Why Viola Davis Says Michelle Obama’s Time in the White House Was an “Isolating Journey”

Viola Davis reflected on the "isolating journey" Michelle Obama experienced as the first Black First Lady, telling Entertainment Weekly that preparing for the role was unlike any other.

By Steven Vargas Apr 14, 2022 11:54 PMTags
Watch: Viola Davis' Best Performances: Legacy Makers

Viola Davis realized the presidential treatment comes with a price.

The How to Get Away with Murder star said that while learning about Michelle Obama for her role in The First Lady, she saw how Michelle experienced a "very isolating journey."

"She invited her mom to come live with her in the White House to help raise her children with her," Viola told Entertainment Weekly. "So, I think that she kept her close as a way of always reminding herself what home is."

The fact that Michelle entered the White House as the first Black First Lady added to the isolation, she said. "You're walking into a house where most of the servants are Black with bowties and chaps," Viola shared. "So, it's a weird existential thing that you're walking into where you need to find something familiar, something that grounds you, something that—once again—is home."

Despite the isolation, Viola said she found joy in portraying the marriage of Michelle and President Barack Obama. From dancing around the White House to just having genuine fun together, she enjoyed the couple's playfulness.

Viola Davis' Best Roles

"I love playing the levity of their relationship and the fun," she said. "I love that they have a good marriage. I played a lot of tortured souls and tortured marriages and tortured relationships, so it was great to be in the midst of this monumental position, but the friendship I felt they had and shared—and the respect that Barack has for Michelle—was a joy to play."

The award-winning actress said taking on the role was different from her others, because she was playing someone that many fans know, saying that everyone can spot her by the way "she talks, how she walks, how she wears her hair, the different incarnations of her eyebrows."

Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME

She added, "I didn't feel like I could approach it like any other character."

It also offered some limitations. Viola said she didn't have a lot of personal and intimate information to work off—such as how Michelle acted around her first boyfriend—whereas in her previous roles, she could make up most of it.

Ever since she drove up to the White House on the first day of filming, Viola said she felt "a shift and the change and the enormity of it all."

Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME, TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images

Photos and trailers showing Viola's uncanny portrayal of the First Lady have already turned heads. In November, Viola told EW, "I feel very protective of Michelle. It's our job as actors not to judge whoever we are portraying, but I ended up thinking she's just dope."

Paired alongside Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanore Roosevelt, Viola can be seen on screen as Michelle in Showtime's The First Lady starting April 17.

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