Deborah Lopez / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Actor Who Takes His Characters Home

Brian Tyree Henry has played indelible roles—in Atlanta, Widows, and now If Beale Street Could Talk—that have stuck with him far past filming: ‘I don’t ever want them to be forgotten.’

Brian Tyree Henry moves as if he’s been here before. His character on Atlanta, the Donald Glover–led FX dramedy, is a reservoir of slow-unfolding gestures, resigned shrugs, and hauntingly empty expressions. As Alfred, the despondent cousin of Earn, Glover’s ineffectual protagonist, Henry pays extraordinary attention to physicality. His maneuvers are deliberate: When Alfred finds a tenuous sort of fame as the rapper Paper Boi, you can see how celebrity wears him down. Henry’s investment in the character grants Alfred a gravity that serves as the show’s emotional core.

“I knew that Alfred was the Atlanta part. He is the one that’s born and raised there. Where people could come in and leave, he couldn’t,” Henry said when we spoke in New York City recently. “We all know this dude: We know what kinda Swisher he likes, we all know which grape drink he likes, we know which condiments he doesn’t like, we know what specials he likes, we know what fights he’s gonna watch, we know him. We think we know him, and it causes us to put a judgment on him.”

Henry’s Alfred—whom the 36-year-old actor never refers to as “Paper Boi”—straddles the conflicting worlds that many black men inhabit with fatigued equanimity. He balances career strife, familial expectations, systemic discrimination, and social ostracism. He does so knowing that neither the white music-industry gatekeepers he encounters—nor the majority of the black people around him—have much faith in his ability to succeed. Henry imbues Alfred with a kind of bone-deep weariness that belies the character’s years. The performance is at once unnerving and familiar.

Earlier this year, the actor’s work on the series earned him an Emmy nomination. It also caught the attention of Barry Jenkins, the director of the 2017 Best Picture winner, Moonlight. “It was clear that he was an actor who could basically traverse the entire spectrum of emotions—and that he could [do] it within scenes themselves, not necessarily over the course of a two-hour narrative,” Jenkins told me. “There was just something very deep and vulnerable about Brian’s performance.”

Jenkins’s latest film, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, features Henry as the character Daniel Carty. As the formerly incarcerated friend of one of Beale Street’s protagonists, Henry is on-screen for less than 15 minutes, but his artful performance anchors the film. And if you pay attention, you’ll notice Henry nearly everywhere now: The Steve McQueen–directed heist film Widows sees him deploying an ominous determination in the role of Jamal Manning, a Chicagoan running for alderman against the legacy politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Henry also voices the titular character’s detective father in Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, lending a warmly authoritative figure to the animated superhero story. In these films, as in Atlanta, his performances tie scenes together: He can be agile and profound, menacing and open, composed and undone. Put more plainly, Brian Tyree Henry has the range.

Henry—and particularly his voice, a warm and solemn instrument—has bolstered several disparate choruses in recent years. He’s sung on Broadway as part of the original cast of The Book of Mormon and in the explosive new HBO series Room 104 (as Arnold, a character who wakes with no memory of the prior evening); invoked Southern colloquialisms on the animated Netflix series BoJack Horseman (he voices two characters in one of Season 5’s most poignant episodes); and debated difficult truths in his Tony-nominated performance as William, an embattled security guard in the Kenneth Lonergan play Lobby Hero.

It isn’t quite accurate to say that the actor is having a moment. No uncanny miracle is behind his rise, just slow, agonizing, all-consuming work. And so he is, in a word, tired—physically, yes, but emotionally as well. After all, his chosen roles don’t leave him when filming ends. Henry told me that he carries them everywhere. “I was just telling somebody, I need to let these characters go. I need to get a storage unit for these motherfuckers,” he said with a quiet laugh. “Because I take ’em home with me and I don’t know how to shake ’em … I don’t ever want them to be forgotten.”

As a young black boy in Fayetteville, North Carolina (and later in Washington, D.C.), Henry never envisioned that acting would be a viable career path. Early on, he noticed the entertainment industry’s lack of attention to the kinds of people whose interiority he knew best. “When I turned my television on, I didn’t see anybody like me. I definitely didn’t see anybody that was telling the stories that I was living in my own way,” he said of his childhood. “It didn’t make sense to me that [acting professionally] would be an option, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t have fun.” And so he did.

The son of a veteran and an educator, Henry is the youngest of five children. By the time he was born, all his sisters were teenagers. Henry soon discovered his knack for capturing the contours of his family members’ personalities, and acting out stories became both a pastime and an escape. “I started imitating the people I saw around me, the environment I saw around me, because I didn’t know any better. It was a safety, it was fun to tell these stories and go out there and watch how it could change somebody’s day,” he said. “I remember being that kid—you know how at Thanksgiving it’s like, Go ’head, baby, tell that story the way you told it,” he added with a laugh, genially mimicking the tone many a black auntie has taken with her family’s most performance-inclined child.

