Australian actor Devon Terrell portrays a young Barack Obama in the Netflix original movie Barry. Supplied by Netflix.
Australian actor Devon Terrell portrays a young Barack Obama in the Netflix original movie Barry. Supplied by Netflix. Linda Kallerus

Obama's private struggle laid bare in Netflix film

AS BARACK Obama prepares for his last month in the Oval Office, filmmakers are turning their attention to his legacy.

Earlier this year the film Southside with You focused on the US President's first date with his future wife Michelle in Chicago.

In contrast, global streaming giant Netflix's new offering, Barry, examines a lesser-known period in Obama's life during his first year as a college student at Columbia University in New York City in the early 1980s.

Barry paints the portrait of a very different man than the one we know today. As a 20-year-old Obama referred to himself as Barry, rather than Barack, and was struggling to form a connection with his Kenyan father through letters.

 

Australian actor Devon Terrell portrays a young Barack Obama in the Netflix original movie Barry. He is pictured here with Anya Taylor-Joy.
Australian actor Devon Terrell portrays a young Barack Obama in the Netflix original movie Barry. He is pictured here with Anya Taylor-Joy. Linda Kallerus/Netflix

Having spent a childhood moving from Hawaii to Indonesia to California, he comes off as wayward when he lands in New York with little more than a suitcase, a friend's address and a packet of cigarettes.

There's no sign of any political ambitions but there are moments where Barry's charisma and intellect shine through, such as when he schmoozes with his white girlfriend Charlotte's upper-class parents. And in the plumb role is Aussie newcomer Devon Terrell.

Barry is the NIDA graduate's debut role after the Steve McQueen-produced pilot Codes of Conduct, which was meant to be his big breakthrough role, failed to get picked up by HBO.

"To work with Steve McQueen was an experience I'll never forget and it all led to Barry, which is great," Devon tells Weekend. "I got cast in Codes of Conduct six months after drama school. I'd been auditioned in Australia for those six months, which was a giant learning curve.

"Steve was very much about pushing to get more out of yourself, and what I brought to Barry (off the back of that) was how much truth can I bring to Barack. I want to be as honest in depicting him as possible."

When Devon says it's a dream role, he isn't kidding. In a funny twist of fate, he named Obama as his dream film role five years ago.

 

Devon Terrell in a scene from Barry.
Devon Terrell in a scene from Barry. Linda Kallerus/Netflix

"I was sitting in my lounge room with my cousin watching TV and he said 'What's your dream role?' I said 'Barack Obama'. But I always assumed it would be the older version of Barack. He was a phenomenon at that time while I was at drama school; he was always on the TV.

"I saw him as someone to look up to; a family man and a man of morals who wanted to get the best out of his country. He was someone I respected. There was this aura around him I couldn't understand, so it's been fascinating to get into the psyche of Barack."

The 24-year-old, who was born in the US and grew up in Perth, spent months perfecting Obama's specific cadence of speech and even learned how to play basketball left-handed.

"When I first got the role I had to pinch myself and then I got straight to work," he says.

"It was extremely intensive and it had to be; he's in everyone's thoughts right now and he's on TV constantly.

"Everyone has an idea of who Barack is, but this was very much about who Barry was. Who was the man behind the man we see today? I hope we show audiences that this man was flawed but he worked on these flaws and came out the other end a strong person who believes in who he is."

 

Australian actor Devon Terrell portrays a young Barack Obama in the Netflix original movie Barry. Pictured with Ashley Judd. Supplied by Netflix.
Australian actor Devon Terrell portrays a young Barack Obama in the Netflix original movie Barry. Pictured with Ashley Judd. Supplied by Netflix. Linda Kallerus/Netflix

The film, directed by Vikram Gandhi, homes in on Barry's struggles with his identity. As a bi-racial man he feels torn between his mostly white fellow college students and the African American friends he makes on the basketball court.

"Even the fact that he called himself Barry showed he was battling with himself," Devon says.

"Through the movie you see him struggling with his identity and where America was at the time. To come out the way he did is such a testament to him."

Shot entirely in New York City, Barry also stars Ashley Judd, Jenna Elfman, Jason Mitchell, Avi Nash, Ellar Coltrane and Linus Roache.

Currently based in the US, Devon is in Australia for the holidays and will watch Barry with his family in Perth.

"Most of my family hasn't seen me act before," he says. "I've been living between Los Angeles and New York and I'll probably move to New York soon, but Perth will always be home."

What does Devon think about the prospect of the man himself watching the film?

"That's extremely daunting," he says. "I hope he looks on this film as part of his legacy.

"When we were shooting the film it was very much about who Barry was, but as soon as it finished it dawned on me this man I looked up to is going to watch this film, potentially. I hope he believes I got close enough."



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