Viola Davis’ Dialect Coach Explains How He Got Her to Talk Like Michelle Obama for ‘The First Lady’

·6-min read

Veteran dialect coach Joel Goldes has worked with Oscar-winner Viola Davis on numerous projects for close to a decade. Most recently, they spent a year perfecting Davis’ portrayal of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Showtime series, “The First Lady.”

“Viola has a fantastic work ethic, and she brings a huge amount to the table,” Goldes told Variety about working with Davis. “[With her] voice and accent, she would call things back and say ‘I remember Michelle would do something like this in this situation.’ That was a huge blessing to work with someone who’s so invested.”

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Says Goldes, who had more than ten months to work with Davis, “We would prep stuff right up to the time she shot.”

Goldes detailed his collaboration with Davis and explained how Obama’s memoir “Becoming” unlocked secrets to mastering her accent. He also shared his thoughts on the social media reactions to Davis’ performance.

How did this job come to you? Had you worked with Viola before?

I worked with Julius Tennon [Viola’s husband and “The First Lady” executive producer] in 2004. He was the understudy in a play she was starring in called “Intimate Apparel” that was playing at the Mark Taper Forum. Julius wasn’t able to go on unless he mastered the Barbados accent and could show staff that he had that, so he found me and worked with me a few times. Then, he talked to Viola and we worked together.

Flash forward to 2019, I was working on a musical at the Music Center, and Conrad Ricamora was starring in it, and I found out that he was on “How to Get Away with Murder.” I said, “Say hi to Viola for me.” Two or three weeks later, her assistant emailed asking, “Could you work with Viola on a feature that was going to be about Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman who ran for president?” We worked on that for a while and got it going. [Davis has since exited the project].

We started working on “The First Lady” in the summer of 2020, but it got pushed a couple of times because of the pandemic. It ended up being a long prep session because we started in July and didn’t begin shooting until May 2021.

What did the prep consist of to pull off Viola’s amazing transformation and mannerisms?

I listened to a lot of Michelle. The audiobook of her autobiography, “Becoming” had just been released, so there was a lot there. She’s also been interviewed a lot through the years, so, both Viola and I were able to find samples from the year ranges of when she’s being represented in the show.

The big thing was that no one knows what she sounds like in her private life, so we made a big, artistic leap in terms of figuring that out. I took this wealth of audio and video information and distilled it into a one-page breakdown of how Michelle talks.

One mystery for me was solved from her memoir because she’s quite careful in her speech in some ways. In the book, she says that her parents were on her about finishing her words, and changing her speech — it was aspirational in some ways to act, to speak, to sound [like] she didn’t come from the south side of Chicago. It was very useful to find that.

Michelle had been coached for the speech that she gave at the Democratic National Convention, so she had some professional advice about it, in addition to getting pressure from her folks to change the way she talked. Having that was very useful to be able to say, “When we see her as a young woman, she sounds like this. She might change her speech depending on the audience she’s talking to.”

I also pulled from O-T Fagbenle who plays Barack Obama in the show. He is the most prepared actor I’ve ever worked with in terms of coming to me with the sound to begin with. One of the things that he did would name patterns that Barack uses, and say, “Here, he does a two-up, one down or he does a descending pattern.” He would list audio samples and he would show samples of that pattern. I took that and extended that to Michelle.

Viola and I would go through that material so she could develop the sound. We would put that onto the script. It was a question of putting an ‘i” sound in words that have an “en” or “em” spelling such as tendency or anybody.

What was one of the things Viola worked on as Michelle?

One of the first things we worked on was the accent. Michelle’s mom was born in the South, and her dad’s family was from the South, there’s a little bit of a southern accent that remains in Michelle’s accent, and that also combines with a very mild Chicago accent.

One of the biggest things that was difficult for Viola was — because her family background is Southern, but she grew up mostly in Rhode Island, where there’s no ‘R’ sound heard after a vowel — on set, she would sometimes revert to her natural accent. But we were able to pick some of those up in ADR, which was fantastic, and it goes to the nitty-gritty and the reality of the person that many people even in the production didn’t realize was an issue. But we spent time in the ADR booth to get to that accuracy which people don’t realize, but it goes to the whole picture.

We had a breakdown on the page of what Michelle sounds like, and we worked through that.

How did you work with Viola on the pronunciation and the movement of her mouth and tongue?

Michelle has a little bit of an underbite, so her chin and lower teeth are slightly more prominent than Viola’s. Early in this process, they tried prosthetics but that didn’t work, so they used a bumper to push out Viola’s lower lip a little. That all went into how she looked and didn’t have any effect on her speech, she had to get used to wearing it, but it did have a little effect on how she sounded.

Have you seen the comments on the internet criticizing Viola’s portrayal of Michelle in relation to her facial expressions? If so, what are your thoughts?

I did a little looking at reviews in the last few weeks, as they started to come out. [But] I’ve made a conscious effort to stay away from people’s feedback about the show, just because it can be so unwieldy.

I would say that, if there’s something that Michelle does, then that’s a thing that Viola adopted. That’s the danger of playing an actual person; people have an impression of what that person did, and that’s based on getting acquainted with them when they’re in the media. People might not remember something that Michelle did, but I would say if Viola did it, then it’s something that Michelle did, and that is accurate. It’s tough to play the perceived idea of who someone is versus the actuality.

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