‘I really needed therapy’: Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry on grief, loneliness and the movie that could win him an Oscar

‘It felt like people always wanted me to be on the side. To play the sidekick. But I knew I had more to say’  (Irvin Rivera)
‘It felt like people always wanted me to be on the side. To play the sidekick. But I knew I had more to say’ (Irvin Rivera)

For Brian Tyree Henry, it’s in the dead of night that the cogs start to turn. Good sleep is hard to come by for the star of Atlanta and Bullet Train. That’s when he starts tossing and turning and asking himself questions. When the only thing separating him from the answers he’s looking for is the glow of his phone and the often-fruitless scroll of a Google search. Take last night. A little after four. A few hours into a whistle-stop trip to London to promote the film that may win him an Oscar – a gorgeous two-hander with Jennifer Lawrence called Causeway. Henry was woken up in his hotel bed by a single word imprinted on his psyche. He needed to know what it meant.

“Lemme see,” the 40-year-old tells me the morning after, fishing his iPhone from his jeans and pulling up his search history. “There it is: ‘belong’ – definition. I carry that word with me all the time. What does it mean to belong? For a long time, I thought it meant trying to assimilate. But I never wanted to fit. And what’s crazy is that now I’m succeeding in acting, it kind of feels like I belong.” He thumbs his stubble, his hand decorated in rings upon rings. “But I don’t know… I feel like the definition of belonging has to change. There has to be more to it. For me, to belong just means that you’ve found a place of truly being nurtured for who you are and what you do.”

We’re in a room at a London hotel. Henry is 6ft 2in and tightly built, his earlobes pierced with twin silver hoops. His hands are stuffed into the pockets of a wool jacket, his feet crossed in white sneakers. His face is open and earnest. On-screen, he is a master of silence. In Donald Glover’s spacy, erudite comedy series Atlanta, his character Alfred – an existentially uncertain rapper otherwise known as Paper Boi – always expressed discomfort with a glance, unease with a withering glare. In Barry Jenkins’s venerated, heart-stopping If Beale Street Could Talk, Henry has a single-scene cameo as a broken man fresh from jail. You know this man has seen horror. You know he’ll never recall those sights out loud.

Streaming now on Apple TV+, Causeway is about two equally guarded people finding the strength to open up. Sent back home to New Orleans, Lawrence’s injured war veteran Lynsey strikes up an unexpected friendship with a mechanic named James (Henry). Like her, James is clouded by recent trauma – a car accident that involved him, his sister and his nephew fractured a family and left him without a leg. Now he lives alone in the house they all once shared, sifting over wreckage both real and imaginary. Sometimes he lets Lynsey in on his feelings. Sometimes he doesn’t. The performance, by turns haunting and vulnerable, is quite rightly generating Oscar buzz.

The film had an unexpectedly lengthy production interrupted by the pandemic. It proved useful: Lawrence, Henry and director Lila Neugebauer had time to unpack what they had shot already, and ponder what they hadn’t. “We were left with this feeling that there was more to say,” Henry remembers. “These characters kept speaking to us from the beyond. In 2020, we all went through this year of introspection and personal miseries; we all started peeling back the layers. Who the f*** are we? What are these connections? So when we had the opportunity to go back and do the movie, we all felt like we had to put those feelings in there.”

For reshoots, Neugebauer axed entire subplots and stripped the script back. It became smaller and more intimate. In the hiatus, Henry himself had changed. He’d been working non-stop for four years, riding the wave of Atlanta’s success while privately mourning the death of his mother – she died in a car accident in 2016, shortly after filming finished on Atlanta’s first season. The tragedies of 2020 – first Covid, then the wellspring of activism and anger in the wake of George Floyd’s murder – saw Henry protest, donate and mourn, but also come to a sudden stop.

“You had to really sit with yourself,” he says. “You had to learn how to love yourself. How to deal with your mental health. It was the first time I’d ever been, like, ‘Oh s***, I really need therapy.’” He lets out a soft, despondent laugh. “I really needed to talk to someone.”

You can be seen by millions of people and still feel overlooked. You can still feel invisible

I tell Henry that I’d been curious about how open he’d be with me. He’s so brilliant at playing men who don’t speak that I didn’t know if he talked much himself. “Dude!” he exclaims. “Growing up, I always got ‘most talkative’ on my report cards. I still don’t know how to whisper.” (It’s true – even when recalling the saddest of personal traumas, his register carries a jovial upswing.) “But I think over time I kind of overcompensated for that with silence. Like if being the most talkative is so hard on everybody, I’ll make sure I can say everything without a word.”

Henry describes his upbringing as “rough in its own way”. He makes it sound like a difficult familial dynamic – he was the baby brother to four girls all grown and working by the time he was born. For as long as he can remember, his parents were separated. “I never wanted to let the outside world know what was going on inside the home,” he says, obliquely. “It’s a big thing in the Black community, like… this is our personal business. Period. So I would do a lot of acting to make what was happening in the real world seem less heavy.”

He says acting saved his life. He’d studied business in college, but found a home on the stage, earning a master’s degree at the Yale School of Drama. “Acting gave me a place to feel incredibly safe. In it, I can be whoever I want to be. Now in this business they like to tell me as a Black man what I can and can’t be. But in the time that I’ve been in it, I’ve never settled for that. I’ve never allowed anyone to do that to me.”

He admits it was tough, though. At Yale, he’d typically be cast in smaller parts. There was the time he played an old man with one line. The time he played a heroin addict slumped at the back of the stage for an entire play. The time he played a tree. “Most people didn’t want to see me in the front,” he remembers. “It felt like people always wanted me to be on the side. To play the sidekick. But I knew I had more to say.”

Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry in ‘Causeway’ (Apple TV+)
Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry in ‘Causeway’ (Apple TV+)

Henry was, career-wise, a late bloomer. There were Shakespeare productions and off-Broadway plays, but he was 29 when he got his big break, playing The General in the original 2011 run of The Book of Mormon. Lots of episodic television followed in shows such as How to Get Away with Murder and This Is Us, the latter of which earned him an Emmy nomination. Atlanta, which launched in 2016 and concluded in the US last month, turned him into a star. There have been plenty of films, too, in recent years. That’s him threatening Viola Davis’s dog as an ambitious politician in Widows. He’s there in Chloé Zhao’s polarising Marvel entry Eternals, making history as the MCU’s first gay superhero. And, yes, that’s his voice as Miles Morales’s dad in the animated caper Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

That said, he doesn’t think he was at ease with his success until recently. “You can be seen by millions of people and still feel overlooked,” he says. “You can still feel invisible. I think I never felt truly seen until a few months ago, and that was when I stopped worrying about how people see me. It’s really easy, especially in this industry, to give a f*** about what everyone thinks about you. But that s*** is just not true. I tried a long time to live by that kind of declaration, but it was only the beginning of this year when it actually happened. I don’t know what changed. I just remember becoming completely unburdened by what everyone else thought of me and how they viewed me.”

Henry alongside Donald Glover in ‘Atlanta’ (Guy D’Alema/FX)
Henry alongside Donald Glover in ‘Atlanta’ (Guy D’Alema/FX)

I ask him what he sees when he looks at himself in the mirror. He lets out a heavy sigh. For a second I think he’s going to clam up – a Brian Tyree Henry character come to life. But then he fixes his eyes on me. “What I see is that 12-year-old me, right? [Someone] who had to do a lot of growing up pretty quick. [Someone] just looking for guidance, for anybody to tell me how to be in this world.”

Who was he back then? Henry smiles. “You know, 12-year-old me was pretty fearless.” The smile fades. “He was lonely. But he was resilient. I feel like I need to hold on to who he was. That kind of precociousness. The kind of daring he had.” That kid got lost somewhere along the way, Henry thinks, and part of his recent journey has been about reconnecting with him. Henry’s nights are often plagued with questions – the hows and whys of existing, things even Google can’t solve for him. But in the mornings, he finds himself being the most grateful. Today, for instance, he looked at himself in the mirror and said thank you.

“I was like, ‘Damn, 12-year-old you, did you ever think any of this would happen?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I did – I was just waiting for you to catch up, bitch!’”

‘Causeway’ is streaming on Apple TV+ now