Brian Tyree Henry smells like mulled vanilla cider. There’s an undertone of nag champa (the incense he often lights to stoke a vibe) and hits of patchouli, black pepper, and warm cedar. It’s approachable and not overbearing, but a rung up — put together in the kind of way that someone with regular access to stylists and designer threads learns to orchestrate an outfit. Much like the actor’s performances, the aroma lingers.
On a brisk November evening, not far from Mount San Jacinto, in the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs, Henry kicks back in a Made Goods peacock chair for a moment of reflection.
“There’s something healing and restorative about this place,” he explains, referring to downtime spent in the California desert. “I like to be in the rocks. There’s something about the isolation of it; everything that I’m doing is usually interviews, or talking to people, or being in character. It’s not too deep for me, it’s just a place that really feels like a home. It feels like I can hear myself. Call me ‘crunchy granola’ if you want, but this place feels sacred to me. It feels safe for me. I come out here to get away from the hustle and bustle and to be creative. Things are reignited out here.”
A week ago, Henry was in Australia filming scenes for the 2024 sequel to Godzilla vs. Kong. Yesterday, in Los Angeles, he endured back-to-back press appearances for Causeway, an Apple Original Films and A24 production directed by Lila Neugebauer, depicting a veteran’s unceremonious return home. Released Nov. 4, the film, which wittingly takes its time, drew critical attention for moving performances from star/producer Jennifer Lawrence, and Henry, who landed best supporting actor nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gothams. After our chat, he’ll load up with his team in the blacked-out SUV that’s been parked outside with a driver for the duration of our Palm Springs Life photo shoot and arrive fashionably late for a Causeway screening at the nearby Palm Springs Cultural Center, where he’ll do a Q&A with attendees before crashing and resuming the rigamarole again tomorrow.
Henry stares at the chandelier overhead.
One-of-a-kind upcycled shirt by J. Logan Horne (available at The Webster), Monfrère pants, Goorin Bros. hat, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and Henry’s own King Kennedy mules.
CAR COURTESY OF CHRIS MENRAD
We’re sitting outside on a secluded back patio of the Morse House, a historic residence built in 1960 and renovated by Hollywood architect Harold “Hal” Levitt for an affluent couple from Chicago, coincidentally where Henry aced his audition for the highly competitive Yale School of Drama (but that part of the story comes later). The soft glow seems to flicker every time Henry shares a poignant anecdote: thoughts on breaking free from boxes that society and cultural groups attempt to edge us into; losing his mom to a car accident on the day of Atlanta’s Season 1 wrap party; coming to terms with the idea at age 40 that he is, in fact, worthy of this career and the ensuant accolades. Each glimmer seems like someone on the other side — his mother, his ancestors, the general energy of the universe — might be rooting him on. Then again, Henry is so thoughtful and generous in conversation that almost every quote comes across as profound; it may be that the bulb is simply wearing out.
“That’s a sign, the light flickered,” he says, gesturing with his eyes and taking a long beat. “I try to be very aware of the signs, to always acknowledge them, always make sure that I’m paying it forward to my ancestors and the things that came before.”
“Like any normal person, I have my days. I’ve never seen anyone like me doing what I’m doing, and I need to remind myself that there’s a reason why it’s me.”
Theory sweater and Henry’s own jewelry (throughout).
ON THE SURFACE, Henry doesn’t belong in Hollywood. He doesn’t come from a family of entertainers. His father never supported nor attended his school plays. The youngest of five, with four older sisters and a seven-year age gap between his closest sibling, the North Carolina native remembers growing up quickly. Long before he was spritzing his skin with L’Occitane Eau des Baux and Lords of Misrule by Lush, the unmistakable smells of potpourri warming atop a kerosene heater, his dad’s Virginia Slims, and the occasional pan of sizzling bacon perfumed his youth.
Henry split his time between his parents’ homes — his father’s in Fayetteville, where he (and so many other vets) settled after stationing at Fort Bragg, and his mother’s in Washington, D.C., where she worked as an inner-city schoolteacher. “She sent me to live with my father [permanently] when I was 11. I was growing up in 1990s D.C., which was crack-infested and incredibly violent, and she didn’t want that for her young Black son.”
Henry can’t pinpoint the origin of his deepest passion, but the act of acting was cathartic.
“I used to use it as therapy, which is never the way to go. But when I acted, people listened. When I acted, people wanted to protect. When I acted, people loved me,” he says. “The way that people react to what I do now is still a shock.”
But his trajectory was evident all along, if only you look between the lines. Henry was reading by age 3. His kindergarten teacher noticed his ability to captivate the other children with his silly voices, so she called on him daily to read poems from the beloved Shel Silverstein book Where the Sidewalk Ends. (His go-to was “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.”) Though Henry has always felt uneasy as the center of attention — and still does today — a switch flips when he steps into character.
“Even when I was younger, it wasn’t so much about recognition or popularity,” he says. “When I got to junior high, when I got plays, I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. These characters kind of reflect what’s going on at my home.’”
Performing allowed him to explore possibilities. People noticed him. They told him he was good at it, giving him the attention and positive reinforcement that he wasn’t receiving at home.
“It was like, ‘You make us want to care about you.’ And that’s all I ever wanted for these characters — especially when I realized that when people take [me] in, [I am] a Black man first. That’s what they see, and that’s what they’re going to relate to, or run away from,” Henry says, nodding to his mindset today when he approaches any new role. “Inclusivity and representation are still words I’m shocked that we have to say, but that’s how progress works. You take a step forward, and there’s somebody pushing you back two. … They don’t have to give a damn about you, so open your mouth and make them care. It’s me still trying to reach my dad.”
Theory coat, Montrose shirt and jeans, and Saint Laurent shoes.
Walking in the footsteps of giants, including Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson, Henry attended Morehouse College, a historically Black university for men in Atlanta, Georgia. Then, out of some 900 postgraduate applicants, he was among 16 selected in 2004 to join Yale’s School of Drama, where he earned a master’s degree.
“I wasn’t afraid of not making it as an actor. I was more afraid of not giving it a full shot. If I don’t go as far as I can, then what was the point of all these people saying, ‘We believe in you and think you can’?”
IT WAS RON VAN LIEU'S first year at Yale. The newly crowned drama department chair had been recruited from NYU, where he’d developed a solid reputation over 29 years. “Brian was in the very first class that I brought into Yale,” recalls Van Lieu, who left in 2017 to join the faculty at Columbia University. “I remember him very distinctly.” Henry auditioned in Chicago, performing the required contemporary and classical pieces but was wholly unprepared when asked to sing a song. On the spot, he belted out “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” from the musical Grease.
“I was just smitten,” Van Lieu enthuses. “He had this wonderful combination of soulful gravitas and just plain silliness — just plain wonderful access to humor, a sort of a clown sensibility — and then at the same time, a deeply sensitive connection to what the human experience is about. That’s such a rare combination, and it’s the thing that I think makes him [impossible to] pin down.”
As part of their curriculum, first-year drama students put on a contemporary play for faculty and classmates in a modest studio space with basic tables and chairs, and zero production effort. Van Lieu selected Balm in Gilead, a Lanford Wilson piece with a large ensemble cast that deals with miscreants and those living on the periphery. Henry portrayed Fick, a strung-out heroin addict.
Though these first-year plays are closed to the public, an undergraduate English student snuck in: Lila Neugebauer.
“I don’t know how I got into that,” the Causeway director shares, reminiscing on the moment that compelled her to say hello to Henry, ultimately leading her to seek him out for her first feature film 15 years later.
“No disrespect to anybody else, but I remember that Brian was the person I walked out of that room being like, ‘Who is that guy?’ His charisma was electrifying, his ease, his self-possession. I find there’s a transparency to what Brian is doing, a truthfulness. Brian’s not capable of an inauthentic moment as an actor. I haven’t seen one yet. He’s not wired for it, it’s wild. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“He really takes his characters very seriously and empathizes with them and wants to honor them,” Zazie Beetz affirms. A co-star turned close friend, she witnessed Henry’s transformation as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles while working together on Donald Glover’s award-winning FX series, Atlanta, which aired from 2016 to 2022.
