Playing Barack Obama was a formidable task for young Australian actor Devon Terrell.
Playing one of the world’s most powerful men was a formidable task for up-and-coming Australian actor Devon Terrell, but his performance proved as engaging as his affable personality, writes Cushla Chauhan. Styled by Petta Chua.
When actor Devon Terrell walked onto the stage to rousing applause at the Toronto Film Festival last September, he made an announcement to the audience: “Not to scare anyone, but I’m Australian.” It was a playful way to greet the crowd, who burst into incredulous laughter hearing his Aussie drawl. Having just watched the 24-year-old actor from Perth play a college-age Barack Obama in the Netflix bio-drama Barry, they assumed the flawless American accent they had heard was his own. If anything, it was his nailing the former US president’s timbre and mannerisms that would have left an impression.
Terrell chuckles in recalling the reaction. It’s a deep, hearty laugh I’ve heard often since arriving in the photo studio on the morning of Vogue’s shoot with the NIDA-trained actor, whose exuberance and easy interaction with everyone on set reveals a natural charisma that befits him playing Barack Obama.
It’s this charm that in part led Barry director Vikram Gandhi to make the seemingly left- of-field choice of casting a little-known Australian in the role of the 44th American president. But there are other parallels between the character and actor too, which Terrell reveals later.
When we speak, the handsome lead is excited to be back on home turf and eagerly anticipating Barry’s imminent launch on Netflix. He is in a confident state of mind, in stark contrast to the way he felt in the lead-up to that first public screening in Toronto. “I’ve never been so terrified in my life!” he confesses. “It’s so humbling to see all those people sit through your film … to actually see your work,” he says of his debut movie role. “The film has been received so tremendously well and people are putting away their politics and seeing it as a story of a young man growing up and trying to discover himself.”
Indeed, Barry isn’t a portrait of the assured former president we recognise today, but rather depicts a young man of mixed heritage struggling with issues of race and identity. Set in 1981, it takes us back to when Obama was 20 years old and has just arrived in New York to attend Columbia University.
While not much has been documented on this period in Obama’s life, Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach drew from the recollections in the former president’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from my Father. The story they crafted is one of a man working out his place in the world and who he really is.
Both the film and Terrell’s performance have received critical acclaim since Barry’s release, but the pressure on the actor at the time was tremendous. Representing a venerated leader was daunting enough, but the bio-drama’s release also coincided with a swell of sentiment in the lead-up to Obama’s final days in office. “It was extremely hard, because he was so fresh in everyone’s mind, constantly. But I had to push that away,” says Terrell on tackling the role, for which he only had two months to prepare.
Rather than focusing on the weight of that expectation, Terrell channelled his energy into his work. “I read as much as I could to see him as Barry the character. I wanted to understand the nuances of him – how could I create someone that felt real but also felt authentic to Barack?”
Dreams from my Father, he says, became his bible. He lost weight – “because I was quite muscly at the time” – and learnt how to write and play basketball left-handed. He also trained with a dialect coach perfecting Obama’s accent and idiosyncrasies.
Terrell’s deft vocal mimicry is part of the reason he’s so convincing on screen, that and the intelligence and inner turmoil he also manages to convey through expression and movement.
Gandhi entrusted his leading man to take his character where he needed to go. “On day one he said to me: ‘You are Barry now, so whatever you’re feeling just go with that.’”
Terrell says the connection he felt with the young Obama surprised him. “When I first read the script I was kind of shocked that it wasn’t the Barack Obama I knew, instead it this awkward young student who was in the background. I always thought he’d be a natural leader, but he ebbed and flowed. I saw myself within that script and I never thought reading the character of Barack I would see myself,” he explains.
“We wanted to make a film that’s relatable and tell it through this incredible person, this man who became an extraordinary human being, but was just a normal guy who didn’t have ambitions to be president. He had greatness within him, but he never quite saw where it would lead.”
With his mixed African-American Anglo-Indian heritage and having been born in the US before moving to Perth at the age of five, Terrell not only bears a physical resemblance to his character, but also relates to his battle with identity.
“I never felt like an outsider,” he ref lects on growing up in Perth, “but within myself I was always asking those questions, like: ‘ Am I Afro-American or am I Australian?’, so the film brought up so many things for me.
“I loved getting into the psyche of someone who felt he didn’t belong anywhere. It became a very important story to me personally and a lot of cast members, because a lot of us dealt with the same issues of ‘where do I belong?’”
While Terrell doesn’t expect to hear a critique from Obama himself, who was sent a copy of the film and had representatives from the White House present at the Toronto Film Festival last year, he admits he’d love to know how it was received. “I just hope he’s proud of how I portrayed him, because I respect him so highly,” he says.
Given that he’s currently between Australia, New York and LA for work and deliberating his next career move, it’s perhaps not foremost in his mind, though. “I haven’t signed off to anything yet, but I’m reading a lot of scripts and just want to make the right decision,” he reveals of his plans. “I’ve had some amazing scripts come my way so, so far, 2017 looks really, really exciting.”
Scenes from Barry, in which Terrell plays a 20-year-old Barack Obama.