Donald Glover liked the other guy. Really, he did. The casting process for Alfred Miles, a character in Glover’s FX dramedy series “Atlanta” who raps under the stage name Paper Boi, had narrowed down to two actors. The first guy seemed to have the right energy, Glover recalls. He had the swag.
Then Brian Tyree Henry walked in.
“He was really sweet and nice and, you know, we shook hands and talked for a second — and then he turned into a completely different person,” Glover says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this guy is an actor.’ The audience needs the eyes and ears of the show to be someone as elastic as the show, and he was that. He’s definitely among the top three best actors I know. I was like, dramatically impressed.”
Given that elasticity, Henry, 40, has bounced from his Emmy-nominated role in “Atlanta,” which concludes its four-season run this week, to all sorts of projects. He has worked with acclaimed feature directors including Steve McQueen (“Widows”) and Barry Jenkins (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), starred in action flicks such as “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Bullet Train,” and even done some voice-acting for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” He began his career onstage and has returned to the medium in between; several years after originating a role in “The Book of Mormon,” he landed a Tony nomination for performing in a Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero.”
Henry’s latest project, the new Apple TV Plus film “Causeway,” casts him opposite Jennifer Lawrence, a formidable screen partner with whom Henry holds his own. Director Lila Neugebauer shares a story similar to Glover’s about being floored by Henry’s acting abilities, but hers dates back more than 15 years ago to when, as an undergrad, she sneaked into a Yale Drama School performance of the play “Balm in Gilead.” No disrespect to the rest of the ensemble, she says, but Henry made that.
“If you have the privilege of seeing Brian in even one role … his magnitude as an actor, his range, his depth of spirit, it’s just undeniable,” Neugebauer says. “There’s a natural tendency in this industry to slot people into certain boxes, and I think Brian blasts open the framework of those boxes. I think he can do anything.”
After hearing such effusive praise for someone’s talents, one wonders about the size of their ego. Does Henry know he ranks so highly on Glover’s list? Does he know Neugebauer, a longtime friend, is still pinching herself to make sure working with him on her first feature wasn’t just a dream?
If he does, it hasn’t affected his process. Speaking in late October from Australia, where he is shooting another Godzilla film — practically the opposite of the intimate “Causeway” — Henry describes the sense of obligation he feels toward the people he portrays. He owes it to them to do his homework, to consider the humanity of characters often confined to the boxes he broke out of himself.
Born in North Carolina and raised partially in Washington, Henry has acted since childhood. He attended Morehouse College, a historically Black school in Atlanta, and graduate school at Yale before finding work in theater. Having been a Black man at Yale, and then on Broadway, Henry knows what it is to be in the minority. He approaches his craft with empathy, at times drawing from his own experiences.
“When I take a part, I always want to figure out and dissect how much this part relates to me,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, I’m the one who is waking up with this character, taking this character home, having dinner with this character. They really do become a part of you.”
With such a deep well of care, Henry knows great loss. He acknowledges that not every role he takes on will have the capacity to help him heal, but finds those that do to be the most compelling. As with “Atlanta,” which offered Henry an outlet for the grief he experienced after his mother’s death in 2016, “Causeway” tapped into the emotions surrounding loneliness and yearning for a sense of purpose.
In the film, Henry plays James, a New Orleans mechanic who befriends Lynsey (Lawrence), a soldier who returns to their shared hometown after suffering a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. Forced to confront the life she fled, Lynsey struggles to adapt to life back in the city. James senses as much from the moment they meet, consciously creating an environment that allows her to open up.
As their friendship deepens, James reveals to Lynsey that he endured his own traumatic injury some time ago, the circumstances of which left him feeling ashamed and isolated. While grieving in his own life, Henry says, the actor thought to himself, “Well, nobody can see me. No one knows what’s going on. I have to make sure that I smile … and that I’m okay when I leave the house.” He saw himself in James’s need to push forward, which sometimes meant denying the immensity of his pain.
