‘Southside with You’: Parker Sawyers, Tika Sumpter on Adapting the Obamas’ First Date

     January 30, 2016


One of the many movies to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was writer-director Richard Tanne’s Southside with You. The film revolves around the first date between a young Barack Obama and lawyer Michelle Robinson, who would later become his wife, and it all takes place over the course of one day. Imagine Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise except set in Chicago and starring the Obamas.

While I was nervous about he subject matter going in about the premiere, I’ll admit Tanne has crafted a great movie and that’s due to his smart script, the cinematography by Patrick Scola, and fantastic performances from Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter. As you watch Sawyers and Sumpter walk around Chicago and talk about their family, aspirations, and their backgrounds, you begin to learn more about who they are and how amazing it is that they ended up in the White House. Also, like Adam said in his review, “if you remove the historic importance of these two characters, Southside with You still mostly works as a simple love story between a pair of intellectuals striving for greatness.”

Shortly after the world premiere I sat down with Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter. They talked about why they wanted to make the film, how much of it is fictionalized, the dialogue, getting the film made, if they’d ever want to revisit this in a few years and play the Obamas again at another point in their lives, deleted scenes, and more. Check out what they had to say below.

Collider: A lot of people aren’t going to know that much about the film but they’ve maybe heard some rumblings. So, what do you want to tell people about the film?

Parker Sawyers: I suppose if I wasn’t in it, I would want to know that it’s just a universal love story. That it’s apolitical, that’s it’s about two highly intelligent people getting to know one another, and even to move away from the love story, you can see how they develop a friendship over 8, 9 hours together, in real time, you know? They really develop a friendship, they learn a lot about each other, they challenge each other to accept the challenges and move with them to better themselves. It’s indicative of people today, like, “Wow, I should listen to that, I do care about that, yes, I’ll move on and we can move on together.” So to me, it’s a universal love story and a universal friendship story. Regardless of race or political or background or whatever. That’s kind of up to Rich[ard Tanne]. He made the hell out of it, it’s a good story.


Image via Sundance

Tika Sumpter: I wanted to be a part of it because one, I just love the story, it’s a modest, simple story. But I think emotionally, a lot of people connect to love, family stuff that’s going on. For these two people to be able to tell each other things that they may not have been able to tell other people, basically, divulge a lot that’s going on with their lives. I wanted to 1) see a love story, and 2) a woman who is smart and can hold her own and not have to be fulfilled from a guy or anything, you know. And really just be able to try to figure out life and relationships in just a day. The day of a walk and talk and getting to know each other. I just wanted to see somebody who looked like me up there, kissing another man.

Obviously it’s going to come up, how much of this script is based on what really happened, and how much is fictionalized? 

SUMPTER: Yeah. It’s not all based on fact, but it is based on public domain on what happened. They talk about their love story on TV all the time, they did go to the Art Institute, they did go to Baskin Robbins, they went to see Do the Right Thing. The in-between, nobody knows because there wasn’t a recorder, but out of what Rich researched, he was able to figure out a script and amazing dialogue around this date and what he thought they would be discussing. And, he also put in a lot of real things, like her father has MS, his father died when he was young, he had issues with his father — they say these things in their books, everybody kind of knows these things. So, yeah, it’s not all based on fact, obviously, we did take some liberties.

SAWYERS: Yeah, but it sounds so much like them. In fact, parts of the dialogue, President Obama did a podcast with Marc Maron in May or June or something like that, so the script had been written, I’m memorizing it, and I listened to the podcast and I was like, “Man, this sounds like the script!” So it was cool that Rich was able to tap into that. And Michelle Obama was on Colbert and she’s been doing the late night rounds and it’s like, “Yeah, this sounds like how they would talk.” I hope it seems very real.


Image via Sundance

I thought the script was great and I thought Rich directed the hell out of it. We talked a little about Before Sunrise, one of my all-time favorite films, and it’s so difficult to keep the dialogue interesting and propelling enough to keep the movie going when it’s a walk-and-talk. So can you talk a little about getting ready for that, and being sure that you have it down? Because once the scene stopped, forget it.

