for Brian Tyree Henry, in the middle of the night the wheels start turning. Good sleep is hard to come by for the star of Atlanta and express train. Then he begins to toss and turn and ask himself questions. When the only thing separating him from the answers he is looking for is the glow of his phone and the often unsuccessful scrolling of a Google search. take last night Just after four. A few hours after a whistle-stop trip to London to promote the film that could earn him an Oscar – an adorable two-handed named Jennifer Lawrence dam. Henry was awakened in his hotel bed by a single word imprinted on his psyche. He had to know what it meant.
“Let’s see,” the 40-year-old tells me the morning after, fishes his iPhone out of his jeans and calls up his search history. “There it is: ‘belong’ – definition. I carry that word with me all the time. What does belonging mean? For a long time I thought it meant to assimilate. But I never wanted to pass. And the crazy thing is that now I’m successful in acting, it feels like I belong.” He strokes his stubble, his hand adorned with ring after ring. “But I don’t know… I feel like the definition of belonging needs to change. There must be more in there. To me, belonging simply means finding a place where you are truly nourished for who you are and what you do.”
We’re in a room in a London hotel. Henry is 6ft 2in and of a slim build, his earlobes are pierced with two silver hoops. His hands are stuffed into the pockets of a woolen jacket, his feet crossed in white sneakers. His face is open and serious. On screen he is a master of silence. In Donald Glover’s spacey, scholarly comedy series Atlanta, his character Alfred – an existentially insecure rapper aka Paper Boi – always expressed uneasiness with a look, uneasiness with a withering look. Dear Barry Jenkins, heartbreaking If Beale Street could talk, Henry has a cameo appearance in a single scene as a broken man fresh out of prison. You know this man saw horrors. You know he will never recall those sights out loud.
Stream now on Apple TV+, dam is about two equally cautious people who find the strength to open up. Sent back to New Orleans, Lawrence’s injured war veteran Lynsey forms an unexpected friendship with a mechanic named James (Henry). Like her, James is marred by recent trauma – a car accident involving himself, his sister and nephew broke up a family and left him without a leg. Now living alone in the house they all once shared, he searches through debris, real and imagined. Sometimes he shares his feelings with Lynsey. Sometimes he doesn’t. The performance, which is alternately haunting and vulnerable, justifiably creates Oscar buzz.
The film had an unexpectedly long production that was disrupted by the pandemic. It came in handy: Lawrence, Henry and director Lila Neugebauer had time to unpack what they had already filmed and reflect on what they hadn’t yet. “We felt like there was more to say,” recalls Henry. “These characters kept speaking to us from the afterlife. In 2020 we have all been through that year of introspection and personal misery; We all started peeling off the layers. Who the hell are we? What are these connections? So when we had the opportunity to go back and do the film, we all felt like we had to put those feelings in there.”
For new recordings, Neugebauer deleted entire subplots and retracted the screenplay. It got smaller and more intimate. During the break, Henry had changed himself. He had worked non-stop for four years, riding the wave of life Atlantas success while privately mourning the loss of his mother – she died in a car accident in 2016 shortly after filming wrapped Atlanta‘s first season. The tragedies of 2020 – first Covid, then the source of the activism and anger following the murder of George Floyd – saw Henry protest, donate and mourn, but also come to a sudden halt.
“You really had to sit down with yourself,” he says. “You had to learn to love yourself. How to manage your mental health. It was the first time I thought, ‘Oh shit, I really need therapy.’” He laughs softly, despondently. “I really needed to talk to someone.”
I tell Henry I was curious how open he would be with me. He’s so brilliant at playing men who don’t talk that I didn’t know if he talked a lot himself. “Age!” he exclaims. “Growing up, me always became ‘most talkative’ on my reports. I still don’t know how to whisper.” (It’s true—even when he recalls the saddest of personal traumas, his register carries a cheerful upswing.) “But I think over time I’ve kind of overcompensated with silence . When it’s so hard for everyone to be the most talkative, I’ll make sure I can say everything without a word.
Henry describes his upbringing as “rough in its own way”. He makes it sound like a troubled family dynamic — he was the little brother of four girls, all of whom were grown and working by the time he was born. For as long as he can remember, his parents have been separated. “I never wanted the outside world to know what was going on in the house,” he says wryly. “It’s a big thing in the black community, like… this is our personal matter. Period. So I would act a lot to make what’s happening in the real world seem less hard.”
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a free 30-day trial
He says acting saved his life. He had studied business administration in college but found a home on the stage and earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama. “Acting gave me a place where I felt incredibly safe. In it I can be who I want to be. Now in this business, as a black man, they like to tell me what I can and can’t be. But in the time that I’ve been here, I’ve never been satisfied with that. I’ve never allowed anyone to do this to me.”
However, he admits it was tough. At Yale, he was usually cast in minor roles. There was the time he played an old man with a line. The time he played a heroin addict slumped to the back of the stage for quite a bit. The time he played a tree. “Most of them didn’t want to see me in front,” he recalls. “It felt like people always wanted me to be on the side. To play buddy. But I knew I had more to say.”
Henry was a late bloomer professionally. There were Shakespearean productions and Off-Broadway plays, but he was 29 when he got his big break playing The General in the original 2011 series The Book of Mormon. This was followed by many episodic television broadcasts in shows like How to get away with murder and This is uswhich earned him an Emmy nomination. Atlanta, which started in 2016 and ended in the US last month, made him a star. There have also been a lot of films in recent years. That’s him, the ambitious politician who threatens Viola Davis’ dog widows. He stars in Chloé Zhao’s polarizing Marvel entry eternal, who made history as the MCU’s first gay superhero. And yes, that’s his voice as Miles Morale’s father in the animated caper Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
However, he doesn’t think he was comfortable with his success until recently. “You’re seen by millions of people and still feel left out,” he says. “You can still feel invisible. I guess I never really felt seen until a few months ago and then I stopped caring about how people see me. It’s really easy, especially in this industry, to worry about what everyone thinks about you. But that’s just not true. I’ve long tried to live by that sort of explanation, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that it actually happened. I don’t know what has changed. I just remember being completely unencumbered by what everyone else thought of me and how they saw me.”
I ask him what he sees when he looks in the mirror. He lets out a heavy sigh. For a second I think he’ll shut up – a Brian Tyree Henry character brought to life. But then he fixes me. “What I’m looking at is my 12-year-old self, right? [Someone] who had to grow up pretty quickly. [Someone] I’m just looking for guidance, for someone to tell me how to be in this world.”
Who was he then? Henry smiles. “You know, my 12-year-old self was pretty fearless.” The smile fades. “He was lonely. But he was resilient. I feel like I have to hold on to who he was. That kind of precocity. The kind of daring he had.” That boy got lost somewhere along the way, Henry thinks, and part of his final journey was reconnecting with him. Henry’s nights are often plagued by questions – the hows and whys of existing, things that not even Google can solve for him. But he is most grateful in the morning. Today, for example, he looked at himself in the mirror and said thank you.
“I said, ‘Damn, you 12-year-old, did you ever think something like this would happen?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I did — I was just waiting for you to catch up, bitch!’”
Causeway is now streaming on Apple TV+
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/brian-tyree-henry-interview-causeway-b2242195.html Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry on Grief, Loneliness and Causeway, the Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence film