Maybe the most obvious question I could ask Parker Sawyers, star of Southside With You, the new movie about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date, is the one I lead with: "Why did you want to play a young Obama?" And Sawyers could have given an obvious answer, of course. Why wouldn't he want to play the first black President, the leader of the free world, when he was but an optimistic, and incredibly dashing, young summer associate at a Chicago law firm?
Instead, the answer Sawyers gives is nuanced, the first hint during our afternoon together at why he was right for the role. "In Dreams From My Father, Obama talks about studying black culture. He didn't really know it," Sawyers explains. "He would think, 'I'm from Hawaii, and I'm Barack Obama.' But when he would step on a street in L.A. or New York, he realized people thought, 'Well, you're a black guy, and that means this or that.' I went to private schools and there weren't that many black cats. I just didn't quite understand the culture as it pertains to how other people saw me. I identify with Obama learning about himself through the eyes of others, and then internalizing that."
Sawyers, 32, is also pretty much a dead ringer for a young Barack. He's a little taller at 6'3," but he's got the same sly grin, the same large ears, a similar boyish charm. But in the Chinatown studio where Sweet is shooting Sawyers, the actor is hyper, maybe even nervous—when we sit on a couch to talk, he fidgets, leaning forward and then back before answering each question. While being photographed, he's easily distracted, pointing at the photographer and asking, "Why did you just put your hair up?" Then, "There's a battery on the ground." And also, "Someone give me a really hard math problem to solve."
"I just realized acting was a now or never type of thing. At 27, 28, I was like, 'All right, I've got to do it now.'"
When Sawyers asks me, "So, you saw the movie? Do you think it's good? Do you really think it's good?" I realize, he actually wants to know. There's very little ego there, mostly because he just hasn't had enough time to build hubris. Sawyers is fairly new to acting altogether. He's only been doing it for about five years, appearing in a handful of movies, early on for characters credited as "Interrogator on Monitor" or "Drone Operator," and an episode of Lilyhammer in which he played a transgender woman named Deshawna.
While Southside With You is certainly his breakout role, Sawyers has a busy few years ahead of him, having booked roles in an upcoming thriller, a period piece, and a couple of war films.
On giving his character some backstory: "I definitely decided that, back then, he knew he wanted to be in politics. Perhaps he even thought, 'I could go really, really far.'"
Originally from Indianapolis, Sawyers moved to London when his wife opened a consulting firm there in 2008 ("I moved for business and love," he says). The couple has two young kids. In other words, Sawyers is not a man who will spark much behind-the-scenes Hollywood drama. He won't be involved in any Instagram wars. As a newcomer, he's determined to be serious, committed. He's in it to win it. "I was getting to an age where I just realized acting was a now or never type of thing," he says. "At 27, 28, I was like, 'All right, I've got to do it now.'"
You've only been acting for about five years. What were you doing before?
I worked in a restaurant. I worked at a cafe in Indianapolis. I worked for the prosecutor of Marion County as a paralegal. I worked for the lieutenant governor as a procurement agent, buying things for the state. Then I modeled for a little bit. I moved to London. I worked at a law firm in the communications department. Then I started acting.
So you've already had some small brush with politics.
My parents were Republicans when I was growing up, and my mother was deputy mayor in Indianapolis under a Republican administration. I was just raised around Republicans and Democrats. It was kind of a natural path for me to go work with Republicans, but I'm Independent now.
When you decided to take the plunge, how did your first role come to fruition?
It was my second audition ever, to play a transgender woman on Lilyhammer. I shaved everything, and I got a bra, and a wig, and clip-on earrings. I wore my wife's perfume. I went into the room in character, which I didn't know wasn't a thing, but I just did it. I booked it, and I got to go to Oslo, which was cool, because it was like, "Oh my god, I'm an actor. I'm traveling and I'm staying in a hotel and I have a call sheet."
"I could imagine on that date, looking at her, he'd be like, 'You're so cute. I could see you in the White House with me.'"
Arguably, though, this is late in the game to be getting started. What have been the biggest challenges for you as an actor?
A lot of it is just technical stuff—how loudly to speak, how softly to speak, how quickly to move on camera, just being comfortable in front of the camera. There's a freedom that you learn just with experience, the natural, "Oh, I've been doing this for years and years, and I know I can do this." To touch a piece of paper randomly in a scene, even though it wasn't scripted, something like that. Just loosening up to be the character.
What was the audition process like for Southside With You? I'm assuming, since you were in London, that you sent in a tape.
I sent a tape in. My first tape wasn't very good; it was a straight-on impersonation. Then I got some notes from the director and sent a new tape in with a new take.
The director wanted a more carefree, young Obama? Not just a perfect impression.
Where were you when you found out that you'd finally gotten the role?
I was making breakfast, and checked my emails and there was a stream of emails between my manager at the time and the casting director. They were going to announce it that day, but I hadn't heard that I'd gotten it.
You didn't even know yet?
I didn't know! I'm in London, and they're in L.A., so they'd been planning all this while I'd been sleeping.
PQ "[Tika Sumpter and I] Skyped, chatted on the phone, and then went to Chicago. We just had natural chemistry." PQ
And then you had to prepare to be the future leader of the free world…
If I thought too much, though, I'm sure I would have gotten nervous. I had to say, "Just do the job. You're not actually him. You don't have to worry about missile crises. You're an actor, play the guy." I had been working on his voice for a while anyway, so really the work was dialing that back. That was the toughest thing, [Here, he switches to a startling, perfect Obama impression] not to talk like this, Rebecca, not to do that.
Certainly, when you're on set, when you and Tika Sumpter (who plays Michelle Obama) are taking your walk through the park, you're saying to yourself, "OK, he'd probably be thinking and feeling these kinds of things."
I definitely decided that, back then, he knew he wanted to be in politics. Perhaps he even thought, "I could go really, really far." I did have that in the back of my mind. I thought, "This guy is super-ambitious, and he understands how the world views him as a black man, and how the world views him as Barack Obama, an individual, an actual person with a personality," and so forth. [He understood] how his schooling, his Ivy League education, would open doors for him. If he was looking at Michelle, I could imagine on that date, looking at her, he'd be like, "You're so cute. I could see you in the White House with me."
You and Sumpter seemed to have a great rapport.
We Skyped, chatted on the phone, and then went to Chicago. We just had natural chemistry. It was probably more an older sister-younger brother thing. I talk a lot, I have a lot of energy. She's quite calm, poised, so she could say, like, "Parker, sit down." Of course, Barack and Michelle balance each other out quite nicely.
Southside With You, the true story about the Obamas' first date, is out in theaters today. For more information on this romantic summer film, visit southsidewithyou.com.
Photographed by Shawn Brackbill. Styled by Calvy Click. Grooming by Andi Metro. Shot on location at Candy Studio, New York City.