Showtime’s newest anthology drama The First Lady follows three of the most iconic U.S. first ladies as they navigate their personal and political lives in the White House. The series gives viewers an insider look into the lives of these women—before, during, and after their terms as first ladies.
The series premiered on Showtime on April 17 and the reviews have been mixed, with The Guardian referred to the show as a “third-rate disappointment” and Entertainment Weekly said the storytelling was a waste of three very talented actresses.
In addition to the negative reviews of the show, one actress has faced a barrage of online criticism for her portrayal of the emblematic Michelle Obama. Viola Davis was slammed with tweets ridiculing her for her depiction of the first lady—many of which centered on her exaggerated facial expressions and makeup choices. Davis recently responded to the criticism in an interview with BBC News in which she expressed it can be “incredibly hurtful” when people have negative things to say about her work.
Despite the reviews and online criticism, The First Lady makes a noteworthy attempt at demystifying these dynamic first ladies and telling their stories–which are so frequently overshadowed by their presidential husbands. As the official description of the show states, the show is intended to “peel back the curtain” on the lives of these women and celebrate some of the “most impactful and world-changing decisions” that have been made by these first ladies.
Let’s take a look at these historical first ladies and the star-studded cast that brings them to life onscreen.
Viola Davis as Adult Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama needs no introduction—but we’ll give her one anyway. She is the first Black U.S. first lady and wife of the first Black U.S. President Barack Obama. Michelle’s illustrious career began well before she became the first lady. With degrees from both Princeton and Harvard Michelle worked at a law firm for a couple of years before leaving to pursue a more public service-oriented career path. During her time as the first lady, Michelle empowered women and girls, advocated for poverty awareness, supported nutrition and healthy lifestyles for children, and accomplished various initiatives.
Viola Davis plays the adult version of Michelle in The First Lady. Davis, like Michelle, is a trailblazer in her own right, being the first Black actress to win an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress for her performance as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. Davis is also known for her roles in The Help and her Oscar-winning performance in Fences.
Jayme Lawson as Young Michelle Obama
Up and coming actress Jayme Lawson plays young Michelle Obama. An alumna of The Juilliard School, Lawson landed a leading role in her first-ever feature film titled Farewell Amor soon after graduating. Lawson recently played Bella Reál in 2022’s The Batman.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Adult Betty Ford
Betty Ford, the wife of President Gerald Ford, was the first lady of the United States from 1974 to 1977. During her time as the first lady, Betty advocated for women’s rights and was an outspoken member of the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. She was also the founder of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction. Among her many accolades, Betty was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1998 as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
In Showtime’s The First Lady Michelle Pfeiffer plays the adult Betty Ford. Throughout her expansive acting career, Pfeiffer has earned several awards and nominations, including a 1992 Academy Award for Best Actress in the film Love Field and her most recent Golden Globe award for the 2020 film French Exit.
Kristine Froseth as Young Betty Ford
Kristine Froseth portrays a young Betty Ford before she marries Gerald Ford. The actress/model landed her first major film in 2017 titled Rebel in the Rye. Froseth is known for her role of Alaska Young in Hulu’s Looking for Alaska and Veronica in Netflix’s Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. Keep an eye out for Froseth in her upcoming starring role in Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick.
Gillian Anderson as Adult Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt served as the first lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time in office. Eleanor had a leading role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. Eleanor was also the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations (UN). Her social activism and humanitarian work paved the way for future first ladies to do the same with their platform.
Gillian Anderson portrays the adult Eleanor Roosevelt in The First Lady. Anderson’s most iconic role as Dana Scully on The X-Files helped skyrocket her career and earned her both a Primetime Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award in 1997. In addition to Scully, Anderson has played an assortment of popular characters, including Stella Gibson on The Fall, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier on Hannibal, and her recent portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Crown.
Eliza Scanlen as Young Eleanor Roosevelt
Australian actress Eliza Scanlen plays young Eleanor Roosevelt on the show. Scanlen is probably best known for her starring role as Amma Crellin in the HBO drama series Sharp Objects. Scanlen made her film debut in 2019, with starring roles in the indie Australian feature Babyteeth and the coming-of-age period drama Little Women.