Being the baby of the family also meant that Henry was often too young to consume the same cultural touchstones that the rest of his household did. The moments when he could catch up to the adults’ knowledge became some of his most formative experiences. “I remember seeing The Color Purple for the first time. I was born in ’82, so it had already been out, people had already received it, drank it, all that. I was just crying the entire time, and I couldn’t understand why it was hitting me that way,” he said.

The Color Purple, with Alice Walker’s intense emotional pulls and Oprah Winfrey’s iconic performance, left Henry feeling both devastated and newly aware of just how much he’d been missing. He recalled questioning his older family members incredulously about the film and realizing that everyone else already knew of its monumental power: “I was like, Oh, y’all already saw Color Purple? You knew that Celie and her gon’ do this, had this patty cakin’, and Mister was gonna do that?!” The effect that the film had—on him, but also on the people around him—resonated with Henry long after that initial viewing.

The actor counts that revelation among his Where were you when … ? moments, those  inspirations that crackle in his brain long after the screen has faded to black. “I think that’s part of why I do what I do, because I like being at the front line of watching something unfold that could completely shift the way that people see things in the world,” he said. “And that’s kinda how I feel about Atlanta, that’s how I feel about me being a part of Book of Mormon, that’s how I feel about me working with Steve McQueen. I’ve been able to have that feeling of, I was there when this came together.”

As a student at Morehouse College and then the Yale School of Drama, Henry witnessed—and catalyzed—a number of auspicious pairings that brought black stories to life. During his undergraduate years, he played the lead role in a production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the celebrated playwright August Wilson’s story about the lives of newly freed enslaved people. At Yale, Henry met the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who would go on to write In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the play on which Moonlight was based. “It was kinda just understood that he was the best person at the drama school at that time. Black or anything. Like, the best,” the Yale College alumna and performer Melay Araya, a friend of mine, said of Henry recently. “But it was him and Tarell who were the standouts, one with acting and one with playwriting.”

More than a decade later, Henry’s work is once again concerned with both the threats that haunt black people and the bonds that hold them together. If Beale Street Could Talk, the Jenkins adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, is grounded in the story of Tish and Fonny’s love, and it traces the anguish the couple endures after Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. As Daniel Carty, an old friend of Fonny’s, Henry appears only twice in the film. Still, Carty haunts the tale. “His story could easily be my story someday,” Henry said of his character, who warns Fonny about the horrors of the criminal-justice system after the two run into each other on the street. “Daniels are made every minute.”

In the film, Carty is at once joyful and anguished: He laughs with his whole body, he eats unreservedly, and he projects a vulnerability that impresses upon Fonny the burden of the injustice both men face. In the gutting final moments of the scene the two share, Henry’s performance pulses with the kind of rawness Baldwin’s work held so tenderly. “It takes a special kind of actor to have the impact that Brian had in this film,” Stephan James, who plays Fonny, said in an email. “He captured the feeling of an experience all too familiar for so many young black men in America.”

Stephan James, left, and Brian Tyree Henry, right, in If Beale Street Could Talk. (Annapurna Pictures / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

It is a peculiar weight, the phantom menace of racism. It robs people of their rights while simultaneously insisting that their concerns are unfounded. “This shit is hard,” Henry said when we spoke, clapping on the table to punctuate. “Waking up every day as a black person in this country is hard. It is really hard to do. And sometimes you want to vent. And sometimes you need to know that someone is going to listen.”

Henry, who keeps a copy of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in his backpack, spoke with a pained appreciation about discovering the clarity and comfort in Baldwin’s work earlier in life. “I was so grateful,” he said, “but at the same time really saddened by the fact that here we are—I’m an ’80s baby, ’90s kid—and these same trials and tribulations that he was talking about then are still making me angry now. What’s his famous quote? ‘To be black and conscious in this country is to be angry all the time.’

Daniel Carty is indeed angry, but beneath his righteous indignation lies fear and tremendous pain. For Jenkins, having an actor with Henry’s emotional range play the pivotal character was key to the film’s narrative success. “The scene with Daniel, with Brian Tyree Henry, falls almost exactly at the midpoint of the film,” the Beale Street director told me. “It’s one thing to intellectually describe what might be awaiting Fonny if his fate goes a certain way, but it’s another to have a character just completely embody what that fate could look like.”

Still, the scene Henry shares with James is remarkably warm. Even as the threat of incarceration hovers above them both, the men embrace each other—and Tish. It’s a gorgeous tableau, all the more wrenching for its vacillation between the friends’ affection for one another and a mutual, slow-building terror. “There’s a dichotomy, a duality that we all, especially people of color, have to walk within this world,” Henry said of what he’s learned from his Beale Street character. “And sometimes when you let your guard down for just that minute, it can be to your detriment, but at the same time we should all know what it’s like to let our guard down at least once.”

If Beale Street’s Daniel Carty and Atlanta’s Alfred Miles respond to the onslaught of white supremacy with tormented resignation, then Jamal Manning of Widows is intent on striking back. In the film, Henry channels the political hopeful’s existential fear about the conditions of his life and his community—what Henry sums up as a mentality of, How are we gonna get out of this alive?—with terrifying panache. The role is a rare one for the actor, whose prior characters often sublimated anger, collective or otherwise, into agitated silence.

