Brian Tyree Henry says he was shouting at the television during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. “I was in my living room, screaming the whole night,” the actor, set to star in Donald Glover’s show Atlanta, told Billboard over the phone the morning after. “First of all, black excellence. I was like, ‘So did we have a meeting and say we’re going to shut this VMAs down?’ I think I watched that Kanye West video three times after.”
Black excellence has been a running theme this year: just look to Beyonce‘s visual album Lemonade and the 2016 Olympics with MVPs like gymnast Simone Biles and “fastest man in the world” Usain Bolt. Now, Donald Glover, also known as rapper Childish Gambino, is looking to shine the spotlight on more people of color in his FX dramedy Atlanta. The half-hour show centers on Atlanta’s thriving hip-hop scene where rapper Paper Boi (a.k.a. Alfred Miles, played by Henry) and his cousin, Earn (Glover), try to get his career off the ground.
Before the thought-provoking and LOL-worthy series makes it debut on Sept. 6, Billboard caught up with Henry to discuss his beginnings as a theater mainstay, his chemistry with Glover and how he prepared to play an Atlanta rapper on the come-up.
You’re a Yale alum, starred in the Broadway hit A Book of Mormon and got your start in theater. When did you decide to take your talents to TV?
I think with every actor, that’s the progression you want to go. I don’t think there’s anything that you don’t want to explore and use your abilities and take them as wide and far as you can. I never really thought about what kind of career I wanted to map out for myself. I just wanted to do work that spoke to my heart. Atlanta definitely did that.
How did you fall in love with acting?
Acting for me was kind of a way of survival, honestly. I’m the baby boy out of four different sisters and I grew up in a house with so many different personalities that acting was the only way to not go to therapy. I basically fell in love with these different personalities, understanding how they were the way they were, and it gave me the ability to just go out and let these stories be told to people who didn’t necessarily know people like my family. I had to find a way to be heard and seen and acting kind of gave me that opportunity as a young child to study and be around these personalities that I was just so excited to be around.
It was something that came to me when some friends told me that I should audition for a play, and I was young trying to figure out what kind of major [in college] I should have. I didn’t know what to do. I just remember watching my first theater class and I was like, “Oh I can get up there,” like I could absolutely get up and do this everyday and learn about it. So as someone with a darker past, it was just something that really made me happy.
What was the most attractive part of Atlanta’s script to you?
The city itself. I wasn’t born in Atlanta but this is definitely the city where I grew up. I lived here from 18 to 22 and this city was hugely instrumental in the foundation of who I am as a person. This is where I discovered that acting is something that I wanted to do and the city also saved my life as well. So to hear there’s a show called Atlanta, I was like, great, we need to address this city because I feel like Atlanta is its own universe. I just remember waking up in Atlanta every single day, thinking, “This city is so me.” It’s great to see people who look like me, to see people who own things who look like me, to see people excel who look like me, it was very amazing the moment I got here and that was one of the biggest things that made me feel really, really confident about taking on a show like this, because it deserves this representation. Atlanta deserves this representation, how it’s crafted and molded like black art, black entertainment and black fashion. It’s a constantly evolving city and when I heard that there was a show coming out by Donald Glover, who is a native of Atlanta, I was like this is really gonna reflect exactly what Atlanta is going to be, so I had to do it.
Atlanta has become such a hip-hop mecca. Did you have to listen to a lot Atlanta hip-hop artists in order to prepare for your role?
I went to college from the years 2000 to 2004 and that was the boom of the Atlanta sound in America. That’s when you had your Lil Jons, Ludacris came on the scene, Usher was like the biggest thing at the time, OutKast had Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and that was an era I knew. When I turned on the radio, that sound was starting to break out and to see if happening again with Future and Gucci Mane, it’s so refreshing because the city really has its own vibe. It’s unapologetic, it’s unabashedly Atlanta that like when you’re hearing an Atlanta song in the club, you just go ape-shit. It’s just so lit all the time and I love it.
I was kind of already listening to music like that. I just think about how I grew up with me and my friends [seeing] how music was a big part of our everyday life and how there are songs today that we still listen to that are very reflective of that time in Atlanta that’s crunk. I can’t even believe I just said the word “crunk.” You took me back to 2000. I didn’t have to really try to listen to a particular hip-hop artist, per se, because I don’t think that really mirrors what Alfred is about. Rapping is really his big thing. I wouldn’t want to try to emulate anybody. I just really wanted Alfred to reflect people that we know in our lives that are trying to make it. I wanted him to reflect that person that somebody out there can see themselves and reflect it back to them.
Are there similarities between you in real-life and Alfred?
Absolutely, because Alfred is petty as f–k and so am I and I love it. Alfred gives me lots of space to really go through life in a way that I, Brian, wouldn’t normally do. I love to smoke weed everyday in the show. He’s just that dude, man. I feel like Alfred is definitely a huge part of me, I also see my father in Alfred. My father was a Southern man who used to have at his house, people would come over. He’s charismatic, he’s loyal, he’s genuine. I really wanted there to be that character like that out there regardless of what his lifestyle is he can still relate to him and still care about him. We live in a society where it’s so easy for you to put a label on somebody if he wears a buttoned up polo with a gold chain. I didn’t want that to be something that affected Alfred. I wanted him to be so so unapologetically who he is and I think that that is one of the best things about Alfred is that I can do that with him. There’s no fear because this is his life, this is his world and he’s just inviting you to take a look.
What sticks out the most about working with Donald Glover?
How much we can make each other laugh and how much we can how much we can absolutely discuss any given topic at any point in time. It was so weird because the moment I met Donald, we had that connection. I felt like he was a homie I had known for most of my life. There was no reservation, there was no “let me make sure that I don’t say this, or I don’t say that,” I had been a fan of Childish Gambino for years. I just felt like he was one of the best that I had heard and it was just such a refreshing voice to hear. He’s like my family member, like my cousin. I could chop it up with him like any one of my friends. He’s just so human and it’s hard to find that sometimes in this day and age in this industry.
There are so many topics that come through like gun violence, the use of the N-word, pop culture and the Internet. What do you think is going to be the biggest takeaway when viewers see it?
That people who don’t necessarily feel like their lives are reflected will feel that we are reflecting their lives. I’m really excited about this new lineup of fall television because people call it diversity but I call it the norm for us. I think that’s the best thing about being black is that we find a way to make our own communities and always give room for people to pull up to our tables. We always provide a way for other people from different walks of life to come into the communities that we have built because we’re so used to being excluded. We’re so used to being told, “No, you don’t fit here, you don’t belong here,” and we go and we make our own communities and we thrive. We always set a place for other people to sit at the table and I really feel like this time with this show, we are really providing a universe and a life that is just the norm for us. I hope that people see their lives reflected and know that we got them and feel represented. I just think about the last time I saw a show like this on a network that has three black men as the leads. And yeah, you can call it a black show, a hip-hop show, you can call it this or whatever you want, a hip-hop show, but I think it’s going to surprise people at how human the show is — this is our lives.