How Viola Davis Transformed Into Michelle Obama in ‘The First Lady’

How Viola Davis Transformed Into Michelle Obama in ‘The First Lady’


Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME

Showtime’s new miniseries The First Lady, which spotlights 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 be one of the most talked-about and surprisingly controversial additions to this spring’s packed television lineup. Before folks online had things to say about Viola Davis’ impression of Obama and some of the pilot’s dialogue, photos of the Oscar-winner donning razor-thin eyebrows and a subtle smokey eye—and, of course, emulating the former first lady’s pursed lips—garnered tons of excitement about the time-jumping anthology series.

Credit for the show’s uncanny 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 is on full display throughout the series, as well as a fearless team of makeup artists tackling the show’s illustrious figures—including Kiefer Sutherland, whose Franklin D. Roosevelt required a thickened neck, and O-T Fagbenle’s Barack Obama, who received prosthetic ears.

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Recreating the appearances of The First Lady’s 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 working on Anderson. As makeup department head, Rasheed conducted extensive research into multiple time periods and collaborated with the costume and hair departments to make sure their contributions were cohesive. The result is more natural, refined and restrained than the cartoonish transformations you see in some big-budget movies, allowing the actors to meld into their guises without being consumed 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 apprehension doing it, considering how notable the people being portrayed are? One of the first ladies is, obviously, still living.

I actually was approached, in regards to this project, from a friend of mine that I know at Showtime. And she had worked for her before, the producer that called me about this project. I had done another show for her several years ago. And honestly, when she approached me about the project, I didn’t really think about the weight of the project to be perfectly honest with you, I just thought, oh, this would be an amazing opportunity. You know, I wasn’t nervous. And I really didn’t understand the weight of the project until I got into the project, if that makes sense.

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

Makeup artist Carol Rasheed.

Carol Rasheed

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

Well, I studied photos. I looked at film noir. I looked at various types of movies. You know, I kind of steered away from the projects that had been done [of the women] before, only because I wanted to come up with my own vision in terms of what my thoughts are going to be in regards to the look of the show from a makeup perspective. So, I did tons of research. My team and I also collaborated with the costume designer [Signe Sejlund], based on the information that she had, as well—and then also, after having an opportunity to meet and speak with the director [Susanne Bier]. Of course, all the creatives had their own vision in terms of what the looks were going to be, and you kind of collaborate with that and put it all together to really come up with a clear vision.

You’ve worked on projects before depicting real-life figures, like the TLC TV movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me. Did this experience feel comparable to those projects, or did it feel like a completely different undertaking?

Oh, God. This was a completely different undertaking. I guess looking at the other three film projects, like the Tupac movie—culturally, it was a whole different type of space. The same thing with the TLC movie and also the Henrietta Lacks story. So this movie was different in the sense [that] it was teaching a lot about history. So, I always find those types of projects very fascinating.

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

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 type 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 themselves. I really didn’t realize how iconic, say, Betty Ford was. You know what I mean? From my perspective, I knew how popular Tupac was. I knew how popular TLC was back in the day. So, I think that that is the main difference for me. From a cultural perspective, I had more insight.

Did you consult with the main actresses based on what they wanted to bring to their impressions or what they wanted to emphasize with their facial movements?

Well, the three ladies themselves all had personal makeup artists. But, of course, there’s a collaborative effort in regards to all of the characters. There were younger versions of each lady. So that was an opportunity to be collaborative in terms of ensuring that there were things that would cross over from the young first ladies over to the old first ladies.

For example, I know that Michelle Obama had a very distinct smile. And the makeup artist, Sergio, had to make sure he had that right in terms of the teeth. You have to make sure that eye color is the correct color. Those were things that we had to participate in to ensure that it was directly correlated to the young person directly correlated to the older person. We had to make sure that, as we grew, you know, because each lady played up until they got into their early thirties, right? And then the older ladies came in after that. So you want to always make sure that you’re collaborating with each person, particularly when they have personals to make sure that there are things that are going to cross over to ensure that it’s a smooth transition from young to old.

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

[The women] all had personals, so I really did not spend a lot of time in the older years. Again, I looked at the younger person. And really, it was just a matter of making sure that the brows were kind of correct, making sure that the eye color was correct. And with the younger Eleanor Roosevelt, we did have to have a mold of her mouth made to make sure that we had teeth to give the overbite that Eleanor had. That was the only thing that I can think of that we really had to try and get that correct. The younger version of Michelle Obama, who was played by Jamie Lawson—she already had that kind of pouty mouth that Michelle Obama has, so there was not a lot of work with that, specifically for the younger version.

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

Absolutely. That’s my whole approach because, when I’m doing makeup, I always want to enhance what’s there. And there are little tricks that you can do to really help things translate. Specifically for the first ladies, I wanted the makeup style to be very stylized, even though we tried to stay period-correct. However, the makeup for each block that I department-headed—I wanted the thread of being able to see skin, being able to see the beauty that flows from within the person. And I did that best by not covering it up with makeup. That was an important factor for me, was to be able to have myself and my team do makeup without you having to really see the makeup. You know, we stayed period-correct by getting the lip colors that were of that time period, also getting the brow. The brow shapes the way that they were back in that time frame without being so overpowering.

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 still reads a little 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 a mood of just really looking at skin. It’s not distracting. You don’t get distracted from 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 enhance it but finding very specific things.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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