In one of the film’s most electric scenes, the would-be alderman pays a visit to Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), the widow of a con man who disappeared with $2 million of Manning’s campaign money. The starkly lit moment, in which Manning threatens her while gripping her fluffy white dog, is deliciously evil. In his escalating intimidation, Henry matches Davis’s intensity without veering into cartoonish villainy. “It’s all or nothing with Brian,” the film’s director, Steve McQueen, told me. “When you’re up against Viola Davis, you gotta bring your A game, and it was beautiful to look at how these two artists made that scene.”

Daniel Kaluuya, left, and Brian Tyree Henry, right, in Widows. (Twentieth Century Fox / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Henry’s level of dedicated camaraderie on the set of Widows buoyed his fellow actors’ performances. His commitment to his collaborators is indicative of what could be described as Henry’s broader project: contributing to a landscape in which all actors have the freedom—and encouragement—to inhabit their characters as deeply as he does. “He was so prepared, I was as prepared as I could be, and I really felt like the two of us were just dancing,” Colin Farrell, who plays Manning’s political foe, Jack Mulligan, told me. “I don’t think Brian was just concerned with his own idea of how the scene should be.”

“I didn’t get one sniff of actorly self-interest off him,” he added. “For me, the most beautiful experiences to have are experiences where, yes, each actor is serving their character, but they’re serving their character as [part of] a greater whole. And I got that sense from Brian Tyree.”

This sentiment is shared by members of the Atlanta cast. The comedian Robert S. Powell III, who plays the hilariously erratic barber Bibby in the second season’s fifth episode, spoke of Henry’s patient partner work with near-reverence. “That was my first and only time ever acting!” Powell told me. “When I researched and found out that everybody on the set was classically trained and here I am, brand new, I didn’t know what to do. But [Henry] made me feel very comfortable.”

Brian Tyree Henry and Robert S. Powell III in an episode of Atlanta. (Guy D’Alema / FX / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

“He knew every comma, every word. He was very, very on it … I didn’t know that the entire episode was going to be about me,” the comedian continued. “And then when I found out it was, I was kinda crammin’. So a lot of the ad libs that I did I had to do ’cause I had no idea what I was supposed to be saying at that time. My unpreparedness forced him to have to ad lib.”

For the actress Zazie Beetz, who plays Van, Earn’s sometime girlfriend and the mother of his child, Henry has been like a big brother throughout the show’s run. “He chooses to be on your team and on your side, sort of like a ride or die,” Beetz told me, recounting a time when the actor let her crash at his place for weeks after her Airbnb booking went horribly awry. “He was just like, We’re together in this.”

Henry’s capacity for empathy was evident during the shooting of the show’s second season, which follows Alfred as he grapples with numerous losses, including the death of his mother. Henry had recently lost his mother as well; while filming, he found himself wondering how to care not just for the people around him, but also for the character and for himself. “Alfred doesn’t have anybody to protect him. Everybody sees that he’s a bigger guy, that yeah, he’s got guns, yeah, he sells weed, so he must be inviting that stuff, right?” he said. “But there’s nobody there to really protect Alfred because everybody thinks he’s okay.”

“I really wanted this season [to] show my confrontation with my mental health and his confrontation [with his], which were one and the same. Because, life happens, right?” he continued. “For Alfred … I wanted him to know that somebody cared.”

The actor is still learning how to show himself that same compassion. It’s been a dizzying year of filming, publicity, and travel. There have been awards shows, premieres, and Broadway runs. The past several months have seen Henry filming five movies: Superintelligence, an action-comedy film with Melissa McCarthy; The Woman in the Window, a thriller also starring Amy Adams and Gary Oldman; The Outside Story, an indie feature about a workaholic editor; Godzilla vs. Kong, a monster film at the nexus of two massive franchises; and a reboot of the 1988 thriller Child’s Play alongside Aubrey Plaza. (Of his chaotic work life, he observed: “We like to torture ourselves as human beings, don’t we?”)

The punishing schedule has helped bring about the notable boost in his profile, but it’s also worn him down. “I haven’t had a chance to sit down and actually give myself praise for what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve done. I always feel like, Well, I still gotta do this, and I still have to get over here, and I still have to do that, which is something that we do all the time, especially people of color,” he noted. “Because you spend a lot of time being told what you can’t do, what you can’t have, how you should present yourself, and then when those moments of actual success come along, you’re already tryna figure out how to top that.”

For now, though, Henry is content to make himself at home in the work, to let the characters he inhabits burrow into him and offer guidance. “It’s given me a place to lay my heart out,” he said of the year’s challenging repertoire. “And not just to lay it out, but to receive things into it as well.”

“If I learned anything about doing If Beale Street Could Talk, it’s like—dammit, joy. Like, show the joy of us. Show the love of us. Show that it is obtainable. Show that we can thrive, show that we can feel something, dammit. Feel something.