This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Brian Tyree Henry speaks and sounds just like Alfred Miles, his character from FX’s much-loved series, Atlanta. From the Atlantan accent to the slight vocal mannerisms, it’s a little bit weird to separate the two. “That’s why I love Alfred. He allows me a place to really get a lot of things off my own chest,” he tells me in our conversation, sometimes referring to his character with a “me” instead of a “him.”
On a fictional hand, his character Alfred Miles is transitioning from the regular joe to the famous hip-hop personality, “Paper Boi” Miles. And on a more true-to-life end, Brian Tyree Henry is shifting from a former probationary student, to a full-blown celeb with acting credits with Donald Glover, Jodie Foster, and the Jeff “uh” Goldblum himself. Brian is embracing the privilege of what’s coming his way, but he also had some time to talk to me and reflect on the fast movement of his career. According to him, it’s important once in a while to stop, and smell some of those damn roses.
VICE: You’re going from academic probation, to doing work with Donald Glover, Jodie Foster, and Chris Evans... you were recently on Jimmy Fallon. That trajectory is surreal.
Brian Tyree Henry: [Laughs] That’s really the best word to use! It's the only word that I think makes sense because for real, it feels like you’re out in space floating with nothing really to grab onto. You’re just floating and all these things are happening around you. Yeah, you know you’re alive and you know you’re moving, but it’s just crazy to think about. I had to sit down the other day because I’m on TV, stage, and film at the same damn time. But even with that, there’s still these kind of things that happen to me in my life that put me in the mode to check in and be like, wow, I neglected that part of myself. I forgot to focus on a portion. So when I hear you say these things, I’m like, yeah that’s right, that’s exactly what happened. At the same time, It’s like man, I got a show at 7 PM [laughs], so alright, let me go tell this story and do it again the next day.
What parts of yourself are you neglecting though?
It’s really just the personal time—that personal space. Even just having the time to congratulate yourself for that is rare. I haven’t really had a moment to just sit down and reflect on what’s happened. When I hear accolades being shot back at me, it’s like damn, really?! Alright then [laughs]. It’s a lot, but it’s all stuff I’ve wanted to do. It’s the people I’ve wanted to work with, and these characters I’ve gotten to play are all people that I’ve really connected to. I’m putting a lot of myself into this, but sometimes you kind of get away from yourself. There are certain projects and characters that I completely forgot about, and I never want that habit to come off in some arrogant way. I just need to find those moments to sit down and say, yeah, that happened.
You’ve obviously invested a lot into this acting thing. But hearing you in interviews, I hear some Alfred Miles in there. Like, if the acting thing didn’t work out, you’d be able to say, "fuck it." When did this all really become serious for you?
Here’s the thing, I knew I was going to act, but I just never put too much stock on what that was going to look like. Was my name going to be in the lights? Did it mean being in a movie? I just knew that this thing was a place that I felt safe in. I never wanted to give it any kind of weight to determine what my worth was in this world at all, and it wasn’t what I wanted to only be known as.
Sometimes, you see these people and they’re like, I’m an actor, producer, and an activist. I’m like, how the hell are you an activist? All you do is go to the women’s march, what the fuck are you talking about!? How the hell is that even in your title?! [laughs] But we all want to believe what it is we want to believe about ourselves. For me, when you’re one thing, you’re that one thing to all people, and that comes with an expectation. When it isn’t met, you end up feeling like you haven’t done what you’re supposed to do. I’m not putting that expectation out there.
That really reminds me of Alfred’s attitude to things to be honest.
And that’s why I love Alfred. He allows me a place to really get a lot of things off my own chest. This season, it’s like he has to literally flip now because he took the time to do the rap thing and take it seriously like that, and how he’s being shown as someone who's good at what he does. He owes it to himself to really go as far as he possibly can, and with that comes a sacrifice. At the end of the day, it’s going to cost him something. In a lot of ways, Atlanta, being his home where he knows its nooks and crannies, feels like a different city. It’s like he went to sleep and woke up to it being shifted three feet over. He’s Paper Boi now, and he doesn’t know what it’s like to be him.
You live 25-something years with nobody calling you that, and all of a sudden, it’s the only damn way people know you. It’s hard. It’s hard for him, and it’s also hard for me because it’s happening in my world the same way. It’s like wow, I have to move completely different through this life. And like everyone else, most of us feel like we have to have this wall up to make sure we don’t let people in. We've got to make sure that our people know that we’re doing okay. A lot of that humanity comes through with my character, and Atlanta’s characters in general.
Yeah, it’s really weird how paralleled Alfred is to you. I’m sure it wasn’t planned that way. He’s a regular guy going through a similar breakout moment with the musical success, along with you and acting, but he isn’t crazy jubilant about it.
