acting hat,” Sumpter said. “You have to ask for things and you have to fight for things. You have to stick to your vision and we had to make sure we had the same vision and that people weren’t going to bombard us no matter what they offered. You really have to get things done, and I think my ultimate goal was to make sure that Rich’s vision was brought to life. Whatever he needed, it needed to get done and it needed to be in his hands to do it.”

Taking in their lines and sights of Chicago while filming, Sawyers and Sumpter quickly jelled. Neither of the actors could decide on their favorite moments during filming, but did agree that their characters left an everlasting impression on their lives. Sumpter believes she came out of the role a stronger person in large part due to her finding “strength in Michelle not apologizing for who she is and not dumbing herself down or dimming her light and speaking up.” Sawyers drew confidence from Barack Obama’s character, and hopes to use this film as a launching pad to large, powerful roles in the future.

The two hope moviegoers are able to leave the film with a different perspective as well.

“I hope they leave the theater with a refreshing feeling — feeling light and feeling good,” Sawyers said.

“And smiling and just reminding themselves about love,” Sumpter added. “I want [the audience] to take Barack and Michelle out of it and place themselves in it. I think everybody’s ready for a more relaxed movie right now. We had all the big blockbusters, so now hopefully everybody can just sit back and just enjoy getting to know these two people in another realm.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.