Following a breakout role in Atlanta, the actor found himself cast in among the fall's biggest movies: Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk. As it happens, he was prepared.
One August afternoon, Brian Tyree Henry decides to attend a museum in downtown Atlanta, the Center for Human and Civil Rights, and maybe five minutes once we get there he begins to cry. Henry, who turned 36 this spring, could be a bit of a raw nerve-"that a geyser of feeling and energy," as Stefani Robinson, a writer for FX's Atlanta, where Henry celebrities, described him to me. "He's someone who understands how he feels," she said,"and so is familiar with how he feels, and is not shy about knowing how he feels to everyone."
Henry is just six two and broad, with the sort of round, solid body you rarely see on tv. About Atlanta, he plays Alfred, a drug trader following a career in rap under the name Paper Boi, whose often silent resignation at the face of this indignities of ambition and fame was the most transfixing thing on TV for two decades now. On-screen, he's an uncommon gift for transparency-Henry routinely churns up full characters without the benefit of , if any, composed dialogue-and offscreen he's honest in a way that sometimes makes you stressed for himeven protective of him: He seems to have a number of the guards that most people learn how to install and maintain.
He walks to the memorial in shorts, Converse, and a floral-print shirt. On the first floor is an exhibit regarding the civil rights movement, beginning with Jim Crow laws. "He was a black man born in 1940 at the South, so nobody was inspiring him to do anything," Henry says. "He had me at the'80s, so he appeared and he's like, Oh shit, my son could do anything he wants to. He's still black, though. "I think that is why they named me Brian: the whitest name possible. Which individuals still misspell, which pisses me off. I used to tell people,'If you spell my name with a fucking y, then you are racist.'"
A young woman admits Henry and asks to have a picture with himwhich he obliges, and then he turns back to an exhibit about Emmett Till. When he was around the same age Till was when he was murdered, Henry says, his mother gave him a replica of Jet with images of Till's bruised and bloody body inside:"I was like,'Okay, I receive the message.'" Henry begins to tear up, looking at photos of the dead. Can she have an image, also, perhaps? Henry mashes the tears out of his eyes and smiles.
He's currently in Atlanta to take a picture with Melissa McCarthy. He's been, essentially, marooned on film sets for the last calendar year. "Living with a great deal of personalities," as he puts it. However, Atlanta, that was made by Henry's co-star on the series, Donald Glover, altered that. "I heard Donald quoted as saying people don't always know what they want before you give it to them," the celebrity Sterling K. Brown, among Henry's greatest friends, informed me. "The series fits that to a T." One of the things people didn't know they wanted till they obtained it was Henry himself.
After Atlanta's first time, Henry was in constant need. In the spring, he acted in Kenneth Lonergan's play Lobby Hero, for which he was nominated for a Tony. Hotel Artemis, a thriller he shot with Brown, was released in June. This autumn, Henry has roles in White Boy Rick, with Matthew McConaughey, also in movies led by two best-picture winners: If Beale Street Could Talk, from Barry Jenkins, and Widows, from Steve McQueen. From the latter, he plays a coolly barbarous community politician, stealing scenes from both Colin Farrell and Viola Davis.
The majority of the films Henry worked on during the last year have not come out yet. He's in that uncanny, unsettled moment in which actors occasionally find themselves: A new degree of ubiquity, the sort of celebrity that transcends a particular function, is even now rushing toward himbut it has not really arrived yet, and so here he is, bracing himself for impact. He narrates the displays as we walk past them. The school students who were part of the protest went to North Carolina A&T, where a lot of Henry's friends from high school also went. In school, Henry would sneak off to A&T's homecoming, which he chosen to Morehouse's, where he felt alienated and bizarre most of the time. "It was challenging for me to mix in at Morehouse," Henry says. "You have to have two matches, you have to cut your hair a certain length-and I was like, Fuck outta here with that! Like, I believed that school was the place where you find out who you are and what you want to be and you also attract your individuality to that. I didn't feel at the time that I was able to do that there. Now, as I return, I'm like, Oh, I see exactly what they were doing. They're trying to set you up this way to handle society views a black guy, not how black guys see each other." A beat. "I also was 18, and that I smoked a great deal of weed."
