A Glimpse at Who Really Rocked the West Wing: Creator of Showtime’s The First Lady, Aaron Cooley

Showtime’s “The First Lady” Creator and Executive Producer Aaron Cooley sat down with The Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk in the latest episode of “At Home With The Creative Coalition,” a podcast featuring unplugged and uncensored conversations with today’s biggest stars. In this newest episode, Cooley talks about how Viola Davis, Gillian Anderson, and Michelle Pfeiffer went about portraying their characters, how he chose which First Ladies’ stories to tell, whether Melania Trump has a place in future seasons, and much more. Highlights below. 

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Highlights from “At Home With The Creative Coalition” featuring Aaron Cooley – 

On whether the actresses were intimidated by the task of portraying such iconic women: “They would probably have to speak to whether they were intimidated themselves. I know Viola has spoken about the extra pressure of playing Michelle Obama, obviously – someone who’s still alive and such an icon. We had Viola sign on as a producer before we even had a studio or network. Basically, in that first meeting with Kathy, or maybe by the second meeting, she said, ‘You know, the other thing I should mention is that Viola and I have always talked about her playing Michelle. Viola, I think, maybe was kind of joking, but I’m not joking. Let’s bring this to her.’ And you know, a month later, three months later, after we’d kind of cracked the Michelle story, I was in Viola Davis’ kitchen pitching her this show. I would say I was more terrified. I actually, at first, when we discussed making Michelle one of the three, I actually refused to do it and said, ‘I’m not the right guy.’ This is a podcast, so you can’t see that I’m a white blond guy from Portland. ‘I’m not the guy to write Michelle Obama’s story.’ But you know, what I realized – what Kathy helped me realize – is, my job on a television show, as opposed to a film or as opposed to a novel, my job was not to write the Michelle Obama story as the creator. My job is to take a framework out to networks, get someone to agree to buy it and make the show, and then we’re going to have a team of all different kinds of voices, diverse voices, writing these characters. And I mean, we did. We had, you know, straight people, queer people, Black women, Black men, you know, so we had such a wide range of voices and diversity that we got a wide perspective into these characters. And of course, there’s so much written about the women themselves. So that was Viola. In terms of getting Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson, all the credit goes to Susanne Bier. We did our writers’ room, and then we brought Susanne on board. So now we’ve got the director and Viola, but we don’t have any of the rest of the cast.”

On why Betty Ford was an interesting First Lady to portray:
“The Ford administration, in general, was a real turning point, in that they were the last of what I think of as my grandparents’ Republicans in the White House. And – spoiler alert – coming up in the ’76 election, Ford’s going to have to run in the primaries against Ronald Reagan, and it’s really this first real pitched battle where it’s close. I mean, there’d been plenty of candidates who had appealed to the most conservative, religious side of the Republican Party, but this is the most pitched battle where that wing of the party almost beat an incumbent president, and Reagan almost won the nomination in ’76. And so the Fords in that way, Betty is really the last Republican woman who has been able to say things like, ‘I’m okay if my kids smoke pot.’ You know, ‘I think the Supreme Court made the right decision with Roe v. Wade.’ No one who’s a prominent Republican figure or married to one would be permitted to say that anymore. And within the White House, there was a lot of, I think, Rumsfeld and Cheney (who you see in those episodes because they were running the Ford White House), they’re really in this vortex of trying to figure out this party that’s transforming and what does the party really want. And actually, in the ’76 campaign, one criticism, in hindsight, was that they really didn’t know how to use Betty Ford properly. So they would go back and forth between suppressing her voice and then having her give a speech only in, like, states that were more moderate, like New York.”

On whether Melania Trump would be a good character for the show:
“Believe it or not, you’re not the first person to ask me. Well, for this season, remember that I sold the show to Showtime in 2018. She had been [First Lady] for just over a year when I sold the show. And so it would have been hard. The story was not written, her story was not written. I also, you know – take this as a criticism, take it however you want. Our vision of the show is: the three in a season tie together thematically. They have differences, but they also have thematic similarities. And in this one, at its core, it’s about three women finding their voices in a White House where the administration is trying to have them just work in gardens. The office of the First Lady is so interesting, because it doesn’t have a budget. It has no goals, expectations, rules… So for me, Melania could be a great season. The First Lady has the option when she arrives at the White House, ‘Am I going to make the most of this? Am I going to push the boundaries even further than making the most of this?’ Which is what we felt these three did. All the way to, ‘The first lady can do nothing.’ And Melania, for her own reasons, the privacy she wanted – which if I admired it in Michelle, I gotta admire it in Melania – the privacy she wanted, she chose to have, historically, a very quiet tenure in the East Wing. And so I don’t think, thematically, she fits with any of these other three.”


