You’re familiar with the titular character of Barry, which had its world premiere last night at the Toronto International Film Festival. These days, he goes by Barack Obama and, for another couple months, POTUS, but in his early 20s he was simply Barry — a college student you could have sat next to in Poli-Sci if you happened to attend Columbia between ’81 and ’83.
The film’s director Vikram Gandhi did attend Columbia, albeit some years after Obama. Like many Americans, Gandhi learned the President’s origin story via his memoir, Dreams From My Father. “He lived on 109th Street, and when I was in college I lived in the building that was right next to the building that he lived in,” Gandhi says. “When I read that, it kind of stuck with me.”
This coincidence planted the seed that would eventually become Barry, which depicts the President’s junior year in college. “I could imagine and visualize the streets that he walked, the places he went and the classes he took,” Gandhi says. “And all of a sudden I saw the whole thing playing out.”
There was just the small matter of realizing that vision, which included casting the 21-year old Barry. It was a tricky undertaking considering that the present-day Obama is still in office, and has been for the last eight years; we are all intimately familiar with his speech and demeanor. But Gandhi found the perfect lead in Devon Terrell, an actor so unknown that his Google results are trumped by a Brooklyn-based rapper of the same name.
Gandhi caught wind of Terrell after he was cast in Steve McQueen’s now-shelved HBO miniseries, “Codes of Conduct.” “I Skyped with him and he taped and I just thought immediately, ‘I could watch this kid for two hours,’” Gandhi recalls. “He also has the heart and focus of somebody who I thought could actually play Barack Obama as a young man.”
Naturally, Terrell’s Obama voice is second-to-none. It’s a feat that’s all the more impressive given his real life Australian accent (he moved from Long Beach to Perth when he was five), but Terrell’s Barry is a far cry from the one we see on TV. “Initially it was quite hard because there’s no footage of him when he was 21,” the actor says. “So I kind of had to approach it as a story about Barry, not just about Barack Obama. If you put on the pressure of it being Obama, it becomes this overbearing thing.”
Terrell’s portrayal of Barry wasn’t the only element that had to be reconstructed. Barry’s college chums (one of whom is played by Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) are composites, made up of several friends who touched his life during that formative year.
Then there’s the matter of his love life.
It’s hard to imagine Barack Obama with anyone other than Michelle (a story probed in this year’s other Obama biopic, Southside With Me), but Barry did, in fact, play the field. His three college girlfriends, all of them white, are are merged into one character in the film, whom Barry meets in a Poli Sci class. Played by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), Charlotte draws most heavily on Obama’s best-known ex, Genevieve Cook.
“Charlotte’s really cool. She’s really got her shit together,” says Taylor-Joy. “She challenges Barry — that was the most important thing we really had to bring. It was kind of a matching of equals.”
It’s an untraditional take on a presidential biopic: a portrait of a young man struggling with his racial identity while trying to figure out what sort of person he will ultimately become, with history as the silent, unnamed dance partner in the film. What will the White House make of all this? You’ll have to ask the staffers who attended last night’s TIFF premiere; Ghandi gifted them tickets after they approached him at the festival, having recognized him from his on-air work for Vice.
Despite the upcoming election, Barry doesn’t wade into the story of Obama’s two-term Presidency. Rather, its timeliness stems from the racial tensions gripping America. And it’s a story that wouldn’t be worth telling if Barry, even at 21, was any less than remarkable. “Even if he wasn’t President, he’s such a fascinating human being,” says Terrell. “I think he just has good in his heart, and he wants to do good by people.”
Live From TIFF: Meet the Beautiful Stars of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival
Rebecca Hall, Christine: “The reason why Christine Chubbuck is in anyone’s consciousness is because in 1974 she was a newscaster in Sarasota, Florida, who went live on air and killed herself. The film is roughly the two weeks before the event, and it’s a filmmaker’s attempt to humanize something that would otherwise be just consigned to shock and horror. I think of it as a film about sensationalism that is in no way sensationalistic. It’s very humanistic.”
