Bryan Tyree Henry tilts his head back and gazes at the camera.

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Following a breakout role on Atlanta, the actor found himself cast in two of this fall’s biggest movies: Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk. As it turns out, he was ready.

One August day, Brian Tyree Henry decides to go to a museum in downtown Atlanta, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and maybe five minutes after we get there he starts to cry. Henry, who turned 36 this spring, can be a bit of a raw nerve—“a geyser of feeling and energy,” as Stefani Robinson, a writer for FX's Atlanta, on which Henry stars, described him to me. “He's a person who understands how he feels,” she said, “and is comfortable with how he feels, and is not shy about articulating how he feels to everyone.”

Henry is six two and broad, with the type of round, solid body you rarely see on television. On Atlanta, he plays Alfred, a drug dealer pursuing a career in rap under the name Paper Boi, whose often silent resignation in the face of the indignities of ambition and fame has been the most transfixing thing on TV for two years now. On-screen, he has an uncommon gift for transparency—Henry routinely conjures up full characters without the benefit of much, if any, written dialogue—and offscreen he is honest in a way that sometimes makes you worried for him, even protective of him: He seems to have few of the defenses that most humans learn to put up and maintain.

He walks into the museum in shorts, Converse, and a floral-print shirt. On the first floor is an exhibit about the civil rights movement, beginning with Jim Crow laws. “I know all about those because I'm from North Carolina,” Henry says. His father, who did three tours in Vietnam, had a fifth-grade education. “He was a black man born in 1940 in the South, so nobody was inspiring him to do anything,” Henry says. “He had me in the '80s, so he looked up and he's like, Oh shit, my son could do anything he wants to. He's still black, though.” Henry laughs. “I think that's why they named me Brian: the whitest name possible. Which people still misspell, which pisses me off. I used to tell people, ‘If you spell my name with a fucking y, you're racist.’ ”

A young woman recognizes Henry and asks to take a picture with him, which he obliges, and then he turns back to an exhibit about Emmett Till. When he was around the same age Till was when he was murdered, Henry says, his mother gave him a copy of Jet with pictures of Till's bruised and bloody body inside: “I was like, ‘Okay, I get the message.’ ” Henry begins to tear up, looking at photos of the dead. A woman named Cookie who works for the museum approaches: Does he need anything? Could she have a photo, too, perhaps? Henry mashes the tears out of his eyes and smiles.

He's currently in Atlanta to shoot a movie with Melissa McCarthy. He's been, basically, marooned on film sets for the past year. “Living with a lot of personalities,” as he puts it. Until relatively recently, Henry appeared only sporadically on TV and in film, playing mostly silent characters at the margins of other people's dramas. But Atlanta, which was created by Henry's co-star on the show, Donald Glover, changed that. “I heard Donald quoted as saying people don't always know what they want until you give it to them,” the actor Sterling K. Brown, one of Henry's best friends, told me. “The show fits that to a T.” One of those things people didn't know they wanted until they got it was Henry himself.

After Atlanta's first season, Henry was in constant demand. In the spring, he acted in Kenneth Lonergan's play Lobby Hero, for which he was nominated for a Tony. Hotel Artemis, a thriller he shot with Brown, was released in June. This fall, Henry has roles in White Boy Rick, with Matthew McConaughey, and in movies directed by two best-picture winners: If Beale Street Could Talk, from Barry Jenkins, and Widows, from Steve McQueen. In the latter, he plays a coolly savage local politician, stealing scenes from both Colin Farrell and Viola Davis.

“Fame is kind of scary. It doesn’t allow you a chance to be damaged, or slip up.”

Most of the films Henry worked on during the past year haven't come out yet. He's in that uncanny, unsettled moment in which actors sometimes find themselves: A new level of ubiquity, the sort of fame that transcends a particular role, is even now rushing toward him, but it hasn't quite arrived yet, and so here he is, bracing himself for impact. He narrates the exhibits as we walk past them. The Greensboro sit-in? The college students who were part of that protest went to North Carolina A&T, where a bunch of Henry's friends from high school also went. In college, Henry would sneak off to A&T's homecoming, which he preferred to Morehouse's, where he felt alienated and weird most of the time. “It was hard for me to blend in at Morehouse,” Henry says. “You have to have two suits, you have to cut your hair a certain length—and I was like, Fuck outta here with that! Like, I thought that college was the place where you find out who you are and what you want to be and you bring your individuality to that. I didn't feel at the time that I could do that there. Now, as I look back, I'm like, Oh, I see what they were doing. They're trying to set you up in this way to handle how society views a black man, not how black men view each other.” A beat. “Also I was 18, and I smoked a lot of weed.”

