The 33-year-old actor is stepping into his biggest role yet – as Barack Obama. Natalie Hughes meets the break-out star to talk movies, shoes and hip-hop mantras.
This interview (both the written and video version) was originally published on MATCHESFASHION.COM.
Parker Sawyers is regaling childhood stories to The Style Report team. He hikes up the hem of his trousers to reveal a sizeable scar – the result of a boisterous adventure days after having a corrective knee operation at age 13 (for which the recommended recovery time was six weeks). Now 33, the American actor has lost none of his energy, bounding around our London studio and showing off uncanny impressions of Kermit the Frog, Will Smith and, of course, Barack Obama – the role he plays in the film, Southside with You.
‘My childhood was good, man,’ he says, reminiscing. Sawyers grew up in Indiana, the son of politically minded parents – apt, considering his latest gig. His father, who died 10 years ago, was a United States Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, while his mother worked as the deputy mayor of Indianapolis, staunchly Republican until the presidential campaign of Obama, whom she happened to meet while running a non-profit in Washington DC. ‘She said, “The room disappears when he shakes your hand,’” Sawyers recalls, smiling.
‘I come from a really political family,’ he continues. ‘[That’s what] I thought I wanted to do and what I thought I could do. But I just really wanted to act. I worked at a lobbying firm… and then I quit… I finally did it at 27, 28. My daughter was less than two at the time, so it was a big risk.’ In acting terms, Sawyers is practically an OAP – although his boyish enthusiasm and youthful looks bely his 33 years – but he considers this an advantage. ‘I have a lot of life experience, which helps me with acting, for sure,’ he says, telling me about his wife – a Lithuanian consultant whose work brought the family to London – and two children (Sophia, eight, and Winston, four and a half). ‘Having kids and having moved countries with not a lot of money in 2008, with the world economy crashing down, it… just put things in perspective,’ he explains. ‘The pressure… was equivalent to like, 10 years [of being] single trying to make it as an actor.’ Sophia and Winston may forge acting careers earlier than their father. ‘They are very good performers,’ he says, showing me a video of four-year-old Winston singing heartily. ‘He’s a talented little bug.’
Sawyers’ big break came about quite by chance, while he was in the park with daughter Sophia. ‘I met this guy, Jason. He’s an actor and was with The American Agency. He called his agent on my behalf and then two weeks later [I was] signed on the spot.’ Then came a slew of acting gigs, and finally, his first lead role as Barack Obama. You couldn’t have predicted it. Except, well, Sawyers did – years earlier. ‘I said I would play Obama,’ he says. I ask him if he subscribes to the idea of creative visualisation – the concept of manifesting the future through purposeful thought. ‘I do,’ he replies. ‘A lot of things I said I would do, I’ve accomplished.’
The actor’s recent success isn’t simply a result of sheer luck and big dreams. ‘I work really, really hard. I just can’t stop. I have goals and I have to reach them.’ He maintains energy – even when he’s jet lagged, like today – by listening to hip-hop, specifically Jay-Z, Kanye West and Wu-Tang Clan, whose lyrics he turns into career mantras. He recites one of his favourite lines from Jay-Z’s Beach Chair: ‘I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not trying, every day hit every wave like I’m Hawaiian.’ It encapsulates his own unerring work ethic.
By his own admission, Sawyers is an ardent preparer. Apart from listening to hip-hop, he prepares by painstaking practice. He readied himself for his scenes in Southside with You by carefully studying Barack Obama’s mannerisms. ‘There is no blue America, there is no red America,’ he recites, mimicking the president’s commanding quiver and pursed lips. ‘[It’s] in the middle of the throat,’ he explains revealing the precision with which he observes vocal nuances. ‘I watch. I mimic.’ He moves seamlessly into a Will Smith impression, contorting his face to emulate the star’s famous grin.
‘I have always been in my own world,’ Sawyers says. ‘When I was in uni, I used to change my clothes like, three times a day. I used to wear a tie-dye shirt with a pink bandana. I had an afro, so it was peeking out over it. I’d switch into a newsboy cap and blazer for no reason.’ These days, his sartorial choices are soberer. He’s wearing skinny black jeans, a button down and a Burberry bomber jacket – his self-confessed uniform. ‘I kinda wear the same thing every day,’ he admits. ‘I want another pair,’ he adds, pointing to his brown suede chelsea boots. ‘I’m a big shoe fan. My kid’s first words were shoes.’ He counts Steve McQueen, young Marlon Brando and Kanye West as men with style. I ask him if he owns a pair of Yeezys. ‘No, I don’t. If someone wants to send me a pair… size 12.’
He laughs. Just when you think you know Sawyers, he surprises you. He reveals a hidden teenage talent for bag-making, a task undertaken with trademark perfectionism – something he inherited from his late father. ‘I bought a messenger bag [for uni] and it tore… I was like… I’m going to make my own. I got this needle, like a bunch of leather… My father comes downstairs and he says, “What is this? You’ve got to reinforce it. It’s got to have a liner.”’ He continues, ‘[My father] had this saying: “Don’t half do things.” So when I was playing Barack Obama, I was like, I can’t half do it, I’ve gotta get all the mannerisms down, get the voice down, get the confidence down. So yeah, I know he’d be very proud of me and stuff.’ We don’t doubt it.