Brian Tyree Henry is getting more comfortable being vulnerable.
“For a long time, I used acting as a shield. I was like, ‘Well, that’s them. That’s not me,’” Henry tells Variety, assessing the defense mechanism he’s used to separate himself from his characters.
“Now, it’s gotten to a point where people can see the performance, but they’re also getting closer to seeing me at the same time. And it feels bizarre,” he admits. “But it also feels necessary, because then there’s a care that goes into what people want for me, instead of what they want from me. It really touches me every day.”
The change in perspective began during the making of his latest film “Causeway,” where Henry plays James Aucoin, an amputee who bonds with a soldier recovering from a traumatic brain injury (played by Jennifer Lawrence). Directed by Henry’s longtime friend Lila Neugebauer (whom he met at the Yale School of Drama), the film is a character study that also forced him to wrestle with his own grief and its scars.
Chatting with Henry in late December, it’s evident that he’s looking forward to a well-deserved break. He’s been arranging his holiday décor and preparing to enjoy a little alone time after the madness of promoting “Causeway” while wrapping up filming his return to the monsterverse in “Godzilla and Kong.” Though the actor always tries to operate in a space of gratitude, the recent year, which also marked the end of “Atlanta,” has had a profound effect on him.
“Earlier today, I was thinking — because this is what happens when I have a little bit of time — how would James celebrate? Knowing how the story [in ‘Causeway’] unfolded, is there a little bit more space for him to rejoice?” he shares. “Then I sat up and was like, ‘Leave James alone.’ You did your job: you exposed those parts of him that needed care and that people didn’t necessarily see, and now you can just release it.”
For that intense and intimate work, Henry is set to be presented with Variety’s Creative Impact Award for Breakthrough Performance.
“Roles in films as disparate as ‘Causeway’ and ‘Bullet Train’ are only the latest example of Brian Tyree Henry’s amazing and much-celebrated versatility,” says Variety senior VP global content and executive editor Steven Gaydos, explaining why he’s so deserving.
“His dynamic stage work in ‘Lobby Hero’ and ‘Book of Mormon’ quickly led to television roles for important filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, which quickly developed into major work for director Steve McQueen and his standout role as ‘Paper Boi’ on ‘Atlanta,’” Gaydos continues. “And this is just his first decade, spent almost continually delivering heralded performances for major stage, film and TV artists.”
Indeed, this honor is just one of the many accolades the Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor has earned this award season, but with each kind word, Henry further recognizes the connection he’s been building with audiences. In fact, Henry was confronted head-on by this notion at a recent screening of “Causeway” in London. He’d been curious how James’ experiences as a working-class Black man from New Orleans would translate across the pond. After the Q&A, a woman came up to him. She grabbed his hand, then his face, pulling him in close and staring deep into his eyes.
“Are you OK?” the woman asked. “I just want to make sure you’re OK.”
The exchange rocked Henry to his core. “I was sitting there [thinking,] ‘Do not break down crying.’ Because regardless of the performance — or maybe because of the performance — she came to me on such a human level,” he recalls. “Honestly, that has been something that I’ve always wanted — for people, after they see something that I’ve done, when they turn off the TV or after they leave the theater, to sit for just one second and go, ‘I’m wondering if he’s okay.’ I just never thought it would be someone asking me, Brian, personally.”
So, Henry hugged the woman, hard. “I often think a lot of the characters that I play are people that most viewers have kept at arm’s length,” he says.
It’s a key reason the actor shows his characters so much care, exploring their needs and infusing them with empathy. “I’m always thinking about what they should have and what could be given to them, if only people took the time to see them,” he adds. “I feel like there is a fragility to their existence. There’s so many different stakes because these are Black men in the world.”
Take “Atlanta’s” Alfred, for example, an up-and-coming rapper who grows increasingly disillusioned with the fame game and ultimately pursues solitude. Or in McQueen’s “Widows,” where Henry’s Jamal Manning is a gangster trying to go legit by entering politics, only to find it’s an equally dirty and deadly hustle. In “Causeway,” James secretly yearns to open himself up to companionship after his life was physically and psychologically altered by a traumatic car accident.
