Toronto: Young and dislocated, Devon Terrell on playing a young and dislocated Barack Obama
Devon Terrell had spent the previous 24 hours in epic transit — from Australia to Abu Dhabi to New York and, finally, to Toronto — but fatigue is never an impediment to a good Barack Obama impersonation.
“My grandmother, Toot,” he said, launching into perfect Obamacadence of a bit from the not-yet-politician’s 1995 book-tour stop.
“I’ll do them all the time,” Terrell said, back in his native Australian accent as he finally relaxed, sans drink, at a Toronto hotel bar late Friday. “No matter who asks. Literally anyone on the street. No amount of times is too much.”
Terrell may feel differently soon. On Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, the 23-year-old will be seen for the first time as a young Obama in the new scripted biopic “Barry.” The screening is likely to generate attention both for itself and its unknown actor; Terrell pulls off a performance of such ease and nuance that audiences may briefly flicker with the thought they’re watching archival footage.
Directed and co-written by the Vice reporter Vikram Gandhi, “Barry” centers on several key, if imagined, months in the Columbia University junior’s life circa 1981, after he transferred from Los Angeles’ Occidental College. More Linklaterish identity quest than audience-congratulating prequel — “Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane even turns up for a supporting part — the film is a study in race and belonging at a moment when both issues are riding high in the public consciousness.
A post-adolescent Obama can be seen reluctantly debating Young Republicans in a political theory class. Ditto for him edging slowly into a playground hoops game, visiting a blue-blood Connecticut wedding of his new white girlfriend (Anya Taylor-Joy), verbally jousting with street-corner preachers, standing up to a hyper-vigilant security guard and trying to figure out how he fits in on the privileged campus — all in what might be described as a roiling but stoic quest.
“It’s not my scene,” a young Obama tells someone outside a frat party.
“So what is your scene?” he’s asked.
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” he replies.
Gandhi was motivated to make the film because he felt Obama was a perfect vehicle to explore notions of self; both the president’s mixed-race background and the mystery surrounding that period of his life made him conducive to investigation. For Gandhi, a New Yorker of Indian extraction who himself attended Columbia, “Barry” was a natural fit for his second feature.
Terrell’s route to the movie was more circuitous. To learn how to portray dislocation he first had to experience it himself.
On his first night in New York, the apartment key Gandhi gave him didn’t work, an event parallel to Obama’s displacement when he first arrived in the city. “It really could have been like 'really, there’s no movie, and it’s just a reality show to see how you’d react,” Terrell said. “Yes, it was all a big prank,” deadpanned Gandhi, sitting across from him.
Other manner of disorientation soon followed. Terrell, a good hoops player, went to a nearby playground for a kind of informal rehearsal of several of the movie’s scenes but found himself afraid to shoot because he felt like an outsider. (A Columbia sweatshirt he made a point of buying and donning probably didn’t help; the regulars called each other “family” and him “Blue Sweatshirt.”)
Terrell then sat next to students in the library at Columbia — he secured a temporary ID that allowed him to roam freely — and was struck by their studiousness. “The idea of so many people so glued to books was intense,” said Terrell, who attending acting school but not college after graduating from high school. He pressed on, sometimes even speaking to them as Obama; he would soon meet students whose parents had been in classes with the future president.
I felt a little out of place. But it was OK, because it made me imagine how Obama felt.
— Devon Terrell
“I felt a little out of place,” Terrell said. “But it was OK, because it made me imagine how Obama felt.”
Gandhi saw in all these actions a peculiarly intense commitment. “Devon was pretty jacked when he came to New York. One day I saw him drinking potassium and asked him why. He said it was because it could help with lankiness, and he knew Obama was lankier.” Gandhi paused. “I mean, who does that? Takes vitamin supplements so he could walk more like a president?”
The son of an African American father and Anglo Indian mother, Terrell spent his first five years in Long Beach, but moved to Perth, Australia, where he still lives. His arrival in New York to shoot “Barry” was, he thought, a homecoming of sorts after a childhood in which African Americans, especially those of mixed race, were not common. But he said he soon found racial politics abounded in the U.S. too — on all sides, including with darker-skinned African Americans who sometimes would treat him warily.
Terrell wears glasses and something of a 5 o’clock shadow, and in person he both radiates charm and suppresses uncertainty in a manner one might expect from an Obama-esque ethnic hybrid. Like Obama, Terrell also seemed to come out of nowhere. His one previous acting gig was as the lead in a Steve McQueen HBO pilot, “Codes of Conduct,” that never aired; Gandhi and other independent directors have just heard whisperings about the role. Before “Barry,” Terrell had never been seen onscreen. He’s barely ever done an interview. (He is not to be confused with Devvon Terrell, a burgeoning R&B artist.)
Terrell had said he actually dreamed about playing Obama for years, even telling a family member a long time ago that, perhaps because of his mixed background, it would be an ideal role.
To prepare every morning, he watched the 56-minute speech at a Cambridge, Mass., library from which the “My grandmother, Toot” bit comes. He’d sometimes talk to people on the subway in character as Obama, just to see their reaction.
Still, he was aware that it all could play as mythmaking, especially in the likely gauzier post-presidency period in which the currently undistributed film will come out — and said he consciously sought to avoid going too larger-than-life.
“You don’t want it to be like ‘this is an iconic guy, and you know it,’ because of course he didn’t know that. He was just like so many young people who come to a big city, trying to figure out who they are.”
Asked what, given the opportunity, he might ask of the real-life present-day Obama, Terrell paused and then said with a grin: “Was I close enough?”
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT
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