An Interview with Richard Tanne: Casting the Perfect Obamas

The well-reviewed romantic drama Southside with You—about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date—is now in theaters (read my own Southside with You movie review), so it only made sense to finally publish an interview I did with director Richard Tanne, who I met at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).

Richard shares some insights on the movie and the challenges of casting actors who are more than mere impersonators, as well as what other movies he has coming up and his inspiration for making movies.

The conversations in Southside with You are fictionalized, but how did you approach balancing dramatic effect with the fact that the movie is about two people who very well could see the movie?

You just try to push that out of your mind. That they’re going to see it or that anyone is going to see it. Without sounding too artsy fartsy, you just have to get the characters talking to each other. Hopefully you’ve done enough reading and research and watching to go, “I have a sense of their world views were at that time.”

The actors were asked to rehearse well before production. How much in the movie is them staying to script versus organically developing dialogue?

What’s funny is that I told them at the start of it that they could change whatever dialogue they wanted, to make it their own. I think it had the reverse psychology effect. When you don’t tell actors that, they make up their own minds. But they stuck to the script.

But maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s that they knew we were on a tight schedule and that we had to be off book by the time they showed up to the set. There wasn’t a whole lot of changing or improvising; they were looking at the script as gospel for the most part. That helped us move quickly, because we had very limited time.

Only 15 days, correct?

Fifteen days with a couple days of pickups, which weren’t full days.

You’ve made a movie about two of the most recognized people on the planet. I often see movies where celebrities or politicians are played by people that just don’t look the part, and it’s often so disconcerting. Were you scared or concerned about that at all?

I wasn’t because I knew I wouldn’t cast anyone who was doing an impersonation. We were going to try and find two actors who possessed certain innate or internal qualities that the Obamas have. All that other kind of stuff, the mimicry or the way they move, if we get there that has to come from them first feeling connected to the characters. I never worried about that because we’re either going to win people over because of the characters in the movie, or we’re not.

And if people are rooted in the characters that they’re seeing, they might sort of forgive if the actors aren’t identical or exacting.

That said, Parker Sawyers looks so much like Obama. Did he need any makeup?

No. He grew out a very modest afro which the President had at that time, and that’s it.

Did you look at other actors who weren’t as close in appearance?

I looked at 30 or 40 people and it wasn’t so much about the look for me. It just so happened that Parker had the look and the chops. And really, maybe, the movie wouldn’t have worked if he didn’t exist as a human being. I don’t know. I remember Quentin Tarantino once saying about Christoph Waltz, had his parents not met and fucked and given birth to him, he’s not sure if he would have been able to make Inglorious Basterds.

I kind of feel that way about Parker. It’s not that we did a worldwide search, we kept it pretty targeted, but he’s just so right for it. But it kind of goes beyond that. He just had the chops. He’s going to do things beyond this movie. He’s not a guy who just does really good Obama impersonations. He’s also a terrifically talented actor and that’s what really put it over the top, more than his appearance.

Have the Obamas seen it?

Not to my knowledge. I know they’re aware of it, they’re kind of perplexed that it exists, but I’ve heard they are a little tickled by it or excited by it. I don’t know if that’s truth.

Well, they’ll have a lot of free time in a few months. Switching gears, you’re working on a Pixar film?

Which I can say nothing else about [laughs], but I can confirm that.

Fine. So more about you… what was your favorite movie growing up?

My favorite movie growing up was Edward Scissorhands. That was the one for me—that was 1992 when that came out, so I was seven years old or so. I had seen Batman and loved that of course as a kid, but when I saw Edward Scissorhands, that was the first time that I understood that there was one person behind both of those movies. That’s why they felt similar, even though they are different movies. I just became obsessed with directors. I asked my dad, “Why do they look the same?” and he said, “That’s Tim Burton, the director.” That was a real game-changer for me.

From that age, did you want to make movies?

Yeah. I became that obsessive movie geek.

Are there directors you follow, to see what they’re doing or do something similar?

Not that I want to do similar things per se, but any person that is out there who is writing and directing their own stuff, I’m probably following their career. I love those kind of filmmakers. So whether it’s Woody Allen—my all-time favorite—or Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino… and going to the generation before that, I’ll still go see everything that Scorsese puts out, everything that De Palma puts out, though his output is less and less now, and yeah, I even love the fact that Coppola is making these small, personal films. Jeff Nichols, too.

Preference to be writing and directing

Yeah, anything that I direct at this point, that’s what I see happening. I’m going to write the script. There is other stuff that I have in various stages of development that I’ve co-written or that I’m going to produce, and that’s something I want to do as well: is be able to give other filmmakers an opportunity to still work on things that I wouldn’t necessarily devote two or three years of my life to, but that I still feel passionate about.

What other genres do you want to tackle?

As a director, I have so many different ideas. They really run the gamut, to be honest. There are things that are epic sci-fi stories, and then there are more on Southside with You’s human, grounded scale. But there are a couple of things I’m not directing. I co-wrote a horror script that I hope we can get off the ground in the next year or so. It’s sort of like Scream, in that it’s trying to upend horror conventions. There’s another thing that I co-wrote that is more of a throwback to Michael Mann movies.

I’m always down for a Michael Mann-esque crime thriller.

Yeah! Well, this thing is like what it would look like if you take the diner scene in Heat—between De Niro and Pacino—and stretched that out to an entire movie.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Drama Movies