YES, HE CAN
Perth-based Devon Terrell talks to Justin Burke about the experience of playing the young Barack Obama in Netflix’s Barry
When Devon Terrell took the stage at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, following the first screening of a film in which he plays a young Barack Obama, the audience could have been forgiven for expecting to hear if not a perfect Obama accent, then at least an American one.
“I started by saying: ‘I don’t want to throw you all, but I’m an Australian,’ and the crowd lost their minds right there,” says the 24-yearold actor. “They couldn’t understand how it could be that I was actually Australian. It was a bit of a weird moment. The Obama accent is my party trick now, but I actually love doing it.”
As he speaks to Review from his home town of Perth, the National Institute of Dramatic Art graduate’s broad Australian accent is hard to reconcile with the dulcet tones of the 44th US President. But then, Terrell has a certain advantage: the actor was born in Long Beach, California. He moved to Perth at the age of five, and has dual citizenship.
Terrell stars in Barry, a film that covers the period in the early 1980s when Obama attended Columbia University in New York. The film presents a grimy, crime-ridden city during a racially charged era, and features Ashley Judd as Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, and Anna Taylor-Joy as Charlotte, a composite character representing a number of women Obama dated during that time.
The movie will premiere on December 16 on Netflix, with simultaneous screenings at selected cinemas across the US.
The opportunity to play the title role in Barry was daunting for Terrell. And for good reason: his only other screen credit has been for Codes of Conduct, an HBO television pilot that didn’t proceed into production.
“When I was 19, my cousin and I talked about what my dream role would be and I said ‘Barack Obama’ — but I thought it might happen at the pinnacle of my career, so this was much earlier than I’d thought,” he says. “I never looked in the mirror and thought ‘I look exactly like him’, but I do see a lot of myself in him.”
Barry is set during a period covered by Obama’s bestselling memoir Dreams from My Father, and deals with issues of race and identity. The President’s mixed-race heritage resonated with Terrell.
“My father is African American and my mother is Anglo-Indian. My Anglo-Indian family is all here in Perth, but I grew up in a totally Australian culture, and I see myself very much as Australian,” he says. “The film for me is about identity, and Barry was struggling with those things, and it’s something as a young man I’ve gone through and that I think more or less everyone at that age goes through.”
Barry comes as Netflix continues its foray into sophisticated films after last year’s Oscarnominated Beasts of No Nation and ahead of the release next year of Bright, starring Joel Edgerton and Will Smith; Our Souls at Night, with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford; and War Machine, directed by Australian David Michod and starring Brad Pitt.
Before shooting, Terrell worked intensively with the film’s director, Vikram Gandhi, who also attended Columbia (he lived in the building next door to Obama’s former residence), and the screenwriter Adam Mansbach, best known as the author of the satirical “children’s book for adults” Go the F..k to Sleep. Terrell says the research included learning to write and play basketball left-handed like Obama. “Vikram and Adam were very clear that this was a story we needed to tell, not just something we wanted to tell, and we researched it to the death, to bring truth and honesty to this character,” he says.
“On the first day we shot the classroom scene, and it was intimidating opening my mouth for the first time in front of the other actors, but that also gave me a foundation about what Barack must have felt at that time.
“It was a very safe environment for me, and everyone gave me the time to drop into character. Barry, When they called ‘action’, it was about Barry’s story, nothing else.” Terrell says his biggest influence is the Oscar-winning British director Steve McQueen, whom he met while shooting the failed TV pilot. “Even though the series didn’t go ahead, it was such an incredible opportunity. Steve taught me so many things about acting and becoming a man and creating good habits in your life,” he says. “It was incredible — I have a lot of love for that man.” Terrell is coy about what comes next in his career (“both film and TV, but I can’t go too far into it”), but will be relocating in the US next year. He does, however, hope to meet the man he has portrayed. “I hope he watches the film and feels that [it] is an honest depiction of his life; I want him to watch it and be proud of it,” he says. “I would love to meet Obama. And maybe play some basketball?” With Obama’s presidency drawing to a close, there will no doubt be supporters and admirers across the world who will watch Barry with a sense of nostalgia, especially since the contrast on every conceivable level with president-elect Donald Trump is so stark. Terrell is diplomatic about the recent US elections: “The result was a shock; at the same time, it’s an interesting time in America,” he says. “I’m a pretty straightforward kid. I’m a personable guy, I love my family and friends, and playing basketball with my cousins,” he adds. Obama is about to leave the world stage, but Terrell’s time in the spotlight is just beginning. premieres on Netflix on December 16.
THE FILM FOR ME IS ABOUT [STRUGGLING WITH] IDENTITY ... IT’S SOMETHING I’VE GONE THROUGH DEVON TERRELL
Devon Terrell; and in a scene from