Brian Tyree Henry On His Friendship With Sterling K. Brown, ‘Atlanta’, And Reviving Freaknik
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Brian Tyree Henry is on the path to becoming a household name.

With projects on Broadway and the big screen, the Atlanta actor is having the kind of year that’s sure to earn him more attention and praise. A new trailer for Hotel Artemis, a heist film he co-stars in with best friend Sterling K. Brown, dropped on Monday and Henry currently stars in Broadway’s Lobby Hero, which has received tons of praise. He’s also set to appear in the Barry Jenkins adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk

ESSENCE caught up with the actor to talk about current and upcoming projects, working with Brown and possibly reviving Freaknik.

You have so many exciting things happening right now. 
Yeah, a lot. It’s been a very busy year for me. Great year all around. No complaints at all.

You’re working with your best friend, Sterling K. Brown, in Hotel Artemis, a heist movie. This is what we’ve all been waiting for.
I mean, right? Come on, now! When I got that script, I was like, ‘Give it to me now. Like right now!’ So I think you’ll be very happy and surprised at how this movie turns out.

What’s it like working with your best friend? 
We’re just jackasses. We like to be goofballs. There was nothing more fun than watching him run around with a donut, saying half his lines like Bruce Willis, and looking for the camera. It was unlike anything in the world. It was absolutely amazing, and, you know, I would do it over and over and over again if I could.

Did you both do your own stunts?
Yeah, we did. For the most part. There was actually one stunt in the movie that I laugh about. Not giving anything away, we’re having a gunfight back and forth between these soldiers and he and I get hit and [Sterling] has to drag my body for the entire length of an alley. I was like, ‘Perfect! Carry me now! You gotta carry me. I got shot.’ I’ve got about 150 pounds on him, so I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s use these muscles now, son. Carry me to the end of the alley. Take my support, my body weight on you, brother. Support!’ It was great.

Do you think in real life you guys would be able to pull off a heist?
Oh yeah. I mean, with my tech-savvy, my communications savvy, and his charm, we could totally do it.

Okay, then who would be the brains of the operation?
I’m the brains. He will definitely tell you that he’s the brains. But I know that I’m the brains of the operation. 

If I ever speak to Sterling, I’m asking him about this.
I already know. That’s why I was like, I’ll take the tech-savvy one because he has no idea how to use technology whatsoever. Let me deal with the logistics of where all the passwords and stuff are, man, and [Sterling can] go in there and just flex a little bit. I’ll be out here to make sure the getaway car is good to go.

You pick good projects. How do you know when a project’s right for you?
I have to say that my team, Creative Artists Agency, and my manager… they kind of know my flavor. They know the best use of my time. They know that if I get a project, I want to give a 110 percent; I want to be challenged. At the same time, I want to tell stories that are relevant and pertinent to me. They don’t like to waste my time with things that they feel I can’t give my all to. I’m fortunate to have people who understand my tone and the things I want to do. When I get these projects, I can usually tell within five pages or so if this is something I really want to give my time to. 

Of the characters you’ve played, which would you say is similar to you?
[Atlanta’s] Alfred. I know Alfred. I wouldn’t necessarily hang out with Alfred all the time because then I wouldn’t get shit done, but I like him. He’s very near and dear to my heart. I went to college in Atlanta and I still have friends [there] that are in my life right now. When we had our premiere in Atlanta, I brought them all to the premiere. [That city] is where I discovered I wanted to do this job and where the same people showed me what real friendships are. 

I do want to touch on Alfred because this season of Atlanta has really shown everyone’s progression so well. For Alfred, I feel like his progression, especially with fame, is kind of a struggle. He’s trying to be authentic; he’s trying to be everything to his fans and those around him. It’s not really the career he envisioned for himself or at least the way he thought it would turn out.
Wait until you see an episode called “Woods”—it’s all about Alfred. You’re going to see a completely different side of him because I think that the one thing we miss with Alfred is what he lost to get to where he is. Before any of this stuff happened there was a life that he had. There’s not a lot about Alfred’s personal life that you know. You know he lost his mom, but you don’t know anything really about the structure of who Alfred is. It makes it easier for us not to feel like he can’t lose anything. This was one of the hardest episodes I filmed this season. It forced me to confront a lot of my own things. It’s a doozy.



Whenever the series comes to a close, where would you like Alfred’s story to end?

Wherever it ends, I just hope that he has Earn (Donald Glover) beside him. I want it to be a thing where Earn doesn’t need something from me all the time. I want his needs to change and for us both to make it together. I always feel sorry for those people who don’t have anyone in their life that they can just tell the truth to all the time…I just hope that Alfred has that one person who knows every single thing about him and will do anything to protect that. To protect his well-being. And, I do believe it’s Earn. I’m hoping that wherever this goes that Earn is right next to him because that to me is the truest definition of family and brotherhood.

I quickly want to talk about If Beale Street Could Talk. Have you finished shooting that?
We filmed that. It was so great because this was another project where I got to be home. It was literally shot four blocks from my house. It was perfect. And Barry Jenkins, man… First of all, I’m a James Baldwin enthusiast. I got to play James Baldwin a few years ago with Anna Deavere Smith. I literally got to transcribe his words, sound like him, move like him. I keep a copy of The Fire Next Time in my backpack. And, it was so nice, so great, filming in Harlem. It was cool. I think it’s been time for some of James Baldwin’s best to be put on screen. Barry Jenkins is an absolute genius. And everyone I worked with on this was absolutely amazing so I am excited to see how everything turns out.

You’ve worked in film, television and theater. Which has been the easiest as a Black man to navigate and which is still a bit more challenging?
There’s never really an ease, but there’s a way you can change how you think about it and the way you let it affect you. It’s so easy to think, No one will ever see me being able to play that part. No one will give me the chance to do that.” I had to stop thinking that way. I was like, You know what? Maybe what I offer ain’t for you, but I know that somebody out there is going to create this thing, or I will create this thing, that can completely change your mind. I’m glad, this past year, to have people be so unafraid to give me a shot to show these characters to them in a completely different way. I hate [the word expectations]. I cannot stand it when people say, “I expect you to…” I’m like, “You should expect no expectations, actually.” That kind of limits you. People already have their own kind of design and their own kind of idea when they put expectations on you. I like to be the one that comes in to counter expectations. I just want to continue to do projects where there are no [set] expectations. Let me shock you or surprise you and show you that there may be a flavor over here that you didn’t know about.

How do you see your career trajectory? What do you want your legacy to be?
It’s still being written. Though, I do want people to know that there was somebody out there that literally just had his own flavor…I’ve said flavor like nine times, I was watching Living Single all day, so please forgive me. I just want to continue to do things that I can cultivate for the people. I want to see and do things that I want to do. I want to reinvent and reinvigorate. Hopefully, that’s what’s going on. I hope that’s what I’m doing.

Is there anything you’re hoping to accomplish this year?
I’d like to take three weeks off and just sleep in at some resort somewhere… To know that I don’t have to set an alarm one day is great. Also, one thing on my bucket list is to bring back Freaknik. That’s something I really think should happen. I really hate that I missed that experience.

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