Tika Sumpter lets out her infectious laugh when asked if she produced and starred in Richard Tanne’s Southside With You in an effort to meet the woman she portrays in the movie—Michelle Obama.
“I definitely want to meet the Obamas,” she says. “I’m gonna miss them in this crazy political world. I’d be nervous to show them the film, but I know we did a great job.”
That much is true. Southside With You is a charmingly convincing retelling of the first date between eventual president Barack Obama, played by Parker Sawyers, and his future wife. The young law firm co-workers spend a day going from an art museum to a community meeting to a showing of Do the Right Thing, slowly getting to know each other, and giving the audience the opportunity to get to know them in a new, humanizing light.
How did Sumpter approach the formidable task of playing the current First Lady of the United States? “I just wanted to portray the essence of her,” she says. “I didn’t want to imitate her; I wanted the role to have complexities.” The actress worked with a voice coach to replicate her Calumet Park accent and watched Michelle speaking at colleges (“because that’s where she’s most chill”). She also read A Game of Character, a memoir written by Michelle’s older brother, Craig.
The moment the actress felt most in touch with her character: as a first-time producer on Southside With You, determined to get her way in spite of male skepticism. “Michelle has been in rooms with a lot of men. And I was in rooms with a lot of men. You realize that there aren’t a lot of black women at the table. Why can’t I be who I am—a businesswoman—and make things happen the way I want to make things happen? Why do I have to be this docile female? Men don’t even have to think about these things.”
Born in Queens and raised in Long Island, Sumpter studied Communications at Marymount Manhattan College before she stopped being able to afford school. She struggled to negotiate her acting dreams with herself, thinking at one point that she might become a publicist instead. “When you don’t know somebody who’s actually done it, you don’t know how it can possibly be done.” Taking the Long Island railroad to classes and open-call auditions in New York City, she tried to figure the industry out on her own. “I literally read a book that said I needed headshots,” she says. “I had no real clue.”
The actress got her first big break on the soap One Life to Live, a job that took her from 2006 to 2011. Subsequent TV parts in Gossip Girl and The Haves and Have Nots, and film roles in the Whitney Huston-starring Sparkle, A Madea Christmas, Ride Along, Get On Up and HBO Films’ Bessie, sealed the deal. She recently completed Ride Along 2, in which she returns as Kevin Hart’s fiancé. Southside With You, though, marks her first true leading role, and going by Sundance audiences’ warm reactions, it won’t be her last.
“Listen, if you’re not going to write projects for me, I’m gonna get them done myself,” says Sumpter. More projects like Southside With You, she means, for which she “didn’t have to play a stereotype… didn’t have to take off my clothes.” That depth and authenticity is key to the film’s appeal, says the actress. “It doesn’t matter what party you’re in—if you ever fell in love or been in love, you’re going to get it.” MM
Southside With You opens in theaters August 26, 2016, courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions. Featured photograph by Jeff Vespa.
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2016 issue, currently on newsstands.