After college, where he ended up spending most of his time acting in the theater program at Spelman, Morehouse's sister school, Henry's plan was to move to D.C. and work in security, like his three elder sisters. “Watch the monitors, work for ATF. I mean, I've worked for HUD, IRS. All security in D.C. is the same. It's just a black person with a gun working for a contractor,” he says. But then, on the recommendation of a friend, he auditioned for Yale's School of Drama, and got in. At Yale, Henry says, there were only a few other people of color in his class, but one of them was the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who would go on to win an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Moonlight, the film Jenkins adapted from McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. “I did every play he ever wrote, man,” Henry says. “That was my ally.” After school, Henry moved to New York, where he found work in the theater, doing Shakespeare in the Park and originating a role in The Book of Mormon on Broadway.

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We pause in front of a photo of the Little Rock Nine: young kids surrounded by white men and women screaming at them as they try to go to school. “If it makes you feel any better, most of these white people are dead,” Henry says. As he walks onward, every third or fourth person's face lights up. A surreal ritual begins to repeat: Henry pauses, and then cries, in front of various exhibitions, then blinks the tears from his eyes, notices another stranger approaching him, asks their name, and poses alongside them. It's his first time back in Atlanta since shooting season two of Atlanta, he says, and he didn't expect to be recognized like he's being recognized. “I'm still learning how to do this,” he says. Around a corner he finds a display about the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “This one hurts, man,” he says. “I can't do this one.” And then a hand taps him on the shoulder: another young man asking for a photo.

At the end of the exhibit, up some stairs, the museum has placed a gallery of faces on placards: martyrs in the movement for civil rights. You reach out, rotate the face, and on the back you find out who they were and how they died: 11- and 13-year-old kids murdered, their assailants acquitted. “Okay,” Henry says, breathing deeply. “I'm not angry.” He sees a blank placard and turns it around.

“No face, no picture,” Henry says. He's gripping the placard in his hand, hard. Then walks away, wiping his eyes.

When Henry was first cast on Atlanta, it was as a foil to Earn, the wanly ambitious character played by Glover. “I don't think we knew what we were looking for in Alfred,” Hiro Murai, a longtime Glover collaborator and the director of most of Atlanta's episodes, told me. “In the pilot, he's just a counterpoint to Earn's story.” But the creators of Atlanta quickly noticed that Henry, in addition to being classically trained, had an unusual ability to wear his feelings—disgust, vulnerability, joy—on his face. “In the industry, it's usually one or the other,” Stefani Robinson said. “Either it's someone incredibly disciplined and technical in the work, or it's the opposite, where someone is performing purely on emotion and impulse. And the reason Brian is dangerous is because he knows how to utilize both of those sides.”

After the pilot, Murai said, Henry's character quickly became “the emotional core of the show.” Atlanta is a remarkably diffuse, hazy, meandering series: Its storytelling logic is the kind that comes from dreams or drugs or both. Henry's Alfred is the show's one fixed point: Atlanta's watchful, exhausted, constant pulse. “We often talk about in the edit room that the whole show is hinged around Alfred reaction shots,” Murai said. “It's always absurd situations, and you're always looking to Brian to let us know how to feel about it.”

By the time the Atlanta cast re-united to shoot the show's second season, nearly everyone involved found themselves reckoning with new levels of fame, scrutiny, and temptation, and so in many ways the show became about that—Robinson and Murai and Glover making allegorical, often stand-alone episodes about the trials of success. One of those episodes, “Woods,” featured Henry, and had the type of deceptively simple plot that is the hallmark of the show: Alfred goes for a walk. He's recognized by a group of kids who try to rob him at gunpoint. He escapes to the woods, where he becomes lost and encounters a mysterious man who threatens him with a box cutter. Eventually, Alfred emerges, badly shaken but intact. Finally he enters a gas station, and takes a selfie with a fan.

At the beginning of the episode, there's a brief allusion to the fact that it's the anniversary of Alfred's mother's death. This had a particularly specific resonance for Henry, who two and a half years ago lost his mother in a traffic accident. May 12, 2016: four days after Mother's Day and the day after the wrap party for the first season of Atlanta. Robinson, who wrote the script, told me she didn't exactly intend “Woods” to be about Henry's own experience with loss. “But by the same token,” she said, “I knew he could take care of it and make it personal.” Henry read the script only shortly before shooting the episode. He didn't really ask questions: “I was like, ‘I'm not gonna say much.’ ” Murai told me that the episode was, essentially, “a structureless experiment. And part of that was knowing that we were touching on something that was really real.”

“I had all these people telling me how I look. Like: ‘You’re not a leading man. You’re not small enough.’ I have never been more comfortable in the skin I am in now.”

The experiment worked: “Woods,” and the ambient terror and emotional ambiguity it conjured up, was an example of everything Atlanta did well, right down to the last shot, in which Alfred smiles into a stranger's camera, his real self somewhere else, far away. When the episode aired in April, it was hailed as a breakthrough, in large part for Henry's panicked and intensely detailed performance. This summer, Henry was nominated for an Emmy. As part of the campaign that FX mounted for the show, Henry found himself in the uncomfortable situation of explaining, over and over again, his feelings about the episode, which for him remain inextricable from his feelings about the loss of his mother.

