Actor Brian Tyree Henry On Fame, Authenticity And 'Atlanta'

Aug 31, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 2:19 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're continuing our week-long salute to some of this year's Emmy Award nominees by featuring Brian Tyree Henry, who is up for Emmys in both drama and comedy. The drama one is for a guest actor appearance on the NBC drama series "This Is Us."

And the comedy nomination is for a supporting actor role on the FX series "Atlanta." He plays Alfred Miles, who's rap name is Paper Boi. When the series began, Alfred was selling drugs for a living because rap wasn't paying off. His cousin Earn is played by Donald Glover, the creator of "Atlanta." Earn dropped out of Princeton and was broke, so he became Alfred's manager, hoping it would pay off for both of them. In season two, Paper Boi became more successful. And he's often challenged by people jealous of his new fame.

Terry Gross spoke with Brian Tyree Henry last April.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Brian Tyree Henry, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to play a scene from season one.

BRIAN TYREE HENRY: OK.

GROSS: And this is a scene with a guy named Zan, who's a kind of, like, parasitic...

HENRY: Oh, Jesus. This guy.

GROSS: ...Wannabe social media star who's...

HENRY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Who makes, like, mocking videos and memes of people who are better-known than he is and then takes these, like, ambush selfies with them. And after Paper Boi becomes Zan's target, and Zan does an online review of Paper Boi's recording, questioning, like, well, how authentic is he really? And does he really deal drugs? So Alfred becomes really fed up with all of us. And he tracks down Zan, finds that he's actually delivering pizzas for a living. And he gets into Zan's car, and they have this conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

HENRY: (As Alfred) Admit it. You ain't no critic or a photographer. You - you're like a salesman or something.

FREDDIE KUGURU: (As Zan) What's the difference? I mean, it's all the game. We're all just hustling - you, too.

HENRY: (As Alfred) 'Cause I have to. I scare people at ATMs, boy. I have to rap. I mean, that's what rap is, making the best out of a bad situation, bruh.

KUGURU: (As Zan) Right. You're exploiting your situation.

HENRY: (As Alfred) What?

KUGURU: (As Zan) You're exploiting your situation to make rap. And I'm exploiting you exploiting that. Money, bruh.

HENRY: (As Alfred) Whatever, man.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: And there it is, I mean, in a nutshell.

GROSS: Yeah.

HENRY: There we go.

GROSS: Have you ever felt in the situation that Alfred's in - that you felt that you scared somebody at an ATM machine?

HENRY: Oh, my God, all the time. Look, I went to Yale for drama school and drama. And, you know, like, it's in New Haven. And there's something about these Ivy League schools that you have an Ivy League school, and immediately around the Ivy League school is the ghetto - like, immediately. And so there was a time in New Haven where, like, there was a lot of robberies or whatever. And so they would make these - draw these pictures of, like, the suspects, you know? And he would always be a black man with a goatee and a hoodie.

I, at the time, was a black man with a goatee and a hoodie. And I would stand outside of my building to smoke a cigarette every now and again. And I could not deny the fact that every time - even though these girls see me coming in and out of these buildings every day - they would really, like, go the other way or clutch their purses. And instead, I had to constantly tell them - I'm like, just so you know, I'm a student here. Just so you know, I'm in grad school here.

So it's like, yeah, absolutely that feeling is there. Like, Alfred is not stupid in any way. He knows what he looks like. He can't help that. He knows what people are going to put on him before he even says a word. You know what I mean? And so at some point when you keep putting these things on people, it's going to wear them down.

GROSS: So the song that puts - the rap that puts Paper Boi on the map is called "Paper Boi." And we hear it in the series, but it's actually not you doing it. It's done and it was written by Stephen Glover, who's one of the show's main writers. And Stephen is the brother of Donald Glover, "Atlanta's" creator and star. So how come you're not doing it?

HENRY: Because I didn't have to. You know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

HENRY: Like, when people would ask me if I could rap - you know, the character calls to be a rapper. You know what I mean? Like, it says that he raps. And as an actor, I would like to believe that, yeah, man - if rapping is what it is, I should be able to do that. I'm an actor. Like, I don't want to say I can't do that. But I was like - you know, I look at Nashville, you know, and I'm like nobody asked Hayden Panettiere if she knows how to sing country. I know they didn't, but she's playing a country singer. So it was like - it was very interesting to have to, like, kind of, like, answer for that.

