He might wear it lightly, but Brian Tyree Henry is a star. Over the next few months he appears in two of the most anticipated films of the year: Steve McQueen’s thrilling money heist film Widows and Barry Jenkins’s poetic adaptation of James Baldwin’s classic novel If Beale Street Could Talk. He’s playing Spider-Man’s father in next year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse animation and, of course, he retains a central role as rapper Paper Boi in Donald Glover’s Fox series Atlanta. Aside from his ubiquity on screen, this year he was nominated for a Tony, for best featured actor in a play for his part in Lobby Hero, and for an Emmy for his role in Atlanta. Deep down, however, he’s still not used to his newfound status – and he’s not sure other people are ready for it, either.
“I just finished doing this movie with Amy Adams and Gary Oldman,” he says over lobster tacos and buffalo wings at the swanky Essex House restaurant across from Central Park in Manhattan. “It’s called The Woman in the Window. And I just remember sitting at the table read and knowing that Gary Oldman has an extensive theatre background, Amy Adams has an extensive theatre background, and I knew that people didn’t know that I was just nominated for a Tony. So I’m just sitting there like … OK.”
It’s a heavy, fraught OK, which holds the weight of having to accept not being recognised for his work, his experience, his worth. “It’s called the Great White Way for a reason,” he says, referring to Broadway’s nickname. “[Broadway audiences] are mostly white subscribers, and so here I am working with Chris Evans and Michael Cera [in the play Lobby Hero] and I know people don’t even know that the stage is where I started and don’t know that, four blocks down the street, I [was in the original] Book of Mormon, because I’m always constantly walking into reset buttons.” He laughs. “My favourite thing being on stage is whenever I could see people opening their playbills while I’m doing a scene. That to me is the biggest testament because that means they’re like: where is this person from?”
Henry started acting as a kid in Fayetteville, North Carolina, doing plays after school. He then moved to Washington DC with his mother where he realised how rough the world could be. “It was the 90s in which, you know, we were ravaged by crack and HIV and Aids and shit. We lived in the projects and it was not a good time.” Doing plays became a diversion from life. “It was a place for me to escape. Acting was safe, you know what I mean? It was a place that I could go and live in these worlds and tell these stories.” After sixth grade his mother realised she had taken him as far as she could. “She looked at me and was like: ‘I can’t teach you how to be a man, you gotta go and live with your dad.’ Which is the exact line that Angela Bassett says to Tre in Boyz N the Hood.”
Henry is referring to the seminal 1991 film, directed by John Singleton and starring Cuba Gooding Jr, in which a boy is sent to live with his dad in South Central Los Angeles, in a gang-controlled neighbourhood, which leads to the boy really growing up. “I remember watching Boyz N the Hood over and over and over again, because I felt like it was the story of my life, because my father was definitely [the character] Furious and my mother was definitely Angela Bassett with shoulder pads stirring the coffee.” Henry’s military father taught him the discipline and grit he needed to make it and also let him continue acting. “I didn’t have aspirations of being an actor,” he said. “I just thought it was fun. It was cool, it was an escape. I never thought in a million years that it would be something that would pay off.”
At the end of Boyz N the Hood, the lead character heads off to Morehouse College, Atlanta’s liberal arts school. It’s proof that he’s made it out of the hood. So that’s where Henry went. He continued acting and eventually people told him he should apply to the Yale School of Drama, perhaps the most famous theatre programme in America. He wasn’t convinced. “I laughed at everyone’s face who told me that I could get into Yale,” he says. “I smoked too much weed in college and my GPA [grade point average] was not anywhere near the dean’s list [educational requirements]. There was no way that I’m going to get into Yale.”
He did, however, and to this day he continues to surprise himself with how much success he can grab. He has been in theatre for 11 years but, being 6ft 2in, 200lb and black, he doesn’t look anything like what most people expect a top stage actor to look like, and he’s had to work hard to get acknowledged. Despite appearing in big Hollywood films and reaping the benefits of that hard graft, he still has to remind himself that he belongs. “For a long time I had imposter syndrome. I always felt I was made to feel like I didn’t really belong here.”
