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.”
Watch the stars of TIFF do a dramatic reading of Drake's "One Dance."