February 2, 2023


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How ‘Causeway’ Brian Tyree helped Henry lower his defences

8 min read

Brian Tyree Henry is getting more comfortable being vulnerable.

“For a long time I used acting as a shield. I was like, ‘Well, they are. It’s not me,” Henry says diversityBy evaluating the defense mechanism he used to separate himself from his character.

“Now, it’s getting to a point where people can see the performance, but they’re getting closer to seeing me at the same time. And it feels weird,” he admits. “But it also feels necessary, because then there’s a care that people want for me instead of what they want from me. It really touches me every day.”

The shift in perspective began during the making of his latest film, “Causeway,” in which 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 forces him to grapple with his own grief and its scars.

Chatting with Henry in late December, it’s clear he’s looking forward to a well-deserved break. She’s putting on her holiday decorations and preparing to enjoy some alone time after the frenzy of promoting “Causeway” while filming her return to the monster wave in “Godzilla & Kong.” While the actor always tries to work in a place of gratitude, recent years, which also marked the end of “Atlanta,” have had a profound effect on him.

“Earlier today, I was wondering — because it happens when I have a little time — how would James celebrate? How do I know the story? [in ‘Causeway’] exposed, does he have a little more room to gloat?” he shared. “Then I sat up, ‘Leave James alone.’ You’ve done your job: You’ve exposed parts of him that needed care and people didn’t necessarily see, and now you can just expose that.”

CAUSEWAY, Brian Tyree Henry, 2022. ph: Wilson Webb /© Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
©Apple TV/Courtesy Everett Collection

For that intense and intimate work, Henry will be presented of diversity Creative Impact Award for Breakthrough Performance.

“His roles in films as diverse as ‘Causeway’ and ‘Bullet Train’ are just the latest examples of Brian Tyree Henry’s amazing and versatile talent,” said diversity Steven Gaydos, senior VP global content and executive editor, explains why he’s so qualified.

“His dynamic stage work in ‘Lobby Hero’ and ‘Book of Mormon’ quickly led to television roles for important filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, major work for director Steve McQueen, and his breakthrough role in ‘Paper Boy in Atlanta.’ ,'” Gaydos continues. “And that’s only in its first decade, almost continuously providing publicized performances for major stage, film and TV artists.”

Indeed, the honor is just one of many accolades the Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor has earned this awards season, but with each word, it’s more recognition of the connection Henry is making with audiences. In fact, Henry encountered this idea at a recent screening of “Causeway” in London. He was curious how James’ experience as a working-class black man in New Orleans would translate across the pond. At the end of the Q&A, a woman approached him. He grabbed her hand, then her face, pulling her close and looking deep into his eyes.

“Are you okay?” asked the woman. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

The exchange shook Henry to his core. “I was sitting there [thinking,] ‘Don’t break down in tears.’ Because regardless of the performance — or maybe because of the performance — she came to me on such a human level,” he recalls. “Honestly, that’s something I’ve always wanted — for people, after seeing what I’ve done, when they turn off the TV. does or they leave the theater, sit for just a second and go, ‘I wonder if he’s all right.’ I never thought that someone would ask me, Brian, personally.”

So, Henry hugged the woman tightly. “I often feel like the characters I play are a lot of people that are kept at arm’s length for most viewers,” he says.

This is a key reason the actor cares so much about his characters, exploring their needs and empathizing with them. “I always think about what they should have and what they could be given, if people would take the time to look at them,” he adds. “I think there’s a fragility to their existence. There’s a lot more at stake because these are black people in the world.”

Take, for example, Alfred from “Atlanta,” an up-and-coming rapper who becomes increasingly disillusioned with the fame game and ultimately pursues solitude. Or in McQueen’s “Widow,” where Henry’s Jamaal Manning is a gangster trying to get legit by entering politics, only it’s an equally dirty and deadly rush. In “Causeway,” James secretly longs to open himself up to companionship when his life is changed physically and emotionally by a traumatic car accident.

