Inside the halls of power. Showtime’s new series The First Lady examines what goes on in the White House through the lens of presidential wives — and several stars underwent major transformations to play them.
Viola Davis plays former first lady Michelle Obama, who lived in the White House from 2009 to 2017 while her husband, Barack Obama, served as the 44th president of the United States. The How to Get Away With Murder alum, 56, has won an Oscar, Emmy and two Tony Awards, but she was still daunted by the prospect of playing the Becoming author, 58.
“You’re terrified whenever you start a job, because you are afraid you are going to be found out —that’s big imposter syndrome,” Davis told Entertainment Tonight on Wednesday, April 13. “But with Michelle Obama, it’s like everyone has ownership over Michelle Obama. … Everyone knows what she looks like, what she sounds like, what her hair [is like].”
Davis was also unique among the show’s other two lead actresses, Gillian Anderson and Michelle Pfeiffer, as the only one playing a first lady who is still alive. The X-Files alum, 53, stars as Eleanor Roosevelt, who died in 1962, while the Batman Returns actress, 63, appears as Betty Ford, who died in 2011.
The Fences actress also had the opportunity to speak with the Harvard Law School graduate ahead of the show’s premiere, but she said she didn’t want to share too much of what they discussed because of privacy. Davis did, however, hint that Michelle told her that some public assumptions about her character are very wrong.
“She said, ‘I’m not even an angry person,’” the Oscar winner told Deadline earlier this month. “Isn’t that something? Listen, I am sort of an angry person, but she’s not. And so what I wanted to do was honor her and not the perception of what Black women are supposed to be.”
O-T Fagbenle, who plays Barack, now 60, didn’t get to meet his onscreen counterpart because the former president was “booked up,” but he still studied hard to prepare for the role. “Playing him over the span of 15 years is a challenge, as well, but it was a beautiful challenge,” the Black Widow star, 41, told Variety in March, adding that the prosthetic ears were an important final touch.
Even those required some tweaking for accuracy, though. “They gave me prosthetics that were his size, but they looked too big on my head,” Fagbenle explained. “They actually had to give me smaller ears than he has to make it look realistic.”
The First Lady premieres on Showtime Sunday, April 17, at 9 p.m. ET.
Keep scrolling to see how The First Lady cast compare to their real-life counterparts: