Brian Tyree Henry’s armpits are still a little damp as he breezes into a Burbank diner on an overcast L.A. afternoon. “Sorry I’m sweaty,” he says. “I was feeling a little anxiety earlier, so I decided to hit the gym and run it out.”
What did he feel anxious about? “Everything!” Henry says. “You go so long with everybody turning away from you, and all of a sudden they’re turning toward you — it’s kind of fucking terrifying.”
After a decade of hustling in regional theater workshops a world away from Hollywood, Henry, 37, is suddenly extremely in-demand. Most famously he stars in FX’s Atlanta, as the aspiring rapper and erstwhile dope dealer Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles. He was in six movies last year alone — including Steve McQueen’s Widows (as a sinister crime boss turned politician), Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (as a sweet, haunted ex-con who’s the film’s moral center) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (as Spider-Man’s dad) — and this year he’ll be in four more, including a Child’s Play remake out today and a Melissa McCarthy action-comedy this fall. In the middle of all that, he also found time to guest-star on NBC’s This Is Us and co-star in the Broadway play Lobby Hero opposite Chris Evans — for which he was nominated for an Emmy and a Tony, respectively.
“I feel like people are rooting for me right now,” Henry says. “Which is a great feeling, because it never felt like people were rooting for me before.”
But if you’re tempted to think that Henry is enjoying “a moment” — do try to resist. “People are always like, ‘He’s having a moment, moment, moment…’ Shove that ‘moment’ up your ass,” he says. “I’m really fucking tired of hearing that I’m having a moment. I’ve been doing this a long time. Are y’all saying Meryl Streep is having a moment? Suck my dick. It really frustrates me, because it implies there’s an ending — like you’re betting on me being gone like that.” He snaps his fingers. “I don’t want that. I want to be here for the long haul.”
To be fair, it’s been a pretty long haul already. Henry started acting in elementary school in Fayetteville, NC, the youngest of five kids of a middle-school-teacher mom and a Vietnam-vet dad with a fifth-grade education. “I thought we were middle class,” he recalls, “until my father was like, ‘No, no, no — go two classes below that.’” Acting was Henry’s escape: his way to transcend their poverty and explore different worlds.
He studied theater at Morehouse, the historically black college in Atlanta. But he didn’t get truly serious until grad school at the Yale School of Drama. (Henry has mixed feelings about Yale. On one hand, he met lifelong friends and collaborators like Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright behind Moonlight. But as a six-foot-two black man, “I could be smoking outside with a Yale hoodie on and people would still be terrified,” he says. “And I’m not even an undergrad! I’m here to get a master’s, motherfucker!”)
After Yale came auditions in New York — and with them couch-surfing, unemployment and food stamps. Eventually he found some success on Broadway, in The Book of Mormon, and Shakespeare in the Park, as Tybalt to Oscar Isaac’s Romeo. But he wasn’t crossing over the way he wanted. “Television and film just didn’t seem to want to fuck with me,” Henry says. “I wasn’t handsome enough, or I wasn’t fit enough — I don’t know.” He came close to giving up: After his run on Mormon ended in 2014, “I was done,” he says. “I felt overlooked. Like no one was seeing me. Like nothing was gonna come. I remember standing in my kitchen thinking, ‘You’ve got two options: Either throw in the towel and get some little job — or really go for it.” One week later, he got the call for Atlanta.
Henry excels at playing scowling tough guys whose swagger often belies a soulfulness and vulnerability. Much like the man himself. “The thing I love about the characters I get to play is that they’re not impervious to pain,” Henry says. “They cry, they get angry — which is what I do, too.” He thinks it’s important to show characters struggling with their mental health — “especially in our community, especially as black men.” And as someone who’s long battled anxiety and self-esteem issues, he also finds acting central to his own mental health. “If I didn’t have acting I don’t know what I’d do,” he says. “It really does heal my soul. Which is not to say it’s in any way a substitute for therapy,” he adds.
Presumably he does that, too? “God, yes,” he says. “And weed. The holy trinity.”
The next step in Henry’s career is bonafide blockbusters — like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker movie, out this fall, or next year’s Godzilla Vs. Kong, which he just finished filming. “I was in Australia for a month and a half running from a fake lizard,” he says in disbelief. It’s not a place he imagined himself a few years ago. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “But I do want to show you that there’s different rims you can put on that bitch.”
In the meantime, Henry hasn’t stopped hustling. “I like being a slow burn, because at the end of the day that becomes a fire that will feed you,” he says. “But I still have to fight every single day for the parts I get.” And now that he has a foothold, he’s excited to really show what he can do — not as a supporting player, but as a leading man.
“A lot of times it’s like, ‘Let’s give Brian this tertiary part, give him the best friend — but let’s not give him a kiss,’” he says. “I don’t want that shit anymore. I don’t want to be your pinch hitter, where I come in and bunt every time because it’ll get you a run. Let me swing.”