From creator Donald Glover (who is also the series star and an executive producer, writer and director), FX’s Atlanta, dubbed Robbin’ Season for its sophomore effort, has had some of the most compelling and thought-provoking storytelling and next-level excellence in acting on television, and it just keeps getting better. It’s funny and it’s painful, in the best blend of comedy and drama, and it’s blown up all audience expectation.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, the cousin of Earn Marks (Glover) and a star rapper who’s trying to come to grips with fame, talked about his tremendous performance in the recent episode “Woods” (Episode 208) and why it was one of the most difficult things he’s ever done, coming to terms with the affect of fame and celebrity, the “Barbershop” episode (Episode 205), what Donald Glover brings as a director, and reflecting the absurdity of life in the series. He also talked about his return to Broadway for Lobby Hero, the experience of working with filmmakers on the level of Steve McQueen (on Widows) and Barry Jenkins (on If Beale Street Could Talk), and making Hotel Artemis with his good friend Sterling K. Brown.
Collider: I have to say really, really tremendous work on the “Woods” episode. Every time I think Atlanta can’t freak me out any more than it already has, it seems to find new ways.
BRIAN TYREE HENRY: Oh, that’s good!
It’s funny, I was one of the people that was very skeptical of this show, in the beginning, because I don’t watch a lot of half-hours and I just wasn’t sure if I could relate to a show about Atlanta, but it’s really proven itself to be one of the most incredible shows on TV. It’s just really terrific!
HENRY: Thank you very much. Thanks!
Obviously, the “Teddy Perkins” episode was disturbing enough, and then “Woods” ramped things up even further. What was it like to shoot “Woods”?
HENRY: It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. Collaborating with Stefani Robinson, who wrote the episode, and Hiro [Murai], who directed it, they really challenged me to go ahead and confront some things that were really terrifying for me to confront. The parallels between Alfred and myself, at that time, were very, very, very present, and they just really found a way to pull this thing out of me. Well, I wouldn’t really say pull because it leapt out of me, out of necessity. We get these moments in our lives where we don’t really know where we are, we don’t know what to do, and we don’t know which way to go. Stefani just wrote something so remarkable and so incredible that I had to just get over what my fear was about, with what I was doing, and just really confront it. hat was very necessary for Alfred, as well. Do you play the game, or do you not play the game? Who are you, in this land that you’ve been born and raised in, that you don’t know anymore? And when you lose people that you navigated it with, when you’re alone, there’s that true feeling of loneliness. It was hard. It was really hard, just that sense of danger and that level of vulnerability that you have to have. It can be fucking jolting to somebody. So, I think that Stefani put down on paper exactly what I wanted to say, and I think Hiro captured exactly how I felt. I was very honored, but Jesus, it was really, really, really, really tough.
To watch Alfred go from getting a pedicure to then not knowing if he was going to make it out of the woods alive, I was like, “When did this become a horror movie?!”
HENRY: Yeah, but that’s the thing about fame and celebrity, I guess. You just cannot do the things that you used to do anymore and nobody really cares about what you lost. Nobody knows what you go through. They just wanna see the persona that they admire, and I think that that was a big realization that I had to have. For that very final scene, here I am covered in dirt and brush and blood and, at the end of the end of the day, they want the picture, so you have to step up to take the picture while still covered in the essence of all the things that you’ve been through. You’ve still gotta do it. That was a huge lesson. That episode was a huge lesson for me, and it could very well be the thing that saves my life.
In comparison, how was the experience of shooting the “Barbershop” episode? Was it ever hard not to crack up with Robert Powell carrying on like he was?
HENRY: You know what, it was both. Stefani wrote that episode, too, and I remember talking to her and her saying, “Let’s see how far we can really push Alfred’s sanity, in a way.” Yet again, it’s another place that he knows. It’s a place he goes to all the time. It’s a place that’s familiar, and yet, at the same time, he sits down on this day and it’s completely different. Throughout the whole episode, he really, really tries to keep his patience about this familiar person that he knows, taking him on unfamiliar territory. He can’t do the same thing that he used to because he’s on probation. He has this photo shoot he has to go to and he has to get his hair cut, and it’s the only person he knows to do it, but this person decides to be different and take advantage of his fame. What do you do? For this season, it’s a huge realization of what the future holds for him, which is something that I don’t think he’s really thought about. I think he was more of a day-to-day kinda guy. Now, he has to really think about investing in himself, which is terrifying. It’s a terrifying thought.
How would you describe working with Donald Glover, as a director, in comparison to what he’s like, as a co-star and fellow actor?
HENRY: There’s an unspoken trust. You know that he has your back, and you want to do as much as you can. But the most you can do, sometimes, is the very little that you do, and he sees that. He sees everything. Every single reaction that I got in “Barbershop,” he caught it. He caught every single thing that Alfred was going through, that I was putting forth. That’s very rare. Him and Hiro have this very amazing talent of just letting the characters breathe, working within the space of silence. There’s a trust there with Donald, and you show up and wanna do your best, but it’s not you having anything to prove. There’s a trust that they have for you, to know that you know how to walk through this character and they know how to capture that in the way they want to see it. So, it’s not about impressing and it’s not about trying to put something out there that you hope makes them proud. They just wanna see you live, and they’ll capture it.
Have you had any conversations about possibilities for Season 3 and where things could go?
HENRY: Of course, but Season 2 is still going. There’s no telling what’s gonna happen, in between then just with life. That’s been the greatest gift of Atlanta, just observing life and seeing where it goes. Then, we’ll come together and find the absurdity of it, and make something great.