Perth-based Devon Terrell was fresh out of NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) when he was plucked from obscurity to play a young Barack Obama in Netflix’s movie about the future US president’s college years.
The 24-year-old delivers a remarkable performance in Barry, which follows Obama – known to his friends as “Barry” – through his junior year at New York’s Columbia University in 1981.
Terrell’s ability to replicate Obama’s nuanced mannerisms and instantly recognisable deep voice is uncanny.
Watch Devon Terrell impersonate Barack Obama
The young actor also possesses Obama’s quiet but commanding presence and his mixed background – Terrell was born in the United States, raised in Perth and is part Ango-Indian, part African-American.
The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival to critical acclaim and will be available to Netflix’s massive global audience from December 16.
“It’s mind-blowing as an actor to think I went from NIDA performing to 100 people to 86 million people,” an awed Terrell tells The New Daily.
Incredibly, the rising star has not a single prior screen credit.
He came to the attention of Barry‘s director, documentary maker Vikram Gandhi, when he was cast in an HBO pilot directed by Steve McQueen, but the project was cancelled before making it to air.
Terrell scored the Barry role after one audition and then set about working tirelessly to get it right.
“I had a great vocal coach, I watched videos, I did a lot of reading and I practised the voice every day,” Terrell explains.
His main challenge was capturing a version of the 44th US President that is virtually undocumented: the quiet, unknown 21-year-old Obama who was struggling with his identity and had little interest in politics.
In one scene, Barry delivers a particularly prophetic line about then-president Ronald Reagan: “Politics is bulls**t. Come on, the president is an actor!”
Indeed, the entire movie is interesting to watch in lieu of the controversial election of Donald Trump, who will succeed Obama when he leaves office in January 2017.
According to Netflix’s portrayal, young Obama is shy, retiring and thoughtful.
He has a spunky white girlfriend (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), lives in a rough neighbourhood with his wild but loveable roommate and enjoys playing basketball and reading.
Writer Adam Mansbach went to Columbia University to speak to those who knew ‘Barry’ back in the day while Gandhi, a seasoned correspondent for VICE, gathered the background facts.
Through playing the role, Terrell learned some unexpected facts about Obama.
“He was the quiet guy in the corner,” Terrell explains. “Some people have said they didn’t even know he was in the class.
“He also liked raisins – he used to eat raisins to relax at home whilst doing a word puzzle.”
Barry is the second time Netflix is tackling the early life of a world leader this year. The Crown, released on November 4, documents the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in the United Kingdom.
The streaming company is reportedly working on getting the British royal family to endorse the series. So – is a similar thing happening with the Obamas and Barry?
“I’m sure he’s very busy right now so I won’t be expecting a phone call,” Terrell says of Obama, with a laugh.
“I know there were people from the White House at the Toronto Film Festival screening so I’m sure he knows of it.
“I’m just hoping his daughters watch it.”
Whether or not Obama gives his tick of approval, it’s certain Terrell, who plans to watch the film with family and friends at home in Perth, has a bright future of head of him.
The rising star will base himself out of New York while working on some “exciting” upcoming projects and is enjoying every second of his big break.
“I’m a massive Natalie Portman fan and I had a moment at the Toronto Film Festival – she was standing next to me and I just thought to myself, ‘What is my life right now?’.”