When Brian Tyree Henry filmed his scenes in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” he wept. When he saw the finished film, he wept again.
In Barry Jenkin’s lyrical adaptation of James Baldwin’s celebrated novel, Henry plays Daniel Carty, the just-out-of-jail friend of Fonny (Stephan James). When Fonny and Tish (KiKi Layne) run into Daniel on the street, they retreat to Fonny and Tisch’s apartment to catch up. The intimate conversation aches with the pain of incarceration: Daniel’s past, Fonny’s future. It’s a devastating but beautiful crescendo: two vulnerable black men, contemplating a world pitted against them.
“I was sobbing. I was like: Why am I crying at myself? Is that weird that I’m crying at myself?” says Henry. “It really, really, really sat with me. That could be me talking to my friend, me talking to my nephews, me talking to my brothers.”
It’s no surprise that one of the most moving and profound scenes of the year happens to be one with Henry in it. On stage and screen, in big parts and small, the 36-year-old actor’s soulful sensitivity and vast range has been on display with remarkably regularity.
There is, of course, his aspiring, oft-irritated rapper Alfred Miles, aka Paper Boi, on “Atlanta”: the stony, eye-rolling face to the series’ surrounding absurdity. Its second season earned Henry his second Emmy nomination in two years. (His first was for a guest appearance on “This Is Us.”) The Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” in which he played a conflicted security guard, won Henry is first Tony nod. And a few weeks before “Beale Street” hits theaters, Henry made an equally potent, if far more menacing impression as a politician in Steve McQueen’s “Widows.”
“I just don’t want to lie on them,” Henry says during a recent interview. “These characters need a voice and I don’t want to be a person to lie on them. It’s sounding all deep but it’s true. I have a special connection to every single character that I’ve been blessed to touch and I just want to make sure that I don’t lie on their journey, that I don’t lie on who they are, that I don’t lie on their hearts.”
Henry has a deep reservoir of emotion that never feels very far from the surface, and he speaks volubly, sometimes nearing tears, about the fictional lives that people his brain. Henry simply feels a lot — maybe too much so.
“I feel everything,” he grants with a knowing grin. “These past two years have been a topsy-turvy thing for me. I never in a million years could have imagined something so fantastic happening in my career. But I need to let ’em go, these guys.”
“That’s been kind of a problem as of late,” Henry sighs. “I tend to wear them as badges of honor, which they are.”
Henry grew up the baby in a Fayetteville, North Carolina, family; his sisters were already adults. His parents divorced when he was young and after graduating sixth grade, he was sent to live his father, then in his 70s, in Washington D.C. After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, he got his masters from the Yale School of Drama. Acting, he says, saved his life because he allowed him to express what he observed.
“Most of my life, at a very young age, I got to see what it was like to be surrounded by the lack of care – to see that people are human, that no one is impervious to pain, that pain hurts, that it takes time for things to heal,” says Henry. “I spent most of my life constantly trying to hold on to the things that mattered.”
His Broadway debut came in the original cast in “The Book of Mormon,” but it’s been “Atlanta” that catapulted Henry’s career. Along with lending his voice to the upcoming “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” he’s already shot four films due out next year (including an action comedy alongside Melissa McCarthy). At the moment, he’s shooting the Brooklyn-set indie “The Outside Story.”
Henry’s ascendance has partly paralleled Alfred’s more humbling, fitful rise on “Atlanta” — a comparison not lost on Henry.
“Alfred, this season, I had a time. I was like: This prom date sucks right now. But I had to confront it,” says Henry. “It is imitating my life, in a way. That’s why I’m glad that Alfred found me.”
“Atlanta,” particularly in episodes like “Barbershop” and “Woods” (which was a tribute for Henry to his deceased mother), has given the broadest platform for his talent. But films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” have showed how much Henry can do with just a handful of scenes. His presence instantly adds depth and gravity.
“He came onto set, maybe he was there for a day and a half,” marvels James. “He was already a huge Baldwin fan, but what he was able to bring to that moment … You talk about black love; that’s another form of it. Black love between brothers. That brotherly bond where we’re sharing our deepest, most intimate fears, the things that have broken us, how do we maintain our strength through these moments.”
Jenkins has said those scenes solidified the whole project. For Henry, they capture the duality of life as a black man.
“There’s always a constant audition process, I call it, of having to prove to people that you belong where you are,” says Henry, burly and broad-shouldered, remembering when Yale students would assume he wasn’t a classmate. “I’ve been very fortunate to come to this point in my life where I’m done doing that.”
Henry lives in Harlem, just a few blocks from where “Beale Street” was filmed. It’s almost as if his characters are encroaching, ever closer, on the actor, despite his best efforts to leave them at the door. But he’s learning to live with his hypersensitivity.
“I wouldn’t change that because it means I’m present. It means that I see you,” says Henry. “But then at the same time I need to figure out how to flip it so I see myself too.”