In the Sundance charmer Southside With You he’s the spitting image of a young Barack Obama. In real life, the actor who breathes swagger into POTUS’s youthful idealism onscreen was once on track for a career in politics himself, raised in a family of Republicans.
Meet Parker Sawyers, the affably commanding Hollywood newcomer who makes his leading man debut as the future 44th President of the United States of America.
Sawyers, 32, had been acting for just four years when he landed the role of a young Obama opposite star and producer Tika Sumpter, who’d fought for years to bring Southside With You to the screen.
In the film, scripted and directed by Richard Tanne, 28-year-old law intern Obama (Sawyers) woos his future wife, Michelle (Sumpter) over the course of a daylong date on Chicago’s South Side that reveals shades of the leaders both would eventually become.
“He’s our perfect Obama,” Sumpter grinned as she and Sawyers sat down with The Daily Beast this week inside a crowded press tent at the Sundance Film Festival, where their Before Sunrise-esque indie romance debuted to warm reviews.
Sawyers first auditioned for the film with his best President Obama impersonation before giving producers a taste of the more relaxed, flirty, chain-smoking, and charismatic young Obama he plays onscreen. His voice is naturally higher in timbre than the Leader of the Free World’s, but Sawyer’s been getting the Obama doppelganger comments since 2008, when he lived in Chicago for a brief time. “Somebody was like, ‘Hey, you look like [Obama]… is he your brother?’” recalled Sawyer.
Ironically enough, Sawyers grew up Republican, the son of Paula Parker-Sawyers, the first female deputy mayor of Indianapolis under Republican Mayor William H. Hudnut III, and James Sawyers, who also served in the city’s administration.
“She was Republican,” Sawyers noted of his mother. “Now she’s registered as Independent, and she voted for President Obama—twice.” (For the record, Sawyers—who lives in London with his family—now describes himself as “probably more of an Independent.”)
He graduated college with a philosophy degree, then followed suit into state politics by working in Republican Gov. (and onetime presidential hopeful) Mitch Daniels’s administration. “I worked for the [Republican] Lieutenant Governor of Indiana, Becky Skillman,” he said, remembering the day he broke out a copy of Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father at work.
“I was reading his book Dreams from My Father in 2006 in the Republican office and then I saw my parents, who said, ‘You should not do that!’” he laughed. “I said, ‘Well, if anybody says anything, I’ll just say he’s the only black politician I have to look up to.’”
Sumpter turned to her co-star with a giant grin. “You almost became a second Obama!” she exclaimed.
Sawyers nodded, flashing back to those years. “One thing I was struck by when I read Dreams from My Father, when I had just graduated college and I was still in party mode, was when I got to the point where he said he used to smoke weed and when you had money you’d get some coke,” he said. “I was like, ‘He said that in his book? Is he crazy? But it’s indicative of who he is and who they are as people. Michelle Obama was on Letterman or something like that, and she was like, ‘No, he just knew he could do something else with his life.’ And then he stopped smoking weed. But he doesn’t shy away from the fact.”
Alas, a life in politics was not in the cards. “I was 23,” he said. “I got disillusioned with politics. I just went into modeling.” Eventually he moved to the U.K., where he stumbled into acting while working at a lobbying firm repping auto manufacturers. After landing the role as a trans woman on Netflix’s Lilyhammer, bit parts in films like Zero Dark Thirty, Austenland, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit followed. His upcoming roles include appearances in Oliver Stone’s Snowden and the Universal Pictures actioner Spectral.
Meanwhile Sumpter, whose films include Sparkle, Think Like A Man, Get On Up, and the Ride Along films, worked behind the scenes to get Southside With You made in a climate in which—much like Nate Parker’s hugely successful Sundance hit The Birth Of A Nation—naysayers have long insisted there’s no commercial market for films with black leads.
“I think diversity includes women, black, Asian, Indian, everything other than just white,” Sumpter said, applauding the Academy’s new measures to increase its female and minority membership. “It’s really important that we’re having the conversation and I’m really glad that they decided to make some changes. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of those changes, but I think it even starts before that.”
But first, she said, Hollywood’s studio execs and financiers have to start changing their way of thinking and “take more risks on films like this.”
“That’s one of the reasons I did this,” she said. "Michelle Obama to me means anything’s possible. She’s a person who I’m like, that’s me. I didn’t go to Princeton or Harvard, but gosh—she’s a girl, she’s smart, at the same time she’s dancing to Beyoncé! We’re complex human beings. We’re not one thing. And it’s important that people see themselves in media that way. You’ve got to see yourself. People need representation.”
And while the high-profile spotlight historically tends to shine on African-American-led movies about race and America or slavery, as Jezebel’s Kara Brown lamented in the aftermath of Birth of a Nation’s $17.5 million acquisition sale, movies like Southside With You offer an all-too rare alternative: normalcy. It’s at once a day in the life of America’s trailblazing First Couple and the simple story of a man and a woman sparking the first seeds of romance over the course of one meandering summer day in Chicago.
Sumpter is also well aware of the criticism the film will attract from the right and downplays its partisanship. “At the end of the day we were inspired by their love story, and I think anybody can relate to that regardless of what political affiliation you have,” she said. “We’re stripping them down to the beginning, the human aspect. He smokes cigarettes. They talk about weed! There are so many real aspects that are relatable. Listen, you come in with any agenda and you’re going to walk out thinking it’s not what you thought it was. There was no agenda when we filmed this.”
I point out that the sexual chemistry between their Barack and Michelle crackles quite a bit onscreen, a most unusual way to see a sitting president. “We see pictures and they’re touching each other,” Sumpter smiled. “There’s something going on.”
“They were 28, 25, and they weren’t being dissected by anybody,” Sawyers added. He stopped himself short of analyzing the Obamas’ sex life too much. “I do not want my passport revoked!”
Both stars weighed in on the upcoming election, which Sumpter says is “confusing” for voters. She also brought up the heated anti-immigration rhetoric espoused by candidates like Donald Trump. “I think there are a lot of crazy ideas going around—a lot of crazy condoned racism—and it’s sad,” she said. “Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant and he built the banking system! If we don’t have this mesh of ideas, we’re not taking advantage of all these amazing brains that come into the country.”
Sawyers, meanwhile, says he tries to follow the 2016 circus from abroad. “Politically, it’s hard to keep up from over there and it sucks when you get the sound bites,” he mused. “What are these people talking about? There’s got to be more to this story.”
“I wish there was more transparency—‘Here’s what I think, this is why I think it,’ without necessarily pandering to this group or this group or this group,” he added. Pausing, his voice assumed a downright presidential tone. “I know a lot of people are going to miss the Obamas being in office.”