WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Tika Sumpter is about to give birth — not just to her first baby, who appears to be due any minute, but to a new chapter in her career.
The actress has produced her first film, and stars in it, too: “Southside With You,” a romantic drama in theaters Friday about a fictionalized first date between the real president and first lady. Sumpter plays Michelle Robinson, a standout young legal associate who agrees to spend an afternoon with her junior colleague, Barack Obama.
Sumpter connected with the story so deeply that she told writer-director Richard Tanne she’d help him bring the film — his first — to the screen.
“I said, ‘You know what, even if I don’t get to play (Michelle), I want to get this film made,’” she recalled during a recent interview at the London Hotel, wearing a sleeveless shift dress that revealed a robust pregnancy. “I don’t know how; I’ve never produced, but I’m going to get this film made.”
As Sumpter pitched the project to potential investors, she heard how passionate she sounded (“It’s like I’m speaking at the DNC.”) and realized she had to play Michelle. This was the kind of character the actress had longed to play and see on screen: A smart, self-confident black woman at the center of a romance who isn’t desperately pining for the guy.
“That’s also ultimately why I wanted to do it, because you don’t always get the roles that are the leads and empowering like this. You get the girlfriend or the wife or you’re always the sidekick. You’re not the main event,” said Sumpter, whose most recent girlfriend role was opposite Kevin Hart in “Ride Along 2.” “And I think Michelle’s the prize, and she knows she’s a prize.”
Tanne said he wrote the part with Sumpter in mind.
“I just hoped she would say yes,” he said.
“Southside With You” follows the future first couple on a daylong excursion that Michelle insists is not a date. Barack (Parker Sawyers) has invited her to a community meeting, but first he wants to take her to an art gallery and to lunch. Tanne imagined the dialogue but says he based his screenplay on published reports about the eventual first couple’s actual first outing.
The film is set in Chicago and was shot last year in Michelle Obama’s hometown neighborhood.
Tanne and Sumpter said the Obamas are aware of the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but have not seen it. The White House was not consulted about the project and has yet to provide any official response to the film.
Sumpter hadn’t intended to be so pregnant as she promoted “Southside With You,” but the 36-year-old says the timing is actually perfect. Producing a film, carrying her first child and playing the future Mrs. Obama has left the actress feeling like she can accomplish anything.
“It was not planned, but it’s like one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to pop right now but I have an empowerment with the baby here. She’s giving me strength and she’s why I do what I do and it’s bigger than me.”
Sumpter will continue to produce and is already developing her next project: a TV series with John Legend’s production company. Sumpter hasn’t revealed what role she’ll play, but says it’s another creation being born.
“That’s what I feel like. It’s just a lot of things coming to a culmination and being birthed,” she said. “It’s exciting.”