Vikram Gandhi – The TMG Interview
Interview by Paul Preston
Vikram Gandhi is the producer and director of the Netflix film Barry, chronicling the years Barack Obama spent in New York City in the 1980s and how they helped shape the man who would be President.
This is Gandhi’s second feature after directing the 2011 documentary Kumaré, where he played a fake guru and actually amassed a following of real believers. That type of comment on society landed him a producer/host gig at the HBO series Vice, where he helped establish the unique voice that show maintains with stories from Afghanistan, North Korea and Syria. Barry represents the first straight narrative feature he’s directed with a talented cast of actors and is available now for all the reflecting you need to do on the 44th President of the United States before he leaves office.
The trailer for Barry really captures 1981. How important was it to faithfully recreate the era that shaped the man? Without spoiling too much, what’s one way New York transformed Obama?
The early eighties is one of the most mythic times in New York City, especially for the arts. You see the rise of hiphop and the downtown art scene. It was also the most violent year in NY’s history. We were all obsessed with this era, and really wanted to make it feel authentic. You can also see New York City as the antagonist of this film. Barry confronts his identity through living in the city. I think most importantly his proximity to Harlem allowed him to start thinking about his social obligation to Black America. He writes that after this period at Columbia University, he decided to become a community organizer.
How do you think being a fan of a political figure plays into making a biopic about them? Do you need to repress that and be neutral or wear it on your sleeve and infuse it in all your work?
I was really just telling the story of a fragmented identity and alienation of a mixed race kid in the 1980s through the prism of Barack Obama’s youth. I was never trying to comment on Barack’s presidency. I felt his was a uniquely American story, that many young people would relate with. But now, the ideology of America being a melting pot has become a political stance. The election of Trump has literally put the entire idea of America into question. This movie has as a result become political.
Obama got a raw deal as President, no? The refusal to work with him by dummies like McConnell and Boehner was a major show of disrespect and a blatant failure to accomplish the duties of their position as a public servants. Please agree with me.
I think we all got a raw deal. The white political establishment trembled and revealed that white superiority was a prerequisite to their patriotism. To be the most powerful man in the world, and struggle to make change only, showed how systemic these problems really are. And because of that, we continually saw the humanity of our president come out, like few before him.
Your credits are full of journalism pieces and documentaries, what did you learn from those projects to help you with a narrative feature?
I like nonfiction and fiction and the places in between. They use different means of telling a story, but for me, its the same journey, to always be as authentic with your audience as you can be.
Barry has some of the best young talent working today in Anya Taylor-Joy, Ellar Coltrane and Jason Mitchell. Anyone reading this who doesn’t know who they are, that’s on you. What was the process getting them on board the project?
Doug Aibel was the person who introduced me to so many of the great actors in the film. Since I come from a documentary background, interviewing people and getting to know them, even briefly, is more telling to me than an audition. When I skyped with Anya, there was no question she was Charlotte. She had lived lifetimes more than people her age, and I wanted her to bring that to her dynamic with Barry. Even at the script level, I knew I wanted Ellar to play Barry’s roommate. He is really just the kid at the end of Boyhood, transplanted to 1981 New York. Jason came out of nowhere; we were really lucky. He flew from Vietnam, where he was shooting Kong, and just jumped into the role.
Devon Terrell plays Barack. What did he bring to the part and how did you direct him to play one of the most famous men in the world?
Devon is an actor who is so full of heart and love for his work that he raised the bar of everyone else’s performance. But beyond that, Devon’s life is so similar to what Barry’s was. His mixed race identity, his family relationships, his own experience in Australia, his love of basketball - these all contributed to his deep understanding of the role. I learned who Barry was from learning about who Devon is.
Probably best that he went with “Barack” by the time he became President, you think? President Barry…not the same. Some names just can’t be President – Jason, Ralph and Brandon come to mind.
Not sure what you mean. A decade ago the idea that a man named Barack Hussein Obama would be the President of the United States would have been a wild fantasy. I think our world has changed drastically in the last eight years. I am happy to live in a world where Barack doesn’t have to be Barry to succeed.
Has Obama seen the film? If no, are there plans for Obama to see the film?
I’m sure he has. Still waiting for the call though.
Any interest in developing Frank with us? About young FDR?
Open to it. Let’s talk after Donny.
Barry is available now on Netflix.