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Brian Tyree Henry Doesn’t Count ‘Atlanta’ As Work

Playing Paper Boi is just as much fun as it looks

You know him as Paper Boi, but Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry would prefer if you referred to his character as "Alfred." Alfred is Earn’s (Donald Glover) cousin who raps, and sells drugs, but he’s neither a rapper nor a drug dealer. And, with a bubbling rap career, Alfred treats his newfound fame — and the needling microaggressions that we (that’s black people) face on a daily basis — with a weary impatience. Originally written as a simple foil for Earn, according to director Hiro Murai, Alfred has developed into one of the most, if not the most, engaging characters on the show.

Henry constructed the character from friends and acquaintances he met at Morehouse, before he went on to earn his MFA at Yale. Since then, Henry’s graced the screen as a bootleg vendor threatening to flood the retail market with fake handbags in Puerto Ricans in Paris, Dr. Brown’s ex-husband Tavis on Vice Principals, and as an underdressed and extremely depraved African warlord called "General Butt Fucking Naked" in The Book of Mormon’s first run on Broadway. We spoke about "General BFN" and Alfred, and whether or not acting on Atlanta counts as "working." This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I went to Eugene O’Neill Theatre and saw The Book of Mormon. You made an appearance on stage as General Butt Fucking Naked.

General BFN, man, that was me, yeah.

How did you land that part in [The Book Of Mormon]?

You know, it’s very interesting. I was doing this really great play at the Public Theatre in New York, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and my agency at the time suggested I audition for Shrek the Musical. The director was Jason Moore, who was the original director of Book of Mormon, and I left there thinking, "Yeah, I totally bombed that shit." Then I got a call from my agency and they were like, "So yeah, you didn’t get Shrek, but there’s this workshop happening for this play called The Mormon Musical. It’s written by Trey Parker and Matt — " and I was in before she could even finish Matt Stone’s name.

I’ve been the biggest South Park fan since it premiered. I remember being in front of my television Wednesdays at 10 o’clock and watching, perfecting my Cartman. So to get the opportunity to work with the two guys who I feel are influences on my humor — my life — obviously, I had to do it. And then when I saw what the part was, I was like, bet it up.

How do you go from "General Butt Fucking Naked" to landing the role in Atlanta?

You know, I have one of the best managers in the world, Jennifer Wiley-Stockton, and when we started working together, she really cared to know what I wanted to do. She came across this script for Atlanta, and Atlanta is my favorite city in the world. It’s literally where I became who I am today — where I discovered that I wanted to be an actor, and some of my best friends are still there. So she said, "There’s a part I think you’d be great for: Alfred." I opened it, and instantly, I thought, "I know this dude, man. I know exactly who Alfred is. I just smoked with him yesterday."

I went in and auditioned, and by the time I got home, I found out that I was called back to test. Not to the callback, but to test. I was filming Vice Principals, so I flew back that next morning, and they told me Donald [Glover] was going to be in the room. I was like, "I’m sorry. Like Gambino Donald?" He was there, and [producer-director] Hiro [Murai] was there. We just read the scenes together, and it was like I was sitting next to family; it was instantaneous.

I’ve been a fan of Childish Gambino’s forever, and I am a big fan of [Donald’s] movie, Mystery Team. I think it’s the funniest thing ever. We just talked and ad-libbed, and by the time I’d finished that, I had to fly back to finish filming Vice Principals. When the plane landed, they told me I got the pilot, and I screamed on this plane like a crazy person. I’m surprised I didn’t get escorted off. Those poor white people were terrified. But it was great.

The pilot took six days [to wrap], I think. I always say that I’m not going to work, I’m going to go play with my friends. And it’s really real. Just because they call cut, it doesn’t mean that we’re done hanging out. You could tell the environment of that set — from costume designers, and hair and makeup, and even people at craft services — we were family. You show up to work ready to have fun. We shared music. … That’s how Tame Impala came into the commercial. Donald decided to play this song while we were filming.

"New Person, Same Old Mistakes"?

Yeah. We share music together, and all that stuff, and [it] just reflects in the show. They’re just family. I couldn’t have asked to be in a better place, seriously.

How did the Paper Boi record come together?

That was actually the first thing we shot. When I landed to film the pilot, they were like, "Soooo … music video’s first." And I was like, "Wait, what?" They sent me the song four or five days before, and I was just like, "This is fire, dude!" I would sit there and memorize it, and then they were like, "Alright. We’re going to go shoot the music video."

We went to Bankhead, Georgia, to these housing projects there. There were all these extras coming out in 7-inch stilettos, and we’re on people’s porches, and I’m just rapping this thing. The actual person rapping the song is Stephen Glover, [Donald’s] brother, who’s the homie. Donald and Stephen, man, that brotherhood is unparalleled. They’re great. I love them.

