Affairs, alcoholism, racism, cancer battles – the White House has had brushes with them all. And not just through the Presidents who’ve lived within its walls, but through the wives who moved in with them.
Now an epic TV anthology offers a fascinating insight into US politics through the lives of three presidential spouses who made just as much of an impact as their husbands through their campaigning and enduring legacies.
Ten-part series The First Lady – the highlight of launch week for new on-demand channel Paramount+ – stars Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, with Kiefer Sutherland, Aaron Eckhart and OT Fagbenle as their respective husbands Franklin, Gerald and Barack.
At the beginning of episode one we meet each woman as they have their portrait captured before the series moves back and forth between their lives, revealing behind-the-scenes stories as they navigate the challenges of their role.
Ten-part series The First Lady stars Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt (right), Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford (left) and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama (middle)
Daunted at having to take up a job that had traditionally been restricted to hostessing, Eleanor set out to redefine the role when she entered the White House in 1933. The most controversial First Lady yet, she was the first to hold regular press conferences, write a newspaper column and host a weekly radio show.
‘The series is about finding your voice, especially when your position, by definition, is second to your husband’s,’ says The Fall star Gillian, 53. ‘I was surprised by her childhood, which was traumatic.
‘She lost her mother when she was eight, then her beloved father to alcoholism a few years later, so she was sent to live with a very strict grandmother.
‘That gave her a compassion for human suffering. Her entire life was about being of service.
‘As well as publishing 27 books she taught impoverished children, then there’s her work for women’s rights, human rights and racial justice.’
Portraying Eleanor from the age of 34 to 61 meant 75 costume changes and a padded bodysuit. ‘But the biggest thing, which I’d never worked with before, was the teeth,’ says Gillian.
‘They made up about a third of her facial features. It was hard, but once they went in, it was like I’d ventured into Eleanor as she had a rhythm to her speech which is quite slow.’
Daunted at having to take up a job that had traditionally been restricted to hostessing, Eleanor (played by Gillian Anderson pictured) set out to redefine the role when she entered the White House in 1933
More racy was Eleanor’s complex love life, including her relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok. Eleanor fell madly in love with her when she covered the 1932 presidential campaign.
‘They started out as friends and it developed into what we understand to have been a romantic relationship,’ says Gillian. ‘It remained secret and is still questioned by people who may want to deny that part of her.
Eleanor stayed with her husband after his affair, and she ended up as respected and as impactful as he was. – Gillian Anderson (Eleanor Roosevelt)
‘Decades earlier Franklin had an affair and it broke her heart. But they had to remain married because his mother would have cut them off financially.
‘So they stayed together, and Eleanor ended up as respected, as knowledgeable and as impactful as he was. They were an extraordinary couple.’
Eleanor helped pave the way for Betty Ford, First Lady from 1974-77. She was one of the most politically active First Ladies, reiterating her support of abortion rights, which opposed her husband’s position.
Not only did she raise awareness of substance abuse by going public with her own alcoholism, but she also spoke out about breast cancer. When she discovered a lump in her right breast, surgeons performed a mastectomy two days later.
‘I honestly didn’t know that much about Betty Ford,’ says Michelle Pfeiffer, 64. ‘She wanted a simple life but was thrust into this position.
‘Then she began to understand the difference she could make. She was outspoken about subjects that were taboo, like breast cancer, mental health and substance abuse. Her legacy with the Betty Ford Clinic has saved many lives.’
Betty Ford (played by Michelle Pfeiffer pictured) was one of the most politically active First Ladies, reiterating her support of abortion rights, which opposed her husband’s position
But perhaps the greatest scrutiny will be given to Viola Davis’s portrayal of Michelle Obama, a lawyer who became the first black First Lady when she occupied the White House from 2009 to 2017. Viola’s already been criticised for overly pursing her lips, with many complaining it’s insulting.
‘Ultimately, I feel like it’s my job to make bold choices,’ says Viola, 56. ‘I did everything from talking to Michelle to reading and watching everything about her.
‘For me it’s about the minutiae, like how she blinked or carried her mouth. So I have a prosthetic bump under my chin because her facial structure is different to mine, and the wig transforms me, along with the outfits and the nails.’
People see them as just the woman behind the man and I don’t think they understand the sacrifice. – Viola Davis (Michelle Obama)
The hardest part, she says, was portraying Michelle’s feelings while on a public platform. ‘How do you show private moments in a speech she’s given, for instance?
‘But I wanted to show her humanity, even in the moments when she had to accept unpleasant situations. The idea is to truly see the journey behind this role as First Lady of the United States.
‘People see it as just being the woman behind the man, and I don’t think they understand the sacrifice.’
Michelle, who has spoken of being wounded by racist attacks when she was First Lady, forged her own path, advocating for women’s health and education rights and campaigning to tackle childhood obesity.
‘What surprised me was the enormity of that transition to the White House, and what their contribution to the presidency was,’ says Viola. ‘The operative word is contribution.
‘That’s what The First Lady is about, and these three First Ladies were amazing.’
- The First Lady is on Paramount+ from Wednesday