TBB Talks to Parker Sawyers on Playing Obama, Sci-Fi The Call Up…and Being a Brit…

Parker Sawyers is fast becoming a much repeated name in the acting world. No less because of his portrayal of President Barack Obama in the new film ‘Southside With You’ a tale which focuses on Michelle (Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama’s relationship pre-presidency, pre-children, pre-financial stability!

With the excitement around Southside, it was almost missed that Sawyers also played an ex-military guy turned virtual reality gamer in the British Sci-Fi film ‘The Call Up’ which premiered / closed the recent Sci-Fi London Film Festival which ran from 27th April – 6th May 2016.

The Call Up follows a group of elite online gamers when they each receive a mysterious invitation to trial a state-of-the-art virtual reality video game. It’s a dream come true and impossible to resist. Arriving at the test site, the group step into hi-tech gear and prepare for a revolutionary, next-level gaming experience that brings modern warfare to life with frightening realism. At first it’s a unique and exhilarating experience. But what starts out like a dream encounter with cutting edge technology quickly takes a turn for the sinister…

We were lucky to catch up with Sawyers to talk all things Sci-Fi, Obama and the first thing we had to clear up, was whether or not he was British, and if not where did the rumour start!? He cleared it up right away…

I’m American…

So where did the British come from?

A lot of people think that, I don’t know where it comes from. I’ve been here eight years… but I’m American…

But you live in the UK now? 

Yeah, and my kids are British, I have a son he’s 4 years old, and I have a daughter who’s 7, they were both born here… so…

What made you leave America to come here?

My wife started a consulting firm here, and now she works for the UK government consulting for them. We moved for that eight years ago and set up shop, we own a flat in West London now and have settled.

How do you find getting work, being here in comparison to America…

I worked at a lobbying firm for a couple of years and then I quit, and I was like ‘I swear I can act’, so I quit and just started acting over here. So I don’t know what it’s like in America.

Can I ask how old you are?

I’m 32, 33 in a few days…

Happy birthday… I was going to say that your career ‘appears’ to have kicked off quite late… So you started working in politics, what made you say, hey actually forget this, let me start acting?

I’d always wanted to. I did my degrees in philosophy and psychology, but even since then, I knew I wanted to act, and thought I could, but just didn’t. Then I toyed around the idea of going to law school. Didn’t do that and I worked in politics in America, quit that. Moved here, and then two years in, I was just, what 27 and was like I gotta try… Then it worked out…

Did you train at all?

No. No.

So you’re just one of those lucky guys!

I’ve been very fortunate. Really, really fortunate.

What was your first role?

That was playing a transvestite in a show for Netflix called ‘Lilyhammer’ that was my second audition ever, and I got to go to Oslo. It was cool. It was a thrown into the fire type thing.

You’ve literally had a dream like existence in the arts world. Where everyone else is crying and beating their heads against the wall wondering if it’s all worth it…

I think the blind ignorance; the blind arrogance, I suppose, really helped. Because I didn’t know. When I first started I had never heard of Fringe Festivals, I’d never heard of the idea of doing a play and taking it on tour in order to get an agent. I’d never heard of any of that… In my head I was like Oh acting? That means trailers, and being on set and being in movies that go to the theatre that’s what I thought… So it’s sort of a… if your thoughts become reality type thing…

Tell us about this Sci-Fi / Gaming feature ‘The Call Up’ How did you hear about it and what drew you to the script?

I heard about it through the casting directors who I met very early on in my career, I mean I’m 5 years in, so very early; like the first 10 months. Then you build a rapport and they had this project on their books, and they brought me in. I read the script and it seemed like a really smart idea. Met the director, auditioned and I got the role.

Parker Sawyers in 'The Call Up' (2016)
Parker Sawyers in ‘The Call Up’ (2016)

It’s said that this film captures the 90s feel of virtual reality movies like The Lawnmower Man (1992) Existenz (1999) Virtuosity with Denzel Washington (1995) Strange Days with Angela Bassett (1995) does it have that feel? Is it like a cult classic or Hollywood blockbuster type film?

We had a low budget, so I think it will be more of a ‘cult classic’… Especially the gamers will get it. I’ve only voiced video games and I’ve acted in a couple, I don’t really play them… So when I saw the film, I was like yeah this feels like a video game, you’re thrown into this claustrophobic world with nowhere else to go except for the next level. I think that the director, and editor and everybody really brought that gaming world to life…

Tell us about your character, is this a lead role?

Supporting. He’s a former military guy who plays video games, and he enters into this competition and wins and then he’s thrown into this ‘mess’ that is the game that they go into. He knows his weapons, he knows what he’s doing with the weapons, he knows the tactical… The rest of the players are just people so he takes the lead in the beginning. It’s cool to play a powerful guy…

You say you don’t play games now, but were you ever into playing video games?

I was when I was younger. I begged my parents for a Game Gear and you’re playing Sonic, you’re playing Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter on Sega… My brother and I would fight in the basement, try to do the moves we saw, which was not smart. Now [I] just haven’t had time… trying to build a career; two kids…

Are your kids into games at all?

We don’t have a TV… we’re those parents. So no.

What are your thoughts on the virtual world and the discussion around there being a thin line between reality and an alternative existence?

The Matrix? Hey man don’t get me started. I’ve done my degrees in philosophy so I’m used to these kinds of discussions. It is becoming interesting right? Like flavours and food… It’s like what does a strawberry taste like if it’s a strawberry flavoured drink, is that what a strawberry tastes like? If you’re talking to somebody, how close can you get if you’re on Skype, or telephone, or in person, and is it the same thing if you can read their facial expressions on Skype? Is it like being there? Tyler the Creator, the rapper, he Tweeted ‘I don’t get online bullying, why don’t you just walk away from the screen?’ I was like, oh yeah… but! That’s very real for some people and they can’t help but look, or they can’t help but react. It’s interesting the more you go into it and the more that technology develops; we’ll see, I don’t know, I think maybe in 60/70 years things will start to get weird.

So… dun dun duhhhh you’re also in this little film where you’re portraying the current leader of the free world, President Barack Obama in ‘Southside With You’ opposite the beautiful Tika Sumpter… I mean it’s probably a no-brainer to ask, but what drew you to this role?

I’d been compared to him for a while, so I started working on the voice a few years ago. I’d do it on set just for fun and I gage how good it was by other people’s faces and reactions, so I’d keep working on i t… People were saying you should put it on Instagram, and I was like no, I’m gonna play him some day and I don’t want this on Instagram… and then the audition popped up last year…


So it’s a romantic story at the beginning of their relationship before the presidency… There’s importance being placed on black romance on screen or the lack thereof, and the fact that the Obama’s have such a stereotype breaking relationship, did this have any impact on you at all? They mean so much to us… was there any pressure? Because you know ‘the community’ hold on to our stories; we’re quite protective of how our icons are portrayed etc…

Yeah absolutely, you’re right. But I didn’t have too much pressure because nobody knew who I was, so I didn’t have to live up to any expectations. I assumed that most people would probably say who does this kid think he is? He can’t do whatever… so I just went for it. But then for the importance of the story, that was such a gift, I couldn’t wait to get started. When I read the script, two intelligent black people talking and there are no stereotypical crutches or anything. Just two educated people getting to know each other, it’s a really great script and the film turned out so good. It’s super charming, and I think any race, anybody from any background can relate to it. He was student poor back then, he had a hole in his car, he’s wearing the same clothes, so that was really charming too, the humble beginnings and what you can do and where you can go. It’s so powerful, and those two, the real people are just so inspiring, it was just an honour to play. I was like ‘I can’t wait to play him’. It was more of an excitement, I wasn’t nervous at all. Just excited .

Did you manage to angle to get some time with the president so you could learn his isms?

I haven’t met him. Let me speak this into existence. I haven’t met him YET. So I’ll meet him before the end of the year hopefully. But no, it’s sort of like Jamie Foxx didn’t want to pick up older Ray, he didn’t want to spend to much time with Ray Charles. Similarly I didn’t really watch too much of Obama’s videos recently, but just a few of when he was younger I did watch those just so I could get the younger energy and younger version and then the rest I just sort of made up…

Well I believe you’ll definitely meet him because you’ve got this wizardry power about you! So between Southside and The Call Up you’ve been on the festival trail for a while, from a filmmaker’s perspective festivals are great for business and the selling of the film, how do you benefit as an actor?

For those aspiring actors who need to understand about promotion, we had the whole Mo’Nique thing and Precious and not complying with the promo rules around Oscars time… which even though she won the Oscar, after that, her refusal to get on the promotion train for whatever her reasons, seemed to work against her. But the flipside to that, the way some actors navigate the promo run, from the outside looking in, it looks like it can be draining and really stressful… 

I think that it’s important, it’s all part of show business. But also just being around likeminded people and people who are interested in filmmaking and the different specialities from the sound guy, to the DOP to the AD’s and everybody that comes together to make a film, it’s so cool to be around other people like that; listen to their conversations… it’s all part of it. As an actor it helps me learn the industry and learn the whole craft and not me just getting on set and saying my lines…

Do you have plans to get into the making?

Of course. I want to tell some stories, I want to direct and produce and do all that. But that’s down the road. People think our job is hard, but man, the hours alone that everyone else puts into it, is incredible. My sister visited me on set once and she was like it’s like a little construction site everyday.

That’s a perfect description. So what’s next for you, we’re getting The Call Up this weekend, not sure what’s happening with Southside With You we’re all hoping and praying it gets a UK release… 

Oh yes we’ll get distribution over here, I’m pretty sure. If not y’all can come to my house and we can watch it on the laptop or something. I just came off a pilot for NBC which did not get picked up, but it was a great experience, so I’m gonna head to LA quite soon, take more meetings and see what’s next.

How do you manage that when you put all your energy into a pilot which has the potential to become the next big series and then it doesn’t get picked up… How do you keep motivated?

If you look at it like the pilot is an achievement in itself… I grew up in America, NBC was Friends, Seinfeld, Fresh Prince of Bel Air so to play the male lead in an NBC drama, an hour long, that in itself was such a gift and such a great get for me. If it would have been picked up it would have been a bonus, so yeah a pilot was fulfilling. It comes down to scheduling and what fits into their programming so there’s lots of different factors.

So you don’t take it on board for yourself…?

Well I cried for like 37 hours straight…

Did you really?

Nah. No. [laughs]… I was alright. you just bounce back. I’ve lost out on roles before, it’s just how it is

Final question. If you were in control of a virtual reality world what would be your must haves, if you were the puppet master?

All the background music would be Kanye West… I don’t know [laughs] probably… A wizard control so once in a level you could just change your luck. Every level. So maybe before each level you could type in four things that if you had the wish that could happen, then you could select one, if you’re in trouble… how was that!?

The Call Up is in UK cinemas today check your local for listings. The DVD release will be May 23rd.

Southside With You… we will update you as soon as the UK dates are released!

Social Media:



Latest articles

Related articles