Brian Tyree Henry of ‘Atlanta’ on fame, finding home and Paper Boi’s big episode

Long before he ever walked a mile in their shoes, actor Brian Tyree Henry knew his characters.

He empathized with the rapper he plays in the FX series “Atlanta,” Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, and understood what it meant to grapple with newfound fame, and struggle to feel at home in a city he’s known his whole life.

He also knew the security guard William in Kenneth Lonergan’s play “Lobby Hero,” a fast-talking, upstanding man who takes authority seriously. When his brother is arrested and accused of committing a horrible crime, William is forced to weigh his strict morals against the realities of how law enforcement and the criminal justice system treat black men.

“I know him. I know that life,” Henry says of William, whom he currently plays on Broadway. “I live in Harlem, I know what it’s like to walk down the street and be made to feel that way.”

Henry, 36, has been nominated for a Drama League Award for his performance in “Lobby Hero.”

Meanwhile, the current, second season of “Atlanta” (subtitled “Robbin’ Season”) has also given him more muscle to flex, as Alfred’s storyline intensifies in step with his growing fame. This week’s episode, “Woods,” forces Alfred to confront questions about his place in the world, and whether he feels at home anymore in Atlanta.

Henry spoke with MarketWatch about his own rising fame, and how his life intersects with his characters’ lives.

How was it filming the latest episode of “Atlanta,” which really delves into your character and how his new status as a famous rapper has changed him?

Alfred, you don’t really know much about what made him, you know what I mean? We can at least see [Donald Glover’s character] Earn’s parents, we can see Earn has a child and a relationship. But for Alfred, who was born and raised in Atlanta, we don’t really know anything about him. We know he has his own apartment. We know that he sells drugs and he does music. I think that this episode showcases that he doesn’t know anything about him either. It’s basically about you being in a place that you know your whole life. You know every corner, you know every alley. You know when the streetlights come on. But what if it’s the same exact place but you don’t know how to navigate it at all? I think that’s what’s going on with Alfred this season. Now he has to walk in this place that has changed for him, and has become more dangerous. I think all the weight of that kind of exposure is on him and you get to see how he’s always fighting to be real. People are saying that he’s famous, but he’s like, “that took a lot.” This episode, you see all of that stuff chipping away. It’s just too much and he’s exposed. He’s lost in his own territory. That to me is something terrifying.

Why does it terrify you?

I don’t know if you’ve ever gone home and you see your hometown, but this road has been added, and this road has been taken away, that building’s not there anymore. There’s a part of you that’s kind of like, “That’s not the world that I knew and I grew up here, so I thought I knew this world.” But that’s what’s happening to Alfred. He realizes that this home is not the home that he knew. Sometimes he is alone. Stefani Robinson wrote this episode, and she wrote [the previous episode this season] “Barbershop.” She was like, “We’re going to expose these things. Let’s really showcase what Alfred is going through. Now that we know you have these expressions, what if the whole episode is about restraint?” I was like, “Oh my god.” It was the hardest thing. Fame is never easy and it’s also not something we all ask for. He’s just trying to navigate it.

Where are you from originally, and do you ever go back home?

Fayetteville, North Carolina. Ahhh, lord. It’s something I battle with all the time. The pivotal person in that area is my father, and now that my mother has passed away, she is now buried in North Carolina. I was like, “Wow, all my mother ever wanted me to do was go home.” She was always like, “Go back to North Carolina, go see your father.” The fact that she chose North Carolina to be buried instead of Maryland, where she resided, it was like “OK, I get exactly what you’re telling me to do.” It’s a fact that I have to really, really confront every day, head on, by going to North Carolina. Because me and my father, like, I was raised by him but it was not a good — you know, we were more roommates and we met with a lot of opposition with each other. But now that we’ve gotten older, it’s been so amazing as a relationship. But because it’s in my body not to go to Fayetteville, I don’t think about going to Fayetteville. I really don’t. And I confront that. I feel like with my mother being in North Carolina — because I will always go every anniversary to her grave, I will always go. It’s only been two years now so that’s coming up soon and I’m going to have to go there and do that — I have to just go and see my dad. Fayetteville is only an hour away from where my mother is buried.

Sometimes, the further you run from something, you’ll turn right around and it’ll be the first thing you’ll have to confront, right there in front of your face. I’m saying all that and now I’m like, “Oh, that’s the synopsis for this week’s episode.” [Laughs] There it is, right there in a nutshell, that’s exactly what it is. I’m going to go home, it’s going to take effort and work, and I’m going to make it work. At the end of the day, I still call it home. Home is where he is.

Guy D

Brian Tyree Henry and Robert S. Powell III as Bibby in the “Atlanta” episode “Barbershop” earlier this season.

In an earlier episode this season, “Barbershop,” Alfred has to deal with a barber who treats him pretty disrespectfully, but he puts up with it because, as he says to someone else, “famous people need to get their hair cut sometimes.” Can you relate to living in that space between being a regular person and being famous?

