YES, HE CAN

Perth-based Devon Ter­rell talks to Justin Burke about the ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing the young Barack Obama in Net­flix’s Barry

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - 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

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