When Brian Tyree Henry punched his ticket for Sony’s “Bullet Train,” he instantly realized that this movie would be a ride unlike any other.
The film follows Brad Pitt’s unlucky assassin, codenamed “Ladybug” as he aims to complete a snatch-and-grab job that goes completely off the rails as he fights off an ever-growing number of fellow assassins with their own agendas.
“I really had not seen a story like this in quite some time, with such crazy characters in such crazy circumstances, all trying to kill each other on a train,” Henry told Variety over Zoom in late July, shortly before the movie’s debut. “I had always dreamt of being a part of something like that.”
The ensemble cast is populated with mysterious and nefarious characters, including his “Atlanta” co-star Zazie Beetz as “The Hornet” and Bad Bunny as “The Wolf.” Henry plays Lemon, a blonde-haired, British assassin who spends just as much time proselytizing about “Thomas the Tank Engine” as he does bashing people’s brains in. He’s one half of a two-hitman crew known as “The Twins,” with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Tangerine as his partner in crime.
Despite their farmers’ market-inspired code names, Lemon and Tangerine make a deadly duo, but part of the gag is that “The Twins” certainly don’t look identical, though their brotherly bond is undeniable. The Black and white buddy-cop (and assassin) dynamic has been pervasive in the action genre, with iconic duos like “Pulp Fiction’s” John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson and “Lethal Weapon’s” Danny Glover and Mel Gibson to consider, but director David Leitch, Henry and Taylor-Johnson were determined to refresh the conceit.
“I didn’t want the difference of their race to be the punchline,” Henry says. “What Aaron and I chose to lean into is why don’t we make it a kinship and a brotherhood that has been around since the dawn of time; they really care about each other and believe each other are brothers.”
Fortuitously, Henry and Taylor-Johnson had strong rapport at the start. The pair’s first meeting came during a chemistry read on the Sony lot, where Leitch transformed a viewing room into a train car. Upon sitting down to read together, Henry says that he and Taylor-Johnson “went so off the rails with it. We forgot to stick to the script. Dave is just sitting there, like ‘Yeah, you guys are definitely twins.’”
The two actors grew closer as filming went on, developing a friendship that bordered on codependency. “We would finish each other’s sentences. I knew what he wanted to snack on in between takes,” Henry says, adding that they were complete “idiots” on set, trying to make each other break during takes. “We did so much improvising in this movie, and David, bless his heart, kept most of it in. We just would get together and riff off one another.”
By the end of the shoot, the two had fostered a deep personal and professional admiration for one another. “Aaron is truly my family to this day. Family comes from the unlikeliest of places, which is what I think you see with Lemon and Tangerine,” Henry professes, describing Taylor-Johnson as “a really great actor and an amazing person.”
On the red carpet at the film’s L.A. premiere, Taylor-Johnson echoed the sentiment. “Brian makes me crack up every single day,” he told Variety’s Marc Malkin. “It was a blessing to work with [him]. He is such a versatile, talented actor and real joy to work with.”
Joey King, who takes on the title of “The Prince,” also sang Henry’s praises. “First of all, [he’s got] the best sense of humor, but he had the best improvisation,” she shared. “He’s so witty, so quick, and just like every scene, he’s a scene stealer. I just love him.”
Filming “Bullet Train” was truly a lovefest for the cast, many of whom spent the last couple of months crisscrossing the globe to promote the film at premiere screenings in Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and Paris. The world tour paid off at the box office, with the movie netting more than $30 million domestically in its opening weekend, on the way to a total of $65 million globally.
Of the wild ride that was making and promoting the movie, Henry observes: “The relationships that were made and fostered on this movie was unlike anything ever. It really wasn’t work; it was its own form of therapy.”
The pitch for “Bullet Train” came to Henry at an interesting time. Like the titular train, the Emmy-nominated actor has been racing through projects at warp speed. Following his “Eternals” entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing Phastos, the series’ first openly gay superhero, Henry reprised his role as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in the long-awaited third season of FX’s “Atlanta,” with the hit comedy’s fourth and final season set to debut September. Henry will next be seen opposite Jennifer Lawrence in the drama “Causeway,” which makes its world premiere at TIFF, plus he’s been in production on the biographical film “Flint Strong.”