After college, where he ended up spending most of his time acting in the theater program at Spelman, Morehouse's sister school, Henry's strategy was to move to D.C. and work at safety, including his three elder sisters. "View the monitorswork for ATF. I mean, I've worked for HUD, IRS. All safety in D.C. is the same. It is just a black person with a gun running to get a builder," he says. But , on the recommendation of a friend, he auditioned for Yale's School of Drama, also obtained in. In Yale, Henry says, there were only a few different people of color in his class, but among them was the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who'd go on to win an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Moonlight, the film Jenkins accommodated from McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. "I did every play he wrote, guy," Henry says. "That has been my ally." After school, Henry moved to New York, where he found work in the theater, doing Shakespeare in the Park and originating a role in The Book of Mormon on Broadway.
"Fame is sort of scary. It will not allow you an opportunity to be damaged, or slip up."
We pause in front of a photo of the Little Rock Nine: young kids surrounded by white women and men screaming at them as they try to go to school. "When it makes you feel any better, most of these white people are dead," Henry says. As he walks onward, every fourth or third person's face lights up. A surreal ritual begins to repeat: Henry pauses, and then yells, in front of various exhibitions, then blinks the tears from his eyes, finds another stranger approaching himasks their name, and poses along with them. It is his first time in Atlanta because shooting season two of Atlanta, he says, and he didn't expect to be recognized like he's being recognized. "I'm still learning how to do this," he says. Around a corner he finds a display about the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. "This one hurts, guy," he says. "I can not do this " And then a hand taps him on the shoulder: another young guy asking for a photo.
In the end of the display up a staircase, the memorial has put a gallery of faces placards: martyrs in the movement for civil rights. "I'm not angry." He turns it all around and sees a placard.
He's grasping the placard on his hands, hard. Then walks off, wiping his eyes.
When Henry had been first throw on Atlanta, it was as a foil to Earn, the wanly ambitious personality played with Glover. "I really don't think we knew what we were looking for at Alfred," Hiro Murai, a longtime Glover collaborator and the director of most of Atlanta's episodes, informed me. "From the pilot, he's just a counterpoint to Earn's narrative." However, the founders of Atlanta immediately noticed that Henry, in addition to being classically trained, had an odd ability to put on his feelings-disgust, vulnerability, joy-on his face. "In the industry, it's usually one or another," Stefani Robinson stated. "Either it's someone incredibly disciplined and specialized in the job, or it's the opposite, where someone is performing purely on emotion and impulse. And the reason Brian is dangerous is because he knows how to use both of these sides."
Subsequent to the pilot, Murai said, Henry's personality immediately became"the psychological center of the show." Henry's Alfred is the series's one fixed point: Atlanta's watchful, exhausted, constant pulse. "We often speak about in the edit area that the entire series is hinged around Alfred reaction shots," Murai said. "It is always absurd conditions, and you are always seeking to Brian to let us know how to feel about it."
From the time the Atlanta throw re-united to take the series's second season, nearly everyone involved found themselves imagining with new levels of fame, scrutiny, and temptation, and so in many ways the series became about that-Robinson and Murai and Glover making allegorical, often stand-alone episodes about the trials of succeeding. Among these episodes,"Woods," featured Henry, also had the type of deceptively simple plot that's the hallmark of this series: Alfred goes for a walk. He's recognized by a group of kids who try to rob him. He escapes to the woods, where he becomes lost and encounters a mysterious guy who threatens him with a box cutter. Alfred appears shaken but intact. Finally he carries a selfie with a fan, and enters a gas station.
At the beginning of the episode, there's a brief allusion to the fact that it's the anniversary of Alfred's mother's death. This was a particularly special resonance for Henry, who two and a half years ago lost his mother in a traffic collision. "But by the same token," she stated,"I knew he could take care of it and make it personal." Henry read the script only shortly prior to shooting this episode. He didn't actually ask questions:"I was like,'I'm not gonna say much.'" Murai told me that the episode was, basically,"a structureless experiment. And part of that has been understanding that we're touching something that was actually real."
Like:'You're not a top guy. You're not modest enough.' I haven't been more comfortable in the skin I am in now."
The experiment worked:"Woods," and the ambient terror and psychological ambiguity it conjured up, was an example of what Atlanta did well, right down to the final shot, in which Alfred smiles to a stranger's camerahis real self somewhere else, far away. As part of this campaign that FX mounted for the series, Henry found himself in the uncomfortable situation of explaining, over and over again, his feelings about the episode, which for him stay inextricable from his feelings regarding the loss of his mother.
