The First Lady Explores Politics and Power on Crave

A new anthology dramatizes the unsung influence of Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford

A new anthology dramatizes the unsung influence of Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford

Viola Davis has an Academy Award, an Emmy and two Tonys for her work portraying a series of extraordinary women, but even for an acclaimed actress with a remarkably varied CV, taking on First Lady Michelle Obama was the test of her career. “I was terrified. I’m not going to lie. I was absolutely terrified,” admits Davis. “Everyone knows who Michelle Obama is. Everybody has claimed ownership of her. There is nothing about her that they want desecrated.”The First LadyCrave

In Showtime’s new anthology The First Lady, which offers an intimate look at the women supporting three of America’s commanders-in-chief, Davis adopted an approach she’d never considered before. “Exactly how she uses her mouth is how you have to use your mouth. Exactly how she touches her pearls is how you have to touch your pearls. I probably listened to her podcasts over a hundred times and still felt terrified. So, yes, it is absolutely a different approach.”

The series from Academy Award-winning producer Cathy Schulman and Emmy-winning director Susanne Bier delves deep into the lives of First Ladies Obama,
Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt, whose connective tissue is regaining your voice when being seen or heard is not expected of you. “These incredibly strong women had absolute voice before they walked through the threshold of the White House. The minute that they got in they were told to never open their mouths again. That’s what they shared,” says Schulman.The First LadyCrave

Furthermore, she says, these three refused to fade into the background. “Eleanor was, in my mind, the first modern first lady in a quite literal way. She walked in and said, ‘Can I have an office?’ and everybody looked at her like, ‘What would you do in an office?’” Schulman explains. “She was the beginning of two really important social movements, one having to do with women’s rights and one having to do with desegregation. [We’re] tracking where those initial impulses brought us years later in terms of, of course, Michelle’s living example of what desegregation looked like—and what it didn’t look like—this many years later.”

Michelle Pfeiffer portrays Ford, who during her husband Gerald’s term, set precedent as a politically active presidential spouse, raising awareness for breast cancer, equal rights and substance abuse. “It’s one thing to be brave in the privacy of your own circumstances. Betty Ford did it in front of the whole world and still managed to be fearless, frank and kind,” says Pfeiffer. “She wrote a new chapter of American history, practically on a daily basis, shedding light on many issues no first lady had ever acknowledged—challenges that affected thousands of people while being utterly taboo to discuss. What a woman, and what a joy to play her.”

The First LadyCravePlaying the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt presented itself as a familiar, yet tough professional challenge for Gillian Anderson, who last year won the Emmy for her portrayal of the iconic Margaret Thatcher on Netflix’s The Crown. “You don’t treat it like any other role,” she says. “You take it a lot more seriously, and it does feel like there’s a lot more pressure. I don’t think that the amount of time that’s put into it necessarily is more, but the time ends up being spent in different ways. For me, that has been on as much research as possible. Fortunately, with the handful of historical women that I’ve played, there’s been quite a lot of footage out there.”

While Anderson, whose character has already passed away, crosses her fingers and hopes that her portrayal is accepted by the audience, the idea of Michelle Obama having an opinion about the way she is depicted kept Davis up at night. “You don’t want to insult them by your portrayal,” says the How to Get Away With Murder alum. “Here’s the thing—as much as we feel like we know Michelle Obama, and I did everything I possibly could to research, in those private moments there is some level of creative decision-making that you have to take. I don’t know how she lays in bed with Barack. I don’t know how she would discipline her children. It’s a huge exercise in letting go.”

The First LadyCraveThough Anderson, Davis and Pfeiffer are now done with their terms in the White House, Schulman and Bier hope to return to the series with three new presidential partners in the near future. “I think the trick will be to find those few women that embody a particular concept or theme or movement. It could also be something like sickness or scandal,” muses Schulman, adding that there is no shortage of first ladies that would make for good television. “The whole purpose was to shift the lens from the patriarchal portrayal of American history and raise the curtain on these untold stories. It’s an incredible moment in time that we are finally at a place where we can do this.” 

The First Lady debuts Sunday, April 17th at 8 p.m. on Crave1