Showtime's new series The First Lady is a historical drama in triplicate: three stories focusing on three women in very different historical eras, each with the challenging position of being the First Lady of the United States. In choosing to focus on Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR, Betty Ford, wife of Gerald Ford, and Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama, the series looks at three women who helped redefine what it meant to be a First Lady for their respective eras. Showtime has populated the series with a deeply exciting array of stars, especially when it comes to its three titular women. Oscar winners, Emmy winners, A-Listers, they're all here. So who's playing which historical figures when the series premiere on April 17th?
As the first Black First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama broke down barriers and faced incredible scrutiny while also trying to raise her two daughters and make America's children healthier. Viola Davis is one of the most accomplished actresses of her generation, having won an Emmy award for How to Get Away with Murder, Tony Awards for the August Wilson plays King Hedley II and Fences, and an Oscar for Denzel Washington's film adaptation of Fences. She's also won six Screen Actors Guild Awards, and in the last year has appeared as her DCEU character Amanda Waller in both The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker.
Betty Ford was married to the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford. As First Lady, Betty Ford was notable for being active in pursuing policy goals and advocating for issues, especially social issues. As a Republican, she bucked against party line on several issues, including supporting abortion rights and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment. Shortly after becoming First Lady, Ford underwent breast cancer surgery in 1974, and shortly after her husband lost his bid for re-election, Betty Ford went public with her battles with alcoholism and substance abuse, founding the Betty Ford Center, a residential treatment facility for those with addiction issues. She's played by Michelle Pfeiffer, one of the greatest movie stars of her era. Pfeiffer made her movie breakthrough in 1982's Grease 2, and went on to give indelible performances in movies like The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, and The Age of Innocence. Most recently, she's been part of the Marvel universe as Janet Van Dyne in the Ant-Man movies.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the famed First Lady to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from 1933 until his death in 1945. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited as having reshaped and redefined the role of First Lady with her participation in national politics and her activism. Subsequent to her time as First Lady, she served as United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Her marriage to FDR wasn't always easy, particularly after the discovery of his affair with Lucy Mercer, while her relationships with women have been much scrutinized by historians in the decades that followed. She's played by recent Emmy winner Gillian Anderson, fresh off of portraying a very different kind of politician in Margaret Thatcher on The Crown. Anderson's most famous role continues to be Agent Dana Scully on the Fox series The X-Files, for which she won a Primetime Emmy Award in 1997.
President Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 until 2017, a time that included crawling out of the Great Recession, passing the Affordable Care Act, presiding over the legalization of gay marriage, and having something we all called a "Beer Summit." He's played by O-T Fagbenle, who's best known for playing Luke on The Handmaid's Tale. Most recently he appeared in a minor role in Black Widow.
President Gerald Ford ascended to President of the United States in 1974 upon the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. Having been appointed by Nixon as Vice President after the Spiro Agnew scandal, Ford holds the distinction of being the only President who was never elected to federal office by the American people. He was portrayed on Saturday Night Live by Chevy Chase as a klutzy doofus. He's portrayed in The First Lady by the decidedly non-doofus Aaron Eckhart, who's likely best known to mainstream audiences for playing district attorney Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Eckhart has also played Julia Roberts's love interest in Erin Brockovich, Nicole Kidman's husband in Rabbit Hole, and a fictional U.S. President in the films Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen.
FDR was one of the most notable and influential Presidents this country has ever had. He helped bring the country out of the Great Depression with his New Deal, and he shepherded the U.S. through World War II. He was elected President four times, the only person to ever win election more than twice, and his face is on the dime. He's played by actor Kiefer Sutherland, who's best known for three things: 1) being the son of famed actor Donald Sutherland; 2) being left at the altar (three days prior to the wedding, actually) by Julia Roberts in 1991; and 3) for starring as Jack Bauer on the Fox action drama 24, for which he won an Emmy in 2006.
Susan Ford is the youngest of Gerald and Betty Ford's four children. Susan was only 17 years old and still in high school when her father took the oath of office, and she actually had her class' senior prom in the East Room at the White House. In 1979, just two years after her father left the White House, Susan married one of his former Secret Service agents. She's played by Dakota Fanning, one of the signature child actresses of her time, known for her roles in I Am Sam, War of the Worlds, and most recently, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
As the younger version of Eleanor Roosevelt, The First Lady cast Eliza Scanlen, whose breakthrough role came in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, where she played the sheltered younger sister of Amy Adams's character. She also played ill-fated March sister Beth in the 2019 adaptation of Little Women.
Nancy Howe was Betty Ford's personal secretary and trusted confidante who stood by the first lady throughout her personal trials and political battles. The role originally went to Pamela Adlon, but when she had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, in stepped Judy Greer, the consummate best friend of American cinema. Greer's best known rules include 27 Dresses (Katherine Heigl's best friend), 13 Going on 30 (Jennifer Garner's best frenemy), Jurassic World (Bryce Dallas Howard's best sister), and Halloween/Halloween Kills (Jamie Lee Curtis's best daughter).
Before he became Vice President of the United States under George W. Bush, Dick Cheney served as the White House Chief of Staff under President Ford, from 1975 until 1977. He also managed Ford's (failed) 1976 re-election campaign. He's played by Australian actor Rhys Wakefield, who starred in the third season of True Detective, as well as in the Hulu series Reprisal. He might actually be best known as the murderous preppy-looking teen in the first The Purge movie.
Marian Shields Robinson is the mother of Michelle Obama, who worked as a secretary in the city of Chicago. She's played by veteran actress Regina Taylor, whose biggest screen role was on the NBC drama I'll Fly Away as Lilly, a housekeeper to the district attorney (played by Sam Waterston) in the Civil Rights era South.
Lorena Hickock was a journalist who struck up a close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the nature of which has been speculated on for many years. She's played by stage and screen actress Lily Rabe, known for her roles on the American Horror Story series — she played a possessed nun in Asylum, a Stevie Nicks-obsessed witch in Coven, and as Amelia Earhart in the most recent "Death Valley" half of Double Feature.
The First Lady premieres on Showtime Sunday April 17 at 9:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: The First Lady, Showtime, Aaron Eckhart, Dakota Fanning, Eliza Scanlen, Gillian Anderson, Judy Greer, Kiefer Sutherland, Lily Rabe, Michelle Pfeiffer, O-T Fagbenle, Regina Taylor, Rhys Wakefield, Viola Davis