"What disturbs me is everybody like,'How do you feel about this Emmy nomination?'" Henry says . "My mother's dead. Every time I close my eyes, I see my hands on her casket. Every time I close my eyes, I hear my necklace bang on her casket. That's the last time I watched her. That's the only thing that gets me out of bed, and it's sometimes the thing that keeps me inside. So being busy helps, buty'all don't understand. If she is not here to see it, I don't actually get an opportunity to rejoice in it. You understand what I believe? I've murdered a person annually for three decades. I lost my very best friend to cancer; then I dropped my other best friend the next year to lupus. And I dropped my mother to a fucking car crash. She was not even sick. She died in the most awful fucking way. So it's like... I have not had a chance to even consider that. However, I still have to survive. I love to believe that all these blessings are them. However, it would be really nice to look to my left and see my mother sitting there if they call my name. You understand? And I'm being real fucking real with you. It is difficult to do this stuff. It is just like she died yesterday, guy. I have not even looked at a photo of my mother because she died. I can not look at her. And people are still observing and lauding this thing that I did about my mother. When, at the end of the afternoon, I can not actually rejoice in what I did, since I'm still in pain."
Here is probably as good a place as any to mention the dick tour. Those words may sound funny to you, but I assure you they're not. Or they may be, but only in the way that tragedy-real tragedy, the kind that opens up a chasm that you will devote the rest of your life scaling out of-is humorous, because real tragedy has a method of summoning up every other feeling in the world to match its intensity: despair, despair, laughter, love.
"I recall having this talk with my mother, since I didn't even understand what love meant," Henry begins. Henry's parents were separated for most of his life, and he dwelt with both of them at times. His mother was unlucky in love, and yet one day Henry asked her why she was with the person she was with. "I wanted to understand why she was with this dude, since we saw how he treated my mother. I was like, 'Look. . .do you love him'" This Henry laughs, a little sadly. You're not Tina Turner. You have to love this person, right? Because if you don't love this person, why are you wasting your time' So I was like,'Well, I'm the only person you made. Crafted me on your picture, essentially. And I can never leave you. Therefore, if you don't love this guy, leave himfor real. If he doesn't kiss the back of your neck when you are scrambling eggs, then leave him. If you are outside here raking his fucking acres of yard and he doesn't take the rake out of your hands, fucking leave him. 'Cause he will never be better than me.'
"So the biggest thing was that if Atlanta wrapped, I was gonna take my mother on what I was phoning the dick tour. Because I was planning to go get my mother laid. WaitMa, you ain't never been with a physician? Wait, what if this white dude has, like, a helicopter?' I know it sounds skeezy, but she had been on this world for 68 decades and had never experienced a guy desiring her or seeing her the way she deserved. That's how fucking dope my mother was. I wanted to be the guy that revealed her that she would obtain anything. Anything. Because what's that existence? Oh, you married this person, so you have ta spend daily unhappy alongside this motherfucker? Like, no. And I had the car rented, she was gone."
On the throw of Atlanta:"I would kill for those individuals. I love them. It is quite rare. I wonder if the Friends cast felt this shit. I wonder if the Seinfeld cast felt that this shit."
He grieved. He'd be the first to let you know just how much he grieved. He's still grieving. However, Henry tells this particular story for another reason. What was the reply to the question he was asking himself, about what love was? His life was changing, would alter even more shortly, and he was hoping to come to terms with all the gravity of it all.
And what he chose was: Appreciate was figuring out exactly what you deserved rather than waiting 68 years to go get it. Appreciate was seeing your mother for the person she was and the person she would be. And love was, in the long run, letting go of the concept that someone else could do for you exactly what you would not do for yourself.
After his mother passed, Henry says,"I just started living in a place of, like, look, guy: This world is full of millions of individuals. It is not about you discovering them. Ory'all discovering each other. It is all about you finding yourself."
"I want so many oysters, it's ridiculous," Henry says. The waitress comes, and he orders 30 oysters for both of us. Cocktails, also. It's been a long day: He woke up early, to speak to still more Emmy voters, and then he had a photo shoot, and he's here, feeling dead tired, at least before the drinks arrive. Watch, look at that! Entirely different already," he says, holding up his drink, tipping the first sip back. He peers at me on the desk. "You seem different."
