'The First Lady' Cast on Portraying Their Real-Life White House Counterparts (Exclusive)
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Coming to Showtime is the scripted anthology series The First Lady, which will go inside the lives of three influential first ladies of the United States. The show’s first season, which will be directed and executive produced by Susanne Bier, will star Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt.
“It’s one of those jobs where you almost have to say yes before you think about it too much because if you think too much you might actually say no out of fear or being absolutely terrified,” Anderson told ET about joining the series and taking on the daunting task of portraying such an iconic figure, with Davis adding that it was “absolutely terrifying” taking on someone like Obama, whom “everyone has ownership over.”
“Once I realized the scope of this character, it was terrifying,” Pfeiffer said of joining the series, noting that she didn’t “want to let anyone down” with her portrayal.
That said, they all came to slay. Here’s what you need to know about the star-studded historical drama and how the cast compares to their real-life counterparts.
Trailer and Premiere Date
The 10-episode series created by Aaron Cooley, who also wrote several episodes, will be executive produced by showrunner Cathy Schulman will premiere on Sunday, April 17. The non-fiction series offers “a revelatory reframing of American leadership, told through the lens of the women at the heart of the White House.”
Set in the East Wing, The First Lady will show how “many of history’s most impactful and world-changing decisions have been hidden from view, made by America's charismatic, complex and dynamic first ladies.” The first season will go into the personal and political lives of three such “unique, enigmatic women,” recounting their journeys from wife to Washington.
“The first season is very much about voice and discovering voice,” Schulman said of what unites these three women together, with Bier adding that “these women shared a common destiny.”
The Star-Studded Cast
Viola Davis as Michelle Obama
Coming off her award-winning turn as legendary blues singer Ma Rainey in the Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Davis portrays one of the most beloved former first ladies. “I am in the place of a little bit of fear, well, I am not going to lie, a lot of fear,” she told ET about preparing to play Obama, revealing she’s done it all. “I started last year... I had the privilege and honor and blessing to be able to talk to her and read her book of course, watch her documentary, look at every video.”
Davis added that “she is all things. She is a hero. She is just one of those women and people who lives a life bigger than herself and I hope to honor that. [We’ve been doing] makeup tests at my house with my makeup artist and they are doing an extraordinary job with the transformation of it all.”
While Davis knows Obama, she did learn what it was like to walk in her shoes. “Who they are when the doors are closed and what they have deal with -- all that bull crap they have to navigate every single day -- and how it affects the dynamic of their relationship, I think that was the biggest surprise,” she said.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford
Pfeiffer’s turn as the one-term first lady of the 1970s marks her return to TV after portraying Ruth Madoff in HBO’s 2017 film The Wizard of Lies.
“I knew very little about Betty Ford like most people, and that was one of the big attractions,” Pfeiffer said of taking on the role. “There’s so much to tell about her. We all know about the Betty Ford clinic, of course. We know about her drug abuse and her alcoholism, but there’s so much more in terms of what she did in the White House as a first lady.”
The actress adds that Ford “really was a trailblazer.”
One of the biggest challenges for Pfeiffer was balancing Ford’s struggle with drug addiction, which “obviously was a big part of her life,” she said. And while it “led to saving thousands of lives and her founding the Betty Ford clinic, I didn’t want that to overshadow everything else. And that’s hard.”
In the end, Pfeiffer came to learn and appreciate how outspoken Ford was. “I was so struck by her intense need to be honest and transparent and do what was right. She had such a sense of integrity for herself and her family and for the country, really,” the actress shared. “She reminded me of my mother a little bit. My mother was from that generation.”
Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt
Anderson’s portrayal of Roosevelt, who is the longest-serving first lady in history, follows her celebrated performance as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opposite Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in the fourth season of The Crown.
When it comes to the two roles, Anderson noted the obvious. “They’re very, very different women. So, in that regard, it was easy enough [to separate the two],” she said.
And unlike she did for her portrayal of Thatcher, Anderson had to wear prosthetics in addition to the hair and makeup in order to transform into the first lady. “With Eleanor, I used prosthetics for the first time,” the actress said of having to wear fake teeth. “Eleanor’s teeth were such a prominent part of her facial features. And so, I really enjoyed that aspect and getting used to it and seeing how that affected my performance.”
One of the things that Anderson noted when portraying Roosevelt was the fact that she had “such a voice” before becoming first lady, but she was also riddled with self doubt and low self-esteem. “Despite the fact that internally, at many points in her life, she had great, great doubt, she continued to speak out and to represent things that she believed in,” Anderson explained. “In her speeches, there’s a tentativeness. But she knows that what she’s actually saying is so much more important than her fear. So, I was really, really moved by that.”
O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama
After starring on The Handmaid's Tale and Maxxx, Fagbenle is portraying the first African American and 44th president of the U.S., from 2009 to 2017.
When first offered the role, Fagbenle recalled to ET how he asked himself, “Wow, could I play one of the most beloved characters of all time, who is super charming and intelligent?” He jokingly adds that there’s “no pressure” to play “a superhero amongst men.”
But once filming started, the actor got busy preparing for the role. “I read all of his books, I have read Michelle Obama's book, they are all great,” he shared. “I have spoken to Viola. So, it is slowly coming together... and I am really up for the challenge and it is something I have not tried before.”
Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford
Eckhart returns to TV after brief appearances on Frasier and The Romanoffs to play the one-term president from 1974 to 1977.
Kiefer Sutherland as Franklin D. Roosevelt
After most recently playing President Thomas Kirkman on Designated Survivor, Sutherland is returning to TV to portray Roosevelt (FDR), who was the 32nd president, leading the country from 1933 until his death in 1945. He is the only president to serve for more than two terms.
The rest of the cast includes Judy Greer as Betty Ford’s trusted confidante and social secretary, Nancy Howe, Rhys Wakefield as President Ford’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney, Dakota Fanning as Betty Ford’s daughter Susan Elizabeth Ford, Regina Taylor as Michelle Obama’s mother Marian Shields Robinson, Lily Rabe as journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok, Ellen Burstyn as Sara Delano Roosevelt, mother to FDR, Jackie Earle Haley as reporter and political advisor Louis McHenry Howe, Maria Dizzia as FDR’s mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and Kate Mulgrew as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff Susan Sher.
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