But what I did do is I lip - I could lip dub it. You know what I mean? I knew what the essence of what the song was going to be. And, you know, I had Stephen right there helping me out. So it's like - I didn't rap it because I didn't have to. I was like, great, there's somebody else who caught - captured the essence of that. And I can go in and, you know, get - put the body to it.

GROSS: So even though it's not you, let's just play some of "Paper Boi" so our audience can hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER BOI")

STEPHEN GLOVER: (As Paper Boi, rapping) Paper Boi, Paper Boi - always about that paper, boy. If you ain't on your grind and you flexing, youse a hater, boy. Paper Boi, Paper Boi - always getting paper, boy. If you ain't making money, then you ain't a moneymaker, boy.

GROSS: So that's "Paper Boi." That's actually done by Stephen Glover on the series "Atlanta." So we were talking about how the rap recording of "Paper Boi" that's used in the series - that you don't actually do it - that Stephen Glover, one of the writers for the show, does it. But you actually have a terrific singing voice, as you demonstrated in an episode of "This Is Us" for which you were nominated for an Emmy Award. So, like, let's hear you sing, and then we'll talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

HENRY: (As Ricky, singing) Standing at the station, we don't know what to say - looking out the window as you're rolling away. If I'm going to be alone, let it be with you.

(As Ricky) You officially ended our days as a cover band, boy.

JERMEL NAKIA: (As Young William) On the five.

HENRY: (As Ricky, singing) Mother, don't you cry. We're going to be all right. Open up your suitcase when you get there tonight. You're not alone. I'm always - always be here with you. So don't give up on me. I'll never give up on you. Everything's going to be all right. I know you believe it, too. If I'm going to be alone, let it be...

GROSS: So that was Brian Tyree Henry singing in an episode of "This Is Us" in which he was a guest star. So you sound great. When did you start to sing?

HENRY: Thank you. I guess since I was a little kid, but the recognition that I could sing didn't happen until high school. You know, like, you know, my parents had an amazing record collection growing up. I mean, the vinyls as far as the eye can see. Like, it was unbelievable. Like, I grew up in a house full of adults. By the time I was born - everyone was adults, including my sisters. So no one really told me what vinyls were. You know, like, I was discovering music on my own and I would just pull vinyls out and like - throw them up on my little Winnie the Pooh record player that was only supposed to play plastic Winnie the Pooh records. And I would, like, stretch the arm to, like, where the record could start. And I just remember hearing, you know, Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" album, the very first album - I mean, I remember I, like, I'm seeing the memory in my mind of me in a diaper. I know it's weird.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: I know most people can't think back that far. But so like, you know, singing was always in my home. You know, my mother sang all the time. And it wasn't her singing to be heard. She just had a song in her heart, you know what I mean? Like - and I just remember I'm like, oh, my mom, she can carry a tune. Like, she sounds really nice. But, you know, it wasn't about whether or not she sounded great or not. It was about, like, you could tell that she meant what she was singing when she sang it, you know? I love people who sing loud and wrong, you know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: Like, I love people who have no fear. You know, like, it's a fearlessness that I think is really cool. So I never considered myself a singer because I thought singing took discipline, you know what I mean? Like, you know, I was in show choir in high school and that was the one thing I definitely learned. My amazing show choir teacher, Ms. McNair (ph), who really taught me how to be fearless with it. Like, there was no reason for you to open your mouth and sing a note unless you knew why you were singing that note. Like, you better know what you're - sing it with feeling.

So when I was approached with this song, all I could think about was my mother because - even the content of the song, you can't sing that song without feeling every single word and what it means, like, you can't. There's no way that you can sing that song and not feel what - the weight of what it is. And...

GROSS: And I know you lost your mother two years ago, too.

HENRY: Yeah, so I knew that that song was written at that time for a reason. I mean, I know it sounds really hippy-dippy but, you know, that was the first side - the fact that I'm about to expose my voice to the world - to the world this way. It was very gratifying because I knew what it was for. So for all those people who were like, well, you didn't rap that song. You know, you didn't rap, Paper Boi. No, I didn't, but this song I sang, you know what I mean? Like, I got to sing this song this way.

