The Surreal Life of an Obama Impersonator

An interview with the man himself"“at least, the guy who plays him in a new documentary.

Louis Ortiz in Washington. (National Journal)

Louis Ortiz watches MSNBC constantly. He's always voted Democratic. And when he's walking down the street, he's often overwhelmed by the attention he gets.

Ortiz lives his life as President Obama. But unlike the president, he doesn't have a team of advisers briefing him on politics and policy, or an army of Secret Service agents to protect him from hostile crowds. And he votes for Democrats, he told National Journal, because he's a union man"“not the union of university law professors or American presidents, but of phone company employees.

Since 2008, when a friend pointed out his uncanny likeness to the then-presidential contender, Ortiz, an Army veteran and a former Verizon field technician from the Bronx, N.Y., has made a living as an Obama impersonator. From certain angles, Ortiz, who's Puerto Rican, does bear a striking resemblance to the 44th president. They have similar noses, laugh lines, the same furrowed brow"“he even shares those unmistakable ears, which he told National Journal he once considered having surgery on to pin back. That was before Obama hit the national scene, though, and Ortiz made his living on them. But he has undergone surgery to look more like the president, visiting the dentist to close the distinctly un-presidential gap in his front teeth.

When Obama was running for reelection, in 2012, Ortiz told his story on NPR's This American Life, explaining that before he discovered his resemblance to Obama, he didn't really pay attention to politics. Now, knowing about world events is a crucial part of his job. Though he told National Journal he mostly agrees with Obama's politics, he declined to elaborate on exactly where he diverges from the president. His impersonation bit is less about politics, he said, and more about making people laugh.

Ortiz teamed up with filmmaker Ryan Murdock for the documentary Bronx Obama, which premieres Thursday on Showtime. He's been traveling the world on the festival circuit, promoting both the movie and his availability for hire. On an upcoming trip to Russia, he may even meet President Vladimir Putin"“though he told National Journal that if that happens, he'll keep his jokes to himself.

Smoothly moving in and out of his much-practiced Obama voice, Ortiz chatted with National Journal about his take on the presidency; what it's like earning a living by impersonating a man with sagging approval ratings; his most reliable laugh lines; and how he plans to handle America's response to Ebola (sort of).

Here's an edited version of that conversation.

National Journal: Why did you make this a career?

Louis Ortiz: It's not by choice. Like Lady Gaga, I was born this way, born looking like the first African-American president. Why not just go full force with it and find out about politics?

NJ: Do people try to have political conversations with you?

LO: Yeah. It's good to be a little savvy. But once I start getting stumped, then that's when I turn the serious conversation into a comedic conversation.

NJ: What do you mean?

LO: [They'll say], "What are you gonna do about ISIS?" and "Do you think you should be doing more about Ebola?" And that's when it gets a little weird, like, "All right, you do understand that I'm not the real president, right?" My resemblance to the president is so striking that it just compels people to converse about stuff that they would love to really sit down with the president, the real president, and have a conversation about. I know a little bit, I watch the news vigorously. I'm just not a politician. So I look at people, like, "Come on, please, give me a break. Let's talk about the Yankees, man."

NJ: Do you find yourself caring more about what's going on in politics now?

LO: I do care a little more. But I've also found that now, looking at politics, listening, my ear to the ground, I see that it's just politics. I pretty much try to stay away from it. There's always something bad. You can't make everybody happy. You can't. As an impersonator, I can. As a politician, I can't. I got jokes for Republicans, I got jokes for independents, I got jokes for people that really think that I'm from Kenya.

NJ: Like what?

LO: I'll tell 'em straight up, [affects Obama voice] "Look. If I was from Kenya, wouldn't I have won the New York City Marathon by now?"

NJ: Has doing all this made you think differently about Obama?

LO: In a weird way, yes. I look like him, and now I'm making a living, I'm traveling the world, just because I look like him. It's not actually just because [I look like him], because it takes work, dedication. You gotta practice the voice [affects Obama voice]. And you gotta talk about Sasha and Malia. Sasha and Malia, my two beautiful girls.

+ Dressed as Obama, Ortiz met the Dalai Lama. (Bronx Obama movie)

NJ: Has this made you think differently about what it's like to be the president?

LO: It's not all fun and games looking like him. I get called all kinds of nasty words. People hate me just because they hate him. I am the lightning rod for Obama. I attract love, a lot of love, and a lot of hate, as well. Due to the nature of my career, thankfully, I can turn a Republican, and/or a racist person, into a laughing bowl of joy. By the time I get through with them, they're just laughing, they're shaking my hand at the end when I gotta go. And they're, like, "Look, man. I hate Obama, but I love you, man." And they're wishing me the best.

NJ: How does the president's approval and popularity affect your business?

LO: It varies. Sometimes it's just the way it seems: If Obama does good, I do good. People love me more. If Obama does bad, then I do bad. People sometimes just don't wanna hire me. But sometimes, it's the opposite. [If] he's doing really good, there's nothing to make fun of about Obama or something like that. When he's doing bad, sometimes I get a lot of requests. Like, "Oh, let's have you come into this party of conservatives and talk about what a bad job you're doing." And they love it.

NJ: Where will you be traveling this year?

LO: I got a job in Russia where I'll be doing something with a Putin impersonator. It's all approved by Putin, of course. And I might just be meeting the man himself, Putin. My life is a movie. Literally. It's just insane. Two of the most powerful men in the world, Putin and Obama. I look like one, and I just might meet the other one. I'm just flabbergasted. I'm in complete awe every day when I think about how this Russian job in three weeks just might happen.

NJ: Are you going to try any of your jokes on Putin?

LO: Let me tell you something. I am not messing around. I will make sure I run any jokes by the people that I'm with. I do not wanna anger anybody out there.

NJ: Do you think you'll still be able to do this in five, 10 years?

LO: This is it. I'll be doing this for the next 15 to 20 years, because Barack Obama is the first African-American president. He's iconic, he's historic, and he got two terms, so there's enough material there for me to milk this cow all the way to the end.