Viola Davis Shares What Went Into Playing Michelle Obama in 'The First Lady' (Exclusive)

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Fans might think it's hard for a seasoned, award-winning and beloved actor like Viola Davis to be shaken by any role, but the How to Get Away With Murder star isn't afraid to admit that her most recent project was a little nerve-wracking.

In fact, the actress called portraying Michelle Obama for Showtime's scripted anthology series, The First Lady, "absolutely terrifying." 

Davis spoke with ET's Nischelle Turner ahead of the premiere of the non-fiction series alongside her co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson, who star as Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt, respectively. The show’s first season, directed and executive produced by Susanne Bier, follows the three former first ladies for "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 show, set to premiere on April 17, will go into the personal and political lives of three such "unique, enigmatic women," recounting their journeys from wife to Washington.

Davis noted that the scariest aspect of portraying Obama was the idea that she was someone whom "everyone has ownership over."

"You’re terrified whenever you start a job because you are afraid you are going to be found out -- that’s big imposter syndrome. But with Michelle Obama, it’s like everyone has ownership over Michelle Obama," she explained. "I mean, her book came out and it was [on every] bestseller list, everyone knows what she looks like what she sounds like, what her hair [is like], you know?"

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama on The First Lady
Showtime

The 56-year-old shared that even more terrifying than the concept of portraying Obama was what the former first lady herself would think. 

"There’s a sort of sister bond there for me, you know that girl code like, I gotta make the sister look good," she added. "It’s all those things that you don’t think about as an actor [because] it has nothing to do with acting. When you play someone you don’t make any editorial comments about them, they are who they are, you don’t put it in any machine and water it down or make it reductive so, it was all the things that scare you."

But that didn't stop her from digging as deeply into the role as she could. And, although Davis knows Obama, she gained a new respect for the Harvard Law School grad after learning to walk in her shoes. "Who they are when the doors are closed and what they have to 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. 

"And then, what it further led me to is the power of the historian. The power of the people who can write history down and what they miss," she added. "They don't grab that conversation that the First Lady had with her husband saying, 'you know what that law that you’re about to sign, I think I completely disagree with it. I think you need to change it.' They don’t get the mess, you don’t get the contradictions."

In addition to Davis, Pfeiffer and Anderson, the star-studded cast features O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama, Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford and Kiefer Sutherland as Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as Dakota Fanning as Susan Ford, Judy Greer as Nancy Howe, Rhys Wakefield as Dick Cheney, Regina Taylor as Marian Shields Robinson, Lily Rabe as Lorena Hickok and many others as key figures from the respective administrations. 

With the series' giving viewers a look behind the curtain, Davis said the best lesson she hopes people will learn is "the power of compassion." 

"I heard [this saying] a few times in these last two years, 'either we move forward together or we don’t move forward at all,'" she added, sharing that she believes because of the bipartisanship of American politics, laws "benefit just one sect of people" depending on who's in charge. Citizens tend to miss out on what the country's ethos promises. 

"The ideals and the ethos of this country are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, and we continue to miss that..." she said. "I don’t think it’s probably gonna happen in my lifetime, [but] I just want it to be right... It’s the famous quote by [Former United States Representative] Barbara Jordan, 'What the people want is very simple - they want an America as good as its promise.' And that’s what, I feel like I can honestly say, I feel like that was Michelle Obama's big thing too."

The First Lady will premiere Sunday, April 17 on Showtime.

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