Since this country was founded in 1776, we’ve had 45 presidents — and, with the exception of one, all have been married at least once, giving us 54 total first ladies over the course of our nation’s history. The new Showtime anthology series The First Lady takes a closer look at three of the most memorable: Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis).
Out of such a rich group of women to choose from, why did the powers behind the show pick these three? “The first season is very much about voice. … It was about these incredible, strong women who had absolute voice before they walked through the threshold of the White House. And then the very thing that happened the minute that they got in was they were told to never open their mouths again,” explained executive producer Cathy Schulman. “They had fully independent lives before they ever went into the White House, and then, suddenly, they were told to pick china patterns and stay in the background. In that system, in that situation, in that uncodified job called first lady, how do you find your way to have impact and for your voice to shine again?
“[Eleanor] was the beginning of two really important social movements, one having to do with women’s rights and one having to do with desegregation,” continued Schulman. “And so tracking where those initial impulses brought us years later in terms of, frankly, Betty’s absolute first open-minded freedom as a woman in the White House, and then, of course, Michelle’s living example of what desegregation looked like and, quite the opposite, what it didn’t look like this many years later. It was all about showing similarities through time, even sometimes more than the differences.”
Unlike the other two actresses, Davis is playing a woman who is still alive and could conceivably watch the show. That changed the way she approached the role of Michelle. “It keeps you up at night, because you don’t want to insult them by your portrayal,” Davis confessed. “As much as we feel like we know Michelle Obama, and I did everything I possibly could to research — I mean everything — but still, in those private moments, there is still some level of creative decision-making that you have to take. I mean, I don’t know how she lays in bed with Barack. I don’t know how she would discipline her children. There’s just small minutia that I can take creative license with and hope that I’m not insulting her with it, and that’s what you have to navigate as an artist.”
Though the series may be about these three powerhouse first ladies, the cast does not falter when it comes to the presidential men in their lives. Kiefer Sutherland takes on the powerhouse Franklin D. Roosevelt, Aaron Eckhart plays Gerald Ford and British actor O-T Fagbenle portrays Barack Obama. The series also shows the couples as young people, with a cavalry of talented actors to show that period in their lives. Expect to see facets of these public figures’ lives you’ve never considered before — all told with the finesse befitting what will surely end up being a big draw at awards season.
Sundays beginning April 17 on SHOWTIME