But in 2020, the actor was quarantining in Los Angeles amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed, and filming the high-speed hijinks gave him something else to focus on.
“Between people not wanting to stay locked down, people not believing the virus was real, we had to march, things were burning; this was also around election time, so I was infuriated. I was angry a lot,” Henry shares, looking back on that period. “Then you get this script that says, ‘Hey, you are now an assassin, and your mission is to make sure this briefcase gets to from one end to the next, but there are going to be a bunch of people getting in your way.’ It was the most cathartic thing.”
With “Bullet Train,” Henry realized an opportunity to channel his rage, frustration and confusion into trying to beat up Pitt using a tray table, all the while satisfying the little kid who grew up watching summer blockbusters, heading to the theater to escape into these action-packed stories with their slow-motion walks and explosions.
“Meeting David Leitch was truly a great balm because he created this environment where everybody felt safe,” Henry says of the filmmaker. “He created this world that was so multicultural and so diverse. He created an environment where you could go and explore — I got to be British for five months; I got to have a brother whose skin wasn’t the same color as mine; and I got to slap the shit out of Brad Pitt, who literally would be like, ‘Yes, sir, may I have another?’ It was really healing.”
Henry was already a big fan of Leitch’s previous films, like 2017’s “Atomic Blonde,” where star Charlize Theron takes on an adversary using a car seatbelt. “The car is on two tires, she’s in heels and she’s kicking ass,” Henry says, recounting one of his favorite scenes from that movie. “Your pulse goes a little faster; your palms get sweaty; you’re on the edge of your seat. It was just so brilliantly shot and choreographed.” So, when the stuntman-turned-filmmaker came calling, Henry jumped at the opportunity to flex his action muscles.
“I love [Leitch’s] movies and how he does his fights, with all this character development of all these crazy people that you end up wanting to care about, though you shouldn’t,” Henry adds. “I really wanted to play with that. It was a no-brainer.”
From the jump, Henry went all-in on the role, dying his hair blonde and cutting it short, because he imagined Lemon was the type of assassin who really took his codename to heart. Leitch was thrilled when he revealed the new look, sharing just one note: “What if we go longer [and] blonder?”
The role also allowed the actor to subvert expectations about a Black man’s position in the action genre. “I like making people think outside of the box of what they think Black men are and who they can be,” Henry says. “It’s so easy for me to walk into a room, and before I say anything, there’s already a list of things I can’t have. There’s already a notion of who I am and what I’m going to do.”
Thus, when building this character, Henry was adamant that the Lemon be British like his brother, though he wasn’t sure the filmmakers would go for it.
“I’ve always wanted to do an English accent, but most people, I don’t know if they’re going to take a chance to let a Black American man be English,” Henry shares. “But, it was written on the page that he was English, so I told David, ‘No, we’re not changing that.’”
“I didn’t want to lose that aspect of what was already there, because ‘Maria Beetle’ [the book by Kotaro Isakadid, which served as the film’s source material] is so brilliantly written, and what Zak [Olkewicz] did with his adaptation and his screenplay was great.”
Fortunately, Leitch agreed, and like King, who spent up to three hours a day perfecting her British accent, Henry put in extensive work with their dialect coach Jamison Bryant. In fact, as a Yale School of Drama student, Henry had studied dialects during his training, so he was eager to pull that skill out of his tool belt.
Taylor-Johnson’s natural British accent also influenced Henry’s, who worked to stay in the same range, but adapted his speech to be “a little all over the place” reflecting that the two characters are orphans. “They’ve come through different foster systems, and something must have happened where all of a sudden somebody took them and made them assassins,” Henry explains. “I wanted him to have this roughness, but also this childlike nature about him.”
To ensure that the final product hit the right notes, Henry conferred with his crew of Black British friends to get their approval. “I don’t want no smoke in these streets. I don’t want them slapping me in public because they’re like ‘What the hell was that? Your accent was shit.’”
“Bullet Train” is now playing in theaters.