Rick Owens shirt, Frame pants, and Henry’s own espadrilles (purchased on location in Australia while filming Godzilla and Kong).
Save for theater buffs who discovered Henry on stages in New York — he originated the role of the General in The Book of Mormon and nabbed a 2018 Tony nod for his performance in Lobby Hero, both on Broadway — much of the world met Henry as Paper Boi, an up-and-coming rapper/drug dealer navigating the Atlanta music scene. The acclaimed series wrapped after four seasons in November, with the final episode airing the day before our cover shoot in Palm Springs. Henry garnered an Emmy nomination in 2018 for his work on the show, opposite Glover (who plays Paper Boi’s manager/cousin) and LaKeith Stanfield (his philosophical hype man).
“It was really a learning experience to be around him,” Stanfield says. “He has represented, in many ways to me, a big brother figure, on-screen and off. I’m always in awe watching him transform into these characters. He’s probably the furthest thing from Paper Boi, and he’s one of those people that just effortlessly gives great takes, every single time. … It’s really quite something to watch.”
“He’s really acting,” Beetz emphasizes. “His performance as Paper Boi is already so beautiful, but I think if you know him, you find it even more profound because you see how much of a transformation it is.”
Of course, with Atlanta’s success, the rapper/drug dealer offers rolled in. But Henry has consistently favored opportunities that push the envelope in new directions. In the summer of 2022, he held his own opposite Brad Pitt as a cockney assassin in Bullet Train. In 2021, he joined the superhero ranks as Phastos in Eternals — his character is the first openly gay superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No stranger to the MCU, Henry in 2018 voiced a character in the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, whose sequel hits theaters this summer; that same year, he received accolades for his performance in If Beale Street Could Talk.
“He’s been smart about what he does, what he chooses to do, and why he chooses to do it,” Van Lieu says. “If you start to get attention for one particular quality, then that’s about all the profession wants you to do, so you repeat that ad nauseum. Rather than say that you’re any one type, you just say, ‘I’m an actor, and I’m able to take on the identities of multiple forms of humanity.’ ”
“What I always want to do is challenge people,” Henry says. “These are all things that I have been unlocking in the past few years: trying to understand my place in this business, trying to understand my place with these characters. It’s been a soul-searching effort. Success [in creative fields] comes from bearing your soul. To bear your soul is the scariest thing you can do.”
IT'S ALMOST HARD TO BELIEVE someone with such presence, affability, and honest respect among industry peers might grapple with a sense of belonging. Like so many of us, Henry is working through it. At age 40, he’s finally allowing himself to feel pride in his own talent. He’s allowing himself to feel worthy.
“A big part of it has to start with truly believing in [myself], the way people like Ron have believed in me,” the actor says.
Henry presses his hands into his forehead and leans back in the peacock chair. He takes a breath, as if silently acknowledging all those who crossed his path before this moment and identifying the courage within that led him here.
He looks again to the chandelier.
“There’s so many people you meet in this life who sell you short. I came from a house that sold me short, and I could’ve believed that tape. I could have let it play a bunch of times. I could’ve never even thought about applying for a place like Yale,” he says. “To give myself a fighting chance — to just try to know that, yeah, it looks like a cliff, but step off and something will catch you …”
His voice trails off.
At the heart of it, Henry wants to impart a sense of belonging to his viewers through his representation of the human experience. He wants us to know that we, too, are worthy. Right where we’re at. Right now. Flickering light, or not.
“We may never meet, but if I touched you, if something lingers after you turn off whatever it was you were watching, then I feel like we’ve connected,” Henry says. “I have to believe that somewhere somebody is going to leave, and I’m going to resonate with them in some way — be it me as Brian or me as a character. I want to leave an essence. That’s what keeps me going. That has to come from me just existing, and being honest, and being true to my heart.”