Yeah, it’s really a double-edged sword honestly. Would you rather go through life anonymously, or would you rather go through life with people knowing who you are? On one hand, you’re able to live your life peacefully, and on another, people know you, and it’s like, you can never go back to that anonymity again. It’s a weird kind of balance. When I think back on Alfred for comparison, it’s about restraint for him because this guy had a reputation in the streets, like don’t fuck with him. He’s the guy with the gun in the glove box. But now because of his, or my success, it’s not just about me anymore. My success is Earn’s success, which becomes his daughter’s success, and his family’s success. What I do is important for everyone else. I constantly think about that. If I don’t do this, then my cousin doesn’t eat. If I don’t do this like in the case of Alfred, Darius won’t have a roof to sleep under. You have to change yourself with that in mind. I’ve had arguments with people who say that people don’t change, but you have to. It’s not just about you. It’s not just about me. It’s about someone else at that point.
I’m curious, how much did you shape Alfred Miles versus how the script shaped his personality?
I mean, what’s on the page is on the page. What the relationships are, are the relationships. But I’ll be damned if Alfred wasn’t going to be shown to have a heart. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t going to be shown to be affected by people. And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t going to affect people at the same time either. As black men, we get so many labels put on us, without asking for our permission, like ever. So it’s easy to see a guy like you, me, or Alfred coming down the street in a gold chain, wearing Jordans and shit, and then driving around in a grand marquis, and you’re thinking... oh, that’s a trap boy right there. But no one would ever bother to ask him if somebody told him that they loved him today. It’s that kind of thing. He had to have a heart.
And the beauty is in the fact that you can read it all on his face. He’s always been the quiet observer.
Most definitely. I always wanted him to come off that way. To discover things like everyone else without saying so. You're damn right Alfred knew that Earn was living out of a damn storage unit. What Earn should have done was ask if he could live with him instead of just expecting to. He sees everything, and in a sense for anyone, that’s a gift and a curse. To see it all before it happens, to watch people make their choices anyway without any kind of recognition for what he himself may be going through at the time. I really wanted people to see that he’s constantly growing. He gives a shit, and the cracks will show in some form or another because he isn't impervious to pain. But also, he could be the life of the party. He’s pretty much the parrot of the show.
If I’m going to be honest, I just want Alfred to envision retirement. [laughs] My man doesn’t have to sell weed anymore, and he doesn’t have to pass out Molly at parties. But at this point, I’m pretty sure his retirement plan is either jail or death. At the end of the day, I just want this guy to feel like a human being. He’s that guy we all know. We talk to this dude every day and we burn one down with this dude every day. But he’s also that guy that’s so used to watching people come and leave—here one moment, gone the next. What would happen if that everyday guy we know wasn’t around?
How much can you tell me about his upcoming "Woods" episode then, since it’s pretty much all about Alfred.
It’s going to cover everything we just talked about and I’m dead serious about that. He goes through a lot of it here. It’s like, you can run as far as you want to, and sometimes it's hard to see the forest through the trees. That’s the best analogy I can think of when it comes to this episode. You can easily get lost on the way to being in place.
Atlanta aside, you also got this new film coming called Hotel Artemis with your best friend Sterling K. Brown along with Jodie Foster and Jeff Goldblum.
Yean man, it’s one of those action thrillers; I guess that’s what they call them now. Of course, there’s this war going on, and whenever a war happens, criminals like to get their asses out there in these streets. So things go wrong between these two brothers that are trying to get at their last heist, and so all these criminals head over to this hotel in Los Angeles that’s literally only for criminals. What I love about this upcoming project is that I get to care about the criminals for a change, and root for them. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before—wearing suits with gun holsters and all that shit.
It was all like a masterclass. Here’s Jodie Foster who I can’t even remember was last in front of the camera, stepping up behind the camera and in front. It was a sight I couldn’t even express. I really had to take a moment and be like, I’m in the same room with her—here we are, I see you over there, Jodie! [laughs] Even being in the same room with my brother Sterling K. Brown, and getting the chance to trip out with him.
Tell me more about this friendship you got going with Sterling. You speak so damn highly of him.
Listen man, I lived in a house with four older sisters. That’s basically four different moms. My father was there was well, but I always longed for that sense of brotherhood because it would of been unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. That fraternal thing, where you’ll protect this person no matter what, and you can be evil with this person and competitive because you guys just have a connection. I’d been longing for that. When I met Sterling, it was instantaneous. He was my brother. His wins became my wins, and I've learned from him as much as he's learned from me. It’s always going to be that kind of thing. In this industry, It’s so hard to find people like that because you don’t know who wants something from you, and people become competitive and catty. With my man Sterling, it was just an understanding that, I got you. That’s my boy, and I’ll do anything for him.
I’m telling you man, when we finally got to play real brothers in Hotel Artemis, it was something crossed off my bucket list. I told him, let’s show everyone how it’s done! [laughs] Let’s show how this can be done right for a change and shift the entire scope of what brotherhood can look like out here. In the end, my gains are for him, his gains are for me, and we’ll both just continue gaining.
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