We asked Devon Terrell, the Aussie who plays 20-year-old Obama in Barry, about playing basketball left-handed and mastering the distinctive Obama accent.
As Barack Obama approaches the end of his presidency, the movies are finally taking stock of his legacy—starting, as proper franchises must, with the superhero origin story. On the heels of the Sundance favorite Southside with You, about Obama's first date with Michelle Robinson in the summer of 1989, Vikram Gandhi's Barry goes back even further, to a lesser-known chapter of Obama's life, before he had the first inkling of being a politician.
Having spent a childhood whisked from Hawaii to Indonesia to California, Obama landed in New York City in the early '80s, where he studied at Columbia University. Barry presents Obama as a wayward, curious, chain-smoking 20-year-old who shows flashes of charisma and intellectual prowess but hasn't yet found his way in the world. In the meantime, he reads Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, goes to parties and nightclubs, acquits himself nicely in pick-up basketball games, and gets a white girlfriend, Charlotte, played by The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy.
Casting an Australian actor with no screen credits to play Obama may not sound like the obvious choice, but Devon Terrell, in an uncanny performance, suggests both the Obama we know and the work-in-progress we don't. After the film's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Terrell broke down his interpretation of Obama and what the future president took from this uncertain period of his life.
GQ: So how does an unknown actor from Australia get cast as Barack Obama?
Devon Terrell: [Laughs] I was originally doing a series on HBO with Steve McQueen [Codes of Conduct], which eventually got cut off after the pilot. And the day that happened, my agent called me and said, "Look, there's interest from this film called Barry," and I was like, "Oh, what's it about?" and he said, "It's about Barack Obama."
My heart kind of stopped a little bit, because it had been a dream of mine. When I was 19, my cousin asked me, "What's your dream role?" and I said, "Barack Obama." But I was thinking to myself, like, "No way. I'm 19. I'm too young." But as soon as I started reading the script, I completely forgot it was about Barack Obama, got lost in the story, shed many tears at the ending, and just fell in love with it. And I Skyped Vikram and was like, "I need to do this. I need to." And I auditioned straightaway and got the part. And it all began.
Let's break down your performance, because there's a lot involved in playing early-'80s Obama. What was your read on him physically? He's a left-hander. He's got agility on the basketball court. He's developing a bit of a strut. How did all those physical attributes come together?
It was a lot of watching him when he was younger and listening to how he spoke about himself. I'm quite a physical guy. I love to be active in things. But I'm right-handed, so for two months straight I was just learning everything as left-handed—learning how to write, how to play basketball, everything. I'm such a perfectionist that it wasn't about being good at it—I had to be so good at it.
But it was also about finding the awkwardness. The man we see now has a swagger about him, walks around with his chest up high. Looking at him when he was thirty, though, he was a different man. And so thinking about him at 21, when he's trying to find himself, he's not as assured.
And what about getting the accent right and consistent? What did you study for that?
I had an incredible vocal teaching coach named Charlotte Fleck, who's just incredible. [Barack Obama's] mom is from Kansas and his grandparents are from Kansas, and he's got a deep voice, but then we were trying to take it a little bit high because he was only 21 at the time. I studied the accent so much. Because everyone has an idea of where Barack sits in their mind—even I did, originally—and then you kind of peel it apart.
Were you conscious of it not tilting into imitation?
When Key and Peele do it, it's hilarious, because you know who it is and it's funny. But you can become disengaged from it, and you can say, "Oh, that's just an imitation of Barack Obama." And so we completely steered away from that. We actually had the idea that maybe we just don't go anywhere near the accent, but then that doesn't give you anything, because then it's like you're just using his name. So there was this fine line of giving the nuances and giving the "ah"s and the "um"s and that thinking and the mannerisms, and hitting a line here or there that was like, "Yeah, just to remind you, this is Barack Obama."
I think the great thing is that when people watch Barry, some people, halfway through it or at the end, suddenly remember, "Oh, crap, this is a story about Barack Obama." I hope it comes across that way.
How would you describe Obama's headspace at that time? And what steps did you take as an actor to kind of better understand that?
I think he was confused and curious about the world, and reading Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and learning about all these incredible people. Vikram was so helpful in terms of understanding the headspace and understanding every moment where we were going.
But I really think it was a phase in his life where he never thought he was going to be president of the United States. He just wanted to change things, and he was frustrated at how things were going in the world. When he got to New York, he was just amazed by where the world was at. And I think there was a curiosity of, "Where is my life taking me?"
There's a serene confidence to Obama that's defined his leadership style. And yet at that time, as you say, he's in a state of confusion. Your performance sometimes has him projecting a strength that he doesn't really feel.
I think he has an incredible amount of charm and charisma. Watching earlier clips of him, though, it's just not the confidence that we see today. When he smiles and when he talks, you're always there with him. But there's an awkwardness… He's really just battling himself at this point. I think he kept getting in his own way. And then he realized just to get out of his own way and be the best version of himself.
So what would you say that Obama took away from this era of his life that informed his presidency?
I think he learned to control his life. He gained so much more power over his life and learned he could affect others in a profound way. You can see that he's a thinker and he's curious. And I think he completely understood that life is where he wants to take it. Every step through his life, you can see him realizing his potential, even when he went to Chicago and when he met Michelle. He just kept growing as a man, and I think that's a great lesson—to just keep growing.
"I was born in the States and grew up in Australia, and I'm mixed-race. I've had that same experience of, like, where do I sit?"
In contrast, what qualities had he not developed or even suggested at this point? What do you see of him now that just wasn't present at all?
I think it's the outward confidence. There's a swagger about the man now. When he walks, he walks with his head high. And when he walks into a room, you notice straightaway. And I think back then… There's a moment where someone actually says that they don't even remember him being at Columbia, and I think they were in one of his classes and don't remember him being there. He has that ability to hide in the shadows then, but now he's come to the forefront.
So as an Australian, how has the Obama phenomenon looked from the outside?
Oh, it's incredible. We're obsessed with him. Like, every person I know is in love with Barack Obama. I think when he was elected, every single person in Australia was rooting for him, and everyone loves him. If he came to Australia, I think we'd go nuts. I think it's because he's a man of the world.
As for me, I was born in the States and grew up in Australia, and I'm mixed-race. I've had that same experience of, like, where do I sit? He speaks to so many people like me all over the world. It doesn't matter where you are or where you were born, you have a reason to be here and you belong somewhere.
Have you seen Southside with You?
No, I haven't. I've been shooting. I think it was at Sundance when we were shooting, so I wasn't able to see it. I know of it, of course, but I never saw it.
Is there any curiosity? Or did it come to a point where you're deliberately staying out of its way?
Oh, not at all. It just never came into my pathway. I'm excited for them, but it was such a different time in his life. But, yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing it when I'm back in America.
What's next for you? What do you have on tap?
I'm going back to L.A. after the festival. And who knows what happens? Hopefully some things.
I hope things really start to get going. But it's an exciting time. I'm just trying to take it in right now.