SUMPTER: Yeah. And we had a ton of just long shots, with just dialogue. He lives in London, so we had to Skype a lot. And once he came to town, we did a lot of rehearsals. While they were prepping for production, we were doing a ton of work. And Rich was very clear, “We need it to be off book by a certain time.” That’s why it worked, because we felt it in our skin, we rehearsed it enough and we were able to play because we were prepared. And that’s due to Rich making sure that we had it together.

SAWYERS: When I first read the script, I told this last night to Rich, I couldn’t imagine anyone would make it in 2015. I was like, this is like an old-school kind of film. I couldn’t imagine. A walk-and-talk in this day and age, it’s going to be tough to pull off.

SUMPTER: Because in the age of Transformers, everything’s so super fast.

SAWYERS: But then having a conversation with Rich — this is just a love fest for Rich — he described how he wanted to shoot it and long shots, with pullbacks. That kind of propelled you to really get the words down. And I found little nuances between two sentences …. it was an exercise in acting, just between two sentences things would switch and the conversation would get richer and richer.

You [Tika Sumpter] produced the film. So talk a little about producing something like this, but what was the big challenge you had to overcome?


Image via Sundance

SUMPTER: Yeah, I mean, I’m grateful that Rich came to me with this project and I believed in him without having even seen the script. I had to get him to write it because he was working on another project. When he finally did write it, I read the first draft and I was blown away. And I said, “We’re gonna get it made.” And he said, “Alright.” It’s hard to get a film made. But everybody saw the director’s vision and followed suit. I was his number one fan on set; if a phone call needed to be made, if he needed anything, I wanted to make sure he had everything he needed to execute this story. We needed to execute this story. If you’re going to do it, do it right. If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all. I think Marion Robinson, in the first draft he wrote something like, you know she went to the Olympics for older people, Michelle’s mom, and she went like gold, and when she started getting tired she was like, “You don’t run the race to run, you run to win.” So that’s what it was. I wanted to win. The challenges were making sure his vision was seen by everybody.

I’m bringing this up because I have to: one of the things about the Before Sunrise trilogy is that they revisit these characters every seven or eight years. In the back of your brain are you already saying, “If this works we can return in however many years and do this again,” do you know what I mean?

SAWYERS: I know what you mean, I can’t believe I’m at Sundance right now, I can’t believe people enjoy the film that we shot five months ago. I mean, I’m an actor, I’m never going to say no to work. (laughs)

SUMPTER: Right, but I feel like this is a standalone. You know what I mean? It would be weird to chase their lives, which is kind of what we would be doing. I think Rich wanted to tell this one moment in time. And that’s what spoke to him, to write the script. I don’t think so, but you never know. Never say never but you never know.


Image via Sundance

What was your shooting schedule, like, 20 days?

SUMPTER: 21 days, yeah. It was pretty quick.

One of the things that’s challenging about Indie cinema is there’s never enough time. Did you ever have a day with like five takes? Or was it always like, two, three takes and then we’ve got to go.

SAWYERS: No. Not at all.

SUMPTER: I think because we were so prepared, we were able to go.

SAWYERS: Most of the retakes were because of like traffic going by or there was something in the background. Other than that, it wasn’t, it worked.

SUMPTER: I think we got the takes that we needed and wanted. And there’s stuff that got cut out of the movie, so we had enough.

That was actually my next question. The cut of the film is like 80 minutes, how long was your first cut? Are there a lot of deleted scenes?

SUMPTER: Not deleted scenes, deleted “moments” were cut out. I was like, “Oh! Oh that’s not in there.” There were a few of those. If we needed to add we had the footage to do it. I don’t know what the minutes were, but yeah.

SAWYERS: The moments that were missing are very small moments. I just saw the film for the first time yesterday. And in my head, I was like, “This happens, then this happens, then this happens.” And when I talked to Rich about some of the cuts he was like, “That’s because this doesn’t line up here.” And I thought that made sense. So it’s cool to see the film after having it in my head for so long and then seeing Rich’s vision and seeing that it works, I’m learning a lot about filmmaking.


Image via Sundance


Image via Sundance

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