WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Tika Sumpter knew the screenplay was something special. It was, at its core, a romance, with two charming leads slowly falling for each other over the course of a single Chicago day. They speak passionately — at some points, angrily — about moral courage and racial politics and the struggles of staying true to oneself. They take sides on “Good Times” versus “The Brady Bunch,” ice cream versus pie. They quote the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (“We Real Cool”) from memory, while sizing upErnie Barnes’s painting “Sugar Shack.” They watch “Do the Right Thing.”
It didn’t hurt that the two characters were Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, in a fictionalized account of their first date, in 1989, when Spike Lee’s film was in theaters and Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” was in the air.
“I loved that it was an origin story about the two most famous people in the world right now, and about how they fell in love,” Ms. Sumpter said. “You don’t see a lot of black leads in love stories, and you definitely don’t see a lot of walk and talks with black people.”
In “Southside With You,” which opens Aug. 26, Ms. Sumpter plays the first lady-to-be at 25, a corporate lawyer who is also an adviser to a young man named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), an up-and-coming, Harvard-educated summer associate. The film received rave reviews when it had its premiere at Sundance, where it was one of the festival’s breakouts, in large part because of Ms. Sumpter’s performance. But “Southside With You” may not have been made if Ms. Sumpter hadn’t also pitched in as one of three producers.
As much as Ms. Sumpter coveted the meaty role of Michelle Robinson, once she secured the part, reality set in. “At first it was overwhelming,” she admitted. “I’ve never been to Harvard, I’ve never been to Princeton. I didn’t even finish school because I couldn’t afford it. But once I stripped away that ‘Michelle Obama,’ I was able to take it back to that girl from the South Side.”
The actress was here at the London Hotel on a recent morning, holding forth on the challenges of playing the young Ms. Robinson. Dressed in a black sundress and high heels, Ms. Sumpter, 36, would occasionally and animatedly slip into Mrs. Obama’s distinctive speech patterns to describe a scene or illustrate a point. “You feel like she’s talking just to you,” she said. “And she enunciates everything, to show that she really means what she says.”
Born Euphemia LatiQue Sumpter in Queens, the actress was the fourth child of six. Her mother was a corrections officer at Rikers Island; her father died when she was 13. “My mom said I was quiet and observant,” she said. “I always wanted to impress her, so I’d always clean the house.” In school, she was on the cheerleading squad, ran for student council, befriended skinheads and “the preppy girls,” spoke up for the bullied. “I was that girl in high school,” she said.
Ms. Sumpter caught the acting bug in grade school while watching episodes of “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World.” “I was like, I want to be in that box,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to get in there, but I want to do that.” At 16, after her family moved to Long Island, she would take the train into Manhattan, paying for acting classes with money she earned working the concession stand at a local movie theater. “I’d go to open calls and be totally wrong for everything,” she remembered. “My hair would not be right.”
Continue reading the main story
At 20, she booked a commercial for Curve perfume. “They probably still sell it at Rite Aid,” she said with a laugh. It was her first gig, and it was filmed in Times Square, and she couldn’t have been happier.
In 2005, Ms. Sumpter secured a regular role on “One Life to Live.” She’s been working steadily ever since, on television (“Gossip Girl,” “The Haves and the Have Nots”) and films (“Get On Up,” “Ride Along 2”).
In 2015, she saw an early synopsis of “Southside With You” by Richard Tanne. “I was like, please write this script,” she said. “I would call him every few weeks, ‘Are you writing it, are you writing it?’”
Even if she didn’t get the part, she told him, she wanted to be a producer on the film, to ensure that it got made. Before long, the first-time producer was doing everything from finding financing and locating extras to pitching studios and helping cast Barack.
“I don’t think she necessarily expected to be the lead producer alongside me,” said Mr. Tanne, who also directed the film. “But I was a first-time filmmaker, and people wanted to maybe impose their own vision on the film. She kind of naturally sprung into action to safeguard what the movie needed to be.”
The details of that storied first date — the stop at the art museum, their first kiss over a cone of Baskin-Robbins — have been recounted in biographies and articles about the first family. Mrs. Obama told David Mendell, author of “Obama: From Promise to Power,” that “I had dated a lot of brothers who had this kind of reputation coming in, so I figured he was one of those smooth brothers who could talk straight and impress people.”
In the film, Ms. Sumpter goes from wary to icy to “maybe this guy isn’t so bad” and back again, as Michelle is initially repelled by some of Barack’s moves (his insistence that this “not a date” actually is) before warming to others (his deep knowledge of African-American art, his gift for lighting up a crowd). “We talked about the levels of guard she might have up at any given time,” Mr. Tanne remembered. “We had three levels, almost like a DEFCON system.”
To prepare the actress worked with a vocal coach to master Mrs. Obama’s speech patterns, and watched videos to see how she walked and carried herself. “Once we started rehearsing,” said Mr. Sawyers, “I was like, oh, that’s it! She nailed it.”
In one scene, Michelle talks about the racism she encountered at Princeton and Harvard — some subtle, some less so — and how, even at her current firm, she has to navigate between “Planet Black and Planet White.” Ms. Sumpter admitted that there were parallels in her own field. “You see the differences in the way certain movies are treated,” she said. “But once you come to terms with that, you have to go, O.K., I’m not going to allow that to hold me back. Which is what I love about Michelle. She never allowed the color of her skin and all the things she was up against to keep her from breaking through.”
A lot of that confidence came from Mrs. Obama’s family, just as it did for Ms. Sumpter, who is expecting her own daughter this fall. “Because of my mom, I never felt less than,” she said, looking back on her early days trying to make it in the business. “I never came into this world thinking, I’m a brown-skinned girl going to Hollywood. I was always like, I’m talented and I’m beautiful and I’m smart. Why wouldn’t you want me?”