The First Lady introduces three influential women, three acclaimed actresses who play them, and a century of history spanning wars, presidential scandals, and America’s stubborn racial and gender divide.
Showtime’s ambitious drama series proved to be an irresistible challenge for Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier. While the themes of her, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama each have a “compelling and gripping” story, the sum is even greater, Bier said of her first biography project.
“I was interested that it wasn’t a biopic” by focusing on first ladies from disparate experiences and times “in a way that puts the situation of women in the world in perspective,” Bier said in an interview.
The First Lady, debuting Sunday at 9 pm EDT, stars Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama. Davis was an executive producer on the series, as were showrunner Cathy Schulman and Bier.
In their younger iterations, the future first ladies are played by Eliza Scanlen (Roosevelt), Kristine Froseth (Ford), and Jayme Lawson (Obama). The presidents, secondary to their wives in this story, are portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland as Franklin D. Roosevelt; Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford; and OT Fagbenle as Barack Obama.
The series examines both personal and political chapters, but it is historical fiction and not intended to be a documentary, Schulman said. “We had to imagine what happened between the events and the things that have been written about,” he said during a panel discussion.
Bier said that the role of first lady does not exist in her native Denmark. While she was familiar with the women portrayed in the series, she gained a newfound respect for them.
“What struck me was the fact that they figured out how to navigate inside the White House without really having a political position, and they became much more influential than one would have thought,” he said. They did so while still managing to play the expected role of America’s first “beautiful and successful” hostess.
Betty Ford was open about her breast cancer “at a time when it was so stigmatized and no one was talking about it,” Bier said. “She obviously saved a lot of people’s lives” and she also changed attitudes in the US and other countries.
The First Lady approaches the stories like a tapestry, weaving together moments that, at times, show how similar the women’s experience was despite the decades that separated them.
They all struggled to be taken seriously as first ladies after spending part or much of their adult lives supporting their husband’s ambitions. Ford and Obama are portrayed as deeply reluctant to make the White House their temporary home: Ford because she had spent so much time in the political trenches after giving up her own dreams, Obama because she feared for her husband’s safety as the first black president. .
Despite the passage of decades, there are striking similarities in the walls “that these three women ran into,” Bier said. “Yes, our society has changed, history has changed. But it’s still very much a man’s world that we live in, so it seems incredibly important to me to make (such) a show.”
Parallels involving the women are strictly thematic as their lives do not overlap in the story or the series. Bier, who was brought on after the approach was determined, felt that the women’s individual story arc was not fully fleshed out in the script.
Since the first lady’s three scenes will be filmed independently, Bier suggested creating a “cohesive script for each one”. Even then, changes were made along the way, as Ford, then Obama, and Roosevelt were filmed one after another.
“While we were filming Betty, Michelle Obama’s scripts were being rewritten,” he said. “So there was never really a complete roadmap for how to weave the stories together.”
That was achieved during the London edition, said Bier, who won the Oscar for best foreign language in 2011 for Hævnen (“In a Better World”), received a directing Emmy for 2016’s The Night Manager and whose other credits include The Undoing and bird box.
Bier, a “master filmmaker” in several genres, was the man for the Showtime series that “flips in and out of comedy, tragedy and everything in between,” said producer Schulman. “Furthermore, Susanne is an acting director, and the level of detail with which she goes into characterizations was crucial in bringing the first ladies to life.”
The First Lady is conceived as an ongoing anthology series, with new presidential spouses as part of future editions. Among the possibilities Schulman and Bier find intriguing: Dolley Madison, Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
“Right now I’m obsessed with Martha Washington,” Schulman said during the panel discussion, citing her intrigue with the origins of the role of first lady. “But I would also be very interested to see if we can find a way to make Jackie Kennedy that doesn’t tell the same old story. … Each one of them is so interesting, and they get more interesting in the combinations.”