“What kills me is everyone's like, ‘How do you feel about this Emmy nomination?’ ” Henry says to me. “My mother's dead. Every time I close my eyes, I see my hand on her casket. Every time I close my eyes, I hear my necklace bang on her casket. That's the last time I saw her. That's the only thing that gets me out of bed, and it's sometimes the thing that keeps me in it. So being busy helps, but y'all don't understand. If she's not here to see it, I don't really get a chance to rejoice in it. You know what I mean? I've buried a person every year for three years. I lost my best friend to cancer; then I lost my other best friend the next year to lupus. And I lost my mom to a fucking car accident. She wasn't even sick. She died in the most awful fucking way. So it's like… I haven't had a chance to even think about that. But I still have to survive. I like to believe that all these blessings are them. But it would be really nice to look to my left and see my mother sitting there when they call my name. You know? And I'm being real fucking real with you. It's hard to do this stuff. It's just like she died yesterday, man. I haven't even looked at a photograph of my mom since she died. I can't look at her. And yet people are still celebrating and lauding this thing that I did about my mom. When, at the end of the day, I can't really rejoice in what I did, because I'm still in pain.”

Here is probably as good a place as any to mention the dick tour. Those words may sound funny to you, but I assure you they're not. Or they are, but only in the way that tragedy—real tragedy, the kind that opens up a chasm that you will spend the rest of your life climbing out of—is funny, because real tragedy has a way of summoning up every other feeling in the world to match its intensity: grief, despair, laughter, love.

“I remember having this talk with my mother, because I didn't even know what love meant,” Henry begins. Henry's parents were separated for most of his life, and he lived with both of them at times. His mother was unlucky in love, and one day Henry asked her why she was with the person she was with. “I wanted to know why she was with this dude, because we saw how he treated my mother. I was like, ‘Look…do you love him?’ ” Here Henry laughs, a bit sadly. “And she would always be like, ‘What's love got to do with it?’ And I was like, ‘Slow down. You are not Tina Turner. You have to love this person, right? Because if you don't love this person, why are you wasting your time?’ So I was like, ‘Well, I'm the only man you made. Crafted me in your image, basically. And I can never leave you. No matter where I go, there you are. So if you don't love this man, leave him, for real. If he doesn't kiss the back of your neck when you're scrambling eggs, leave him. If you're out here raking his fucking acres of yard and he doesn't take the rake out of your hands, fucking leave him. 'Cause he'll never be better than me.’

“So the biggest thing was that when Atlanta wrapped, I was gonna take my mom on what I was calling the dick tour. Because I was going to go get my mom laid. I was like, ‘Mom, you ain't never been with a white dude? Wait, Ma, you ain't never been with a doctor? Wait, what if this white dude has, like, a helicopter?’ I know it sounds skeezy, but she had been on this planet for 68 years and had never experienced a man wanting her or seeing her the way she deserved. And God damn it, I've seen her tie cherry stems with her tongue. That's how fucking dope my mom was. I wanted to be the man that showed her that she could obtain anything. Anything. Because what's that life? Oh, you married this person, so you gotta spend every day unhappy next to this motherfucker? Like, no. And right as I had the car rented, she was gone.”

On the cast of Atlanta: “I would kill for those people. I love them. It’s very rare. I wonder if the Friends cast felt this shit. I wonder if the Seinfeld cast felt this shit.”

He grieved. He'd be the first to tell you how much he grieved. He's still grieving. But Henry tells this particular story for a different reason. What was the answer to the question he was asking himself, about what love was? His life was changing, would change even more soon, and he was trying to come to terms with the gravity of it all.

And what he decided was: Love was figuring out what you deserved and not waiting 68 years to go get it. Love was seeing your mother for the person she was and the person she could be. And love was, in the end, letting go of the idea that someone else would do for you what you would not do for yourself.

After his mother passed, Henry says, “I just started living in a place of, like, look, man: This world is full of millions of people. It's not about you finding them. Or y'all finding each other. It's about you finding yourself.”

“I want so many oysters, it's ridiculous,” Henry says. It's Saturday night in Atlanta, and he likes this restaurant, near downtown. The waitress comes, and he orders 30 oysters for the two of us. Cocktails, too. It's been a long day: He woke up early, to talk to still more Emmy voters, and then he had a photo shoot, and now he's here, feeling dead tired, at least until the drinks arrive. “There we go. See, look at that! Completely different already,” he says, holding up his drink, tipping the first sip back. He peers at me over the table. “You look different.”

Different?

“What'd you do?”

In what way?