“I always want to remind the viewer that you are denying yourself such an amazing opportunity to know somebody incredibly human, incredibly kind, if you don’t allow them into your living room or your space,” Henry says of his characters. “So, when she did that, it just let me know that there was hope that I’m reaching people. It reminded me that people do care about these men, but I also have to remember to allow people to care about me.”
During this press tour, Henry has been rubbing shoulders with artists who’ve impacted him, including fellow contender Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”). Henry first saw Bassett in “Boyz n the Hood,” watching the movie one afternoon — when he was “younger than I should’ve been” — via a jail-broken cable box that gave him access to free pay-per-view movies.
“I just remember that when she came on the screen, she reminded me so much of my mother — the power and the command that she had,” Henry says of Bassett. “It really reflected a lot of what my life was like.”
While the preteen Henry was immediately struck by Bassett’s presence, over time, he grew more conscious of her versatility, as she transformed from a subdued and demure Katherine Jackson in “The Jacksons: An American Dream,” into Bernadine, the literal fire-starter in “Waiting to Exhale,” then portraying Rosa Parks and now the Queen of Wakanda.
“I promise you if I ever got a chance to just share a scene with this woman, I would retire because I’d be like, ‘Well, there’s no way to top this. I literally reached the mountaintop.’ Like, I would die a happy man,” Henry says, noting that observing Bassett as a kid cemented that he wanted to pursue acting. “There’s just such an ease to every word that comes out of her, to every scene that she does.”
Looking at Henry’s filmography, marked by powerful performances in a wide array of mediums and genres, it seems that perhaps, subconsciously, he absorbed some of Bassett’s magic by osmosis.
Henry followed a similar path: earning an MFA from Yale, Bassett’s alma mater, and conquering the New York City stage before landing his breakout TV role on “Atlanta” and building an impressive film resume that includes “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Marvel’s “Eternals” and “Bullet Train.” The actor has earned rave reviews for all those projects, from both critics and his colleagues, including “Bullet Train” star Brad Pitt, who touted Henry as the “center” of the action movie’s production (in an essay for “EW”), and “The Fabelmans” actor Paul Dano, with whom Henry sat for a Variety Actors on Actors conversation this fall.
“Watching you in ‘Causeway,’ you look so relaxed — and I mean that as the highest compliment because you have some super dramatic scenes, some really heavy stuff,” Dano told Henry in their conversation. “I think the reason why you’re such a beautiful actor is we can really see into you. … I can see the piece of you at work, a piece of your imagination.”
It’s a piece of praise that gets to the heart of what Henry aims to do with all his characters — he investigates what’s under the surface, those qualities that audiences can’t or don’t want to see that make these men who they are. “That’s actually more intriguing,” he says. “I really like being told that I come across easy because I feel like I’m a whirling dervish.”
The complement is also an antidote to the imposter syndrome that creeps in from time to time. “I’m realizing that I have made my place and created my own lane, and people see it,” Henry adds.
Upcoming, Henry will star in the MGM feature film “Flint Strong,” the FX limited series “Class Of ’09” and the Apple TV+ series “Sinking Spring,” which will be directed by Ridley Scott. He’s also lent his voice talents to the Netflix animated feature “The Magician’s Elephant” and reprised his role in Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” And though he’s moved on to focus on those characters, he still feels tied to James.
“Over the course of two years, I was able to do a lot of unpacking with him and shine a light on how I may have been perceived at certain parts of my life when I was dealing with loss and shame and grief,” Henry begins. “And what it’s like to actually make a friendship with somebody new, to have the vocabulary to express your trauma to someone else, or whether the vocabulary of making a new friend is like.”
“James did quite a few things for me, because there came a true surrender with him, for me personally, because I didn’t have any hang-ups about presentation, or showing pain or loneliness, or solitude,” he explains. “I owe him a lot of gratitude, because I was able to lay a lot of things down because I was able to let him move through me.”
Henry has found himself thinking about Alfred, too, and how, in “Atlanta’s” final episodes, the character goes through hell — literally fighting a wild boar — to find harmony.
“He’s just like, ‘Well, I fought this demon,’ and the next day, he makes bacon and sits on his porch, watching the sunset,” Henry says, before relating his characters’ experiences to his own.
“There’s a new sense of sitting on the porch, watching the sunset, and just breathing because I feel like they have found their way a bit more,” he explains. “They’ve come to a place of honest peace, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted. And because they found it, I’m starting to find it myself.”