Last week, Brian Tyree Henry was having the sort of moment his Atlanta character – the reluctant, verge-of-success rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles – might observe with both envy and fear. That night’s episode of the FX hit, titled “Woods,” would lean almost entirely on Henry’s performance, a Season 2 showcase both the actor and his character.
At the same time, a trailer had just been released for the upcoming Hotel Artemis starring Jodie Foster and Sterling K. Brown, and one of eight films featuring Henry set for this year or next: the already released Irreplaceable You, White Boy Rick, Widows, Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, Family, If Beale Street Could Talk and Only You.
And there’s Lobby Hero, the Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan play that’s won over critics and prompted plenty of Tony talk, not to mention attracting ticket-buyers, some no doubt drawn to the movie star marquee appeal of Chris Evans and Michael Cera, but who’ll witness a terrific ensemble performance from a quartet of actors (Bel Powley rounds out the cast).
Lonergan’s drama of friendship, betrayal and justice (or the lack of it) takes place in the lobby of a New York City apartment building where two security guards (Cera and Henry) banter about things trivial and crucial, while two cops (Evans and Powley) snoop around for clues about a murder that may or may not have involved the brother of William, Henry’s character. The tormented, good-hearted William is torn between family allegiance and his own principles as he attempts to find justice in a legal system that offers little.
In this interview, Henry talks about Lobby Hero, Atlanta and the professional success that puts him in the perfect position to offer advice to a rising star like Paper Boi.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: When people come to the theater are they surprised to see you, the guy from Atlanta?
Henry: I hope they’re surprised. I hope that they’re absolutely floored by the fact that I’ve done a few of different characters and a few different mediums of entertainment. When you’re on stage, you don’t really know who’s out there, at least I don’t, so I don’t really know what’s going there and I also don’t know if they know what I do outside of this. It’s not their responsibility to know everything I do. But they get their Playbill and they see the projects I’ve done… and it’s really interesting. When I see people after the show, they’re like oh my God, we had no idea. You’ve kind of got to take that in a little bit on your own, like, Well I’ve been doing stage in New York since 2007, you know what I mean?
But I’m glad that this is a way for them to see me. I’m never going to stop doing projects that excite me, I’m never going to stop doing projects that I feel, in this second stage of my life, showcase my talent. You know I’m just really glad that people are getting to see all these different sides of me. I never want to stop having that feeling. So, yeah, it makes me happy that I can surprise people. That’s my goal.
Deadline: Can we assume Lobby Hero is not getting a crowd that’s a typical theater crowd, with Chris Evans and Michael Cera bringing in action film fans, comedy movie fans…
Henry: That’s the great thing about theater – it allows space for all these people to come from all different kinds of backgrounds and whatnot. Like, you know, this person could be a theater stickler who loves the classics, and this person this could be experiencing their first time on Broadway, maybe the first play they’ve ever seen. Whatever you’re bringing from the outside world, you come in for two hours, sit down amongst people to your left and right that you may not necessarily rub shoulders with in any other instance and you go on this ride of a story.
When I was doing Book of Mormon I was like yes, these people are going to come in here and watch us talk about Mormonism and say sh*t and talk for two hours and they could be appalled. They could clutch their pearls or they could laugh and realize oh my God, here we are in this theater together and did you hear what they just said? Did you see what just happened up there?
Lobby Hero has been no different. Lobby Hero has been so surreal because you know the audience is really with us when we take this journey. You can hear them gasp. You can hear them suck their teeth. You can hear them clap and shout, root for somebody.
Deadline: Without giving too much away for people who haven’t seen Lobby Hero, you have an explosive moment (when he confronts Cera’s character on a perceived betrayal), and we sense this tension early on, building and building in you…
Henry: What’s crazy about this play is that it has already started before the curtain comes up, you know what I mean? Like there’s already things and situations that have happened and once that curtain’s up we’re already deep into it, so my character has to come on fully loaded, you know. I’m coming in already holding something back.
