Two Obamas: Parker Sawyers and Devon Terrell on Playing The President

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Devon Terrell. left, portrayed Barack Obama during the future president's undergraduate days at Columbia University in the movie "Barry," while Parker Sawyers played a slightly older Obama, on his first date with Michelle while he was a summer associate at a Chicago law firm, in "Southside With You." Netflix; Steve Eichner/Sipa/AP

President Barack Obama has been saying his tearful goodbyes. He gave a moving final speech in Chicago last week. Two days later, he surprised his second in command with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling Joe Biden the best vice president America has ever had. He gave his last press conference as president on Wednesday afternoon. And on Friday, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the country's next commander in chief.

In the final months of his second term, two films took the young, pre-politics Obama as their subject. Southside With You, released on August 26, looked closely at Obama's first date with Michelle Robinson, his adviser as a summer associate at a Chicago law firm who would become his wife and a beloved first lady. Barry, released on Netflix on December 16, went even further back, to explore Obama's days as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where he transferred from Occidental College as a junior.

Related: In 'Southside With You,' Barack Obama is a young, smooth-talking bachelor (review)

Newsweek spoke with Devon Terrell, the 24-year-old actor from Australia who played Obama in Barry, and Parker Sawyers, the 33-year-old actor from the Midwest, now living in London, who played Obama in Southside With You, about portraying the president.

How did you get the role? What did the audition process look like?

Devon Terrell: I was doing another project and my agent called me. I was kind of freaked out a little bit. I read the script and identified with it straight away. I Skyped with them—Vikram [Gandhi], the director, wanted to Skype—then auditioned once and got the part. It was a really quick turnaround.

Parker Sawyers: I did a tape, which was a straight-on impression. It had no nuance. It wasn't a lived-in person, like a real person who had a crush on Michelle. Instead it was like a 28-year-old president. I sent that tape in and nothing really happened. Luckily, they kept it and a few months later, the director, Richard Tanne, called me. He gave me some notes. Went home, did [another] tape, and that's the tape that got me the role. He likes to say it's pretty much what you see in the movie.

What kind of preparation and research did you do?

Terrell: In the beginning, when I first did the audition, Vikram actually didn't want me to even go close to the voice. So I kind of just looked at the story and showed my version of the emotional life of this young man. And then once I actually got the part, it became about diving into his whole life, in terms of Dreams from My Father, but I only read up to a certain chapter in the book where before he finishes university and goes into Harvard. It was just really about learning about his upbringing and how he became the man he was. Because I didn't want to tell the story of Barack Obama, I wanted to tell the story of Barry and who that young man was. It was a lot of research, and then just learning to play basketball left-handed, how to write left-handed, and finding the looseness to him, and the calmness. I was constantly looking at a little clip—he does a little 58-minute clip where speaks about his grandmother and the book—and finding the nuances. He wasn't as refined as he is now. There was a lot of umm'ing and aah'ing and he was very much a man in his head.

Sawyers: I read Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope—more so Dreams from My Father. I paid close attention to that because he wrote it around that time. I just studied him as an adult. The public Obama. But I paid close attention to when they're in Martha's Vineyard, when they're as a family. Those candid moments you saw. Not necessarily at the podium. The times he's at a fishing store. I sat on my couch nearly daily, before I left to go film, [and] I thought about every experience he had. "When I'm 9, I move to Indonesia."

I learned the entire script by heart. I had my wife read with me for seven days before I left to film. Every night, we would read. She would read every other part, and I would act out walking around my living room like I'm walking around a park or the art museum. I was reading this book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I was reading about the forefathers and I was watching this Netflix thing called The Men Who Built America. I did that on purpose. "I'm easily distracted, I am genuinely thinking about something else while still into Michelle and listening to her." Because I think that's what Obama's doing. I think he really is a super smart guy and an inquisitive guy. I think when you say something in an interview, his brain is going, "That reminds me of this and this and this." That's where the vocal tic comes from as well—because he's trying to get back on track.

How did you get the look down?

Terrell: Amela [Baksic], who was the costume designer, she constantly was [asking], "How does this fit on you? How does it inform your character?" There's not a whole lot of material on him from when he was younger but we tried to grab as much as we could. And putting the mole on and then growing the hair out. Every time I went into the makeup room—you walk in one person and you come out another person. You could feel it in the clothes you wear. It was very much an integral part of becoming that person, of feeling like you were part of that era. He had his own style, and I think that's very indicative of the way he is as a person—very smooth, and it's a very quiet charm and quiet confidence. There's kind of an awkwardness to it.

