LOS ANGELES – “The First Lady” introduces three influential women, the three famous actors who played them, and a century of history that includes war, presidential scandals, and gender errors and America’s stubborn race.
The ambitious Showtime TV series proved an irresistible challenge to Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier. While its subjects – Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama – each had a “grasping and compelling” story, the totals were even larger, Bier said of the first biographical project. hers.
“It’s interesting to me, it’s not a biopic by focusing on first ladies with different experiences and eras,” said Bier in an interview. plight of women around the world into so many perspectives,” says Bier.
“The First Lady,” which premieres at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday, stars Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama. Davis is an executive producer for the series, as are hosts Cathy Schulman and Bier.
In their younger versions, the future first ladies are played by Eliza Scanlen (Roosevelt), Kristine Froseth (Ford), and Jayme Lawson (Obama). 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 considers both personal and political chapters, but it is historical fiction and does not pretend to be a documentary, Schulman said. “We have to imagine what happened between the events and the things that were written about,” she said in a panel discussion.
Bier said the role of first lady does not exist in her native Denmark. While she was familiar with the women depicted in the series, she gained a new respect for them.
“What struck me was the fact that they realized how to navigate in the White House without really having a political position, and became much more influential than one might think,” she said. . They did so while managing to take on the much-anticipated role of America’s “beautiful, successful” first hostess.
Betty Ford went public about her breast cancer “at a time when it was stigmatized and nobody talked about it,” says Bier. “She obviously saved a lot of lives” and changed attitudes in the US and other countries.
“The First Lady” approaches the stories like a tapestry, interweaving moments that, at times, show how similar women’s experiences are despite the decades that have separated them.
All have struggled to be considered first ladies after spending part or most of their adult lives supporting their husbands’ ambitions. Ford and Obama are depicted as extremely reluctant to make the White House their temporary home – Ford because she lived so long in the political trenches after giving up her own dreams, Obama out of fear for her husband’s safety as the first Black president.
Despite the decades, there are striking similarities in the walls “that these three women slam into,” says Bier. “Yes, our society has changed, history has changed. But it’s still the human world we live in, which is how I find it incredibly important to do (as it is) a show.”
Similar stories involving women are purely topical as their lives do not overlap in history or the series. Bier, who boarded after the approach was determined, felt that the women’s personal story part was not fully developed in the script.
With three scenes of the first lady shot independently, Bier suggested creating a “cohesive script for each scene.” Even then, changes were made throughout the process, as Ford, then Obama, and Roosevelt were filmed respectively.
“When we were shooting Betty, the scripts for Michelle Obama were rewritten,” she said. “So there’s never really been a complete roadmap for how to intertwine the stories.”
That was accomplished during editing in London, says Bier, who won the 2011 best foreign-language Oscar for “H├ªvnen” (“In a Better World”), accepting Won a directing Emmy Award for “The Night Manager” in 2016 and others’ credits include “Undo” and “Bird Box.”
Bier, a “master filmmaker” of various genres, was a good fit for the Showtime series “adapting comedy, tragedy and everything in between,” said producer Schulman. “Also, Susanne is an actor’s director, and the level of detail with which she approaches the characters was crucial in bringing the first ladies to life.”
“The First Lady” is envisioned as a continuing anthology series, with the new presidential spouses being part of future editions. Among the possibilities Schulman and Bier found intriguing: Dolley Madison, Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
“Right now, I’m obsessing over Martha Washington,” Schulman said during the panel discussion, noting she’s intrigued with the origins of her role as first lady. “But I’d also love to see if we can figure out a way to make Jackie Kennedy not tell the same old story. … Each of them are very interesting, and they become more interesting. when combined.”