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Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor Brian Tyree Henry is coming off a sensational year. A second, acclaimed season of FX’s “Atlanta” sent him headlong into a fall movie season that saw featured roles in Yann Demange’s “White Boy Rick,” Steve McQueen’s “Widows” and Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” among others. He capped it all off with voice work in one of the year’s biggest hits, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” It’s been a whirlwind for the 36-year-old North Carolina native, and it’s a million miles away from where he ever expected to end up.
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“For me, [acting] seemed like something very unobtainable,” Henry says. “I grew up in front of the television. The television raised me. I was in a house full of adults and was left to my own devices. But I didn’t see me up there. I didn’t really see anybody that was from a little town that represented me, that had the upbringing I had or told the stories I saw happening in front of me. So acting wasn’t anything I thought I was going to do. But it was a mode of survival. The storytelling aspect was always in me.”
Of all his 2018 output, his most stirring work might just be the 10 minutes he seized in Jenkins’ “Moonlight” follow-up. It’s one of the most striking portrayals of the year, of a man haunted by the two years he lost to incarceration. But that reality slowly pours out of him as he catches up with an old friend (Stephan James) as Henry covers an impressive range. The whole movie is in this scene, in many ways.
“When I read the scene I was like, ‘OK, that’s heavy. But it’s still a moment between these two friends,’” Henry recalls. “Whenever I get the opportunity to play these black men that I play, I don’t ever want to pretend like I know everything that they’ve been through. For example, I’ve never been to jail. I don’t ever want to know what that’s like. I don’t ever want to lie on what that experience is, either, for people who have been through it … The statistics say that one in three black men are going to be incarcerated. That’s the way it is. That’s just the way of the world. So with [the character] Daniel, I just wanted to make sure, for all the Daniels out there, they felt like they were being heard. Because it’s very rare that there’s someone you feel you can open up to with that experience.”
Working with McQueen was a dream, not just for the opportunity to collaborate with the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” filmmaker but to spar with Viola Davis on screen. He previously had a small role in television’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” but he didn’t get to work with her there the way he does in “Widows,” playing a Chicago-born politician both fighting to change the status quo from within and threatening the woman whose deceased husband robbed him of millions.
“You can tell that he loves actors,” Henry says of McQueen. “You can tell he wants to know what we’re thinking, why we’re thinking what we’re thinking. He’s incredibly malleable … Steve will let you find [things] and play with it. With [the character of] Jamal it could be easy to do the whole villain thing. In my mind he’s not a villain. He really didn’t do anything wrong. We just watched the opening of a movie [and his money] was jacked! So to me, he’s doing what is necessary.”
For more, including recollections of Yale drama school and discussion of upcoming projects like “Child’s Play” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.
|Brian Tyree Henry photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety