How Viola Davis Turned Into Michelle Obama In ‘The First Lady’

Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME

Showtime’s new miniseries The First Ladyspotlighting the personal and professional lives of Michelle Obama, Betty Ford, and Eleanor Roosevelt before and during the years their husbands occupied the Oval Office is gearing up to become one of the most talked-about and surprisingly controversial additions to this spring’s overcrowded television queue. Before people had anything to say online about Viola Davis’ impression of Obama and some of the pilot’s dialogue, pictures of the Oscar winner with paper-thin eyebrows and a subtle smokey eye — and, of course, mimicking the pursed lips of the former first lady – amassed tons of excitement over the time-jumping anthology series.

Credit for the eerie representations of the iconic first ladies, including Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, goes to veteran makeup designer Carol Rasheed, whose three decades of experience and previous work on biopics are on full display throughout the series. is. as well as an intrepid team of makeup artists who tackled the show’s illustrious figures — including Kiefer Sutherland, whose Franklin D. Roosevelt needed a thickened neck, and OT Fagbenle’s Barack Obama, who got prosthetic ears.

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The Appearances of Re-create The First LadyThe three subjects required a personal makeup artist for each actress, with Sergio Lopez-Rivera in charge of Davis’ transformation, Valli O’Reilly assigned to Pfeiffer, and Julie Kendrick to Anderson. As head of the makeup department, Rasheed researched multiple time periods extensively and worked with the costume and hair departments to ensure their contributions were cohesive. The result is more natural, refined, and understated than the cartoonish transformations you see in some big-budget films, allowing the actors to blend into their guises without being swallowed up by them.

Rasheed spoke to The Daily Beast by phone about her less-is-more approach to makeup, maintaining consistency throughout the series’ time jumps and bringing out “the beauty that flows from within each person.”

Can you tell me how you were approached for the project? And did you have any fear of doing it, given how remarkable the people portrayed are? One of the first ladies is clearly still alive.

I was approached regarding this project by a friend of mine I know at Showtime. And she had worked for her before, the producer who called me about this project. I did a show for her a few years ago. And honestly, when she approached me about the project, I didn’t really think about the weight of the project to be honest, I just thought, oh, this would be a great opportunity. You know, I wasn’t nervous. And I didn’t really understand the weight of the project until I got into the project, if that makes sense.

<div klasse="inline-afbeelding__bijschrift">
<p>Makeup artist Carol Rasheed.</p>
<div class="inline-image__credit">Carol Rasheed</div>
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Makeup artist Carol Rasheed.

Carol Rasheed

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Make-up artist Carol Rasheed.

Carol Rasheed

What was your research process like? Was it just a matter of studying photos, or was there other material you looked to for inspiration?

Well, I’ve studied pictures. I watched film noir. I’ve watched different kinds of movies. You know, I kind of walked away from the projects that were done [of the women] rather, just because I wanted to come up with my own vision in terms of what my thoughts will be regarding the look of the show from a makeup perspective. So I’ve done a lot of research. My team and I also collaborated with the costume designer [Signe Sejlund]based on the information she also had – and then again, after she had the opportunity to meet and speak with the director [Susanne Bier]† Of course, all the creatives had their own vision of what the looks would be, and you work with that a bit to really come to a clear vision.

You’ve worked on projects before portraying real figures, such as the TLC TV movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the Tupac biopic All eyes on me† Did this experience feel similar to those projects, or did it feel like a completely different undertaking?

Oh God. This was a very different undertaking. I think if I look at the other three movie projects like the Tupac movie – culturally it was a very different kind of space. The same goes for the TLC movie and also Henrietta Lacks’ story. So this movie was different in that sense [that] it taught a lot about history. I always find these kinds of projects very interesting.

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<p>Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in <em>Showtime’s First Lady.</em></p>
<div class="inline-image__credit">SHOWTIME</div>
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Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in Showtime’s First Lady.


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Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt on Showtime’s The First Lady.


What do you mean by “a different kind of space culturally?”

I would say more in terms of the space that [the people] occupied in that particular time frame. You know, I know the ladies myself. I really didn’t realize how iconic, shall we say, Betty Ford was. You know what I mean? From my perspective, I knew how popular Tupac was. I knew how popular TLC used to be. So I think that’s the main difference for me. From a cultural perspective I had more insight.

Did you consult with the protagonists based on what they wanted to convey in their impressions or what they wanted to emphasize with their facial movements?

Well, the three ladies all had personal makeup artists themselves. But of course there is a concerted effort regarding all the characters. There were younger versions of each lady. So that was an opportunity to work together to make sure there were things that would transition from the young first ladies to the old first ladies.

For example, I know that Michelle Obama had a very clear smile. And the makeup artist, Sergio, had to make sure he was right about the teeth. You have to make sure that the eye color is the right color. Those were things we had to participate in to make sure it correlated directly with the younger, directly correlated with the older. We had to make sure as we grew, you know, because every lady played until she was in her early thirties, right? And then the older ladies came in. So you always want to make sure you’re working with each person especially when they’re on personals to make sure there are things that go over to make sure it’s a smooth transition from young to old.

Was there one first lady in particular that you found the most difficult to recreate or did it take longer to develop a look for?

[The women] they all had personals so I really didn’t spend much time in the older years. Again, I looked at the younger person. And really, it was just a matter of making sure the eyebrows were a bit correct, making sure the eye color was correct. And with the younger Eleanor Roosevelt, we had to have her mouth molded to make sure we had teeth to handle the overbite Eleanor had. That was the only thing I can think of that we really had to try and get that right. The younger version of Michelle Obama, who was played by Jamie Lawson – she had all that kind of pouty mouth that Michelle Obama has, so there wasn’t much work with that, specifically for the younger version.

I found the makeup in the show really impressive because the transformations are creepy, but they never overshadow the performances, which can sometimes happen in biopics. Do you usually have a less-is-more approach to makeup?

Absolute. That’s my whole approach because when I do makeup, I always want to improve what’s there. And there are little tricks you can do to really help translate things. For the first ladies specifically, I wanted the makeup style to be very stylized, even though we tried to stay period correct. But the makeup for every block I was in charge of the department, I wanted the thread of being able to see the skin, of being able to see the beauty flowing from the person. And I did that best by not covering it with makeup. That was an important factor for me, being able to let myself and my team do makeup without actually having to see the makeup. You know, we stayed period correct by getting the lip colors that were from that period, including the eyebrow. The forehead shapes the way they were back in that time frame without being so overwhelming.

You know, the approach was a very simplistic style of makeup that we did, which can live in that time period. But if you look at it in 2022, 2023, 2025, it reads a bit more contemporary. So that was the approach for the entire three blocks. And that’s why when you look at the style of makeup, it creates an atmosphere of just really looking at the skin. It’s not disturbing. You will not be distracted by the makeup. And I think that’s really my approach to style in terms of how I do makeup. That’s my love, is being able to take what people already have and really improve it, but find very specific things.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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