Sawyers: His eyes are a little more droopy than mine, so I made sure to do that. And his lips are pulled back, a little more pursed than mine. Man, I lost, I want to say, 15 pounds maybe? When the audition came through—this is December 2014—the very first time I saw the script, I was like, "I'm going to get this role." And I stopped working out. I was on an action film. I had muscles and stuff. They finally came back to me in April of 2015. We started filming it in July. By July, I was quite slim. I still had some residual muscle. I just wanted to transform. In movies, I don't like when the wind blows and you still see the lead actor has a six-pack but he's playing a dad who's an alcoholic or something like that. I wanted to make sure that when the wind blew, you just saw skinny arms.

How did you approach Obama's sense of being an outsider in every setting?

Terrell: I think as a mixed race person I understand what it is to question yourself in certain situations, like do I belong in certain situations. But I think he's an observer. I think that's the great thing about Barack that's stayed with him his whole life. He can take himself out of the situation and observe from an outsider's point of view. Which in the movie it shows that can be a positive and a negative in some ways. It was really just trying to take the audience on a journey of this man [who] doesn't understand himself. And you want the audience to constantly feel like every time he feels like he's finding his feet the rug is taken [out from] under him.

Sawyers: I went to a private school growing up, from second grade to fifth grade. Me and five or six other kids, two of which were my brother and sister, were the only black kids at the school. I don't know the numbers, but we were the very clear minority. Then I went to public school. I was used to playing soccer and the soccer team there was the quote-unquote white sport. I had that sort of, "Wait... Who am I? Where do I go?" You look around and you don't see anybody like you. But in a way, you sort of get used to it. You look at it as a gift, that you can maneuver between two worlds. Which I think is how Obama once said it as well.

Parker, was it weird for you to watch Barry?

Sawyers: [laughs] Why would it be weird? Nah, it wasn't weird. It was cool. I met Devon in September in L.A. We have the same agency. So it was an agency party. He was a really sweet kid. He struck me as young! He's fresh-faced. I'm a dad. I was like, "Oh my god, he's so young." But nah, man. The film was cool. Obviously a completely different tone to ours.

So you liked it?

Sawyers: Yeah! I did. If you look at the films, they're almost like a documentary. Like, I can see what he was trying to work out, and then I can see where he went. So as a companion piece, it works.

Devon, did you have a chance to see Southside With You?

Terrell: Yeah absolutely. I really liked the movie. It's such a beautiful moment in [Obama's] life, and I'm also a big fan of their relationship, of Michelle and Barack. I watched it after filming [Barry]. [Parker] is such a lovely guy and I think he did such a great job. It was really lovely to see his portrayal, because it's such a different moment in his life. There's so many nuances to Barack and so many different stages in his life, and I'm sure many more people will play him at some point in their career.

How do you think Obama's presidency will be remembered?

Terrell: I think his presidency was so much about empowering young people to believe in themselves and to create change on their own. And that it starts in each person, in every individual, to make change. Even as an Australian growing up in Australia, it's quite strange the impact he's had on the whole world. Whenever he speaks, everybody listens. I'm very proud and very happy that in my lifetime I got to see someone of such stature. He's kind of an incredible figure in my life and someone I'll never forget and I'll tell my kids about and their kids.

Sawyers: I think history will be kind to him. I also think that we haven't had a statesman like that for a while and I don't see us having one for a while again. I moved over here in 2008—in July, right before he was elected. I saw Europeans change their view of America based on how he represented America. We were friends again! It was different. Having lived over here and traveled a bit—people in Mumbai, in the slums, will watch our political news, because it affects their lives. He's done such an incredible job, in terms of PR for the country. Which is a huge part of the job.

How do you think Trump's election might change the way your movie will be watched?

Sawyers: I don't know that it does. Because Obama has been so open, relatively speaking, for a politician, I think that's the only reason you could pull a movie like this off. With Trump, he says he's not a politician, but he's quite a politician. With the flip-flopping and the blatant lies. It's a reminder of the stark difference between Obama and a lot of politicians we've had.

Anything else you want to end on?

Terrell: I guess I'm just really fascinated to see his next chapter in life. He's not going to just go away into the shadows. I think he's someone that people of all genders, of all races, of all types, look up to. It's going to be fascinating to see what his next chapter in his life is.

Two Obamas: Parker Sawyers and Devon Terrell on Playing The President | Culture