Emmys: Brian Tyree Henry on the Link Between ‘Atlanta’ and ‘This Is Us’

Carrie Bell
Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in FX’s Atlanta. (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX)

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 12 to 26 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

Brian Tyree Henry is having a moment. More like a year of moments.

After his big break on Broadway in The Book of Mormon, the Morehouse- and Yale-educated actor was scooping up praise for his turns as the trappin’ and rapping Paper Boi on FX’s Atlanta and a bad husband on HBO’s Vice Principals. His Atlanta crew, led by Donald Glover, grabbed a Golden Globe in January for Best Television Series, Musical or Comedy. He has since parlayed the added visibility (and a genuine friendship with Sterling K. Brown) into a memorable guest turn — complete with an original soul song component — on This Is Us as William’s cousin in Memphis, and gigs in no less than five films starring major heavy-hitters like Viola Davis, Jodie Foster, and Matthew McConaughey.

“I pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming because these last two, three years have been game-changers for me,” Henry tells Yahoo TV. “Where I am now in my career and in my life is miles away from where I was a year ago. It is a tangible change, and I am grateful for every part of it. Humbled by it. Ready to work and ready to learn. And so happy that it is all coming from being involved in a great show like Atlanta.”

But even with the growing notoriety and the A-list movie opportunities, Henry swears that he has no plan to vacate the TV-verse anytime soon. “Quite the opposite. I can’t wait to get back to work on Atlanta. TV can be a thread between all of us, and it can be a powerful tool to examine life and love and what we all have in common as humans,” he says. “I know it might seem like we are done because of the long hiatus, but that just pushes us to come back 10 times better.”

From left: Atlanta stars Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, and Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX)

Yahoo TV: How has the last year and your work on TV changed your career and life?
Brian Tyree Henry: I’m freaking out. It has been one of the biggest whirlwinds of my life, and it is all because of Atlanta. Even This Is Us to an extent. I am really glad that it is all coming from being involved in a great show like Atlanta, where we are telling important stories and showing characters that don’t get seen that often on TV. For sure, people have seen me on that show, and that leads to doors opening on other shows or in film. It is not a bad place to be. I have no complaints.

Atlanta allowed the four of us to really play and tell the stories we wanted to tell. And I believe if you show people you are having a good time with good people, then they’re going to want to ride with you, too. I think that parlayed into all the stuff I am doing now. So yeah, Atlanta was a springboard. It gave people a chance to see me and what I can do. I check my pulse every five minutes to make sure it’s still there.

Did you know immediately that this was a job you wanted, or was there any trepidation about taking the role? Were you worried about pigeonholing yourself as a rapper/dealer?
I couldn’t believe there was going to be a show called Atlanta because that’s my favorite city in the country. It’s where I went to college. I have so many great friends that live there. It’s where I discovered that I wanted to be an artist. And it holds up. I dare somebody to go to Atlanta and not have a good time. When I saw the script and heard it was filming there, I was like, “Yes, I need to get that. I know exactly where I am going to get my pizza and get my barbecue.” I was already planning my first weekend off. But then I read it and I knew I had to play Alfred. I definitely knew this guy. Everything I had been through in Atlanta prepared me to be this guy.

Do you see him as more of a good guy or a bad guy?
I love him so much. I am so glad I get to be in the driver’s seat for Alfred. He’s a hustler and he certainly does some things that are questionable, no doubt, but he is also a good guy deep down. Alfred makes no apologies. Alfred is a survivor. He would do anything for his friends and family. I feel like I have a lot of friends who are Alfreds, like most of us do. I wanted to make sure he got his just due and that people could see a guy like him onscreen.

One thing that I love about the show is that the friendships ring true. I come away feeling like this group is ride or die, and that seemed true in real life, too, when you guys took home the Golden Globe.

It’s true. We really like each other. It was such a fun shoot, and to make these friendships I did with Donald, Lakeith [Stanfield], and Zazie [Beetz] meant so much to me. It also helped keep the show fresh and real. It made it so much more fun to show up on set. I’m glad people have shown up to take the ride with us.

Obviously, the relationship between Alfred and Donald’s Earn is important, but man, are the scenes between you and Lakeith bulls***ting genius. It feels like you have known each other for years, and you guys get some of the best dialogue. Is it all scripted?
I didn’t know any of them before we started shooting. Lakeith, I love him to death, and doing those scenes with him is something incredible. What you see up there [onscreen] is him really being him. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. Alfred and Darius are me and Lakeith all the way. Sometimes we will talk about things in our own really philosophical way that really aren’t about s***. “How do you feel about 7-Eleven hot dogs?” “Well, I feel like they are a scam. They are using them for mind control.” And you know, I can see his point, man. That is how we are for real. He will get an app that puts cat faces over texts, and he will just send me all kinds of cat faces. And it’s cool — sometimes I deserve that cat face. That keeps us going. We just get each other, and when you meet people that just get you, you have to ride with them. He is one of those people for me, and I am glad if that comes through the screen. The connection happened so quickly.

It’s good to have those kind of relationships showcased. I think it is so easy for people to get caught in a trap of what people think friendships between black men are like and that they are all the same. This is an honest portrayal of brotherhood, but it is important to us that people know this is also not a statement on all brotherhood. Not everyone knows all the sides of that.

Do you have a favorite moment between the two of you?
One is when we are cleaning our guns and talking about why he calls his daddy. That is so antiquated. I love those scenes with Donald and Lakeith because they are challenging stereotypes. There is so much more that Darius and Alfred are going to explore, like how we traverse our friendship now that fame has come to Alfred. Darius is the one that has a Google alert on Alfred. He’s the one that calls him on his crap and lets him know what people are saying about him. You really need those friends like that to keep you humble and keep your feet planted, especially when you get some celebrity.

