Before Parker Sawyers started acting—and that was only five years ago—he would “do voices at the office” with his dream job in the back of his mind. He brought that ambition to his portrayal of a young Barack Obama in Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, which chronicles the future leader of the free world’s first date with his to-be wife (Tika Sumpter). Sawyers imagined that, just as he hoped that one day he’d be bringing his talents to a wider audience, the to-be president had a large goal looming in his mind. In the film, Barack is a chain-smoking summer law associate, attempting to win Michelle, his brilliant superior, who thinks dating him could pose a risk to her career. They bond over discussions of Ernie Barnes, their families, and the challenges of being black in a corporate environment. The night ends at a showing of Do The Right Thing.
Along the way Michelle hears Barack give an impromptu, revelatory speech at a community meeting. Reviewing the film during its Sundance debut, The A.V. Club wrote of the scene, “Sawyers walks a fine line between replicating some of the public-speaking tics of our POTUS—a ‘listen’ here, a familiar hand gesture there—and just delivering the pep talk naturalistically.” We spoke to Sawyers about winning the role, and his approach.
Parker Sawyers: It was parody, but not in a bad sense. [Impersonates Obama.] It was very much like this, like the older Obama. It wasn’t romantic at all. It wasn’t nuanced at all. It was the older president we know. [Drops impersonation.] It was that kind of thing. It was a full-on impersonation. I had the mannerisms, but the older mannerisms. There was no nuance, no youthful spark to it. I watch it sometimes, I’m like, “Oh, dude.” I missed the mark. And then I spoke to Richard Tanne, the director, before my second tape, and had this 15-, 20-minute conversation. He was just like, “Dude, you’re a guy trying to get a girl. You’re 28. It’s hot in the Chicago sun. You’re busy. You’re an intern, yada yada yada.” And I was like, “All right, I got it.” Then my second tape is what won me the room.
AVC: You said you go back and watch the first tape sometimes?
PS: Yeah. To remind myself how much I almost missed this. Because I don’t know, maybe I didn’t spend enough time with the script, really trying to understand it. But that’s also the casting process. You get a script, they’re like, “All right, it’s Tuesday. We need a tape by Thursday, so.” It was just fast. It was really good to talk to Rich.
AVC: What was your initial impression of the project? Oftentimes when there are films that take on real-life figures who are very much in our day-to-day lives there can be a little skepticism. Did you have any of that before going in?
PS: Yeah, when I first read it, I thought, “What?” Specifically now, 2015 to 2016, “Who would sit through this? How are you going to make this interesting? Like, I get it, but why are they talking so much? Oh my gosh.” I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Until I might have read it or Rich told me it was going to be not like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset but in that vein. “Oh, right!” And then everything comes together as a film, right? From the costume, to the background, to the cinematography, to the direction, to the acting, the script. It was a great project to work on from that perspective.
AVC: Did any of that skepticism have to do with the idea of putting these early days of Barack and Michelle’s relationship on screen? Now it enters the record.
PS: I didn’t really think about—I’ve been out of the country for eight years. Because I haven’t seen President Obama as much as you guys have—I’ve been in London, we don’t have a TV—that wasn’t in my head. I had tremendous respect. I’ve always been a fan since I discovered him in 2004, with the rest of the nation. To me, it wasn’t like, “Oh no, it’s the president. Oh no, it’s the first lady—how do I do this?” It was more the script. I was just like, “What? There’s too much talking, dude. How is this going to work?” It’s one of those things where I was like, “You know what? If this was in French, maybe I’d be like, ‘Oh, interesting film.’ But like, this much talking in English? Will people watch this?”
AVC: So what was the research process like of finding this youthful version of Obama? How did you tackle that?
PS: Well, I started from the impersonation that I had I was doing on sets for fun. But I do that a lot. I started acting five years ago, so when I get on set, I’m so excited, man. Like this interview right now, I’m like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” It’s crazy. So I was doing the impersonation of Obama on set, so I had that. And it was good. Much like my other impersonations, I could tell by other people’s reactions whether it was good or not. So really it was just like stripping off, taking that off, and just being a guy, being young, while maintaining the confidence. I rooted his confidence in his intelligence, his past, and what I read of Dreams From My Father. My parents drove me to college, so for him to go to Occidental, presumably by himself, and then to go to Columbia—It was sort of like a thought experiment where I’m like, “Wait a minute, he’s 20. He moved himself over to New York, probably by himself. He said he read a lot of books by himself in his apartment. That would make somebody very confident. They [would] know themselves quite well.” I had the benefit of knowing who he became. “All right, what kind of 28-year-old could be president in the future?”
AVC: In your performance, you hit a lot of that cadence that is so familiar, but it doesn’t sort of move into the point of impersonation. Was that a challenge at all, nailing how much of that to do?
PS: Yeah, I don’t know, I’m a pretty good mimic. Last night, I was doing [executive producer] John Legend’s walk. I just pick up on it. I watch tape and sort of let it soak in, and practice it. Zero Dark Thirty was like eight months into acting for me. It was crazy. I got a tiny part—you don’t even see me in the film—but Kathryn Bigelow gave me a credit. It was very nice of her. Before I auditioned for that, I put everything into my North Face duffel bag, made it really heavy, and walked around London for three hours saying my lines. I’m sure I looked crazy. I put on my boots, and walked like a soldier. What does that feel like, to go marching with boots on with the heavy bag on? Then I went to my audition, and then they loved it. [But] it’s not like I was pontificating in Starbucks or anything.
