“The First Lady” features three powerful women, three well-known actors as their characters, and a century worth of history that includes wars, scandals and America’s stubborn gender, and race fault lines.
Susanne Bier, Oscar-winning director, found the Showtime drama series a daunting challenge. The subjects, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford, each have compelling and riveting stories, but the sum is greater, Bier stated about her first biographical project.
Bier stated in an interview that “it was interesting to me it wasn’t just one biopic” and focused on first ladies from different experiences and eras. “In a way it puts the women’s position in the world very much in perspective.”
Gillian Anderson stars as Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Pfeiffer plays Betty Ford. Viola Davis is Michelle Obama. “The First Lady” debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT. The series’ executive producer was Davis, along with Bier and showrunner Cathy Schulman.
Jayme Lawson (Obama), Kristine Froseth and Eliza Scanlen (Roosevelt) are the future first lady roles in their younger versions. Kiefer Sutherland portrays Franklin D. Roosevelt, Aaron Eckhart portrays Gerald Ford, and O-T Fagbenle portrays Barack Obama.
Schulman stated that the series explores personal and political stories, but it’s historical fiction and does not pretend to be documentary. During a panel discussion, she stated that “we had to imagine the events in between them and the things that have already been written about.”
Bier stated that the Danish first-lady position doesn’t exist. She was not familiar with the characters, but she developed a new respect for them.
She said, “What struck me was that they were able to navigate the White House without having any political positions and gained much more influence than one would think.” While doing so, they were able to fulfill the role of America’s first “beautiful looking, successful” hostess.
Bier stated that Betty Ford spoke out about her breast cancer at a time when it was still stigmatized and no one talked about it. She “certainly saved many lives” and changed attitudes in the U.S. as well as other countries.
“The First Lady” views the stories as a tapestry. It weaves together moments that show how similar their experiences were despite all the years that have passed.
After spending a lot of their adult lives supporting their husbands’ ambitions, all fought for the right to be considered first ladies. Obama and Ford are shown as being reluctant to make the White House their temporary residence — Obama because Obama had been so involved in politics after she gave up her dreams; Ford because Ford was afraid for her husband’s safety, as the first Black president.
Bier stated that despite the decades passed, there are still striking similarities between the walls “that these three ladies banged up against”. “Yes, our society and history have changed. It is still a man’s world, and it is why I think it is so important to put on (such) a show.
Parallels between the women are strictly thematic, as their lives do not overlap in history. Bier joined the team after the approach had been determined. He felt that the script didn’t adequately reflect the storylines of the individual women.
Bier suggested creating a “cohesive text for each” to help the first ladies’ scenes be shot separately. Ford, Obama, and Roosevelt were all filmed in succession.
She said that the scripts for Michelle Obama were being revised while we were filming Betty. “So there wasn’t really a roadmap for interweaving the stories.
Bier won the best foreign-language Oscar for 2011 for “Haevnen.” (“In a Better World”) and received a directing Emmy in 2016 for “The Night Manager.” His other credits include “The Undoing”, and “Birdbox.”
Producer Schulman stated that Bier is a “master filmmaker” in many genres and was the right choice for Showtime’s series that “moves between comedy, tragedy, and everything in-between.” Susanne is an actor’s direct, and her attention to detail in approaching characterizations was critical in bringing the first women to life.
“The First Lady” is an ongoing anthology series that will feature new spouses to the presidency. Schulman and Bier are intrigued by Dolley Madison, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton.
Schulman stated that she is currently obsessing about Martha Washington during the panel discussion. Schulman cited her fascination with the origins and role of the first lady. “But I would also be interested in seeing if there was a different way to do Jackie Kennedy. Each one is fascinating, and each of them becomes more interesting when combined.