How to Play an Awkward 20-Year-Old Obama, According to the Star of 'Barry'

Devon Terrell discusses what it was like playing an icon in his first major gig.

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The invisible man is a recurring theme in Vikram Gandhi's Barry. A 20-year-old Barack Obama is seen reading and discussing Ralph Ellison's award-winning novel about a black man disregarded by the world because of his race. It's a feeling the future president relates to after transferring from Occidental College to Columbia University in 1981. Despite an upbringing that exposed him to different cultures and rendered him more worldly than the average college junior, Barry, as he was known at the time, is a man with no country. No sense of identity.

Devon Terrell, who plays the film's namesake, knows the feeling.

Born in Long Beach, Calif., the 24-year-old's family relocated to Perth, Australia when he was a child. Growing up ​African-American and Anglo-Indian, he often struggled with his own identity. After two years of high school drama classes and a year of drama education, an instructor-cum-guidance counselor gave him life-changing career advice: he was an actor, not a teacher. And since graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), he hasn't looked back. 

In Barry, which hits Netflix on Dec. 16, Terrell plays a young man trying to make sense of his heritage and future. New York City, slightly dirtier in former Mayor Ed Koch's early days, helped focus the picture for him. Today, President Obama is an icon—a historic figure able to illuminate a room with a mere glance or gesture. Barry, however, didn't yet possess that fluid confidence. So with President Obama's final term rapidly drawing to an end, this look at him as a work-in-progress is both fascinating and bittersweet. That's a testament to Terrell's work: in young Barry's flashes of brilliance, we see his own. This may be his first acting credit, but he surely won't be invisible moving forward. 

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This is a role you were interested in playing for obvious reasons. What research did you do about President Obama during this period of his life and 1980s New York City?
I read Dreams of My Father three times. It was my Bible, as I wanted to understand his mindset at the time and what people thought of him. I also read the Vanity Fair article about his relationships with his ex-girlfriends, and there’s this clip where he talks about his book and you see a different side of him. He’s kind of this awkward young man who’s not as assured or refined as the man we see today. That was my base, and from there it just became about trying to understand who Barry was, not who Barack Obama is today.

You’re not that much older than he was at the time Barry focuses on. Has studying and depicting his evolution helped your own?
So much. Even as a mixed-race young man, I still ask those questions so it was a bit of a weird moment when I read the script and thought: "I think I’ve lived this life, as well." I just probably won’t become president of the United States.

From the film’s opening moments to its final frame, he becomes a very different person. What did he learn during that period that helped him transition from Barry to Barack Obama?
I think he was opened up to the world. At that time, he was kind of sheltered away and kept trying to mask who he really was. He was just questioning himself constantly, and I think once he went to New York, he began trying to understand himself. His surroundings made him grow up, so it was really a pivotal time in his life.

I think you take some of every place you go past a certain age with you as you progress. Is New York City where life’s big picture became a little less blurry for him?
Definitely. In his book, when he talks about his time at Occidental College, I think that’s when he realizes he has to put himself in a position to grow and learn. And I think Columbia was that place, because from there on, he kept discovering new aspects of himself and pushing himself. He became very withdrawn—he talks about how it was a dark time in his life—but I think that’s why he’s the man he is today.​

You did a good job with his mannerisms—even his facial expressions. But what was harder to learn: his voice or how to shoot with your left hand?
[Laughs.] I don’t know if either was easy, to be honest. But I think it was the voice. The left-handedness kind of came naturally because I’m a very physical person. I was very disciplined with playing basketball every day and trying to switch hands, but the voice is really his essence. Every day, I was just trying to find where the accent sat in me to make people believe it.

Going off of that, how do you play an iconic character without flat-out parroting them?
I think it’s doing as much research as humanly possible. I wanted President Obama to watch it and feel proud of my portrayal of him as a young man, because I know he holds that period close to his heart. But, for me, it was about finding the emotional life and understanding that headspace. It’s Barry’s story, not Barack’s, so I kind of treated him as this mixed-race kid who sounds weird, but was just getting used to New York City lifestyle and becoming a man.

How do you view American politics right now in light of the recent presidential election?
[Laughs.] It’s extremely interesting because it’s been such a time of change—in the world, not just America—and everyone has an opinion about where they want the world to go, but I feel blessed as a human being to have seen President Obama come around at the time he did. His legacy is going to have a trickle-down effect on the world: he’s built a generation of young people who now realize they can achieve their dreams. So while it’s going to be a very interesting four years, as an Australian, we look up to Obama, so it’s going to be very sad when he leaves. I hope Barry becomes part of that legacy of people understanding what he was trying to do.

So imagine he’s talking to you right now instead of me. What do you want to say to him?

Literally—was I close enough, and what do you think of my jump shot?

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