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Viola Davis says she was ‘terrified’ to play Michelle Obama in ‘The First Lady’

Davis said the idea of Obama watching her portrayal in the Showtime anthology series, out April 17, “keeps her up at night.”

Award-winning actress Viola Davis is set to play former first lady Michelle Obama in the upcoming anthology series “The First Lady,” our April 17 on Showtime, which interweaves the stories of three former first ladies and their experiences in the White House.

Aside from Davis, who also has an executive producer credit for the series, the cast features other prominent actors, including Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt.

Based on interviews, Davis’s role is uniquely daunting: Unlike Pfeiffer and Anderson, Davis is playing a first lady who can actually watch the show — and the pressure got to her.

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in "The First Lady," sitting for her portrait.
Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in "The First Lady," sitting for her portrait.Showtime

During the show's CTAM panel in February, Davis said the idea of Obama watching her portrayal of her in the series makes her nervous. “It keeps me up at night,” she said. “You don’t want to insult them by your portrayal.”

“It keeps me up at night. You don’t want to insult them by your portrayal."

Viola Davis on playing michelle obama

Davis, speaking to Entertainment Tonight in April, said that she felt the pressure to make Obama “look good” through her portrayal. “There’s a sort of sister bond there for me, you know that girl code like, 'I gotta make the sister look good,'” she said.

According to Deadline, Davis was reportedly able to speak with Obama to prepare for the role — although Davis is reluctant to share the details of the conversation. “It’s more important for me that I protect the privacy of [Michelle] than to promote a TV show,” she said. Co-star O-T Fagbenle, who played Barack Obama, wasn’t able to speak to the former president, per an interview with Variety.  

Viola Davis addressed the "stress" of playing Michelle Obama in "The First Lady."
Viola Davis addressed the "stress" of playing Michelle Obama in "The First Lady."Alamy

While Davis has access to information about Obama, like through her documentary, recent memoir, and private conversations, she also had to take creative liberties with the part as an actor.

“As much as we feel like we know Michelle Obama — and I did everything I could to research — there are those private moments where there’s some level of creative decision-making that you have to take. I don’t know how she lays in bed with Barack or how she disciplines her children. There are small minutiae that I can just take creative license with and hope that I’m not insulting her with it,” she said during the CTAM panel.

There’s the stress of Obama’s opinion —then, there’s the stress of everyone else’s. The highly decorated actor, who has won an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Tony Award, told ET the idea of playing such a recognizable figure was “absolutely terrifying.”

“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,” Davis told Entertainment Tonight.

Given all the pressure associated with the role, Davis said she was happy the process of filming “The First Lady” was over, per an April interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

“I’m glad it’s over!” Davis said to Kimmel. “I mean, the stress. Because everybody likes... loves Michelle Obama. They know what she sounds like, they know what she looks like. And I’m like, ‘I don’t want Michelle Obama calling me, cussing me out.’”

Based on the former first lady’s comments on Davis’s casting, though, Davis shouldn’t worry about Obama calling her and "cussing (her) out."

Obama told Entertainment Tonight that she thinks that Davis is “the greatest.”

“I feel that I’m not worthy,” the former first lady told ET. “I wish I could be better to live up to the character that Viola has to play, but it’s exciting.”

“Anything Viola does, she does it with passion and vigor, and I know she will do no less for this role,” she added.