AVC: This film is about these people who are going to be historic, important figures later in their lives, but it also operates just as a romance. When you were filming, did you always have the notion of where he was going to go in the back of your head?
PS: Yes, but in the sense that, before I even started acting, I would do voices at the office and things like that, because I thought, “I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I’m going to be an actor.” In that sense, I decided at 28 he knew he was going to do something big. And part of it is just Harvard, man. I went to a pretty good college, Wabash College, and they tell you there, “You are going to be the leaders of the future.” So I can imagine what it’s like at Harvard. They have all the presidents and senators and titans of business or whatever. But I kept it vague in my head. There’s a part in the bar, “You going to do politics?” “Maybe.” You know what I mean? He’s like, “I’m going to do something. I’m going to do it.”
AVC: Throughout the movie there are interesting discussions about race, race in corporate culture, goals, and loyalty to communities. What was the importance for you in portraying those conversations on screen?
PS: Yeah, it seemed so real. This is how I like to have conversations. People always tend to tell me secret shit—I don’t know why. So I’ll get into stuff. The conversations seemed very real to me. They reminded me of when I was young and [talking to] my father, who kind of grew up in the hood in the ’40s and ’50s. He would tell me stories. “You know who did that painting? The guy’s name is Chuck.” You’re like, “Okay.” He’ll tell you this whole story around one painting or this whole story around a park or a park bench or a guy we met yesterday. “When he was 11 years old, his name was Pretty Tony. I mean, he was a good looking boy, Parker. I’m telling you.” It seemed very real. I suppose [it’s] significant because they get to have those conversations, and we get to hear them, but to me, it was just good writing.
AVC: Here you have a white director telling this story about one of the most famous black couples in the world. What was that like, and what was working with Richard like?
PS: This is not a snarky response or anything, but from the get-go, it didn’t even occur to me. I mean it occurred to me he’s white, but I didn’t think anything of it. But I was like, “Well, I’m sure Barack Obama’s mom would be fine with it. I’m sure his grandparents who raised him would be fine with it. And I’m sure Barack Obama would be like, ‘Yeah! All right. White guy, writer-director. Black guy, acting.’” It was cool. It almost seemed the way it should be, I guess. Because Barack Obama is of mixed race. He’s got varied family. Michelle, obviously, has been exposed to that. It didn’t strike me as anything to think about at length, I guess. I didn’t think about it very much.
AVC: Was there any sort of improvisation on set? You obviously have to get to certain points in the movie, but it does feel like this very free-flowing conversation.
PS: Oh, no, dude. There was none. Everything we said was written. The lawyers checked it out. I was signing my contract, and I was like, “What do you mean I can be sued if I say something?” We stuck to the script verbatim. I don’t even think an “uh.” Every single thing was written.
AVC: When Obama gives the speech in the community meeting, it’s the one time in the movie I felt like, “Okay, here’s the guy that we all are intimately familiar with.” What was it like filming that? What was your process leading up to that?
PS: I got the new version of it a couple days before I left. I rode on the plane, and this young woman helped me memorize it and stuff. So I had it all memorized before I got there. Whenever I had time, I’d go to my hotel room and rehearse it, make sure I knew it. We had blocked it out before we had started filming. So I knew we had to do it in a church. The week of the scene, Richard was like, “All right, we’re going to do it on Thursday, but we might have a little bit of time on Wednesday, just so we can run through it.” Then Wednesday, I get to set, and it’s like 7 in the morning, and Rich looks at me and goes, “Dude, I know I told you this speech was to be tomorrow, but we had a scheduling mishap. The Steadicam guy is not here. We’re going to have to do the speech today.” I go, “All right, that’s fine. Let’s do it.” And so, yeah, we started that day, and we just went all day. The energy in the church, the background actors, and also the words that I was speaking—it was written so well, it was, I don’t want to say easy, but it was like performing. It was like, “Oh, I’ll do it again.” It was like a play. I don’t know how to describe it. It was fun to do.
AVC: And was the person helping you go over your lines on the plane working on the film?
PS: No. She was just sitting next to me. She was coming back from a family vacation. Her mom and dad had an anniversary or something. She saw my script, and asked if I was an actor. I go, “Dude, can you read along, and just tell me if I have all the words?” So she just read the script. It was just for the speech. I said the speech, and she said, “Yeah, you got all the words.” It was cool.
AVC: Do you hope more people go to see it just to experience this love story and these smart discussions? Or do you hope people go to see it to be like, “Hey, this is what Barack and Michelle were probably like when they were young”?
PS: I can’t tell anyone what to get out of it, but I do hope people see it and are open to an experience of a movie that makes you feel good, makes you smile. The music, the cinematography, everything came together so well. To me, it’s just a delightful film. It is a romantic film, but it’s also just about two people connecting. I’m a mentor to some early-20s men in London, and anybody can have that connection. If I’m talking to one of my mentees, you can have that connection. If you’re talking to somebody on a first date, you can have that connection. If you talk about a reverend or a grandmother, anybody that can make you better, and vice versa, I mean, that’s also what this film shows, I think, is when you connect with someone and they push you and tell you the truth, and they help you. They get you to think in a way that you never thought before. I think the film does all of that.