“I always want to remind the audience that you’re denying yourself such an amazing opportunity to know someone incredibly human, incredibly kind, if you don’t let them into your living room or your place,” Henry says of his characters. “So, when he did that, it let me know that I was hoping to reach people. It reminds me that people care about these people, but I also have to remember to allow people to care about me.”

During this press tour, Henry rubbed shoulders with artists who have influenced him, including fellow contestant Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”). Henry first saw Bassett in “Boys in the Hood,” watching the movie one afternoon—when he was “younger than I should have been”—through a jail-broken cable box that gave him access to free pay-per-view movies.

“I just think that when she came on screen, she reminded me of my mother — the power and command she had,” Henry says of Bassett. “It really reflects a lot of what my life has been like.”

Brian Tyree Henry and Angela Bassett at the Critics’ Choice Association 5th Annual Celebration of Black Cinema and Television on December 5, 2022.
Getty Images for the McBride sisters

While Pritin Henry was immediately smitten by Bassett’s presence, over time, he became more aware of her multifaceted talents, as she transformed from a subdued and unflappable Katherine Jackson to Bernadine, a literal fire-starter, in “The Jacksons: An American Dream.” . Rosa Parks in “Waiting to Exhale” and now portrays the Queen of Wakanda

“I promise you that if I ever get a chance to share a scene with this woman, I’m going to retire because I’m like, ‘Well, there’s no way to top this. I have literally reached the top of the mountain.’ Like, I’m going to die a happy man,” says Henry, noting that observing Bassett as a child led him to want to act. “There’s such an ease in every word that comes from him, in every scene that he does.”

Looking at Henry’s filmography, marked by strong performances in a wide range of mediums and styles, 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 in “Atlanta” and building an impressive film resume that includes “If Bill Street Could Talk, ” Spider-Man: In the Spider-Verse, Marvel’s “Eternals” and “Bullet Train.” Actors, including “Bullet Train” star Brad Pitt, who claimed Henry as the “center” of action movie production (in an essay for “EW”), earned rave reviews for all of these projects from both critics and his peers, and “The Fablemans” actor Paul Dano, with whom Henry sat diversity Conversations with actors this fall.

Dano told Henry in their conversation, “Watching you in ‘Causeway,’ you look so comfortable — and I mean the highest compliment because you have some super dramatic scenes, some really heavy stuff. “I think you’re such a beautiful actor. The reason being is that we can really see into you. … I see a 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 of his characters — he explores what’s beneath the surface, the qualities that audiences can’t or don’t want to see that make these men. “It’s actually more intriguing,” he says. “I really want to say that I come easy because I feel like I’m a whirlwind dervish.”

The supplement is an antidote to the imposter syndrome that comes up from time to time. “I’m realizing that I’ve carved out my space and carved out my own lane, and people see that,” Henry added.

CAUSEWAY, from left: Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Lawrence, 2022. ph: Wilson Webb /© Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
©Apple TV/Courtesy Everett Collection

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,” directed by Ridley Scott. He also lent his voice talents to the Netflix animated feature “The Magician’s Elephant” and reprized his role in Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” And even though she’s moved on to focus on those characters, she still feels tied to James.

“Over the course of two years, I was able to unpack a lot with him and shed some light on how I felt when I was dealing with loss and shame and sadness in parts of my life,” Henry began. “And what it’s really like to be friends with someone new, to have the vocabulary to express your trauma to someone else, or the vocabulary to make new friends.”

“James did a lot for me, because with him came a real surrender, for me personally, because I didn’t have any hang-ups about presenting, showing pain or loneliness or loneliness,” she explains. “I owe him a lot of gratitude, because I was able to keep a lot of things because I was able to let him go through me.”

Henry also found himself thinking about Alfred, and how, in the final episodes of “Atlanta,” 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’s making bacon and sitting on his porch watching the sunset,” Henry says, before relating his characters’ experiences to his own.

“There’s a new feeling of sitting on the balcony, watching the sunset and just breathing because I think they’ve found their way a little bit more,” he explains. “They came to a place of honest peace, and that’s what I wanted. And since they found it, I’m starting to find it myself.”

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