When you have [an intense] character like that you’re trying to find some wit and some levity to that person. You don’t want to just come on and be a person that’s like shouting at people and is angry and is this, or is that. It’s a hard balance to have because you know it could be off-putting. Michael [Cera] and I start the show, and we have to give the audience an allowance to go on this journey with us. Just because the curtain’s up and the lights go down, it still takes a bit of time to feel like you’re allowed to participate.
And Lobby Hero is like straight out of a cannon man. Once the curtain comes up you’re either with us or you’re not, like this story is going to go and the urgency of what’s happening is so quick. It all takes place over only, like, three nights, so everyone’s decision at any given point in time, at any corner, at any second could really affect the person that comes on after. That’s something that I really love because this play doesn’t allow us any moment to check out. There’s nowhere to hide, and it keeps a certain charge.
There are some nights that I go on this stage and I’m so anxious that, like, I’m just dripping with sweat.
Deadline: The other thing you have to do right from the start with Michael Cera is set up this relationship where you’re his boss, but the audience has to know early on that your characters guys really like each other, because what happens later will not have any impact if there’s not a real affection between these two.
Henry: There’s a great chemistry between the four of us.We are all very close knit, we share a lot of our time together, you know. Six days a week we’re in this building together non-stop, but they’re just really great people. Most of the time before the show goes on we like to hang out with each other, just so we can feel out where everybody’s energies are during the day. Feel how everybody is doing.
Deadline: One more question on Lobby Hero. The play was written in 2001, but it seems so of the moment right now. Did you have a sense of that going into it? [One plotline involves Henry’s character being torn between loyalty to his principles and to his possibly criminal brother, a struggle intensified by the knowledge that the criminal justice system is weighted against young, male African Americans.]
Henry: You know, here we are still in these days of telling this story that seems to be instead of changing, just evolving into more of a darker territory. It’s still this festering thing that we talk about – equality and race, the social structure in society that people don’t seem to want to address. [In the play] we go where nobody wants to go, to shine a light, to forcing everybody to think about it head on, so there’s no way you deny it, so now what work do we have to do?
So I think it’s really great that this play was written first of all. And I’m so glad that the playwright is still around and I wonder if he’s shocked sometimes that it is still relevant.
Deadline: Can you compare and contrast your Lobby Hero character with Atlanta‘s Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles?
Henry: Both of these characters – William and Alfred – struggle to do what’s right. You know, that constant struggle of being looked at one way being denied certain things because of that. That kind of thing that people put on you, and you’re still still wanting to do the right thing.
I think that this season of Atlanta is a little bit different – well, very much so actually -because I call it like an exposed nerve, like there’s really nowhere to hide this season. Like no matter what things have been taken from you, no matter what gains you’ve got, [everyone] kind of goes through this realization that everything is not what it seems.
This week in particular [on the “Woods” episode], Alfred is feeling, like, being in the same place but feeling lost. Like he’s constantly trying to figure out his way, to find his footing amongst this thing that has been kind of thrown at him – this fame, his stardom, this recognition. When all he wants is to have his anonymity back, but that’s not up to him anymore.
Like, in the stillness he’s still lost in everything, so there’s a lot more drama [this season] I guess. The humorous is still there, but there are a lot of signs with the characters that you’re seeing that I don’t think anybody was expecting.
One thing I love about Atlanta is that that the minute you think you understand, it’s totally flipped on it’s ass and you have no idea what’s going to come next.
Deadline: You have so much coming up – Hotel Artemis, White Boy Rick, and there’s Atlanta, Lobby Hero. You’ve already made the transition that Alfred is on the path towards. What advice would you give him?
Henry: Stay hydrated.
Deadline: Stay hydrated?
Henry: Stay hydrated man. Because you’re going to find that there’s a lot of thirsty people out there and you need to keep a lot of hydration for yourself. And also it’s just really, really, really important to remember that your heart is very important, and you have to do everything you can to protect it and build it. You’ve got to find the human element and know that there is nothing wrong with not knowing what to do. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing what the right answer is. There’s nothing wrong with disappointing people. I think that if I could give him any kind of advice on how to protect himself, it’s to know that through and through.