I’m still trying to figure it out, you know what I mean? Because fame has an element of danger. I think that’s what’s going on this season with “Atlanta.” People own you. You are not your property anymore, you’re everybody else’s property, and you don’t really have a say over what you can and can’t take. It’s not like you have a place to be heard. That’s what I see with Alfred. He could go through the worst day of his life, but at the end of the day, he’s Paper Boi to everyone else and he has to go out there. My favorite part about “Barbershop” for example, is that I’m sitting there. Clearly, I made an appointment with this person. Clearly, this person knows that I’m going to be there. Clearly, I also know that you know that I’m Paper Boi. So the fact that you’re late on me, OK cool. That’s fine. I still have to get a haircut. Then you come in on the phone, then you’re talking. Cool, all right. Then you ask me what I want? You know what haircut I want!

That is what I’m constantly dealing with all the time. Like alllll the time. People put these things on you and expect you to change. They expect you to change because now you are public and they feel like you are Hollywood. So now you have to fight so hard to really be yourself, to say “this is still me” all the time.

Your character William in “Lobby Hero” also has to put up with a different kind of disrespect, from his junior security guard, Jeff, whose actions profoundly change William’s life.

This is how plays are different [from television], because I can’t change the outcome of what’s going to happen up there. I can’t change the fact that I know that he’s sleeping [on the job], and he still tells me no. I can’t change the outcome that I’ll give him his job back, when all I want to do is throw him through the door. I still have to sit here and know that he may never realize what he’s done. It gets me every night and I never know how it’s going to affect me, and I tear up every now and again when I talk about it. When Jeff says that he admires me at the end. It’s written that I don’t respond. I cannot say anything. There’s nothing that I can say. It’s just — one of the hardest things to hear from somebody that you watched for two hours in a play, destroy your life, you know?

I find that I play a lot of characters like that, where it seems like there’s no redemption, and you have to take it on the chin. I carry that with me sometimes. It’s hard to get people to understand and see that. It’s gotta’ be somebody that has to take it on the chin. I feel with Alfred and William, they’re both great people and they just have to have these walls up as a source of protection because people come and take. But then it’s like people are going to do what they’re going to do anyway without any regard of what they need, so it’s like, all right man, you gotta find the humor in there.

In “Lobby Hero,” William is a truth teller, but he’s forced to decide whether to conceal or reveal truths about his brother. How did you approach him?

I don’t think I really had to approach him in any way because I know him. I know what it’s like to not want to made to feel like you’re snitching because snitching in our community is such a big thing. At the same time, it’s like you want to do the right thing and you feel like you can’t. It makes me very — I’m tired of using the word “angry” and I’m tired of using the word “upset.” It makes me present. It makes me want to really, really recognize what’s going on and what things are fleeting and what relationships really matter. I don’t want rage to be the goal with William, even though it seems like it. There’s a desperation, like a baby holding his hands up to be picked up, who wants to be protected. He wants to know that somebody is protecting him. I live around it. I live on my block and I look at these guys and the kids in my neighborhood, and how it just feels like there doesn’t seem to be an outlet. It doesn’t seem like anybody is listening, like anybody cares about our lives.

When you wear the security guard uniform, and spend the play talking to other characters in police uniforms, how does that inform your performance?

When it comes to a uniform, it gives you a chance to really feel like there’s a position or something you’re doing in the world, like you’re contributing something. I can’t tell the difference between doormen and cops, you know what I mean? Like when I see a blue shirt, see blue pants, I’m like “I’m going this way.” My character’s the one that’s constantly on the move. Once I get into the lobby is when I get to sit down and actually take authority of the space. But when Chris [Evans] or Bel [Powley] come in with their cop uniforms on, I automatically know that there’s no way that I’m in the position that they’re in. I have to immediately change because regardless, William still feels the way he does about the NYPD. It really doesn’t matter what position of power he’s in, he knows what that badge means. It’s kind of like a barrier, because as soon as they come in I’m smiling, I’m joyful. I make sure there’s no way that they can put anything on me in any way. Even when it’s to touch Chris’ shoulder, I get nervous to do that. He’s still a cop.

But it’s amazing what uniforms do. I came from a family of security workers. My sisters all were in security and I thought it was really interesting being the only boy, that I would watch these women come in with their bulletproof vests and a gun and mace, and I’m like “What the hell is that? Here’s your younger brother sitting here and y’all are coming in just strapped!” Even when they’re in those uniforms, they’re different people. I have to think about them going through that job and I’m like, “What do people think of them when they see them?” There might be a threat and they might actually have to use that gun.

The play is also very funny. How do you balance William’s authority with his humor?

I have a very bad radar for how people are going to respond to certain things, so I did not think that people would find it funny. There’s humor, sure, but especially with William and Jeff, I did not think that people thought our relationship would be funny. I was like, “Oh my god, are we like ‘The Honeymooners’ here? I didn’t realize I was Ralph!” But there’s still a sense of hardness that I have to have, and I love that people can find humor in the hardness that I play. You know what I’m saying? Instead of people seeing me and all of a sudden thinking I’m a threat. The hardness is what makes the humor come out. Even with Alfred [in “Atlanta”] the hardness isn’t about him actually putting his hands on somebody. The hardness is literally sitting there watching somebody say something so stupid that I can’t possibly find the words to say “shut up.” Going through the physical is easy for someone of my stature, and also because of my stature, people limit me. People automatically think that I’m a threat or people think that I only have two options: To be funny or to be violent. I don’t like that kind of thing hindering me, so I like to switch it up. I can show you how stupid this whole situation is by just looking at you and not blinking for the entire time you’re talking, because it’s that mundane to me.

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