“Like, your hair is, like…kempt.”

Henry is so friendly and attentive to others that people tend to misread him—they see him as someone to be taken advantage of or who is merely happy to have found the success he's recently found. This is not exactly the case. In the past year, as Henry shared sets with actors he'd grown up watching, “I would encounter other artists that were trying to check me,” he says—a form of hazing, or old-fashioned condescension, or both. Henry does not enjoy being condescended to. “I remember looking in the mirror and I was like, Yo, wait a minute, though. I'm six two. I'm built like a fucking linebacker. Who the fuck are you talking to?

The waitress returns with some bread, and he smiles at her and she smiles back.

“What's your favorite Marvel character?” Henry asks me suddenly. “Top of your head. Let's go. Shout it.”

Iron Man?

“Iron Man,” Henry repeats. “He's wack. Okay, so my favorite is the Hulk. Let me explain. First of all, Bruce Banner is an amazing scientist. He's brilliant, he's smart, he's revolutionary. People think that in order to make the Hulk come out, you have to make him angry. What you don't realize is that Bruce Banner is always angry. That's the thing. He's always fucking angry. So actually, when you see him in the human form, he's using the nth degree to tolerate your ass. Like, that is him sitting there actually using everything he can to not Hulk out. And of course he's always fucking angry! Look at what we deal with in the world. Look at all these people who are treating him like he's shit when he is a brilliant scientist.”

Henry looks at me across the table, to make sure I'm following. “And I feel like that's me. You know, I get it, Bruce. Because there's so many parts of my life that I have to continuously prove to people that I belong where I'm at.”

Henry is often confronted with the suggestion that he has lucked into his current position in Hollywood. “I get irritated, 'cause people are like, ‘Oh, you're having a moment.’ I'm like, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’ ” After graduate school, when Henry moved to New York to do theater, “I was pretty much homeless,” he says. For a while, he couch surfed and survived on food stamps. “But I'm glad I experienced that to be where I am now,” Henry says. “I'm so glad that this shit didn't start happening for me until now, with the TV and film aspect. I'm so glad it wasn't back when I was real tiny and I was, like, a 33 waist and I was in the gym every day, and the agents I had at the time were like, ‘You're still too fat.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ And you believe that stuff, though. I was berated all the time, like: ‘You're too big.’ I was so tiny, man. I have never been more comfortable in the skin I am in now. Because all my life, I was so body dysmorphic. I had all these people telling me how I look. Like: ‘You're not a leading man. You're not small enough.’ ”

But then Henry got The Book of Mormon. “I remember being on Book of Mormon and just sitting there and being like, The fuck? I'm making money. I'm eating whatever the fuck I want. Like, What's that? Pommes frites? Yeah, man. Give me that. I don't know what that cheese is. Give me that cheese. I love myself, man. I love myself. I didn't give a fuck.” He fired his agents, got new ones. “It was so nice to be at some point in my life where I could love every inch of my fucking body, man. And as soon as I did that, I got Atlanta. I got everything. I got everything as soon as I stopped giving a fuck.”

The food arrives. “Oh wow,” he says. For a moment we silently contemplate the splendor of 30 oysters.

Henry says Atlanta and the people who make it—Glover, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz—have become like a new family to him. “I would fucking kill for those people. I love them. Yesterday was Keith's birthday, and all I did was send a big-ass fucking all-cap text: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I love them, man. It's very rare. I wonder if the Friends cast felt this shit. I wonder if the Seinfeld cast felt this shit. I wonder if the Living Single cast felt this shit. These three human beings exceed any expectation that I could ever expect of what love is.”

He is forthright about not entirely being there yet as a person, as a man, as a son without a mother. His life right now is circumscribed, solitary, he says. “How can I date anybody when I'm still grieving, man? I'm a mess. I'm a walking mess. I'm not bringing nobody else into that until I know who the fuck I am wholly.” Like Alfred, who wakes up the day of “Woods” badly missing his mother and ends it capitulating, if only for a moment, to fame and its obligations, Henry is contemplating the cost of such a capitulation in his own life. “Acting was always a place I could escape to,” he says. “It was always a place I could hide. It was a place of safety. So now that my safety zone is actually giving me notoriety, it's kind of scary. Because it doesn't allow you a chance to be damaged, or slip up.”

But the work also remains the only thing he can count on, Henry says, waving at the waitress for one more drink. “That's it. Acting is my only power to use to get back at those naysayers and those people who feel like I don't belong here. Who feel like I'm not good-looking or feel like I'm not smart enough or feel like I'm not talented. So therefore, I wait until they say ‘Action’ and I go. That's all I got.”

Zach Baron is GQ's staff writer.

This story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue with the title "Paper Boi Is A Movie Star."


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Brian Tyree Henry on 'Atlanta,' Figuring Out Fame, and \Dick Tours\ [profile]