Fun fact: Me and Stephen have the same barber.

No, you don’t. Really?

Yeah, seriously [both laugh].

The thing that’s so great about Donald and Stephen is that they’re so educated and so smart, but they can make each other laugh. That goes for the whole writing team. The writing team is so fantastic, man. Fam [Udeorji] and Stef [Robinson], they’re all great. You can see that there’s this kind of this glue that keeps them together. Their humor is right on par with how we felt on set and the things that we’d say. Donald’s really good at streamlining that and figuring out how to tell that story.

In an interview with Vulture, you were talking about creating the Paper Boi character. You cited Chance the Rapper, Donald himself, and Anderson .Paak, but what else did you pull in to make the character?

I didn’t necessarily want to model him after any hip-hop artist, because that would’ve gotten old really quick. The great thing about hip-hop is that you come in as an individual. Whatever your story is, you can be anybody, come from any walk of life, as long as you have a story to tell, then, you know, it’s fine.

I didn’t want to model him after anybody, because I don’t think that when hip-hop artists become stars, that they think they’d ever become models of anything. They just came as they were. I really wanted to focus on who Alfred was, because I really believe that we all have an Alfred. Everyone has an Alfred, and I thought about the Alfreds that I have in my life: my best friend Kenny Thomas that I went to college with, my homeboy Will, and my father, especially. Because my father used to throw these dope-ass parties at our house when I was a kid — everyone smoking and drinking and playing cards — you know, they would turn up. They would go hard.

Like a regular kickback.

I just wanted Alfred to be that dude that people could see and relate to. Like, "Oh yeah, I know that dude. I know that dude. Oh, that’s my cousin," and "Yo, I just said that yesterday." I didn’t really want to model him after anybody. I just wanted him to not be stereotyped or labeled because, throughout the show, you see that happening to him anyway in this world.

Like in the end of "Nobody Beats the Biebs," where the reporter says, "You’re the rapper. Everyone wants you to be the asshole."

Yeah, "Be the asshole," right? So, I really just wanted him to be a guy that people could relate to.

There’s not a lot of representations of Alfreds out there. And if there are representations of Alfreds, it usually ends the same way. He’s dead or goes to jail or stays in that life. But with Alfred, I really wanted him to have some levity. To have a sense of humor, to be cultured, to be intelligent, to be petty as fuck, you know what I mean? Which I think is really showing, because I mean, pettiness is the greatest thing. Pettiness 2016 campaign right here.

Let’s talk about the fact that you introduce Justin Bieber as a straight-up black character with no apologies or explanations.

So, what I think was great about that episode is you get to watch Alfred kind of give into his fame a little bit. Like, "Yo, I’m MVP, bruh." Like, "I’m ‘bout to kill this. I’m playing with Jaleel White and Lloyd and Lil Zane. I’ve come up! I’ve come up in the world." And then all of the sudden, Justin Bieber comes in, and he’s a dick. Making him black removed any kind of notions we had about the Justin Bieber that we know in real life. It allowed it to play out in a way, and gave me a lot of room — and Austin Crute, who played "Justin Bieber" — a lot of space to really do and say the things we want to do and say to Justin Bieber. Because, Justin Bieber’s crazy, which is fine, but I think he’s the best prototype of what fame does.

Yeah, he’s been in the public eye for seven straight years.

And you’re this young white boy that has a soulful voice and people are dying over you, but at the same time, you know that you’re white, and you know you’re privileged and you’re like, "I’m gonna just do this, and people are gonna like — "

There’s this episode of Twilight Zone where this guy dies and goes to what he initially thinks is purgatory, but purgatory is this casino where he can’t lose at any game. So he starts to think he’s in heaven, but then realizes through the monotony that it’s actually hell.

Do you watch Black Mirror?

Yeah, I do.

That’s kind of what we wanted to do. Donald used to describe it as "Twin Peaks for rappers." Fame and being a rapper — which, he would know — is strange, man. It’s strange the things that you can get away with, the things that are given to you, the things that people take away from you, and how much is expected of you. So with the Justin Bieber episode, what do we think celebrity is? How do we take down the guy as a celebrity? Because at the end of the day, yeah, [Alfred] did shoot somebody, but this guy just called these fans all kinds of bitches, and rolls up here, saying nigga this and nigga that, and y’all don’t really care about …

The hard r.

With a hard r. With a hard [draws out word] e-r, you know what I mean, and that’s a Gambino verse [laughs]. But it’s amazing the passes that are given to people sometimes when they’re celebrities, and I think that Alfred is just trying to find his way through that. Because this fame is not something he necessarily asks for.

