Set for release this week is a supremely smart and charming date movie that just happens to be a re-creation of the first “date” between one Michelle Robinson and one Barack Obama. The two were co-workers at a Chicago law firm (she was his supervisor, so calling the full day they spent together a “date” probably wasn’t the best idea). But by the time SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is over, you realize that all he was trying to do was impress her enough that she’d want to kiss him at the end of the day; and all she wanted was to not fall for this lean, intelligent young man who had a gift for reading the room, speaking off the cuff in front of people, and being a problem solver for his community. He was also a good listening and wasn’t afraid to challenge her beliefs about law and him.
Since there’s no actual transcript of this first date, writer-director Richard Tanne had to capture the essence of the Obamas and what makes them identifiable to millions of people. But he’s also trying to make a truly romantic first-date movie, and it doesn’t really matter what your politics are, the movie succeeds on all of these levels and deserves to be spoken in the same breath as the ultimate walk-and-talk, get-to-know-you films of this type, Richard Linklater’s BEFORE… trilogy. But none of it works without two terrific actors in the lead roles.
Tika Sumpter plays Michelle and probably best known as Ice Cube’s sister in the RIDE ALONG movies, as well as parts on “Gossip Girl” and movies like THINK LIKE A MAN, SPARKLE, and GET ON UP. Most importantly, she’s a first-time producer on SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU and has been helping to get this made for years. Parker Sawyers is an up-and-coming actor, who has had small roles in ZERO DARK THIRY, AUSTENLAND, JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, SURVIVOR, and the upcoming SNOWDEN, with a whole lot of films coming out after that. Both actors were in Chicago last week for the local premiere of this sweet and supremely entertaining work, and I got to sit down with them to discuss what it was like playing these too major world figures at a time when they were still trying to find their place in the world. Please enjoy my talk with Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers…
Tika Sumpter: Hey there. Welcome!
Capone: Hello, nice to meet you. I’m Steve
TS: Welcome, Steve. Nice to meet you.
Capone: My first impression of the film didn’t involve actually seeing the film. I was at Sundance this year. I didn’t see the film there, but the day after the premiere, I was in that cattle-call press room where they brought you in, and there were all these other interviews going on for all these other films. I don’t even remember who I was there interviewing, but the room just got quiet, and I went, “What the hell?” And it was you guys coming in, and for a split second, everyone who had seen the film was like, “Oh, the president’s here.” [Everybody laughs]. And then everything went back to normal after about five seconds of silence.
TS: Oh, it’s nice to have that kind of effect on people. That’s funny.
Capone: With a film like this, you’ve got to try to incorporate a lot of different things in a very short period of time. You’ve got to play it as one day in the life of, but at the same time, you have to show us a little bit of a dynamic that carries them through to today. But how do you do that without feeling like you’re forecasting the future?
TS: Right, and not wink at it.
Parker Sawyers: Richard Tanne, the writer/director, I think deserves a lot of the credit. It’s written so well and had their speech pattern and the way they speak, the words they tend to use, that kind of thing. He wrote it so intelligently. I credit him with that tone.
TS: And also I think it’s just being in the moment rather than thinking of “the Obamas” of it all. It’s really taking these two people who are super intelligent, but they’re still young. They’re still figuring it out. And I think bringing it down to that made it very authentic and real for us as actors. The thing is, when you’re acting, you can’t think “He’s going to be president, I’m going to be first lady, I’m going to be dancing to Beyonce in a few years.” [laughs] They didn’t know all of that was going to happen. They might have had some inkling of “Maybe one day I’ll get into politics,” but who knows. I think playing the truth of the scene makes it way easier.
Capone: Aside from who they became, particularly in the context of this film, what did you like best about the people you were playing?
PS: Well, from Barack’s standpoint, I think he knew himself quite well at 28, and I’m assuming even earlier. I think it’s a powerful thing to know what you want to do, who you are, and how the world perceives you at as young of an age as possible. That’s what I really enjoyed playing, is a guy who’s confident because he’s smart, he’s traveled a bit, he comes from a varied family, and that all created who he was at 28.
