Twenty years ago, a 16-year-old Tika Sumpter was poring over stacks of books in a New York library.
It had become a ritual for the young girl born in Queens: Every weekend, she’d travel from Long Island to Manhattan to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress. “I started researching and reading newspapers for open calls,” she remembers. “I had to figure it out. It was about reading books and asking questions and being told no a lot, and going [to auditions] with the wrong outfit constantly.”
It’s hard to believe there was ever a time Sumpter was turned away. Now, the 36-year-old New Yorker — who, reportedly, is expecting her first child — is one of Hollywood’s most promising rising stars. She kicked off her career in 2005 with a role on the daytime soap “One Life to Live,” which was followed by stints in comedies like “Ride Along” and “Think Like a Man” and a guest role in the hit teen drama series “Gossip Girl.” But she broke out as the lead, Candace Young, in the Oprah Winfrey Network’s highest-rated series “The Haves and The Have Nots,” created, written and directed by Tyler Perry, in 2013.
Now, three years later, Sumpter has scored her biggest — albeit most intimidating — role of all. “Southside with You” (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews this year and hits theaters Aug. 26) tells the story of how a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson met the future president of the United States.
“If I wasn’t nervous, I would question myself,” Sumpter says of her role in the movie, for which she also served as a producer. “It is a tall order to play someone [who] nobody has really seen. Everybody has seen the Michelle Obama now, but nobody has seen the 25-year-old, [before she became] who she is now.”
“Southside with You” is set in the summer of 1989 on the South Side of Chicago. Robinson, an associate at Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, is getting ready to meet up with the company’s summer associate, Harvard graduate Barack Obama (played by Parker Sawyers). She refuses to call it a date, but a love story it truly is. A persistent Obama defies her aloofness, taking her to the Art Institute of Chicago and a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” before stealing a kiss at a Baskin-Robbins in Hyde Park.
“What I love about this movie is that she’s not chasing,” Sumpter says. “I think a lot of the time in movies women are always chasing and getting their hearts broken. Barack Obama wasn’t her only [suitor]. Michelle Robinson had options.”
Sumpter was fastidious in capturing the first lady’s essence — from the way she enunciates her words to her expressive mannerisms. “I watched her giving a lot of speeches at colleges because I feel like that’s where she’s really loose, and watched how she puts her hand to her heart when she talks about something with meaning,” she says.
Remaking the first date of America’s political “it” couple was somewhat of a passion project for Sumpter, who believes the Obamas have been the most outwardly loving couple in the White House. “We haven’t seen a president and a first lady as affectionate as they are — holding hands, the way she looks at him, the way she fixes his tie, the way he looks at her, the way he flirts,” she says.
There are no reports that the president and first lady have seen the movie, but during a post-show panel, director Richard Tanne noted they’re aware of the film, and are both “excited” and “baffled” it exists.
Still, despite having all the trappings of a classic rom-com, the movie is a departure.
“There are some African-American love stories, [but] you don’t see them like this,” Sumpter says. “The tone [is different] — there [are] no explosives, it’s just us on screen and you’re a fly on the wall. I don’t see a lot of black women being held as the prize, and in this, I think Michelle Robinson is the prize.”
Photos by Simon Perry
AT THE SHOOT
For our summery cover shoot with the stunning Tika Sumpter, we chased the sun all the way to Malibu, where the actress posed in light, breezy dresses at a beautiful beach house.
Photographer: Simon Perry
Styling: Jason Bolden
Hair: Damon Young @ SixK.LA
Makeup: Malika James for Basic White Shirt, LTD
Shoot producer: Katerina Bizios