For a long time, Brian Tyree Henry would grapple with his own grief through his portrayals of wounded souls.
From his brief turn as tormented parolee Daniel Carty in If Beale Street Could Talk, to his breakthrough in Atlanta as the world-weary rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, Henry infuses a kind of relatable hurt in every part he plays that clearly comes from somewhere within himself.
“I used to carry these characters home with me, man”, he admits to Yahoo, alluding to an inability to separate the art from the artist. It wasn’t until the making of Apple TV+’s Causeway that he was finally ready to commence his own healing process, and begin letting go of the trauma that defined his most renowned roles.
Read more: Causeway debuts at London Film Festival
“There was something in me that wanted to jump to his defence,” Henry says of his character James Aucoin, a lonely New Orleans mechanic struggling to readjust following a devastating accident which also left him an amputee.
“Instead of figuring out how to judge someone like him, I wanted to protect him and figure out how he got to where he was.”
In the film, James befriends Lynsey, played by a similarly raw and understated Jennifer Lawrence. After suffering a traumatic brain injury while serving in Afghanistan, Lynsey is forced to confront the past she fled, spending much of the movie trying to get redeployed.
Henry sees their first meeting as James recognising a kindred spirit also masking her own pain. “James sees this woman pull up with this truck that he likes, and then something switches,” he explains. “He sees her struggling, and something within compels him out of nowhere to want to help her.”
Over the course of this intimate psychological drama, we see James gradually open up as someone who at first looks at ease with everything to then reveal layers of his own suppressed guilt. Bound by their emotional and physical scars, James and Lynsey embark on a camaraderie they never knew they needed.
Watch a trailer for Causeway
Their relationship, which never veers into clichéd romance, is at the movie’s core, with Henry crediting their performances down to the connection he shared with Lawrence behind the cameras. “When we started back in 2019, James wasn’t as fully formed as Causeway initially revolved around Jennifer’s character,” he recalls.
“However, I didn’t realise that we were going to develop a connection as we filmed. We discovered what the movie was really about in between takes, which was their own blossoming friendship forged from their own traumatic incidents.”
Filming was suspended from the spring of 2020 for nearly a year due to the COVID pandemic. That didn’t stop Henry though, who remained in touch with Lawrence about how to further develop their characters.
“There were parts of James and Lynsey that were missing,” he says. “We had a lot of deep talks about what we’d each been through and what losses we endured.”
When production resumed, Henry, Lawrence, and director Lila Neugebauer resolved to ensure that James lived a full life on-screen, noting that even inviting Lynsey to his house — a constant reminder of his biggest regrets — would mark a major turning point for his character.
“What would it be like if Lynsey went to his house? When was the last time he actually had somebody over?” As Causeway progresses, we witness the heartwarming results of their unlikely relationship: James helps her rejoin the real world, and Lynsey helps him to trust again.
For Henry, becoming James also afforded him another outlet for the grief he went through after his mother’s passing in 2016. Channelling those emotions proved pivotal in his obligation to care for James, a man who is ultimately alone and fights these internal battles without any support until Lynsey came into his life.
Filled with underpinned rage, it’s a poignant performance that shares similar strands of DNA with Atlanta’s Alfred in 'Woods'— a particularly special episode for Henry given that it takes place on the anniversary of Alfred’s mother’s death.
Long hailed as one of the surreal dramedy’s greatest accomplishments, it’s a 27-minute trial by fire for Alfred, who gets mugged by guys claiming to be Paper Boi fans before darting into the woods and wrestling with demons in hallucinatory encounters.
“Both of these men are very similar in that they’re trying to run away from acknowledging where they truly are,” he explains. “Throughout the episode, Alfred is hell-bent on 'staying real' in a city he was raised in all his life, while James is still anchored at the place where he suffered his greatest tragedy.”
However, Henry does concede that there’s a profound strength in James and Alfred’s decisions to not move from their hometowns, despite their overwhelming sadness. Both men emerge from their harrowing experiences as completely different people, forcing Henry to question whether moving away is really the answer to their woes.
“As someone who’s left his hometown, the temptation to judge both of them is very easy for me,” he muses. “But what I didn’t realise before was that for both of them, sticking around gave them the opportunity to evolve even more. James and Alfred staying put forced them to shift their perspectives of who they were, and I also had to let go of the feeling that staying in the same place was a hindrance to them.”
Since Causeway’s release at the start of November, critics have touted Henry as a potential winner during awards season. Having already been nominated for a Gotham Independent Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance, we should expect more buzz surrounding Henry’s taut depiction of someone still simmering from the fallout of personal tragedy.
Given his eclectic filmography, which includes standout roles as a stoic mob boss in Widows, an ancient superhero in Marvel Studios' Eternals, and a hilarious East End assassin on Bullet Train, Henry puts his recent recognition down to his refusal to be typecast, as well as an invested audience continuing to challenge him at every turn. “You guys never put me in a box,” he smiles.
“You never said that we only want to see him as that one character. There was a time that I thought I was only ever gonna be seen as Paper Boi, but I was like, 'nope, I got more to show.'”
It’s shaping up to be a pretty exciting time ahead for Henry, a versatile talent whose ascent shows no signs of stalling anytime soon.
Causeway is streaming on Apple TV+.
Watch: Brian Tyree Henry talks about his cockney accent in Bullet Train