"Like, your own hair is, like. . .kempt."
Henry is really friendly and attentive to others that individuals have a tendency to misread him-they watch him as someone to be taken advantage of or who's merely pleased to have found the success he has recently found. This is not exactly the case. In the last year, as Henry shared sets with actors he had grown up watching,"I would encounter different artists that were hoping to check me," he says-a form of hazing, or old-fashioned condescension, or both. Henry does not like being condescended to. I'm two. "
The waitress returns with a few bread, and he yells at her and she smiles back.
Henry asks me unexpectedly. "Top of your head. Let's go. Shout it."
"Iron Man," Henry reproduces. "He's wack. Okay, so my favorite is the Hulk. Allow me to explain. First of all, Bruce Banner is an wonderful scientist. He's brilliant, he's smart, he's revolutionary. People think that so as to earn the Hulk come outside, you have to make him angry. What you don't see is that Bruce Banner is obviously angry. That's the thing. He's always fucking angry. So actually, when you see him from your human form, he's using the nth level to tolerate your own ass. Like, that's him sitting there actually using everything he can not to Hulk out. And of course he's always fucking angry! Consider what we deal with in the world. Look at all these people who are treating him like he's shit when he's a brilliant scientist."
Henry looks at me across the desk, to make sure I'm following. "And I feel like that is me. Because there's so many parts of my life I have to continuously prove to people that I belong where I'm at."
Henry is often confronted with the proposal that he has lucked to his current position in Hollywood. "I get upset,'cause people are like,'Oh, you are having a moment.' I'm like,'What the fuck does that mean?'" After grad school, when Henry moved to New York to do theater,"I was pretty much homeless," he says. For a while, he sofa surfed and lived on food stamps. "I'm so thankful that this shit didn't begin happening for me now, together with the TV and film aspect. I'm so thankful it was not back when I was real little and I was, like, a 33 waist and I was in the gym every day, and the agents I had at the time were like,'You're still too fat.' And you believe that things, though. I was berated all the time, like:'You're too significant.' I was so tiny, guy. I haven't been more comfortable in the skin I am in now. Due to all my life, I was so body dysmorphic. Like:'You're not a guy. You're not modest enough.'"
But then Henry obtained The Book of Mormon. I'm making money. I'm eating whatever the fuck I want. Like, What is that? Pommes frites? Yeah, guy. Give me that. I really don't understand exactly what that cheese is. Give me that cheese. I love myself, guy. I love myself. I didn't give a fuck." He fired his agents, got fresh ones. And the moment I did that, I got Atlanta. I obtained everything. I got everything as soon as I stopped giving a fuck."
"Oh wow," he says. For a minute we silently contemplate the grandeur of 30 oysters.
Henry says Atlanta and also the people who create it-Glover, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz-have act just like a new family to him. "I would fucking kill for those individuals. They are loved by me. Yesterday was Keith's birthday, and all I did was send a big-ass fucking all-cap text: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I love them, guy. It is quite rare. I wonder if the Friends cast felt this shit. I wonder if the Seinfeld cast felt this shit. I wonder if the Living Single cast felt this shit. These three human beings exceed any expectation I could ever expect of what love is."
He's forthright about not being there as a person, as a guy, as a son with no mother. His life at the moment is circumscribed, solitary, he says. "How do I date anyone when I'm still grieving, guy? I'm a wreck. I'm a walking wreck. I'm not bringing nobody else into that till I know who the fuck I am wholly." Like Alfred, who wakes up the afternoon of"Woods" badly missing his mommy and ends it capitulating, if only for a minute, to fame and its obligations, Henry is considering the cost of such a capitulation in his own life. "It was always a place I could conceal. So now that my security zone is actually giving me notoriety, it's kind of scary. Because it will not allow you a chance to be damaged, or slip up."
However, the work remains the only thing he could count on, Henry says, waving at the waitress for yet another drink. "That's it. Acting is my power to use to get back at those people who feel as that I don't belong here and these naysayers. Who feel like I'm not good-looking or feel as though I'm not smart enough or feel as I'm not talented. Therefore, I wait till they say'Action' and that I go. That's all I got."
Zach Baron is GQ's staff writer.