TS: For Michelle? What did I love about her? I love that she is very sarcastic at points. If he bit, she bit back. I just love the challenging part of her and how she didn’t dim her light to get him to like her more. She’s just who she was. She’s like “Take it or leave it, this is me.” I think anybody could use more of that. When she walks in a room, it just feels like even at that age it’d be like “This is me, and that’s what you’re left with. I’m not trying to be putty and change for whoever walks into a room. I’m me.” So I love that.
Capone: I want to talk about two scenes that I think perfectly capture what’s great about these people. Obviously, the scene in the community meeting, because it was like listening to a speech that he made today. He starts with very personal observations and jokes about people in the room, and then blows it up to the bigger picture. With Michelle, it was just after that in the scene in the bar where she’s advising him about how to deal with the feelings of anger about his father, and she becomes that peacemaker and advice giver. Talk about those scenes.
PS: Again, Rich, we were talking earlier about learning lines, and it’s difficult me to learn lines if it’s not written well, and I’m learning that about myself, but it was written so well. The pace of it, the way it opens up and then by the end, he’s widening it. It was written so well, and I practiced it and practiced it and rehearsed it,and rehearsed it. The first full day I was here, we blocked it out in the church. I wrote that down in my hotel room and practiced moving around. But yeah, that was a lot of fun to do, and it was written in such a way that even the background actors were all listening to what he was saying and saying, “Oh, yeah. These are good points he’s making.” So it was such a universally inspiring speech that affected me, it affected the background, and then apparently in the theaters when people see it. So yeah, it was a lot of fun to do.
Capone: People are going to clap at the end of that scene.
TS: It was good. It was great to be there and watch it. It felt very…him. You lost yourself in it. So it was great.
PS: She was so encouraging, because after the first take she just goes [gives the thumbs up]—
TS: No, I was listening. I was like “This is a big scene.” For me, in the bar scene, I just feel like she’s the woman he goes to at night, well obviously, but he goes to her and talks to her about things that he might not talk about with anybody else, and the fact that she felt comfortable enough to talk about forgiveness in order for him to move on, I just felt like she speaks her mind, but it was so gentle, and so real and so raw, and to see it effect him he way it did, I felt like “That’s Michelle.” I felt like that’s what she would do for anybody, but especially this man who she’s fallen for, and can see the truth and see what’s hurting him. What I love is she listens and she picks up on every time he says something negative about his father. Or he takes out a cigarette when he talks about his dad. So I feel like she can pinpoint anything and get to the core of it and help somebody.
Capone: My personal favorite scene in the film is them going to the movie, because the Music Box Theatre is my neighborhood theater, I live right near there. But the funniest thing was when you guys are standing outside of the theater afterwards, there’s a poster for SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE behind you, and I’m like, “I want see the second-date film when they go to that movie. That’s a whole different set of topics.”
TS: [laughs] That’s a whole other thing.
Capone: I can’t remember, did they actually go to that movie?
TS: Yeah. DO THE RIGHT THING
Capone: That’s perfect. That movie combined with the community meeting—her fate is sealed.
Capone: I know that the Obamas haven't seen the film yet, but you know that they’re going to. Does it make you a little nervous? What are you kind of hoping they get out of seeing this?
TS: I just hope — I mean, we’re excited. I think we’re just proud of what we did. If we weren't proud of it, then I’d be nervous. But I feel like we both prepared and did a really great job, so I just hope they enjoy it and maybe reminisce, and see themselves, even if it’s a piece of them or something. And we hope Sasha and Malia get to see their parents in a different light. But I think we’re more excited than nervous about it.
PS: I just wonder after they see it if they just look at each other and go, “That’s pretty close.”
TS: Good enough. [laughs]
PS: I’m excited.
Capone: You’re clearly not doing impersonations of anybody, but I’m wondering were there certain actual things about the way they talk or carry themselves or anything that you did want to try to pull from just to flavor the performance. You don’t have to do that much, because without your beard, you’re three-quarters of the way there.
TS: He had a head start. [laughs]
Capone: But were there any little traits that you tried to weave in there?
PS: The hand in the pocket. There’s a video of him when he was 29, speaking at Harvard in support of some professor at some rally. It’s a minute and 29 seconds long. And his hand is in the pocket, then out, then back in. So I wanted to do that. And then I saw after we finished, like three months after, he was stepping off the helicopter, and there were like 14 pictures of him, and he had his hand in his pocket. So I wanted to make sure. I was happy, like “Oh good, he does do that with his hand in the pocket.” But from one lanky guy to another, my hands are in my pockets.
TS: You don’t know what to do with your arms. [laughs]
PS: Right, or I’ll knock something over. So I wanted to make sure of that.
TS: For me, obviously the dialect. I wanted you to hear some of it. But for me, it was her when she does a lot of this [puts her hand in the middle of her chest] when she puts her hand on her chest when something really means something, so when I talk about my dad, it’s everything. So what I noticed in videos, because there’s nothing of her at 25 that I could find, but when I listened to her and I see her, whenever she talks about something really special or heartfelt, she’s constantly doing this. So I weave that in there. I’m not as tall as him, so I had to like perk myself up so I could walk with him, because they’re about the same height [in real life]. So I had to make sure I felt as tall as he did, even if I wasn’t.
PS: And it’s cool, because you don’t realize that. Nobody’s even said like, “Oh, there’s a hight difference.” I think Tika did carry Michelle as the powerful and towering person that she is.
Capone: Tika, you’re also a producer on this film. You’ve been with this pretty much from the beginning. Talk about that journey, to be there not just as an actor but as a creator.
TS: Yeah, it was empowering but it was also it was tough at times. You have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and get the financing, pitch a first-time director, and help with the vision. For me, it was really making sure the vision was executed how Richard needed it to be, because I knew it was so good, and anybody who tried to put their fingerprints on that I was a little pitbull, you know what I mean?
Capone: You were protective.
TS: So protective. Especially as an actor, you don’t always get these kind of juicy roles and something that’s so well thought out. Why would anybody want to touch it with whatever input they had just to say “I had input.” So for me, it was making sure he had everything he needed, whether it was extra money for extras or me picking up the phone and calling somebody, that part was fun for me, because I love putting pieces of the puzzle together, and then to see it happen.
Capone: I knew this would be a story about two intelligent, attractive people spending the day together, but it’s also a perfect date movie about a first date. It’s a romantic film, it’s funny, but it’s also about this guy who wants to kiss a girl by the end of the night.
TS: Yeah! Exactly.
Capone: That’s in the forefront of his mind. He’s going to the greatest lengths possible to make sure it happens. And there is no greater first-date moment…
TS: …than the kiss.
Capone: While you’re eating ice cream.
TS: Right. While you’re eating ice cream. What’s better than that?
PS: That’s exactly it, man. When I spoke to Richard before my final taped audition that’s what he said, “Dude, you’re a guy trying to get a girl. You’re stealing looks when she’s not looking.” So yeah, in the back of my mind, that’s everything I was doing. And then as I played like I wanted get to know her better and kiss her, I really did get to know her, and she pulls me up and she challenges me, and that makes me like her even more. I’m like “Oh my gosh, I knew you were smart, but I didn’t know you were this smart. I knew you were sweet, but I didn’t know you were this sweet.” So yeah, it was a lot easier to play it that way instead of thinking “President Obama, oh my gosh.” It’s just a guy trying to get a girl.
TS: For me, from when we come out of the movie theater, we’re both happy to be there, and then the moment after that, when they bump into their boss. The moments just switch so quick, and it’s very real. And the fact that I’m like, “Take me home.” And there’s awkwardness and then it goes to another moment of “This dude is kind of amazing, and he heard me. I like ice cream. I’m an ice cream kind of girl,” and that melts my heart, and we go and walk and then there’s this ice cream moment where she’s like “I think he gets me.” I love that moment, that ice cream moment. It melds everything together, I feel like. There’s just a softness to it.
Capone: That’s the only time where I thought if Michelle Obama was watching it today, she’d be like, “Uh, ice cream. No.”
Capone: Real quick, you obviously have something planned soon [Tika is pregnant], but I was going to ask about what you had coming up next real quick.
PS: Yeah, right now I’m looking at scripts. This movie spoiled me. Filming it here in Chicago was amazing. My co-star was amazing. The writer/director was amazing. And so I’m looking for something that lives up to that. We set the bar quite high. I’ve done a lot of action films, so I want something meaty. So I’m looking.
TS: Yeah, I mean, obviously this [points to her stomach].
PS: What’s going on there?
TS: Beer belly. Ice cream. [laughs] John Legend and I are actually doing a series together for TV that we just sold.
Capone: Great. Best of luck with this. Have fun tonight.