Playing Barack Obama: how a 24-year-old Australian actor landed his dream role

By  | 

When Devon Terrell was 19, he had one life goal: to play Obama. Five years later with no other screen credits he got the role, in new Netflix biopic Barry

If youre going to play Barack Obama the first black man to become United States president; a man whose departure from the White House leaves the world divided and in turmoil; a role youve dreamed about since you were in high school in Perth, Australia, watching his inauguration speech youre going to want to do your homework.

For Devon Terrell an Australian actor who, remarkably, had no screen credits to his name when he landed the role in Netflixs new biopic, Barry it became something of an obsession.

I get addicted to this kind of research, the 24-year-old says, in Sydney for a press tour ahead of the films release. I read [Obamas memoir] Dreams from My Father three times, and kept reading it afterwards as well. I just wanted to understand who he was as a young man.

Based only on public record research material (with liberties taken here and there), the unauthorised biopic covers a year in the presidents early life: 1981, when the young Barack Obama arrives at Columbia University as a chain-smoking transfer student, struggling to work out exactly where he fits and who he wants to be.

Terrell had only a couple of months to prepare for the film, which was shot in less than six weeks. A perfectionist, he learned to write and play basketball with his left hand like Obama (in the film, its on the basketball court where Barry first feels at home in New York). Terrell also had to master the accent, learn how to hold himself like the future president and effectivelydevelop his own version of one of the worlds most famous men a performance the film-makers wanted to be more homage than impersonation.

He also had to lose weight. Obama is long and lanky … I had to find the lankiness, Terrell says. I actually had to lose about six to eight kilos in two months, because I was quite Id been going to the gym.

Obama is long and lanky … I had to find the lankiness: Devon Terrell as a young Barack Obama in Barry. Photograph: Linda Kallerus/Netflix

Obamas mother is American, his absent father is Kenyan, and he grew up between Indonesia and Hawaii; the New York he arrived in in 1981 was crime-ridden, racially divided and glaring in its inequality. In the film, his boorish, drug-addled roommate Will (Ellar Coltrane) describes him as just white enough; as Barry himself puts it, I fit in nowhere. Its a tension that becomes magnified when he starts dating Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy) a character composite of three white women Obama dated in his first year at Columbia.

Written by Adam Mansbach and directed by Vikram Gandhi of Vice who studied at Columbia after Obama had graduated and lived next door to the building Obama had moved in to the film is sweet, thoughtful and compelling, if occasionally undercooked in the plot department. It premiered to wide acclaim at Toronto Film Festival this year, drawing favourable comparisons to another Obama biopic, which was set a decade later, but released a few months earlier: Southside With You.

Terrell was super excited when he heard about the role in Barry just after he discovered that an HBO series hed been working on with Steve McQueen, Codes of Conduct, had been cut after the pilot. The opportunity to even audition as Obama was enough to salve that disappointment; it was the role he had always wanted.

He recalls: When I was studying at Nida [the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney], my older cousin sat me down and said, Whats your goal?. And I said, My life goal is to play Barack Obama, thats it. I just idolised the man growing up. He was somebody I wanted to be like.

Read more:

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By agreeing you accept the use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.

Privacy Settings saved!
Privacy Settings

When you visit any web site, it may store or retrieve information on your browser, mostly in the form of cookies. Control your personal Cookie Services here.

We use Google Tag Manager to monitor our traffic and to help us AB test new features.

Decline all Services
Accept all Services