This is his town. This is his home. He has to navigate these streets completely differently now, because he’s on the come-up, and he really doesn’t know how to do this and be anything but who he is. That’s the essence of what I wanted for Alfred — and I’ve noticed that I only call him Alfred. I rarely call him Paper Boi, because "Paper Boi" is the public. Paper Boi is the thing that everyone sees him for.

Like the foil for Alfred.

Like Batman and Bruce Wayne.

There you go.

I like that. Paper Boi alter ego. But yeah, I really wanted Alfred to be the voice of reason. Or the voice of people like me. He gives me the outlet to do and say things that I, as Brian, can’t do. Like, I’m not running around slapping people with cash [like in Episode 8], as much as I want to. Ugh. But Alfred — he just represents that side in all of us that just doesn’t want to be overlooked. And he’s incredibly loving and has a huge heart.

Atlanta operates in this space that’s adjacent to reality, so you can have those supernatural elements, like Marcus Miles with the invisible car.

And the pet peacock.

And the pet peacock.

He couldn’t just stunt with the invisible car. He had to bring the pet peacock and buy the bar. The mind of Donald Glover, man. He’s so unafraid to turn the scope on the viewer. I find with our show that I have to watch the episodes three or four times and I’ll still find stuff I didn’t see before.

One of my favorites is [in "The Streisand Effect"]. [Van and Earn] are trying to find parking, and the dude comes up with the lightsaber and he jacks up the price. And as they drive away he says, "We all we got!" Like, that’s your selling point? But he’s right.

In the "Juneteenth" episode, there’s that scene where Earn is looking over the White Hubby’s painting that’s meant to depict "the black man’s struggle." And dude has literally painted a picture of a muscle-bound, 7-foot black gladiator slaying a chimera.

And that’s why I like that reaction, like, "… The fuck?"

Seriously, what the fuck?

Big ups to Cassandra Freeman, who plays the wife of this white man. How many times have we been in that situation, though? This is what I like about our show: It’s sparking a conversation that we have all been bubbling to have.

We’ve all felt these things, we’ve all seen these things, we all know these things. It’s no different than [in] the pilot with homeboy being like, "Yo, really nigga?" You know? We’ve gotten to a place where we’re tired of being stifled and made to feel like how we feel is wrong, or there’s nobody out there who has the same opinion that we do. I feel like Atlanta just puts it out there and says, "Here you go, how about we address all that stuff? And you take from it what you will." It’s just so great the layers this show is providing, because I feel like regardless of what race or gender or sexuality you are, this show can speak to you about something. It gives you a place to feel like you can really laugh at it, because it is absurd. What’s absurd to some is normalcy for others, so I feel like that’s what our show is aiming to do. I hope we’re doing it.

The "B.A.N." episode is basically an episode of Chappelle’s Show.

That’s great. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.

Yeah.

But that was the gift of Chapelle, right? I will never forget when this fool decided to do the "Niggars" episode.

"The Niggar family?"

Like, "Oh, Niggar, please!" And he’s the milkman. I was like, "Whoa. Wait. Wait. What? This is amazing." When Chappelle’s Show came out, I was a junior in college, and me and all my friends — every Wednesday night — we’d get together, go to the homie’s house, burn it out, and watch Chappelle’s Show. It was a community thing that had to happen. I haven’t had a show like that in a very long time. I think the last show when you call the friends over was, like, How to Get Away With Murder? Which — I’m sorry — is still fly. I watch every Shondaland show, I still watch Grey’s Anatomy. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s still dope.

But I like what Atlanta does, because it’s so much better [to watch with other people], which is how we want to walk in this life. Once you realize that the person next to you might see something that you didn’t, and you go, "Wait, what was that? Let’s try to catch that." I can’t watch Atlanta with my friends, because people always want to rewind it. People are still laughing or pointing out something we didn’t see before. I hope that’s something that’s going on across America — that people are sparking conversations, and people are happy, and laughing at the absurdities of this world that we encounter sometimes.

This is how I know Atlanta’s working: I’ll never forget after the "B.A.N." episode, I needed to rent a car. I needed to go out of town for a weekend. I go to Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and it’s a black dude and a Latino dude behind the counter. I’m trying to get used to being recognized, and [one of them is] like, "Oh, we got your car ready. It’s a Dodge Charger." They’re like, "Yeah, we want you to keep it in the divorce." I was like, "See, that’s what I want, man! I love that Enterprise’s got jokes." I love that, man. It’s the funniest thing to me that people are coming together and sharing this humor and doing it in the best possible way. Like Black Twitter during Tuesday nights is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.

It’s the best place to be.

It’s the best place to be. Someone was like, "Atlanta is Black Twitter personified." OK, cool, we’ll go with that. It just makes its own community, and it makes the community from all walks of life, and you just talk about this stuff. They do it intelligently and keep on going.

