The Star of Netflix's Obama Biopic 'Barry' Explains How He Became the President

netflix barry biopic
Devon Terrell as Barack Obama | Netflix
Devon Terrell as Barack Obama | Netflix

President Barack Obama has been the subject of two reverent movies this year: Southside With You, a lovely excursion that captured Michelle and Barack's first date as they ambled around Chicago, and Barry, a movie that sits on the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum. Set during Obama's salad days at Occidental, director Vikram Gandhi paints a portrait of a young man figuring himself out. Emerging actor Devon Terrell plays a different kind of Obama than we're used to seeing: less dignified, more stoned, a college student without pretense.

Born in America but raised in Australia, Terrell, age 24, is having a big moment. To take on this part is, of course, daunting; to start your career with this performance is something else. Before he hopped on a plane back home to Perth for the holidays, he explained to me what it took to slip into the shoes of a pre-politics president.

netflix barack obama biopic

He dug up old footage and photos to get a sense of his college days

Terrell: "I watched as much footage of him when he was as young as I could get, but really, there's nothing until he's in his early 30s. [The role required] a lot of imagination, a lot of reading through his books. There's these images of him when he's younger in college, when he was at Occidental. It's really just that time period, looking at those images and trying to understand, who was that young man?"

He learned how to play basketball left-handed

"It was extremely difficult, but it's so much fun. I love basketball, and my cousins were helping me. My cousin Kyle, he plays basketball all the time, so he was constantly rebounding for me and helping me perfect it."

He unearthed the small details of Obama

"I remember when I was reading, there were weird things that came up, like that he used to do crossword puzzles on a Sunday, and he used to always eat raisins, and his room smelled like brut, one of his ex-girlfriends said. I guess the fact that he was a normal guy. I didn't see that coming. I thought that everyone would speak so highly of him, say that he was always the class leader and always the president of every society, every part of his life. It was odd to see that he was the guy in the back trying to solve his own life."

He drew on his connection to Obama

"I was born in Long Beach, California, and then moved to Perth when I was 5, so I can see America from an outsider's point of view, in a weird way. I was drawing on a lot of things from myself, but we're so different in a lot of ways, in terms of the way we interact with people or the way we act. Just reading about him, there was an unbelievable ability to adapt to different scenarios."

He looked at his differences, too

"I get Barry's shapeshifting. But in many instances I'm a very direct person, whereas he's calm and cool and has to think about everything he says and has to come to an eloquent ending. I guess he's unique. There was always an internal battle in his mind at that point in his life. He was getting himself twisted all the time, because he was so curious, everything had to have an answer in his life."

He focused on capturing the spirit of Obama

"It was really about figuring out who that young man was, because I think the Obama we see today is so refined. He's a leader. I think back then he was questioning himself and questioning the world around him. It was really capturing the spirit of Obama but also the spirit of a young person trying to find himself."

netflix barry biopic

He thinks Obama was a cool guy

"I think he was cool, but I think he could shapeshift. He could slide to the back of the room or he could come to the forefront, but it seems quite seamless to him. From everything I read, he was a cool guy, but he was awkward at some moments."

He kept his mother away from the set

"I tried to keep my mum away from any productions I did. She always made me nervous. She was so proud when she saw it. It's a moment where my family, they knew I was an actor, but to actually see a trailer, they were like, 'Wow, you actually are an actor.' After it finished, after she saw the film, my mum was kind of shocked. She was like, 'I can't believe that's actually my son!'"

He's not sure what Obama thinks of the movie

"I didn't talk to him at all or try to seek any help from the outside. As soon as I read the script for the first time, I knew who this young man was. It was just about trying to find the vessel to tell that story through, and how to find the mannerisms and speech [...] I'm very interested to see what he thinks of it. We have sent him a screener. I'm sure he has Netflix anyway. I'm sure his daughters will tell him how I portrayed him."

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Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy and a writer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, NPR, The Atlantic, and Playboy. Follow him on Twitter @SamFragoso.