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“There’s No Way to Half-Ass This at All”: How Brian Tyree Henry Gave the Three Best Performances of 2018

The ‘Atlanta,’ ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ and ‘Widows’ actor explains his characters in his own words

Jaya Nicely

Brian Tyree Henry appears in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk for only a few minutes, but his performance lingers much longer. As Daniel Carty, a friend of the movie’s central couple (Fonny, played by Stephan James, and Tish, played by KiKi Layne) who has recently been released from prison, Henry embodies the overarching theme of the film—the overwhelming terror that pervades black life in America and the pockets of joy people still find despite that context. His eyes glisten with fear as he speaks of the criminal justice system and the ease with which it can erase the lives of young black men. He’s technically a free man, but he’s seen too much now, and he knows his fate can change on a whim. He’s warning Fonny: Be careful, because they can take us whenever they want. Then he takes a deep breath. Tish serves dinner, and the three friends laugh into the night.

Talking to Henry about If Beale Street Could Talk, he brings up his father. “My father was drafted into the Vietnam War,” he says, “and I wouldn’t dare ask him what that was like. The fact that you’re sitting in front of me surviving; that you’re here? Who am I to ever ask you what that was like? So any black man that has served time in jail, how dare I fucking ask you what that was like. Because the fact that you’re even out breathing this air means you survived something. So, there’s a kind of sensitivity that I take when it comes to those kinds of scenarios.”

When Henry reads a script, the thing he seems to feel most is responsibility. Responsibility to the character, to the contextual history that serves as a foundation to that character, to the scene and to the others sharing it with him, to himself. This burden he places on himself is perhaps why, this year, he’s been so good playing characters who are, well, burdened. On Atlanta, he is the source of the show’s overall gloom and crushing apathy as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, a rapper on the verge of blowing up—despite the fact he isn’t wholly interested in upward movement. In Steve McQueen’s star-packed heist movie Widows, he was Jamal Manning, a crook-turned-local-politician who’s been robbed—and dragged back into the underworld. From March to May, he delivered, as The New York Times wrote, “a deeply moving study of resignation and rebellion, courage and compromise in uneasy counterpoint” as a police chief in Kenneth Lonergan’s Broadway play Lobby Hero. And of course, there was Daniel Carty in If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’s adaptation of the renowned novel by James Baldwin.

Henry’s characters in 2018 were all different, but each possessed a sort of exasperation and loss for words—leaving a sigh as the only reaction available and worth mustering—that both typified this year and made them feel fully human. In his roles, Henry often doesn’t say much while communicating multitudes.

I wanted to know how he does it; how he so effectively makes you feel what Paper Boi or Jamal Manning is feeling; how he breathes life into a character when there’s little dialogue on the page. Finding that sense of responsibility is the first step; building a reality comes next; then, Henry simply reacts. In his own words, here’s Brian Tyree Henry on three of his most important scenes from 2018.


Atlanta

In the eighth episode of Atlanta’s second season, Alfred finds himself caught between the comforts of his private life and the unnerving but necessary consequences of fame. On the anniversary of the death of his mother—Henry, too, lost his mother in 2016—Alfred is jumped before escaping into the woods of rural Georgia. It’s here that he finally comes to realize that making it as a rapper demands giving up a part of his real self. Stumbling out of the woods and into a convenience store, a fan asks to take a photo. A tired and bloodied Alfred obliges, and then he does something rarely seen in Atlanta: He smiles.

Once I got the script to “Woods” from Stefani [Robinson], I instantly knew that I was literally going to have to bare my soul and go all the way, because there’s no way to half-ass this at all. You know, I was in the murk of it; I was in the woods till 4 a.m. I was covered in cigarette tobacco and mud, dirt, all kinds of things—blood. We shot that episode in order, which is rare. So it was the last night and we’re at a BP gas station in Bankhead, Georgia.

I didn’t know that the kid coming up was going to be white, first of all. I was like, Oh really? That kind of changes everything.

I just remember thinking for Brian Tyree Henry, that moment was really real, because no one cares about the scars you have on the outside if they see you as this person who is there to entertain—a public figure—and at some point you’re going to have to shit or get off the pot when it comes to it, you know what I mean? And when that kid came up, I’m like, I know he can see I’m covered in dirt, I know this kid can see that I’m bloody, but he can’t see behind this. I’m Paper Boi, period. And so there’s just this moment where [Alfred] has to make the choice of which person to be.

I remember putting my arm around him and I was like, you know, “You need to make sure you get the right angle here, man; take a couple; do whatever you want.” But I wanted to showcase deep down that once that picture is taken, Alfred has that realization of: You can be in despair all you want, but someone else is going to ask for a picture again, if you’re lucky. People will come up [and say] “Oh, you’re Paper Boi, right?” and that’s really great, right? Well, y’all don’t even know what I just lost. I got my ass beat in the streets. But at the end of the day, people don’t care. I think this was the moment he realized that Paper Boi is a persona, and he has to really strap in and figure out how to maneuver through that.

And that was something I was dealing with myself. I get called Paper Boi in the street. Nobody really knows my name is Brian—nobody cares. Nobody knows that I went through this loss. But at the same time, if I decide to concave and not take that picture, then I’m nothing. Man, you know, you have to find the people that actually care about you. Because at the end of the day, I do realize that the more and more successful I am, the more and more I become a product. It’s not a malicious thing out here that people are recognizing what I do, that people actually go “Man, we see you.” But you still have to listen to the parts of yourself that say, “Hey, man, take care of your heart.” And I mean, it is daunting. That toeing the line with fame and self-care, it’s very tiny. So I just wanted to show that through this moment with Alfred. I felt like that was the most human he had ever really been in a long time.

