As grieving mechanic James Aucoin in Causeway, Lila Neugebauer’s film about a soldier (Jennifer Lawrence) trying to assimilate into life in New Orleans after a brain injury sends her home, Brian Tyree Henry found not just the biggest role of his career but catharsis from his own pain. “Some of us hold onto our grief so tightly that we don’t know who we are without it,” Henry says. Henry talks about the emotional impact of the film, both personally and on screen. “I found a great source of strength in James,” he says. “More than I ever knew that I could.”
DEADLINE: When you received the script for Causeway, what stood out about it?
BRIAN TYREE HENRY: First and foremost, to be able to do a movie with Jennifer Lawrence. I’ve been such a huge admirer of her work and wanted to get a chance to play with her. The other thing that stood out was that it really wasn’t one of those scripts that had a huge climax, or characters that find this conflict and have to overcome something. It was just about two people existing in space and time, forming a connection. I really wanted that.
DEADLINE: From an acting standpoint, people existing doesn’t sound very challenging. What’s appealing about it?
HENRY: What’s really appealing is that we know that existing, sometimes, is incredibly hard to do. Living is incredibly hard to do. What I found remarkable about this piece was that you found these two people who were existing in a very complicated way, when all they really needed was to see that they weren’t alone. Maybe friendship would shed some light on how they could get through and get over how they were living. That that was truly the meat and potatoes of what the script was.
DEADLINE: My understanding is that the inception period for this film was quite long. You were shut down for COVID, and in that time you were able to workshop the script. What was the evolution of the story?
HENRY: We discovered that Lynsey’s journey was evolving based on who she was coming in contact with. She’s coming back from war to a hometown that she was trying to escape, and she has suffered an injury that is making it hard for her to navigate that terrain the way she used to. I don’t think what she thought she would make, coming back, was a friend. We discovered that, with my character, there is hope for re-establishing what home meant for her. And we discovered that was also possible for James, himself. James is a person who endured one of the greatest losses of his life in his hometown, and now has to figure out how to move through that terrain in a different way, while also wanting to hold on to who he was. So, Lila, Justine (Ciarrochi), Jennifer and I really wanted to dissect what that was. Also, there was a connection that was growing between Jennifer and me, and we really wanted to showcase that friendship, because, truly, what they’re both looking for in the movie is friendship.
DEADLINE: Do you think that living through the pandemic affected your performance?
HENRY: For sure. I realized I had to re-teach myself how to be human. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true, because we all dealt with loss that year in a way that was magnified because we had to be in isolation. It was so stark and bleak. Meeting somebody new in 2021 was like going to a theme park. To actually hug someone, to look someone in their eyes, to even sit in silence and stillness with somebody was something that our bodies had missed. Also, what was happening a lot, is that we were doing this thing called trauma bonding, and I realized that when you trauma bond with somebody, [the relationship] actually just stays in that place. It stunts your growth a bit. So, we wanted to discover if these people, who start with a trauma bond, can somehow find a way through it. That’s the hardest part of grief, I think—to find another way.
DEADLINE: What is interesting about this film is that you have a relationship, which is set up from the beginning as platonic and still very complex. What was it like portraying that friendship?
HENRY: It’s great because we sometimes get trapped in this story development of “boy meets girl,” and all of a sudden it has to be romantic. We didn’t want that. We really wanted to show that these two people can exist in a way where they are just so human. That was what I needed, and I think that’s what Jen needed as well, with all the turmoil and the upheaval we were seeing in 2020. We wanted to show that it’s possible to just have a connection with somebody that doesn’t have to come with any kind of weight or obligation other than to be human with one another. As it develops, you start to see both of them shed layers. That’s why I love the pool scene so much because it really is about being bare. I call it the baptism scene, because it feels like they both get cleansed and lay everything out. And they’re so exposed. That was something that I needed a lot, at the time, too. I was wondering, who really sees me? Is what people see right now just the pain? Is it just someone who is truly down and really in their head? And if that’s what they see, does that make them want to get to know me and see me for who I am? I think that’s what both of those characters were confronting.
DEADLINE: You, as a person, are quite verbose and your character is not. How challenging is it to perform that kind of internal anguish?
HENRY: There’s something so remarkable in stillness. I swear to God, when I got a chance to explore the stillness of this character, it was a true relief. I realized, when I was going through grief, that you want to be held up and you look to your left and right, and you realize nobody is really there holding you up. Then you start making up these stories, that nobody understands what I’m going through. I brought a lot of that to James because he’s a man that I believe is truly a likable, beautiful person, but because of the circumstances of what happened to him, he lives his life as a person who feels like he got what he deserved. What I really wanted for James when I was playing him, which in turn I also wanted for Brian, was a release of not having to explain why you feel weak some days. Another thing is that he was able to sit there with his thoughts. There are a lot of us who like to busy ourselves so that we don’t have to think about what we’ve lost and the obstacles that lie ahead. When he met Lynsey, she really gave him a place to just sit and think about what it is that he’s missing. True strength is in standing where you are and to really reveal what it is. That was a great challenge for me.
DEADLINE: Because you had so much input in this film, was there ever a consideration of making the accident something else, having lost your own mother in a car accident? Or was there catharsis, in any way?
HENRY: I wanted it to be what it was because I didn’t want to run away from it. I didn’t want to, in essence, do what those two characters have been doing at the beginning of the film. I wanted to confront it in my own way. I wanted to also get over it. I didn’t want it to paralyze me like it had done at the beginning of my career. I didn’t want it to be this looming cloud. When I saw what it was that he had lost, I immediately related. And the part I related mostly to was him losing his leg. No, I didn’t lose a body part, but I did lose one of the most important people in my life. My creator, actually. So, I didn’t want them to change that because that is a huge part of who he is. But I also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t his only story. I found strength in James, honestly, because most people who go and suffer such a horrible car accident would probably never drive again, but James was. Most people who were responsible for losing a life in a car accident would probably not work on cars, but James did. There is a strength to this guy that he just needs to be reminded is there.
Also, this is how petty the universe is: No matter how much you run, where you go, there you are. It’s like one of the oldest proverbs ever. And it’s very, very true. I found a great source of strength in James, more than I ever knew that I could. We went back and really tried to explore that: Him asking to have a roommate to cook breakfast with. Him having somebody in his house. Letting somebody drive his car for him. There’s something to be said about that. I didn’t want them to change any part of the accident or where he worked, because that’s truly where he drew strength from. And I think that I drew my strength from him, as well, in going through that.
DEADLINE: As someone who had wanted to work with Jennifer for a long time, how were those expectations met? And how do you think your friendship showed up on screen as these characters?
HENRY: It was above and beyond. I don’t think I could have ever imagined working with someone that’s such a great scene partner. What’s great is it was a true manifestation of our collaboration. During the pandemic Jen and I broke the rules once and met each other, because we realized we were up the street from one another. And we just sat in her garden and talked about everything that was going on. We talked about politics, we talked about COVID. We talked about the social injustice. We just let it out. It was such a purging, in a way, that we stopped at one point and looked at each other and was like, “Oh, well, here’s James and Lynsey.” This is all they wanted. The simplicity of being able to sit across from each other, sit in the loss, sit in the anger. It really does create a sense of healing. That is what I think most of us are yearning for.
After we had that meeting in her garden, there were three earthquakes that night. I remember texting her at 3 in the morning and I was like, “See what a connection does? See what happens when you open your heart and just let the universe make its way?” I really believe that there is a charge when you make yourself bare to somebody who really sees you. And I think that that’s what we discovered, not only working together, but having these characters put in front of us. We knew we wanted to do them right, and we wanted to make sure that they got over to the other side of whatever their grief and their loss was, because that’s what we needed to see.
DEADLINE: Your next project is Sinking Spring for Apple TV+. Is it fun to go back to television after this?
HENRY: Here’s the thing. I’ve had a good run. Tonight is the series finale of Atlanta and I’ve been saying all day, it’s the end of an era. Alfred was kind of a testimony for me. There were parts of him that were, of course, supposed to be funny, but there was so much catharsis in playing him as well. Last week’s episode, he finally got his own place on a farm, but also had to fight for his life, and still came out on the other side. There’s still humor there with him, but there’s also this well of emotion. As long as I continue to lean into stories and characters like that, I’m always going to be fulfilled. So, I’m very excited to go back to television to do Sinking Spring. I really want to peel back the layers of who this character is and what life is. It’s an adventure, right? This whole thing is an adventure. Who knows what the destination’s going to be, but I’m just grateful every time to get characters like this. It’s truly a blessing.
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