A day after viewing the new film Southside With You, I walk into a room at The London Hotel in West Hollywood to meet the president. But Parker Sawyers, who plays a young Barack Obama in the film, no longer looks like the president.
For starters, the 33-year-old actor has a scruffy beard. He’s wearing a faded baseball cap and skinny jeans that no one would describe as particularly “dad.” He’s munching on grapes instead of exactly seven almonds. But when I tell him it’s intimidating to come and meet someone who so perfectly captured the essence of America’s 44th president on film, he effortlessly breaks into Obama’s unique cadence. “Well, hold on then, I’d better sit up straight,” he says, momentarily rising up in his chair to assume a posture more befitting the commander in chief.
This slightly exaggerated version of the president appears just once in the film, which chronicles the almost too-perfect first date—beginning at an Afrocentric art exhibit and ending at Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing before the pair shared their first kiss over chocolate ice cream—between the Harvard Law student and his then summer adviser at a high-powered Chicago firm, Michelle Robinson. The scene comes when Barack takes Michelle to a community meeting. When he gets up to speak to the group about its stymied efforts to get a recreational center built, he suddenly transforms from an awkward guy trying to get a girl to like him into a man who could conceivably become president someday. Michelle, who has been resistant to the idea of dating someone from work up until that point, sees it too.
It was Sawyers’s idea to let a little more Obama out in this scene, according to first time writer-director Richard Tanne. “His thinking was, he’s doing public speaking, so there might be a little more of a performance or calculation,” he tells The Daily Beast.
Elsewhere in the process, it was Tanne’s job to pull Sawyers back. When the actor sent in his first audition tape, Tanne desperately wanted him to be the guy, because, “without question” Sawyers looked more like Obama than anyone else they had seen.
“The resemblance was uncanny,” Tanne says. “But his audition was really more of an impersonation. And that didn’t really gel with what I needed the actor to do. But he looked so much like him that I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
As Sawyers tells it, the note he got from Tanne for the second audition tape was the “drop the president” entirely. “He said to play just you talking to a girl,” Sawyers says of the direction. “But I still kept Obama in there. I was like, no, I’m not just going to be me.”
Whatever he did, it worked. “It was extraordinary,” Tanne says now, a year and a half later. “He really brought more of himself to it. Because he wasn’t so focused on nailing the president, little residual cadences and movements bubbled to the surface. But the right way, the organic way.”
Sawyers, who has been living in London with his wife and small children for the past several years, grew up in Indiana, where his mother was not only the deputy mayor of Indianapolis but also a Republican.
“My parents were really good people,” he says, adding, “And I’m not saying Republicans aren’t. It wasn’t like we were like Republicans are today. I picked up a sense of duty to serve and to donate your time and money and take care of your neighbors and people you don’t even know. I learned that from my parents and they were Republicans.”
His father was a teacher who earned two master’s degrees that he paid for by fighting in Vietnam. Sawyers graduated from Wabash College, an all-male school in Crawfordsville, Indiana, with a degree in philosophy and then went to work as a paralegal for a Republican prosecutor and later for the lieutenant governor of Indiana in the general counsel’s office. It was Obama who helped move him, and his family, into the Democratic Party.
In 2006, when Sawyers was in his early twenties, his father gave him a copy of Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father. “I read that and I was like, man, this dude is real,” he says. After that, he adds, “I was just a fan, an admirer, a supporter. And I suppose, in a way, a mentee.” He explains, “You don’t have to know the person for them to be your mentor.”
If anything could bring the two men together, it would be this film, though as of now the producers say they have no plans to screen it for the president and first lady at the White House. “That would be amazing,” Sawyers says. “I wonder if he would think I did as good of a job as some people think I did.”
Of course, the film, which consists almost entirely of Barack and Michelle walking and talking through Chicago, wouldn’t work as well as it does if Sawyers didn’t have an equal partner on screen in Tika Sumpter, who produced the film alongside Tanne.
Like Michelle Robinson—who in 1989, when the film takes place, was already a junior associate at Sidley Austin while Obama was still in law school—Sumpter came to the film with more experience than Sawyers. Before taking on the role of the future first lady, she was best known for appearing in the Ride Along films opposite Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, as well as in television series like Gossip Girl, The Game, and most recently, The Haves and the Have Nots. Sawyers’s biggest credit to date had been “Interrogator on Monitor” in Zero Dark Thirty.
“Tika was wary of him. She was a little guarded,” Tanne says. “And that mirrored the movie. He really had to do a lot to win her over. It took a little while from them to warm up to each other. And that’s the movie.”
“It’s like the film,” Sawyers agrees. “I’m quite playful. And she’s like, ‘OK, Parker, calm down.’”
“It gave us a leg up in terms of crafting the onscreen dynamic, because she just had more experience,” Tanne adds. “She’d been through it before, and sometimes held that over his head.”
If anything, Southside with You is the story of how these two people, before they became one of the most iconic couples in America, became equals. Tanne says when he first saw the obvious affection between the Obamas together during the run-up to the 2008 election, “I found it to be rare amongst friends and family and people I know in everyday life and thusly even rarer in public figures.” Perhaps alluding to the Clintons, he adds, “Not taking anything away from other presidential or would-be presidential couples. I’m sure there’s real love there in a lot of instances, but sometimes when it’s put out for all the world to see, it’s a little awkward or forced and I didn’t get that impression at all.”
But this film is just the beginning of the story, with the dramatic irony being that we know where the main characters’ lives are headed while they don’t. Inevitable comparisons have been made to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, in which he has revisited the evolving romance between two fictional characters every nine years.
Could Southside with You be the first film in a similar series?
“For me, it was this. This was the thing. I wanted to tell that story,” Tanne says. “It wasn’t the sweep of their lives or the scope of their lives that got me interested. I always assumed that Will Smith was going to play him one day in his presidential years. But you know, who knows?” As resistant as he seems to the concept, he does have an idea for when the sequel could take place: the Obamas’ last night in the White House, nearly 28 years after their first date.
For Sawyers, that would mean returning to the role of Barack Obama in his mid-50s. “I don’t know,” he says, taking a long, Obama-esque pause when presented with the idea. “Maybe.”