Ziyi Zhang, TIFF juror: “No, I’m not nervous [to be on the jury]. You’re nervous when you’re being judged! I’m sure all twelve movies are good and very artistic. We watched two yesterday, and I’m very happy with them.”
Liev Schreiber, The Bleeder: “Everybody knows what a gutsy actress Naomi [Watts, his wife] is; I don’t think many people know how funny she is. I really loved seeing her play Linda [in The Bleeder] because Linda is such a firecracker — she’s from Bedstuy, she’s Brooklyn Italian… She’s got style, very different from Naomi’s. And Naomi went for it, she loves that stuff, and she did such a great job.”
Miles Teller, Bleed For This: “It was about eight months from the time I got [the role] to when I shot. When I got the part I was 188 pounds and 19% body fat. Gor shooting I got down to 160 pounds and 6%. It was just a lot of diet. Towards the end, I was doing four hours boxing, two hours of weights, an hour of accent/dialect and then getting massaged. So it was pretty intense.”
Dan Levy, “Schitt’s Creek”: “It was our first season and I was driving down Sunset Blvd. and I saw [the billboard for the show]. You’re in one of those weird situations where you’re in your car but you really have to stop and take it in. So I sort of just slowed down. There was a lineup of cars honking but I was like, ‘You know what? This is my moment and I’m going to hold up Sunset for a second.’”
Laura Carmichael, A United Kingdom: “I’ve admired [Rosamund Pike’s] work for a long time, so I was excited to be playing her sister. I have some experience playing sisters [from her time on ‘Downton Abbey’, as Edith Crawley] and when you do, it just means you get to hang out with really awesome women and pretend to be really close — and by that nature you do become quite close. But [my character] Muriel is a hundred times sweeter than Edith. Both sexy characters, obviously.”
Vanessa Bayer, Carrie Philby: “Some journalists are more serious than others, so during some of the press this weekend I would interrupt [co-star] Bel [Powley] to make a joke, and she wouldn’t mind at all, but the person interviewing us would be like, ‘Who is this girl?’”
Lou Gossett, Jr., King of the Dancehall: “I keep my [dance moves] to myself. They asked me, ‘Do you think that you can dance?’ I’m a former athlete, but I can’t do that shit no more. My ego and my mind says, ‘Yeah, let’s try it!’ But I don’t think so.”
Mitzi Ruhlmann, Boys in the Trees: “We were all kind of at an age where we were going through a lot of things similar to our characters. We were almost coming of age at the same time. I feel really lucky to have had the film to make sense of that time of my life for me.”
Andrew Scott, Handsome Devil: “[When I was in school] I was good at the stuff I was interested in, and I was terrible at the stuff that I wasn’t interested in. I was big into drawing and painting. I liked a bit of sport as well, but I think what happens to kids is they feel like they have to choose either/or, but actually you’re allowed to do both if you want to.”
Sarah Gadon: “Caitlin [Cronenberg] has such a close relationship with and appreciation for film. She’s been an on set stills photographer and worked on every milestone film I’ve ever made, from Cosmopolis to Enemy, so we’ve been kind of shadowing each other’s careers, not even on purpose.”
Bryce Dallas Howard, Netflix’s “Black Mirror”: “I have been in the past plagued by terrible, constant nightmares that range from ‘Walking Dead’ to ‘Black Mirror.’ I’ve actually done hypnosis to try to get read of these dreams. A year ago, I watched ‘Black Mirror’. This is truly the representation of all of me my deepest fears and anxieties. This is going to sound very actressy of me, but I sent a video of me melting down to the therapist who did the hypnosis, and I was crying and I was like, ‘Doctor, I’ve taken a nosedive!’ So I didn’t watch any more. And then, before the end of last year, Joe Wright, the director, reached out to me with this, which of course was a no-brainer. When I arrived in South Africa to shoot it, it was exactly a year to the week of when that happened, and the title of the episode is ‘Nosedive.’ I showed [Joe] this video; we couldn’t believe it.”
Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion: “My mother was a huge fan [of Emily Dickinson], so we had a record in our house of Julie Harris reading selected poems and letters, which I listened to a lot.”
Mark Duplass, Blue Jay: “I have two high school sweethearts. I don’t see them very often but every now and then we come across each other or hear a story about each other or, god forbid, I open up one of my fucking journals from the mid-90s. I’ll immediately make fun of myself, and then I immediately go, ‘Wait, that sort of overly confident, completely un-jaded person is somebody I really miss.’ So then I get all sad about it, and that was really what the soup of the movie was.”
Angela Sarafyan, The Promise: “I’m a huge fan of Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. Most of my stuff is with Oscar and it’s so much fun working with him. We kind of had the freedom to find what we wanted to do in each scene. [Oscar] is charming, generous, kind, thoughtful — all the things you’re looking for in a guy.”
Robbie Arnell, ARQ and CW’s “The Flash.”
Charlotte Le Bon, The Promise: “[Oscar Isaac] is really, really intense but he’s also very funny. He’s kind of two different people. On set he’s this intense, rigid and square person — the way he works is really precise — and outside the set he’s really funny. He’s just a guy you want to have a beer and hang out with.”
Nick Kroll, Loving and Sing: “[In Sing] I am Gunter, the Scandinavian dancing pig. It’s very similar to [my role in Loving], Bernie Cohen the 1950’s ACLU lawyer. As you would expect, I sing ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Bad Romance.’ What else would a Scandinavian pig sing besides Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga?”
Erika Linder, Below Her Mouth: “I obviously would have done the movie even if it was a male director because I like taking risks. I never want to do anything unless it scares the shit out of me. But women understand each other on a very emotional level and when we came together — the whole crew, too — it’s everyone’s love story.”
Natalie Krill, Below Her Mouth: “It was scary, like there was something deep inside me pushing me towards this, because of the fear.”
Maria Bello, The Journey Is the Destination: “[This movie] is more than close to my heart. I actually have a tattoo of Africa on my hip. I’ve been obsessed with Africa my entire life, so it’s just so fortuitous that I would be here at the festival with this incredible film.”
Kreesha Turner, King of the Dancehall: “Nick [Cannon] was pretty chill. There were so many non-actors and actresses on this particular set — apart from the brilliant cast, everybody else were local Jamaican talent and artists. Being a Jamaican myself, I understand all too well that you never know what’s going to come out of their mouths. So as a director, Nick kind of had to allow the free flow that would come from such an environment.”
Ellar Coltrane, Barry: “[Avi Nash] and I are kind of the two ends of the spectrum for Barry. I’m the super quiet, sweater vest-wearing, poetry-reading, middle-class Caucasian friend.”
Lola Flannery, actress: “I like meeting everybody! I don’t have a specific person who I want to meet, I want to meet everybody!”
Gaby Hoffmann, “Transparent”: “”We were [a family] from day one. It’s a real, incredible, weird stroke of genius/magic/love. We all really love each other. We have a very, intense, dynamic, fun emotional experience every season.”
Julia Ducournau, director, Raw: “I thought about the three taboos of humanity: murder, incest, cannibalism. Murder, you see it in every movie, so no. Incest, way too dark for me, no way. Cannibalism made sense for me, because all my movies are about the body.”
Ana Lily Amirpour, director, The Bad Batch: “It’s a mix of practical makeup and CG. I’m not a fan of just CG. I’m into movies from the 90s and the 80s that look organic, in a way. So we did a mix… What you see looks really fleshy and real.”
Natalie Portman, Planetarium, Jackie: “I have not experienced [speaking to spirits] myself, but I believe that anything is possible.”
Jeremy Renner, Arrival: “I believe in other life, yes.”
Amy Adams, Arrival, Nocturnal Animals: “I believe there’s something out there… I don’t know in what form. But I can’t imagine that life is just exclusive to our tiny blue planet, as Carl Sagan calls it.”
Watch the stars of TIFF do a dramatic reading of Drake’s “One Dance.”