Kristine Froseth Tapped Into Betty Ford’s “Confidence” in The First Lady

Portrait of Kristine Froseth photographed by Juergen Teller for W Magazine
Photographed by Juergen Teller for W magazine. Image treatment by Ashley Peña.

“I’d known of Betty Ford before, and I’d been a huge admirer of everything she’d done for addicts and the Betty Ford Center. But I didn’t really know much about her,” said Kristine Froseth, the actress tasked with playing a young Betty Ford in Showtime’s new drama series, The First Lady. Like Froseth, many young Americans might not know about the accomplishments of Ford, who was the First Lady from 1974 to 1977 while her husband, Gerald Ford, was in office as President.

Ford was politically active, vocal in her support of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, the Women’s Rights movement, and abortion rights. She was also very candid about her feelings on being in the spotlight as the First Lady, her alcoholism and substance abuse, and the mastectomy she underwent after discovering she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Following her openness around her own addictions, she founded the Betty Ford Center in 1982, a residential treatment center for those with substance dependence.

The Showtime series chronicles these headline moments in Ford’s life, as well as the ones most people don’t know about, from her days as a teacher, a dancer, even a department store fashion buyer—long before she met her second husband, Gerald Ford. Froseth plays Ford from ages 15 to 29, giving life to the lesser-known parts of her story (her older onscreen counterpart happens to be none other than Michelle Pfeiffer, and other First Ladies Michelle Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt are played by Viola Davis and Gillian Anderson). Below, the actress opens up about her process for playing Ford, the facts she learned while researching her with Pfeiffer, and her next big screen role.

The series introduces Betty Ford as a wife and mother, but in the first flashback of her youth, we meet Betty Warren and see that she was married to an abusive alcoholic who had fallen ill just as she was beginning to fall in love with Gerald Ford. What was the most interesting fact you learned about Betty while playing the younger version of her and conducting your research into her past?

There were two books written about her and there wasn’t much footage or many interviews. Everything was just from when she was in the White House. Based on the books, I was inspired by how rebellious she was. She was just so outgoing and ambitious, and didn’t want to be like the other women around her, even though her mother was super strict. She wanted to be a dancer; when that didn’t work out, she was in fashion and she went far in her career. She was so courageous. All of the things she went through between 15 and 29 were shocking for different reasons. That she dared to divorce her husband who was abusive to her was such a—well, women didn’t really do that.

Betty Ford was a dancer, and you’ve played a ballerina before in Birds of Paradise. Were you trained in dance before taking on those roles?

No, my first experience with dance was through Birds of Paradise. That was ballet and we did some contemporary during that process, but trying to study Martha Graham and prep for that was quite the challenge. We didn’t have that much time, but I did what I could. She was amazing to learn about! So it was really fun researching that part.

When you were tapping into the spirit of Betty Ford, what was the most helpful thing for you as an actor to put yourself in the right mind-set?

Knowing where she came from, what her family upbringing was like, all these different factors that shaped her. There wasn’t too much material on the years I played her, but I did what research I could and kept that in my body. I tried to tap into her directness; she was so strong and I really wanted to honor her. But she was young, and we’re growing with her in the show.

Did you compare notes with Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Betty Ford during her time as the First Lady, before shooting?

Michelle and I got together a few times beforehand. We really wanted to agree on what the trajectory was, so we worked a little bit backwards from footage and stuff we knew. So at least I had a wonderful person to collaborate with and support me and make sure the story was as truthful as we could make it. I was really lucky with Michelle.

What was the first meeting like with Michelle?

When I first Skyped with her, I was just like, what is happening? She was so generous and loving and elegant. She’s such a badass. Getting to watch her talk to the producers, the historians, the consultants, was just wonderful to observe. I could see how she navigates everything and what her process is like. She shared her accent coach with me. But I didn’t get to be on set with her, so I’m stoked to watch her material.

Betty Ford was possibly more progressive than some might give her credit for—she was married to a Republican president but she was pro-abortion and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. In the series she is depicted as being resistant to her husband becoming president and therefore to the public perception of her as a First Lady. Was there anything new that you learned about her politics?

I think, from Day One, she always had this different way of thinking. She also understood that after Watergate, Americans really wanted honesty. She wasn’t afraid to talk about her personal experience and what was really going on. Right after she went into office, she spoke in front of all these reporters about all these controversial topics, like abortion and breast cancer, and she had a mastectomy right after. Because of that, all these women got screenings. She saved so many people.

Your next project, Sharp Stick, premiered at Sundance and will be released later this year. In the film you play a very complex young woman who is in her mid-twenties but underwent a hysterectomy as a teen, and begins a delayed exploration of her sexuality. What was the most challenging part of that role?

I was really intrigued by the aspect of her arrested growth and that, after her hysterectomy, she was just so limited. She didn’t really go to school or have friends her own age. She was just such a child still, and her body had aged, but there was this weird conflict that I really wanted to understand as much as possible. We meet her when she’s finally starting to expand her mind a little bit and she’s having these new experiences. I took it day by day, to grow with her and not get too far ahead of myself. Her family situation is very specific, so getting to show that dynamic was really important, too.

What draws you to the roles you choose?

I’m always really curious about why people are the way they are and how they became that way. I’m interested in how people are impacted by trauma. Sometimes, I think we’re quick to judge people— especially people who do harmful things. It seems like it’s harder than ever for redemption to happen. Through stories, we learn so much about human nature. And hopefully, that can lead to us having more compassion and understanding for one another.