From left: Lakeith Standfield, Donald Glover, and Brian Tyree Henry. (Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX)

Challenging stereotypes also seems important, given that we are still living in a time where race relations are sticky and we live in great turmoil. Of course, the show is funny — and without laughter, we’d all probably hurl ourselves off a cliff — but you are also showing lives that are likely different than many of the folks watching.
I agree. With what is happening politically and the general atmosphere, I think we now see more clearly that racism has not gone anywhere really and that not everyone advocates for us. Not everyone wants to be our partner in this; not everyone understands that some people look different, love different, think different. It is a TV show meant to entertain, but they can still have power. Even if it is just to introduce people to people they may not see every day.

Could this show take place in any city?
No. Atlanta welcomes all of that. Considering it is a Deep South city below the Bible Belt, it is incredibly progressive. It is the black mecca. We can start businesses and start our own schools and have our own fashion and music and still hold on to that piece of ourselves. But the great thing about black culture is that anyone is welcome to the table to share. Unfortunately, it is so rare that we’re welcome to other tables. It is nice when you have a city that welcomes all kinds and tells you to be who you are. It is its own universe. You will find your people here, and they will let you do you.

What do you love most about shooting in Atlanta?
All of it. I love being on location. I love that we shot in J.R. Crickets. If you have lived in Atlanta, you have gotten a wing platter. I loved that we got to show the world how great J.R. Crickets is by showing the glowing box of lemon pepper wet wings. And for people who have not been, that’s what it really feels like when you get a box of lemon pepper wet wings. You hit the gold. And just being around the people in the communities was great. Talking to people in Bankhead, Buckhead, Decatur, and showcasing how great the city is. People can be any size, shape, color, religion, and they will find a place to be happy there.

Can you relate to the struggling-artist storyline? You certainly aren’t struggling anymore.
I’d argue that we are always struggling artists who are struggling to figure out how to best do our job and how you will follow up each great job and continue to grow, but I get what you are saying. But to me, that isn’t what the show is really about. To me, it is about what it means to have this talent, and you do it because it is fun, and then someone sees your potential before you see it yourself. And they push you to take it as far as it can go, and they try to help even if you didn’t ask for it. It is something I related to because it is a reflection of my life right now. I am the product of those who believed in me. I wasn’t about studying with Uta Hagen. I just thought being an actor sounded like fun. That’s why they call them plays, right? It’s like recess. If it wasn’t for those people who believed in me and helped me along the way, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I am not going to let those people down, so I work hard. Alfred and I have that in common. He doesn’t want to let his cousin down. I love that moment where he throws him the roll of money in the last episode after he keeps telling Earn that he shouldn’t have to reassure him that he will get him the money. His success lifts up his friends and his cousin, too. That is mirroring a lot of what is happening right now in my life, and their support makes me work harder.

It also mirrors the This Is Us storyline.
Yeah, there is music involved, and a cousin who believes in the other cousin, and it takes place in the South. I’m starting to see a trend. [The role of] Ricky was an important get for me. This Is Us was a labor of love because I got to work with my best friend, Sterling Brown [who plays Randall]. I think that was helped by people seeing the friendship we share in real life, and I got to swagger-jack his set. And it was a beautiful story. To see how [Randall’s] dad got to where he was, and the whole time you think the cousin was responsible, that he sent him down the wrong path, and instead the cousin was the most supportive of his dreams. It was love. He was inspired by him. I liked that I got to be a part of William’s story about his upbringing and ultimately, as it came full circle, his passing. It is a masterful show. I love seeing the stories of these people unwind, and they never totally go where you assume they are going. It’s beautiful writing.

How about the singing? Was that scary?
The singing element of that role threw me a bit. I was really nervous, especially because the content of that song was vital to the story and it captures so much about love and life and grief. I am really glad I ignored the nerves and did it, because it helped me heal as well.

It’s another show that is relatable and not running away from all the feels.
In this time that we live in, it is so easy to feel isolated and like nobody understands where you are coming from. There is a certain kind of desperation that comes when you feel like you are all alone, but when you watch a show like This Is Us or Atlanta, you realize that way more of us are connected than you think. I’m shocked daily by the people who come up to me or reach out on social media to say that Atlanta is their favorite show or that Paper Boi is their favorite character. Some totally don’t look like the demographic I expect, like someone’s Caucasian great-grandmother who lives in Rhode Island. That’s fantastic, and that in and of itself makes me have hope for the future.

Brian Tyree Henry and Ron Cephas Jones in This Is Us. (Photo: NBC)

Now that you have rapped and sung successfully on TV, do you have any desire to pursue music professionally as Donald does?
Not at the moment, but it is still early in my career. Maybe I would start with a little ghost singing. Just hit people with a chorus here and there on other people’s songs, and let them have no idea who is singing.

With Donald committed to the Han Solo movie, it pushed back filming for Season 2 of Atlanta. Are you nervous that there has been such a big break? Might it be hard to reestablish the rhythm?
No, that’s exciting to me, actually. With the year hiatus and all of us going off and getting more experience, we are definitely not going to be the same people that we were last year. For me personally, I know I am not in the same place in my life. Nor do I expect our characters to be. Characters have to change and grow from season to season too; otherwise, they aren’t realistic. I hope Alfred took something away from everything that has been going down in his life, and I also think the s***show that has been going down in America has got to be addressed. I’m positive Darius would at least have something to say about that. Evolution is grand. Evolution is amazing. If evolution was a person, I would take it to dinner.

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