One phrase Henry uses a lot is “I’m in the room”. He recently shot a scene in How to Get Away With Murder in which esteemed actor Cicely Tyson was present. He wasn’t even acting with her. “At the beginning of the scene,” he says, “you can see me being nervous and shaking my leg and it was really because of how I was feeling, sitting there knowing that she was there. It was a lot. But I was in the room.”
He’s saying this to himself as much as he’s saying it to the world. It means that he’s made it to a high level in his profession and he knows he belongs there. “I went to the Golden Globes and it was the most humbling experience, but it was the moment that I realised, like, ‘Yo, you’re in the room too. Like, chill out man, you’re in the room too, there’s a reason you’re sitting here.’”
Asked if he’s a method actor, Henry laughs. “I’m black,” he says. “I can’t be method.” What does that mean? “If I was method I’d get fired. If I walked into [the set of Atlanta] with a real gun, selling drugs, they would fire my ass.”
He’s kidding, but also he’s not. Henry has an elegant way of giving rough characters an air of menace, just under the surface; something that gives his lines an extra sense of power. In Widows he plays Jamal Manning, a man running for local political office in a bad neighbourhood. Manning has still got one foot in the streets and he’s able to be tough whenever necessary. In one scene, he forces his way into the apartment of Viola Davis’s character, Veronica Rawlins, and takes her fluffy dog in his arms. While he holds the pet lovingly, the audience know they should be nervous. He begins threatening Rawlins verbally and then flips, suddenly dangling the dog by its collar for a couple of seconds and briefly choking it. It’s a shocking insight into how far Manning is willing to go to scare her. “That character could easily be me one day. All the circumstances for all of my characters could be me at any point in time.” All of them? “Yeah, all. I may have to yoke up somebody’s dog one day,” he says in mock seriousness. “I go into rehearsal, people bring their dogs to rehearsals all the time and I’m like: I’m going to kill your dog.”
Where he’s serious in Widows, he’s more poignant as Daniel Carty in If Beale Street Could Talk: “He’s somebody who’s been incarcerated, but still kind of has hope; but at the same time, he’s still a black man in America, so we don’t know if he’s going to make it or not.”
Meanwhile, on Atlanta, Henry is all about dry humour, often making people laugh without cracking a smile. In one of the most engrossing episodes of Atlanta, Henry’s Paper Boi goes to get a much-needed haircut from his customary barber, Bibby. Just after he starts cutting, Bibby gets a call and has to leave the shop to cut someone else’s hair. This launches his character on an episode-long adventure through the city, forcing Paper Boi to follow Bibby around with a horrible haircut. “To me, it harks back to Laurel and Hardy or [Abbott and Costello’s] Who’s on First the way they go back and forth,” says Henry. Paper Boi is the butt of the ongoing joke. “That was a really hard episode because I would literally go to Donald [Glover] and say: ‘So, I can’t knock him out?’ He was like: ‘No, you can’t put your hands on him.’”
Henry’s characters may be tough yet in person he’s light and fun. None of the menace of the characters carries over. But where he’s often asked to play tough, what he really enjoys isn’t the toughness, it’s the playing. He acts not for fame but because he loves to play. “It’s just fun,” he says of acting. “That’s why I got into plays – it was like we were going to recess. It’s called a play, so therefore I’m going to play all day.”
Now that he’s living out his dream, he’s determined to have a lot more success. “A lot of people keep saying that I’m having a moment,” he says, “and I’m really tired of hearing that. Because ‘moment’ to me is a whisper. It goes like that. A moment drops in and then it’s out. I want something that is going to be so solid and stick for the longest time. I want a movement, man. I want to make sure that when you associate anything with me that you know what I bring, or you’re excited to see what I could bring. I don’t ever want to be stagnant, I don’t ever want to be stale.” He’s on his way.
Widows is out in UK cinemas 6 November; If Beale Street Could Talk is out 8 February