LUCKY CHARM

VOGUE Australia - - News - Pho­tographed by Tim Ash­ton.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.