Widows

Jamal Manning wants out of his life of crime, but Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) has robbed him of his exit strategy, a $2 million nest egg. Worst of all, Rawlings has gone and died doing it, leaving only his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) to recoup the money. Still in a suit and tie, presumably from a day of campaigning to be a Chicago alderman, Manning pays Veronica a visit. Forcing his way into her swanky high-rise apartment, he picks up her dog, and proving that sometimes the simplest things are the most menacing, he points at an unseen book sitting on her massive bookshelf. “Now that one,” he chuckles, “I still haven’t read that one.”

That was me.

The fact that I can even say I got to work with Steve McQueen, on top of that working across from Viola Davis—you can go ahead and put that on my tombstone. But the thing about that scene that was really interesting is that when you’re on location, it’s very rare that you get to see what the location looks like. So I stepped through the door knowing [only] that this woman’s husband has stolen $2 million from me. We’ve been in business for years and her husband has never brought his ass to my side of the hood, ever. But now I gotta bring my shit to her door. So I walk in this penthouse and I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Like, this is where you live? And you have the fucking balls to steal $2 million from me?”

I just remember, like, getting in this fucking door. Then I was like, This your little dog? Cool, take this dog, that’s leverage. I was like, I’m going to take a tour. Let me take a tour of exactly what this is that you’ve been able to live in. And try to figure out why it was so important for you to take money from me. And I turn this corner and the apartment keeps going! And you’re literally looking at Lake Michigan. And then you see all these books. You got Ina Garten up there, you got Oprah books up there, you got Frederick Douglass up there. All these books. And the book that I saw was an Oprah cookbook and I just looked at it and was like, “Yo, I haven’t read that yet.” Because I honestly wanted to show her, like, I can’t believe you have all these choices around you.

I don’t know; there’s something about taking in that space and realizing … because I didn’t want the rage to pour out immediately. I wanted her to be so fucking terrified of what I could possibly do—and whatever I’m gonna do I’m about to do it in your house. It’s a mind game. I didn’t want [Jamal] to be tented-fingers villain, like muah ha ha. I wanted him—because at the end of the day, you and I look the same, lady. You and I are from different Chicagos, but we are of the same yolk. Yet this is where you live. And I want to read the Oprah cookbook. Like, that’s really cool that you got that at your disposal. I’m really glad you got that, man. And trust and believe that if I don’t get what I want I’m going to have this. I’m gonna have everything else that you got.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Because of the way the movie jumps around from past to present to future, by the time Daniel Carty enters the frame, you know that he’s Fonny’s alibi in Fonny’s defense against charges of rape. You know that Daniel’s warning about the systemic oppression of black people will be for naught—that Fonny will fall prey to it anyway. You know that nothing either man can do will matter.

If Barry Jenkins asks you to read something, you read it. And I’ve always been a huge fan of James Baldwin, and I remembered the Daniel character. I was like, Ah, man. This is going to be tough. You hope that [Daniel] telling Fonny this will prevent the outcome from happening. But then you see there was nothing you could do anyway. So many black men are wrongfully incarcerated. Daniel’s like, “They told me I stole a car—I don’t even know how to drive.” That is a heavy thing to understand and have to endure, but also to have to look at your friend and be like, “You have no idea, and hopefully you will never have to.”

The thing is, I know that same conversation that [Daniel’s] having could be a conversation that one of my friends has with me.

That scene was the last day of shooting—the movie was being wrapped. They built this set at a warehouse in Yonkers. Usually, when you’re filming, the directors are in front of you, there’s a monitor there, the crew’s there, there’s a boom mic there. You’re very aware that a movie is happening because you can see all of the elements. But for this scene, Barry was on the outside of the room, and we only had one camera set up on a roller, because he really wanted the energy to pass from Fonny to Daniel, for you to really feel them having this conversation and sharing the space together. How precious this moment is. How it could shift at any given second.

There’s so many things that I don’t remember. There’s a moment where I have my head in my hands, I’m smoking cigarettes trying to hide from Fonny—the anguish I’m going through—and I don’t remember the camera being there. Like I really don’t remember. Me and Steph were just in this room having this moment. I do remember being thankful for the cigarettes. I was like, Thank you, God. Because this right here man is just …

I felt like it was a war cry. I felt like it was something for the other Daniels out there who—this could be the first movie a man sees when he gets out of prison, and I hope the scene could possibly help him, because we’ll never understand. We’ll never understand what that life is like until we go through it, and if we’re fucking lucky we’ll never have to go through it. But to actually sit down and say those words. … It took a long time for me to shake Daniel off, man. I live in Harlem, you know what I mean? I live next door to guys who were just fresh out and trying to find their way. And some who are taken away that same day. I just wanted to make sure that Daniel was heard—even when he wasn’t speaking.

The really great part about that scene is that the end is us having dinner and still finding joy after all that went on. That’s what Daniel was to me. He can still find joy from his best friend, from his brother across the way. And you forget that that’s what’s needed sometimes. Instead of harping on what was taken from you, to revisit joy and remind them that your feelings are valid and that what you went through is so, so real. You standing on two feet with your head up is a remarkable feat, and I don’t want to forget that.

That scene was just a testament to all these brothers who are inside doing time for no reason whatsoever. Because the statistics are one in three. At some point that could be me. That could be me, that could be my nephew, that could be my best friend. I just never want to ... I don’t ever want to forget that. I don’t ever want to forget that it could so easily be me sitting across the table from my friend, just saying that speech.

Henry’s quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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