Tika Sumpter stops in Detroit to discuss her new film

t’s been a few years since actress Tika Sumpter, who leads an ensemble cast on OWN’s soapy “The Haves and the Have Nots,” visited Detroit, where she was here to film the 2012 remake of Sparkle with Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks. Sumpter was back in town this month promoting her latest project, Southside With You, which hits theaters August 26.

In contrast to the conniving vixen or the girl-group hopeful we’ve seen her as, Sumpter takes on the role of a young Chicago attorney in a plot that follows a first date with another young lawyer. (Oh, and the attorney’s name? Michelle Robinson. Her date? Barack Obama.)

We sat down with Sumpter, who’s also credited as a producer on Southside, to discuss her experiences being in a future first lady’s shoes.

On playing Michelle.

“It was overwhelming, but I really prepared for it. I stripped away the whole Michelle Obama thing, and really went down to Michelle Robinson. I tried to figure out what connected me with her. At first you think, ‘I didn’t go to Harvard, I didn’t go to Yale. She did all these amazing things in her career.’ But then I strip it down to a girl from the south side of Chicago with a family who was hard-working just like my family. I just related to the very barebones of who Michelle Robinson was at the time. I just stripped away the enormity of Michelle Obama. This was 20 years ago. They were both not polished completely and they’re humanized here. You’re seeing [Barack] smoke cigarettes; it’s so real. You’re seeing her with her family in their bungalow home in a Chicago neighborhood. You know that neighborhood. It might not be Chicago, but there’s a neighborhood like that in Detroit. It’s very human. So that’s how I was able to not feel overwhelmed to play her.”

On researching for the part.

“We never wanted to impersonate. We always wanted to embody the essence of who they are because it could have been really bad. It could have been a parody. We knew we had to do it right. And so Richard Tanne, who’s the director, he would tell Parker [Sawyer, who plays Obama] sometimes, ‘okay, pull back on the Obama thing.’ Or, ‘Tika, stay on top of the way she talks.’ I just wanted you to hear her, but I didn’t want everything in your face. We read books, we both watched videos, but we never wanted to try to impersonate. The great thing about Michelle is nobody has video of her at 25, so I was able to create her. Barack has a few videos out there at 28, 29, but nobody’s seen [Michelle]. So I was able to kind of play with it.”


On finding an actor to play Barack.

“When [Sawyer] came for a screen test, I knew it was him as soon as he walked out the door. I was like, ‘hire him right now,’ because chemistry you can’t really create it — you either have it or you don’t. As soon as he walked in and we did the scene, it was just there. And obviously we worked on the scenes and we both worked really hard, but we kind of bickered back and forth like [Barack and Michelle] on a normal level. He jokes around a ton and I’m like, ‘boy, sit down!’ It was just our personalities, and then with everything else on top: the way we looked, the way we dressed and then the words, so it all worked out and you saw the chemistry.”

On being a first-time producer.

“Producing is kind of like putting a puzzle together and there are pieces everywhere. It’s a collaborative effort and everybody has to be willing to work together and agree that the piece is worthwhile. So it’s getting all those pieces together and then also getting the money, and then even if you get the money, it still has to be green-lit. It’s a process, but for me I like putting stuff together anyway — that’s my thing. At times, you have to be aggressive and take off the actor hat. I had to balance sometimes because I deal with these people on an actor level as well. But I love it. It’s like a nice piece of the pie to have, control-wise and creativity-wise.”

On surpassing the ‘black movie stereotype.’

“I hope this film will help other films with two black people not be ‘oh, that’s a black movie.’ Last night, they were screening the film and there were black and white people there. I personally wanted to see more of us up there. Black women are not normally the prize, and I wanted us to see ourselves as the prize. Even with normal romantic comedies, it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, the girl is always usually crying and chasing or taking off their clothes, and it’s just a breath of fresh air to see two people evolving and conversing and courting. I think that’s refreshing and I think that’s why it’s working.”

On the Obamas leaving the White House.

“Barack is great, but Michelle…Michelle really makes me feel like I can be anything, and not dim my light for anybody. I feel like she’s still her own person. She’s not under someone. She’s not just the first lady, she’s Michelle Obama and she can stand on her own. But to see a black woman in the White House and how accessible she has made herself to people, not only does she feel like a sister, friend, she’s many things. And I feel like she sees me, and we see her. Just the way she talks to people, even at graduations, she’s just like, ‘let me tell you something.’ She’s just like mama or sister or auntie, you know her. To me, they feel like home. So that’s what I think people are nostalgic about right now. Like dang, that’s home and they’re leaving.”

Southside With You hits theatres August 26, but you can check out the trailer below.

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