LOS ANGELES — “The First Lady” features three influential women, three acclaimed actors who play them, and a century of history encompassing wars, presidential scandal, and America’s stubborn racial and gender fault lines.
The ambitious Showtime drama series proved an irresistible challenge for Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier. While his subjects – Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama – each have a “compelling and captivating” story, the sum is even greater, Bier said of his first biographical project.
“It was interesting to me that it wasn’t a biopic,” Bier said in an interview. By focusing on first ladies from disparate backgrounds and eras, “in a way, it puts the situation of women around the world into perspective.”
“The First Lady,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT, stars Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama. Davis served as an executive producer on the series, as did showrunners 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 account – 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 does not purport to be a documentary, Schulman said. “We had to imagine what happened between the events and the things that were written,” she told a panel discussion.
Bier said the role of first lady did not exist in her native Denmark. As she got to know the women portrayed in the series, she gained a new respect for them.
“What struck me was that they realized how to navigate the White House without having a political position, and became much more influential than one would have thought,” he said. she declared. They did it while still managing to play the expected role of America’s first “beautiful and successful” hostess.
Betty Ford spoke openly about her breast cancer “at a time when it was so stigmatized and nobody was talking about it,” Bier said. “She obviously saved a lot of people’s lives” and also changed attitudes in the United States 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.
All of them fought to be taken seriously as first ladies after spending part or most of their adult lives supporting their husbands’ ambitions. Ford and Obama are portrayed as deeply reluctant to make the White House their temporary home – Ford because she had spent so long in the political trenches after giving up on her own dreams, Obama because she feared for the safety of her husband as the first black president.
Despite the passage of decades, there are striking similarities in the walls “that these three women bumped into,” Biers said. “Yes, our society has changed, history has changed. But it’s still a man’s world we live in, that’s why I find it extremely important to do (such) a show.”
The parallels involving the women are strictly thematic since their lives do not overlap in the story or the series. Bier, who came on board after the approach was determined, felt that the women’s individual story arc was not fully developed in the script.
With the three First Lady scenes to be shot independently, Bier suggested creating a “cohesive storyline for each”. Even then, changes were made along the way, as Ford, then Obama, and Roosevelt were filmed one after the other.
“While we were shooting Betty, Michelle Obama’s scripts were being rewritten,” she said. “So there was never a finished roadmap of how to intertwine the stories.”
This was accomplished while editing in London, said Biers, who won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2011 for “Hævnen” (“In a Better World”), received an Emmy for directing “The Night Manager” in 2016 and whose other credits include “The Cancellation” and “Birdbox”.
“The First Lady” is envisioned as an ongoing anthology series, with new presidential spouses appearing in future editions. Among the possibilities Schulman and Bier find intriguing: Dolley Madison, Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
“I’m obsessed with Martha Washington right now,” Schulman said during the panel discussion, citing her intrigue with the origins of the first lady’s role. “But I would also be so interested to see if we could find a way to do 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.”