Viola Davis may be coming for another Emmy for her role as former First Lady Michelle Obama! The Oscar-, Emmy-, and Golden Globe-winning actress has already made quite the impression playing Michelle in the Showtime anthology series The First Lady, which premiered April 17.
Here we break down what went into Viola’s complete transformation into Mrs. Obama, including how she prepared for the role by working with a dialect coach, researching the deep history of Michelle and her husband, former president Barack Obama, and undergoing aesthetic and cosmetic changes for the part.
The Role Carried A Lot Of Weight For Viola
“In four years, I don’t want to look back and think, what did I become living in that house?” Michelle asks Barack, played by O-T Fagbenle, in the trailer. In terms of how Viola transformed into FLOTUS, that was a whole other kind of Becoming.
“You don’t want to insult them by your portrayal,” Viola said during the show’s CTAM panel in February as she considered how Barack and Michelle would see the show. “It keeps me up at night.” In addition, when speaking with Entertainment Tonight in April, the Fences actress said she felt the pressure to also make Michelle “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.
Moreover, according to Deadline, Viola was able to speak with Michelle in order to prepare for the role. She was, however, a bit reluctant to share the details of that conversation. “It’s more important for me that I protect the privacy of [Michelle] than to promote a TV show,” she said.
Luckily for Viola, Michelle herself has spoken nothing but praises for the How to Get Away with Murder actress. “I feel that I’m not worthy,” the former first lady told Entertainment Tonight. “I wish I could be better to live up to the character that Viola has to play, but it’s exciting.”
She added, “Anything Viola does, she does it with passion and vigor, and I know she will do no less for this role.”
Preparing For The Part
Viola’s nerves were definitely up in preparation for the role, seeing as she had some big shoes to fill. Luckily, she had veteran dialect coach Joel Goldes, with whom she’s worked for almost a decade, on hand. Speaking with Variety ahead of the series’ premiere, Goldes noted how Viola’s “fantastic work ethic” contributed to their ability to get the role just right — something they worked on perfecting for a year.
“[With her] voice and accent, she would call things back and say ‘I remember Michelle would do something like this in this situation.’ That was a huge blessing to work with someone who’s so invested,” Goldes told the outlet. “We would prep stuff right up to the time she shot.”
He went on to detail his collaboration with the Doubt actress by explaining how Michelle’s memoir, Becoming, was a useful resource to help master her accent. “I listened to a lot of Michelle,” he explained. “She’s also been interviewed a lot through the years, so, both Viola and I were able to find samples from the year ranges of when she’s being represented in the show.”
He continued, “The big thing was that no one knows what she sounds like in her private life, so we made a big, artistic leap in terms of figuring that out. I took this wealth of audio and video information and distilled it into a one-page breakdown of how Michelle talks.”
He also added that, since Michelle’s mom and dad were from the South, there was a bit of a southern accent to be tackled, along with a “very mild Chicago accent.”
“One of the biggest things that was difficult for Viola was — because her family background is Southern, but she grew up mostly in Rhode Island, where there’s no ‘R’ sound heard after a vowel — on set, she would sometimes revert to her natural accent,” Goldes shared. “But we were able to pick some of those up in ADR, which was fantastic, and it goes to the nitty-gritty and the reality of the person that many people even in the production didn’t realize was an issue. But we spent time in the ADR booth to get to that accuracy which people don’t realize, but it goes to the whole picture.”
He concluded by saying that “if there’s something that Michelle does, then that’s a thing that Viola adopted,” noting the “danger” that often comes with having to play a real, still-living person people know and are familiar with. “People might not remember something that Michelle did, but I would say if Viola did it, then it’s something that Michelle did, and that is accurate,” he stated. “It’s tough to play the perceived idea of who someone is versus the actuality.”
How Viola Became Michelle
In addition to sounding like and affecting the perfect portrayal of Mrs. Obama, the show’s creators of course also wanted their leading lady to look as much like the former FLOTUS as possible. Enter Carol Rasheed, the makeup department head on the production who led a staff of four to 15 throughout the making of the series. “It was just a makeup artist’s dream, to be honest with you,” Rasheed told Harper’s Bazaar. “I am so ecstatic about the opportunity that I got with this, to be able to bring this team on and be able to help tell the story through the lens of makeup artists.”
“When you look at somebody like Michelle Obama who is known for her teeth, helping create her smile develops her character,” Rasheed continued. “You have to look at getting the skin tone correct, her hands, her nails, her brows specifically—with Michelle Obama, her brows went through an awakening. Sergio [Lopez-Rivera, Viola’s personal makeup artist] was tasked with that—and he got it right.”
Lopez-Rivera did things like create a prosthetic bumper for Viola’s mouth that helped push her chin forward a bit and also had a “Vacuform mold” of the actress’s forehead so he could “create stencils of Michelle’s eyebrows through the years.”
For the hair department, Louisa Anthony, who worked with Viola’s personal hairstylist, Jamika Wilson, helped craft the actress’s locks just right. For the portrait scene where Viola wore Michelle’s now-iconic black-and-white Michelle Smith dress, Anthony said “research was key to accuracy” to get, well, every last hair in its proper “magical” place.
“I did a lot of Google searches to study the hairstyles of Michelle Obama over her eight years in the White House,” Wilson added. “Each style has its own identity, and it was important to re-create the styles with accuracy.”
“Michelle Obama had many iconic hairstyles over her eight years in office, each unique with its own identity,” Wilson concluded. “The hairstyles were curated and created specific to her, and as such, re-creating them had to be done with precise measure and attention to detail.”