When Showtime announced it was including Forever First Lady Michelle Obama in its The First Lady limited series, our immediate reaction was: “Great, but who’s playing her?”
Then we found out it was Viola Davis, and we instantly relaxed because we knew she would give one of her transcendent unforgettable performances. However, that doesn’t mean the process wasn’t stressful for the award-winning actress. While promoting the series on Jimmy Kimmel Live, she discussed the process of playing someone so beloved.
Like the rest of us, the talk show host was amazed at how much Davis resembled Obama, remarking, “That’s crazy how good you are at this...it’s not just the voice you have down, it’s the walking? It’s crazy how much you became Michelle Obama.”
“And I’m glad it’s over!” Davis replied. “I mean, the stress. Because everybody loves Michelle Obama. They know what she sounds like, they know what she looks like. And I’m like, ‘I don’t want Michelle Obama calling me, cussing me out.’”
I can’t imagine a world where Michelle would be unhappy with how Viola portrayed her, but if I’m being honest, I absolutely want to hear the phone call where she cusses someone out.
With the series set to hit screens, the How to Get Away With Murder star admits she is avoiding Obama. “I am hiding from Michelle. I’m hiding in my house,” she joked with Kimmel.
In an interview with WSJ Magazine, the Oscar-winner explained that it was Obama’s activism and ideas that drew her to the role.
“I mean, it’s Michelle Obama. Everything about her. She was one of those first ladies that came in with big ideas. And I would say that the restrictions that were placed on her—not just being a first lady but [also] being a Black woman—were enormous,” Davis said. “And for her to navigate all of that and accomplish what she did: I mean, her Hunger Free program for kids. I mention that because I was a kid who was hungry. I grew up in abject poverty. I dumpster-dived. I stole money for food. And I think Michelle Obama, coming from the South Side of Chicago, was very aware of [that kind of poverty].”
The First Lady co-stars Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, chronicling how each woman navigates her role as the rights of women change throughout society. As a Black woman, Davis had a very specific insight into how Obama moved through the expectations of the spotlight.
“Certainly at the forefront of my mind when I signed on to be Michelle Obama: When you enter any room or situation, you have to decide if the woman in you is going to show up or the Black person is going to show up,” she said. “They’re two different entities. And so that was a huge part of what I had to navigate because I know what’s in Michelle every time she walks through the room. Because it’s with me too. I felt like I was juggling those two balls constantly.”
While she may be avoiding her now, the Emmy-winner has met the Obamas and marveled at their confidence and understanding.
“I’ve met Barack and Michelle, absolutely,” she said. “I consider myself to have more angst, and I come from a place of feeling like, ‘You better see me; I’m not invisible.’ But when you’re in their presence, they absolutely know their worth, they’re in their bodies, and they’re present. They take you in—in a way that’s actually surprising. [Michelle] has decoded you in two seconds. All the best broads I know do that.”
The First Lady premieres Sunday, April 17 at 9 p.m. ET/PT at on Showtime.