With President Obama’s time in Washington nearing its end, Hollywood is focusing on his early life — those formative college years that paved his way to the White House. In August, Southside With You, a film about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date during law school, was released. And today, Netflix is releasing Barry, a profile of the president’s time as an undergrad at Columbia University.
In the film, handsome Australian newcomer Devon Terrell stars as a 21-year-old Obama, fresh to New York in 1981. Terrell completely nails Obama’s tone and cadence as he navigates all of the usual college trappings—drinking, smoking, and dating included—while demonstrating both street and book smarts. Here, the president-to-be's political aspirations, sense of humor, and even his basketball skills are on full display. But what's most emotionally affecting is watching Obama grapple with race relations, identity, and social justice.
“It’s an important moment in Obama’s life when he went from Occidental College to Columbia," Terrell told InStyle at the Toronto International Film Festival. "He took himself out of his comfort zone and he really wanted to make something of himself.”
To prepare for the role, Terrell did a deep dive of Obama’s life, watching video clips of Obama in his twenties, and reading Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father (which Terrell says inspired much of the script) and The Audacity of Hope, in addition to writings by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and other authors Obama may have read. For Terrell, it was important to give an “honest portrayal of a man” and not an imitation (though he says his Obama accent is now his back-pocket party trick).
While the film takes place pre-Michelle, it features another important love interest, Charlotte, played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
“He’s fascinated by her because they get each other on a different level. It’s not just physical attraction. They challenge each other with ideas,” Terrell said. “In Dreams From My Father, he talks about other women in his life before Michelle that had an impact on him. Charlotte’s an amalgamation of those characters.”
Terrell’s charm and Taylor-Joy’s “infectious energy” add to the film's youthful optimism—and the 1980s wardrobe helped the pair get into character as they filmed around New York City. “The way Obama walks, the way he talks, is kind of cool and mellow and laid back. The clothes are the same kind of stuff he wears now. There’s this blue shirt and brown khakis I’m obsessed with,” Terrell said. “I had an afro as well and walking around New York City with an afro was so much fun. Basically every day I was excited to get into another costume.”
Even as an Australian, Terrell says he’s felt the impact of Obama's presidency, and he hopes a global audience will take away what he sees as the film’s main message: “If you put yourself out there and you challenge yourself, then great things can happen.”
Barry is available streaming on Netflix beginning Dec.16.