“But when you do that, it makes the cracks show even more visibly,” Henry says. “And that’s what ‘Causeway’ provided me: a place to feel normal in my grief.”
Work on “Causeway” began in 2019 and stalled when the pandemic hit. At some point in lockdown, after everyone who could withdrew to their homes, Henry and Lawrence realized they were living down the street from one another in Los Angeles. The film had been hanging over their heads. Something about the story felt unfinished. So the actors met up and broke the script apart, shifting focus to the feeling of connectedness they themselves had been deprived of in recent months.
For Henry, that meant ensuring James lived a full life on-screen. Where would he go after tossing a few beers back at the bar with Lynsey? What sort of couch would he flop onto afterward? The idea of home changed for James after the accident, Henry says, noting that the very act of inviting a new friend like Lynsey into that fraught space would be a major step forward for his character.
He shared these thoughts with Lawrence and Neugebauer, who agreed they should rework the script to position Lynsey and James’s relationship as the dominant narrative thread. Neugebauer cut flashbacks to Afghanistan in favor of adding more scenes set in New Orleans, better fleshing out Henry’s character.
“I wanted the authenticity of James to really shine through,” Henry says. “I always want people, when they see me on-screen, to realize that I’m an actual person, that this is an actual person somewhere, that this is actually somebody that exists. This is a human, fully realized.”
Though Henry had already done notable work by the time “Atlanta” premiered in late 2016, the critically acclaimed series was a shot in the arm. Adopting a surrealist tone at times, it follows Alfred and his cousin, Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), who manages the rapper’s career. As Paper Boi becomes more famous, Alfred is forced to navigate the thorniness of newfound celebrity.
Each season of “Atlanta” contains what Glover refers to as its Alfred episode. The most memorable of them all, Season 2’s “Woods,” takes place on the anniversary of Alfred’s mother’s death. He gets mugged by young men claiming to be Paper Boi fans and then flees, only to end up lost in the woods. The episode, which Henry has called cathartic, is dedicated to his mother, Willow Dean Kearse.
“Woods” is a concise rendering of how flimsy and disorienting fame can turn out to be. While Alfred spends much of the first season striving for recognition, he later starts to reject the strings attached to it. Glover credits Henry with bringing a pathos to the character, along with an “underpinned rage.”
“I don’t think we originally made him that upset with the world,” Glover says. “He became more and more somebody who’s like, ‘I don’t want to be bothered, I just want to do my thing and get … out.’”
Having gone to school in Atlanta, Henry has friends he considers to be like Alfred. Alfred could be a cousin or brother, he continues, and “if you don’t know him, then you deserve to know.” Henry speaks about the character with great compassion, sometimes as though he is talking about himself. He hasn’t played anyone else this long, he says: “There is no way for us to grow separately.”
In the most recent Alfred episode, last week’s “Andrew Wyeth. Alfred’s World,” the rapper returns to the woods — this time, of his own volition. He retreats from Atlanta to a house in the country, where he grows marijuana and practices shooting targets. He encounters an abandoned tractor and, after trying to repair it using a YouTube tutorial, winds up with his foot crushed under its weight.
All the while, Alfred ignores calls and texts from Earn, a reminder of his fast-paced life in the city. It isn’t until he makes it home from the tractor — and fights off a vicious feral hog (yes, really) — that Alfred picks up the phone and chats with Earn about whether Black people can get sunburned.
Even in this moment of levity, there’s a stillness to Alfred. Henry projects a sense of acceptance and quiet gratitude for a life that Alfred not only fought for, but consciously chose for himself.
“With all the characters I play, there’s a sense of care that I have,” Henry says. “There’s an obligation that I have to make sure these men are protected, and to make sure these men are loved, and to make sure these men laugh, and to make sure these men are cared for. Because that’s what I need, and that’s what I want.”
This story has been updated.