It also hits that sweet spot between how every black film or thing on TV is either a caricature or a superhero. And these are just people living their lives.

There seems like there has to be an in-between. What Atlanta is doing is, at the end of the day, this show is in Atlanta. And yes, these characters are black, but everything about this story is ours. It’s our story. We never said you couldn’t relate to it. Some people will see it, and instantly go, "That’s not for me, because you see three black dudes with peaches in their mouths." But at the end of the day you didn’t realize it was about all kinds of things, all social issues, some things that aren’t even that relevant. We just want to talk about it. We want to make a malt liquor commercial. Where can we do that? Why not on our show?

A way that I’ve seen you refer to Zazie Beetz and Keith Stanfield and Donald in past interviews is that you "would drive their Bronco."

I have to stop this. I have to stop saying this. But it’s the only analogy I can think of that’s really real. When A.C. [Al Cowlings] got that call, he’s like, regardless, "I’m going to go and get my friend." That’s really, really how I feel about them. I have never experienced anything like this on a television show before. It was just instant chemistry, love, instant support, and they have been the backbone of a lot of my strength in the past year.

I would drive the Bronco for them, ’cause A.C. got off, right? He didn’t go to jail. I love them. It’s easy to find shows where people don’t get along and people don’t want to tell this story, but we’re just along for the ride. I don’t think that any of us expected Atlanta to do what it’s doing, but we believed in it so damn much that it was like, "There’s no other recourse other than to keep doing it and keep striving." They’re my family, man. They’re my family. I love them. Here’s to another season.

It would not have been possible without every single person that had a hand in Atlanta. It was the best experience of my life, and I’m just so glad that people are loving it, because the fans of Atlanta … I’ve never seen as much grace in my life.

One of my favorite things that people say to me is, "We really needed this." I never thought of that. When’s the last time I watched a show I felt like I needed, you know? It’s unbelievable. The Atlanta fan artwork is fire, first of all. I have never seen imaginative stuff like the Atlanta artwork. I feel like our show gives people the space to do that. I want to keep doing that. I want all the artwork, I want all the typography, I want all of it. I feel like it’s inspiring people to go out there and create stuff. Especially people of color, especially people from the South, especially people who want to make it and have a dream but they can’t really get there. We want to be that beacon. We want to be that lighthouse to guide people to the right place of creativity. I hope that we’re doing that.

Absolutely. Looking forward, because you gave Paper Boi — or, Alfred, excuse me — you gave him his traits, like he likes to smoke weed, play video games, he’s a Virgo. What about as he becomes more successful and gets to branch out and do different things? What pies is Alfred going to have his fingers in?

Honestly, man, I want the petty game to be so up next season. My vision for Alfred is that this time, the fame will have actually gotten to his head. Remember that time when Drake was actually trying to get swole and everything?

It’s still going on.

Drake, but why? You’re still singing. You’re still singing me great R&B hits. I don’t really understand, but then he’ll spit a mixtape, and you’re like, "Oh, hold up. There he is." I kind of want that for Alfred. I want him to really start smelling himself and then have to come back down to reality. The thing about the show is that Alfred always has to come back down. Next season, I want him to smell himself so hard that the fame has gotten to his head and then it’s just a series of unfortunate events for him.

A barrage of L’s.

I want him to go into a Target and see his CD and be like, "Wait. Why are we here? What’s going on? I don’t know, it’s exciting." I have no idea, but I do think his friendships and his familial structure will get a little deeper and broader.

There’s no telling what’s going to happen with Paper Boi, man. But I really hope that he continues to be the chief of pettiness. I hope he opens a petting zoo and calls it a petty zoo. There’s no boundaries on Alfred.

I’ve got one more question. You’re playing basketball and you have to pick a starting five. They don’t have to actually be able to play basketball, but we’re just going to call it your starting five. It could be anybody, except they have to be alive and be real people.

Do they have to play basketball?

No. They could throw the ball over the backboard on a finger roll.

My first teammate would have to be James Baldwin, because this dude was really one of the smartest people to have ever walked this earth, in my opinion. James Baldwin was always about empowerment, and I think he would be great to play basketball with and smoke with. I would also invite — this is going to sound so weird — I’m obsessed with Rosario Dawson. She can do no wrong. So I want Rosario there because she’s just brilliant and dope. Angela Davis has to be there to keep it alive, keep us in check. I’m not going to lie, I’m really fascinated with Gucci Mane too. Gucci’s got to be somewhere. Birdman’s got to be there. He’s got to be at the table. "Is you done? Is you finished? Put some respect on that salad, man." That’d be my starting five.

Just in case, on the bench, just in case, Jaden Smith is up there too. I kind of need him there, too, because that man is wise. Big ups to Jaden.

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