BIANCULLI: Brian Tyree Henry, nominated for two Emmys. One for comedy. One for drama. Terry Gross spoke to him last April. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD PURDIE & FRIENDS SONG, "KEEP ON SHINING")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last April with actor Brian Tyree Henry. He's been nominated for two Emmy awards this year. One for drama, for a guest role on NBC's "This Is Us," and one for best supporting actor in a comedy for his regular role as Paper Boi on the FX series "Atlanta." When we left off, he was talking to Terry about how he grew up listening to his mother sing at home and how he sang in his high school show choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HENRY: So let me explain what show choir is exactly. So in my town of Fayetteville, N.C., there is this group from the predominately black high school - well, the only black high school in Fayetteville - E. E. Smith High School, home of the Golden Bulls, big ups. There's a show choir. And I remember being in junior high and even elementary, watching this group of these black teenagers come in - soprano, alto, tenor, bass - and they would have these black and red vests on. The costume was very formal, so it was like a black and red vast with black slacks, black shoes, a white shirt and a red bow tie. That was the uniform.

And they would come into these assemblies and do these formations and do these dances and coreo and sing their faces off, man. They would sing their faces - like, it was unbelievable. Once I finally got to high school, my best friend Victoria (ph), who was the daughter of Ms. McNair, who leads the show choir - and she was like, you've got to audition for that. So it was unbelievable. That's why I found it really funny that "Glee" came along. I was like, oh, we're doing shows about this now, man?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: Like, nobody was talking about this when I was in high school, but we're going to do "Glee" and "Pitch Perfect" and all this stuff. I was like, oh, that's real nice. But I was a part of that, man. And the great thing was about it is that no one dogged you out for it. Like, people respected you if you were in Smith 16. It was amazing.

GROSS: You mentioned that, at one point, your mother sent you to live with your father after they'd separated, which surprised me only because I'd read how close you were with your mother. She died a couple of years ago. So I was just surprised to hear that.

HENRY: I think she did that because she had to do that - you know what I mean? - like, because, I mean, I was literally promoted from the sixth grade. I had done all of elementary school in D.C. It was...

GROSS: Where you were living with her.

HENRY: Yeah, and my - yeah, I was with my mom. And I remember crossing the stage, getting my little sixth-grade diploma and walking back to our apartment, which was up the hill. And my father had driven to come see me graduate. You know, he didn't really drive up to visit me when I was living with her, but for some reason, he was there for this weekend. And I saw all my stuff in my father's car. And then she was like, OK, like, you have to go live with your father.

And I didn't have any say in it. I just had to go and live with this man that I loved. I loved my dad, but I loved him in the way that I knew how to love him, which was from afar, you know what I mean? It was like, what do you mean we're under the same roof now again? But to go back there and live with him, it was very - I don't know. Like, my father, since I was a child, has been a senior citizen. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

HENRY: ...He's just always been old. But he's just always been an old guy, set in his ways - you know. But I'll tell you this, man. I really admire and love that man beyond anything in the world. And it was amazing to get to do "This Is Us" and age to 76 years old, which was my father's age at the time. And I showed them a picture of my dad. And I was like, can you please, please make me look like this man? Not that you don't - you don't have to do much. Like, just shave my head and put this here.

And I was so proud to be able to do that for him because no matter - whatever the misunderstandings of what we had in my upbringing, he deserved to have that. You know what I mean? Like, it was my way of kind of revealing - because I lived under this man's roof. And he really didn't know I could sing. He didn't know I could act. He didn't know I could do these things. Like, he - like, my father was hardened by life. You know what I mean? Like, he was hardened.

And to be able to play him in that show and to call him - Lord, I'm not going to cry - so I'd tell him. I was like, hey, man, I just want you to turn this on. Like - and he saw himself looking back at him. And he was like, that's you? It's - he was like, but that's me. He was like, that's you, but that's me. Like, that's - like, it was just the most amazing feeling in the world.

GROSS: Brian Tyree Henry, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

HENRY: Thank you for having me. Absolutely.

BIANCULLI: Brian Tyree Henry speaking to Terry Gross last April. He's nominated for two Emmys this year as guest actor in a drama for NBC's "This Is Us," and supporting actor in a comedy for the FX series "Atlanta." After a break, a tribute to choreographer Paul Taylor who died Wednesday at age 88. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "GIMME ALL YOUR LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.