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Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer & Gillian Anderson for WSJ. Magazine

Actresses Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Gillian Anderson discuss Showtime’s new series “The First Lady”

Viola Davis
Photography © Jackson Lee Davis / SHOWTIME | WSJ. Magazine

The stars of Showtime‘s new series “The First LadyViola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Gillian Anderson talk about stepping into the shoes of Betty Ford, Michelle Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt for WSJ. Magazine.

On what drew them to each of the first ladies they’ve depicted:

MICHELLE PFEIFFER: I didn’t know a lot about Betty Ford. I, of course, knew about the Betty Ford Center and her alcoholism and her addiction. And as I started to dig in deeper, I saw what kind of contribution she made regarding social policies and the Equal Rights Amendment—and how she raised awareness for breast cancer screening and mental health. She was just so much more than her addiction.

GILLIAN ANDERSON: Eleanor Roosevelt was probably one of the busiest and most committed [and] active women. There were so many issues that she was entirely outspoken about, that she felt needed to be voiced regardless of what the backlash might be. She really felt strongly that [she and Franklin] had a purpose—to right injustices on a level that even today almost feels unfathomable. They said they were going to do things, and they did things back then.

VIOLA DAVIS: I mean, it’s Michelle Obama. Everything about her. She was one of those first ladies that came in with big ideas. And I would say that the restrictions that were placed on her—not just being a first lady but [also] being a Black woman—were enormous. And for her to navigate all of that and accomplish what she did: I mean, her Hunger Free program for kids. [Michelle Obama advocated passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to fund and raise nutritional standards for school lunches, which President Obama signed into law in 2010.] I mention that because I was a kid who was hungry. I grew up in abject poverty. I dumpster-dived. I stole money for food. And I think Michelle Obama, coming from the South Side of Chicago, was very aware of [that kind of poverty].

Davis on meeting Michelle Obama, and consulting with her to research her role:

I’ve met Barack and Michelle, absolutely. I consider myself to have more angst, and I come from a place of feeling like, “You better see me; I’m not invisible.” But when you’re in their presence, they absolutely know their worth, they’re in their bodies, and they’re present. They take you in—in a way that’s actually surprising. [Michelle] has decoded you in two seconds. All the best broads I know do that.

I did talk to her. I wouldn’t say it was ongoing, only because it just happened a few times. It’s hard to get the former first lady on the phone.

Michelle Pfeiffer
Photography © Murray Close / SHOWTIME | WSJ. Magazine

On the series being another reminder about the issues, in terms of basic rights and roles in society, that women still face in America:

PFEIFFER: And so much is being threatened that we’ve fought long and hard for. That’s the scary thing to me. My mother was around Betty’s age, and I remember it was all changing when I was small. The deal she signed on for: I will marry this man and will be in service to fulfill his dreams and raise his children and clean his house and cook his food—and she was just shriveling up. And then the deal changed: Women of her generation were suddenly looked down upon and judged because they [supposedly] didn’t do anything with their lives. I think it’s one of the most tragic generations of women, honestly. A lot of them turned to alcohol to self-medicate, which is what Betty did.

ANDERSON: Strangely, it was actually Franklin who was more attuned [than Eleanor] to what was going on with the Equal Rights Amendment and the suffragettes and was in support of them prior to Eleanor. She was raised to believe that the man was the head of the house. It was partly her friendship with women and activists who were making change and fighting for political rights that made something switch in her. She [became] very outspoken and at times got in trouble but also was not deterred. And I think that Franklin appreciated how outspoken she was and was really aware of the impact that she had around the world. She was the face of them as a couple.

DAVIS: Certainly at the forefront of my mind when I signed on to be Michelle Obama: When you enter any room or situation, you have to decide if the woman in you is going to show up or the Black person is going to show up. They’re two different entities. And so that was a huge part of what I had to navigate because I know what’s in Michelle every time she walks through the room. Because it’s with me too. I felt like I was juggling those two balls constantly.

[As a Black woman] you have a different relationship with America than others. So when I signed on, I’m like, “You have to find the connective thread with all of the other first ladies that have come before you. You have to find that.” And is there a connective thread? Absolutely. And then there’s a thread that is not connected at all. Here is a Black family coming into a place built by slaves. You have Michelle Obama (Princeton grad, extraordinarily articulate)—she is portrayed as violent, angry, overly strong, which is a lot of what is placed on Black women. There’s a different America for the rich, a different America for the poor, a different America for Black, a different America for white, there’s a different America for men, and there’s a different America for women.

Gillian Anderson
Photography © Boris Martin / SHOWTIME | WSJ. Magazine

On the connective thread that they discerned among the series first ladies:

DAVIS: For me, it’s agency. That ability to make decisions and know who you are.

PFEIFFER: I think all of them, in different ways, were struggling to be heard, while at the same time dealing with living under a microscope.

On what they would say was the most unprecedented thing about each first lady they played:

ANDERSON: I’d say it was unprecedented that [Eleanor] moved her lesbian lover into the White House.

PFEIFFER: [Betty] had comments about every hot-button issue that was going on at the time. And to come out and speak so openly and so honestly about her breast cancer—and about her alcoholism and drug abuse: that was really unprecedented. She was really lifting the stigma off of a lot of things, which allowed people to come forward and talk about their own problems honestly so they could get help.

DAVIS: I mean, I feel like everything Michelle Obama did and said was unprecedented.

The First Lady series premieres on Showtime, Sunday, April 17th.

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