×

Brian Tyree Henry on ‘Causeway’ Oscar Nom, Slapping Brad Pitt and the ‘Poor Man’ He Hugged on the Elevator

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

Brian Tyree Henry celebrated his first Oscar nomination by hugging a stranger.

“This poor guy, this poor white man,” Henry recalls with a laugh. The actor, who is currently shooting the Apple TV+ series “Sinking Spring” in Philadelphia, had spent the morning in his building’s gym with his phone on “do not disturb.” As he stepped into the elevator following his workout, he turned his phone on. “It started pinging and banging with notifications. There was 130-something text messages. I opened the first one and just saw: ‘Congratulations.’ And I screamed.”

At this point, they were trapped. “The doors of the elevator were closing. He can’t go anywhere now,” Henry says, then reveals the following exchange:

“I said, ‘I was just nominated!’”

“He said, ‘That’s great, for what?’”

“I told him, ‘It was for an Oscar!”

“He said, ‘Cool what movie was it?’”

“I said, ‘Who cares!’”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Henry still laughs at the memory. “He hugged me and it was very sweet. And if the fates are as strong as I think they are, we will never see each other again. I feel so bad for trapping him in this space and screaming.”

By now that gentleman has probably figured out the movie is “Causeway,” a thoughtful indie drama in which Henry plays James, a car mechanic whose kind nature belies an unspeakable grief. The film, now available on Apple TV+, casts the actor opposite Jennifer Lawrence as Lynsey, a soldier struggling with brain damage as the two embark on a tentative friendship. 

It’s been a while since the nomination day, but Henry says it still doesn’t feel real — and he’s still sharing it with so many people, including strangers. “Walking the streets of Philly, people have come up to me and they’re so happy and elated for me. The love and support has been incredible — I even got free cookies at Insomnia Cookies!”

Henry is thrilled that people seem to feel a personal connection with the nom. “I think it might have something to do with what my family said: ‘You being nominated makes us feel like it’s all of ours and like we won in a way.’ And it is truly something I share. It’s not just for me, it’s for every single person who ever supported me. Whoever saw me in the background or noticed me in a scene or put in a good word for me or fostered my work. Even if they didn’t know my name, even if they think it’s Brian Austin Green.”

There has been a celebratory feel to Henry’s recognition, perhaps because “Causeway” is a smaller, more intimate film than so many of the movies in the Oscar race. But Henry is also one of those actors that commands attention. After starting his career in the theater (including originating the role of the General in “Book of Mormon”), he quickly sprang to prominence with his Emmy-nominated role as rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in the FX series “Atlanta.” He then transitioned to film roles that made a maximum impact with minimum screen time, from a crime boss terrorizing Viola Davis and her dog in “Widows” to stealing “If Beale Street Could Talk” with a single scene as a prison parolee. In many ways, the only surprising part of Henry’s Oscar nomination was that it didn’t happen sooner. 

Henry has always been an actor who was hard not to notice, according to “Causeway” director Lila Neugebauer, who met him when she snuck into a rehearsal room when they were both students at Yale University. “Even then, I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” she says. “And for much of the rehearsal, the focus wasn’t even on his character. But I kept watching him.”

Henry was raised primarily in Washington, D.C., a world away from Hollywood, and his journey to Yale, then Broadway then Hollywood is a path he never could have imagined. “In order to talk about how I got here, I have to reveal a bit about my upbringing,” he notes. “And there is a respect for my upbringing because without it, I wouldn’t be where I am. But my domestic life wasn’t incredibly nurturing. There was a lot of strife, a lot of poverty, a lot of pain under that roof.”

Henry was the youngest of five children and says that by the time he was born, most of his siblings were already adults. “I was truly raised by the television and by dollar movies at the theaters. I can remember going on a Saturday and sitting through three movies in a row,” he recalls. He learned to read at the age of 3 and his father would also drop him at the library, where he would spend the day “reading books I had no business reading” like Anne Rice novels when he was only 5 or 6.  

Dan Doperalski for Variety

At age 8, he was introduced to his first play, “Romeo and Juliet,” and he was given the assignment to perform a monologue by Lord Capulet, who has just discovered his daughter is sneaking around with a Montague. “I was dealing with a lot of things under my roof with my father,” he recalls. “And something about this monologue busted me open. I remember grabbing the sides of the podium and shaking it. I was spitting all over the place. People were whispering and holding onto their desks and their faces were like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with him?’”

Henry says he immediately felt better — lighter, like he had lifted a weight off his chest. “I felt like I had been heard. I wasn’t reaching anyone at home, but I felt like I was finally reaching someone,” he says. His teacher asked him to stay after class. Although he was concerned he was in trouble, instead she simply told him, “You have to go to drama club.”

“She was right,” Henry says simply. “Plays and acting became a way for me to escape. I would read these plays and think: Somebody out there has experienced what I’ve been through and they put it on paper. How cool is that?”

Henry is still in awe of how his humble beginnings have brought him here and tickled by the roles he lands, from playing an immortal being in Marvel’s “The Eternals” to fighting Brad Pitt on “Bullet Train” to battling monsters in “Godzilla vs. Kong” and its upcoming sequel. In many ways, he says being on a set takes him back to spending an entire day in that dollar movie theater.

“I even got a chance to run away from Chucky!” he exclaims, referring to his role as a detective in the “Child’s Play” reboot. “I never thought I would get to play British. I never imagined I would spend a month slapping the shit out of Brad Pitt on a train.”