We Stay Rooting for Brian Tyree Henry Whether He’s Rhyming, Reminiscing or Robbing
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He grabbed our attention as Paper Boi, the on-the-verge-of-underground-success rapper down in Atlanta. Then we got all caught up in his past life on This Is Us and later, realized how deadly-serious he was about his money in Widows. This weekend, Brian Tyree Henry tugs on our heartstrings in If Beale Street Could Talk and lends his voice to the animated feature, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (both are already Golden Globe contenders!) – and proves that he’s a chameleon, first.
No matter the role or medium, the 36-year-old Emmy and Tony Award nominee just feels so familiar – like that dude you know from the block, from the cookout, from school. Infusing his characters with such a sense of ease is what makes him stand out, even when he’s in the background. That skill comes quite naturally to the Fayetteville, North Carolina native, and with back-to-back, genre-defying projects lined up next year – including the horror flick, Child’s Play, the drama, The Women in the Window, and Superintelligence, which is pure comedy – Henry is also the gift that keeps on giving. We spoke to Henry about his career, his current film projects and what he has on the horizon. ESSENCE: So how did acting find you…or was it vice-versa? Brian Tyree Henry: Well, I grew up in a house full of adults, with lots of personality going all-around. When I went to school and told people what was going on at home, nobody believed me, so I’d say, ‘Let me act it out!’ I was always mimicking my mom and dad and my four older sisters. At Morehouse, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Then I discovered a theater program at Spelman and man, I just couldn’t stop. My first class was at 9 a.m., which meant I had to get up at 8 a.m., every day, but it was totally worth it! I was constantly doing plays and when someone said I should apply to a graduate program focused on acting, I laughed. I thought you had to look a certain way or come from a certain background to be an actor, but I applied and attended Yale School of Drama. The rest is history.

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History…in the making! Three of your films premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall and you’ve got even more projects the horizon. How are you staying balanced? It’s been amazing to work on projects that I really care about, with actors and directors that I revere. It’s like being in a masterclass, where I’m just absorbing all of the information and talent that’s around me, while also bringing my own to it. But I’m in awe, you know? It doesn’t seem real that I’ve worked with Amy Adams [in The Woman in the Window] or that I filmed If Beale Street Could Talk with Barry Jenkins, in Harlem, six blocks from my house. I feel like I’m coasting, but I’m also starting to understand the importance of taking care of myself – and sleep!

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Speaking of Beale Street, there’s no denying that moviegoers will feel for you as Daniel. In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, you lend your voice to Jefferson, who is such a doting dad. But as Jamal, in Widows, you were absolutely horrifying! [Laughs] That’s the best compliment, ever! Those are the feelings I want to invoke. I try to bring a well of empathy and compassion to my characters because I don’t want them to just live on the screen or have people leave them in the theater, like popcorn. I want you to take them with you. So how do you envision the near future? When I was in junior high, I’d always say, ‘I’m going to flip the script,’ but I had no idea what that meant. Now I do! Just when people think they’ve got me pegged, I’m literally going to flip it. I hope to constantly do work that changes people’s minds, every day.