Viola Davis opens up about ‘terrifying’ task of portraying Michelle Obama in new series

"Everyone knows what she looks like, what she sounds like, what her hair [is like], you know?" the Oscar-winning actress said.

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As Viola Davis prepares to deliver audiences a look behind the curtain of Michelle Obama’s daily life as first lady, the Oscar-winning actress shared her own inner musings about portraying the larger-than-life figure.

In an exclusive interview with Entertainment Tonight this week, Davis, 56, opened up about the “absolutely terrifying” prospect of starring as Obama for Showtime’s highly anticipated anthology series The First Lady. The show is a 10-episode series depicting the personal and political lives of Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford.

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BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 03: Viola Davis joins LOréal Paris to celebrate the launch of Age Perfect Cosmetics on March 03, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for L’Oréal Paris )

Days before the April 17 premiere, Davis told ET on Wednesday that portraying a well-known and established public figure who “everyone has ownership over” presents unique challenges and limits the creative liberties actors are otherwise afforded when playing a fictional character.

“You’re terrified whenever you start a job because you are afraid you are going to be found out — that’s big imposter syndrome. But with Michelle Obama, it’s like everyone has ownership over Michelle Obama,” she told the outlet. “I mean, her book came out and it was [on every] bestseller list, everyone knows what she looks like, what she sounds like, what her hair [is like], you know?”

“When you play someone you don’t make any editorial comments about them, they are who they are, you don’t put it in any machine and water it down or make it reductive,” she later added.

Michelle Obama / Getty

While Obama’s autobiography Becoming has offered the public a sense of her own thoughts about her journey and accomplishments, many historical accounts of both her and Barack Obama came from mere observers, which Davis said illuminated to her how ‘history’ often depends on the perspective of the person recording the first drafts.

“… What it further led me to is the power of the historian. The power of the people who can write history down and what they miss,” Davis told ET. “They don’t grab that conversation that the First Lady had with her husband saying, ‘you know what that law that you’re about to sign, I think I completely disagree with it. I think you need to change it.’ They don’t get the mess, you don’t get the contradictions.”

“Who they are when the doors are closed and what they have to deal with — all that bull crap they have to navigate every single day — and how it affects the dynamic of their relationship, I think that was the biggest surprise,” she added.

Ultimately, Davis said, the main critic she is concerned with impressing is Obama herself, describing the responsibility as a “sister bond,” adding: “I gotta make the sister look good. It’s all those things that you don’t think about as an actor [because] it has nothing to do with acting.”

Summing up her interpretation of what Obama and her legacy represent, Davis quoted former U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan: “’What the people want is very simple – they want an America as good as its promise.’ And that’s what, I feel like I can honestly say, I feel like that was Michelle Obama’s big thing too,” Davis said.

The First Lady, starring Davis as Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, premieres Sunday, April 17, on Showtime.

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