More about “At Home With The Creative Coalition”
Hosted by The Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk, “At Home With The Creative Coalition” brings listeners intimate portraits, key moments of discovery, and “art and soul” conversations with iconic entertainment industry personalities from the big screen to the boardroom, from L.A. to D.C. Listen now at http://thecreativecoalition.org/podcast.

Upcoming guests include Caity Lotz (“DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”), Ross Patterson (“Ross Patterson Revolution!,” “Drinkin’ Bros”), Sheryl Lee Ralph (“Abbott Elementary”), and Yolonda Ross (“The Chi”).

Previous guests include Jason Alexander (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Shiri Appleby (“UnREAL”), Justin Bartha (“The Hangover,” “National Treasure”), David Alan Basche (“The Exes”), Asante Blackk (“This Is Us”), Carly Chaikin (“Mr. Robot”), Wilson Cruz (“Star Trek: Discovery”), Alan Cumming (“Schmigadoon!, “The Good Wife”), Ethan Cutkosky (“Shameless”), The Creative Coalition President and actor Tim Daly (“Madam Secretary”), Lea DeLaria (“Orange Is the New Black”), Griffin Dunne (“This Is Us”), Kerry Ehrin (“The Morning Show”), Wayne Federman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Michael Fishman (“Roseanne,” “The Conners”), Jim Gaffigan (“The Jim Gaffigan Show”), Willie Garson (“And Just Like That…”), Judy Gold (“The Other F Word”), Nicholas Gonzalez (“The Good Doctor”), Clark Gregg (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”), Evan Handler (“And Just Like That…,” “Californication”), Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Middle”), Jon Huertas (“This Is Us”), Jason Isaacs (“Star Trek: Discovery,” “Harry Potter”), Susan Isaacs (“Compromising Positions”), Richard Kind (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Nathan Kress (“iCarly”), Chad Lowe (“Supergirl”), Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”), Rachel Mason (“Circus of Books”), Marlee Matlin (“CODA”), AnnaLynne McCord (“Let’s Get Physical”), Eric McCormack (“Will and Grace”), Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”), Katherine McNamara (“Shadowhunters”), Melissa Manchester (“Don’t Cry Out Loud”), Molly Smith Metzler (“Maid,” “Shameless”), Marta Milans (“Shazam!”), Rob Morrow (“Billions”), Kathy Najimy (“Younger”), Ken Olin (“This is Us,” “Thirtysomething”), Haley Joel Osment (“Future Man,” “Entourage”), Joey and Daniella Pantoliano (“The Matrix,” “Memento”), Bill Prady (“The Big Bang Theory”), Kyla Pratt (“The Proud Family”), Jessica Queller (“Supergirl”), Anthony Rapp (“Star Trek: Discovery”), Reid Scott (“Veep”), Mona Scott-Young (“Love & Hip Hop”), Alena Smith (“Dickinson”), Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”), Tramell Tillman (“Severance”), Krista Vernoff (“Grey’s Anatomy”), KT Tunstall (“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” “Suddenly I See”), Matt Walsh (“Veep”), Alfre Woodard (“Clemency,” “Luke Cage”), Constance Zimmer (“Good Trouble”), and David Zucker (“Airplane!,” “Scary Movie”). 

More about The Creative Coalition
The Creative Coalition is the premier nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) social and public advocacy organization of the arts and entertainment community. Founded in 1989 by prominent members of the creative community, The Creative Coalition is dedicated to educating its members on issues of public importance. The Creative Coalition also creates award-winning public service campaigns including #RightToBearArts to promote the efficacy of the arts. Actor Tim Daly serves as the organization’s President. For more information, visit https://thecreativecoalition.org.