High Speed: Brian Tyree Henry Rides The 'Bullet Train' To New Heights
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On the eve of the release of his new action–thriller–comedy, Bullet Train (in theaters Aug. 5 via SONY Pictures), actor Brian Tyree Henry reveals how his roles reflect his personal and professional needs and the secret behind his (hardly) overnight success.
THIS FEELS LIKE PROGRESS.
"You are the first person that I am talking to about Bullet Train," says actor Brian Tyree Henry. "The studio has not allowed anyone to see it yet, and they are serious about it." It's an early Friday morning in July. Henry is anxious to hear an outside opinion about Bullet Train—the film in which he co-stars with Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, and reggaeton star Bad Bunny—about a motley crew of assassins competing aboard Japan's famously fast train. Typically when a studio is reluctant to screen a film pre-release, it's due to a lack of confidence in a film's performance.
But, Bullet Train has one powerful certainty: Brian Tyree Henry delivers. His performance is a joy, as he continues to command the screen in successive roles that stretch his skills as an actor and inspire an increased societal understanding of Blackness in the 21st century. Henry's film roles range from the murderous (Steve McQueen's Widows) to the magical (in Chloe Zhao's Eternals, he portrays Marvel's first openly gay character). And next month, the Lila Neugebauer-directed military drama Causeway (starring Henry and Jennifer Lawrence) will premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (Sept 8–Sep 18).
However, Bullet Train is his first foray into the action film genre—where for an actor landing Kung-Fu kicks is equally as crucial as learning lines. For this reason, atop the chance to play against a racial type, Henry excitedly said yes to director David Leitch (John Wick, Deadpool, Atomic Blonde).
"I never really thought that I would be offered such a role. I love the genre of action films. I love the slow motion walks, the explosions, and the punchlines," says Henry before explaining the responsibility he also accepted by portraying "Lemon," the platinum-blond, smartly dressed British assassin and the only Black character of consequence in the film. Henry needed to know that Lemon would not fall prey to Tinseltown's tokenism—the casting of people of color in worthless roles as evidence of inclusivity: "When characters like Lemon are written on the page, especially if they're Black, they are there for laughs, are not smart, and die first. I told the director: I want to make sure that Lemon is going to be in the DNA of this film and that he is a well-rounded character."
Both asks were granted.
Brian Tyree Henry is well equipped to disrupt Hollywood's rules because he first learned them. After graduating from Atlanta's Morehouse College in 2004, he migrated to New Haven, Conn., where he studied at Yale University's School of Drama (Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning co-writer of Moonlight, was a classmate). He then made his mark on The Great White Way by originating the role of The General in 2011's mammoth hit The Book of Mormon and scoring a Tony nomination for the play Lobby Hero in 2018). He has starred in films with Oscar winners such as Viola Davis (Widows), Mathew McConaughey (White Boy Rick), and Joaquin Phoenix (Joker).
However, he is recognized chiefly for his Primetime Emmy nominated portrayal of fictional rapper and drug dealer Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles in FX's hit comedy-drama series Atlanta (the fourth and final season premieres Sept. 15). Henry's success was not "instant" nor overnight. His hard-won receipts and A-List experience have earned him the right to speak directly into the ears of the mainstream directors crafting the images of our emerging and established movie stars of color. His conversation with Leitch resulted in a very different "Lemon" that we see on screen versus the character initially adapted for the screenplay from the Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka.
"I had that conversation with the director because it was in the thick of the 2020 political and social unrest," Henry remembers. "In the first pass of the script, Lemon dies pretty early, and I had to sit down with David and say: 'You must think about what that looks like when you put a Black person in a role, and you get Black people in the seat to watch this; and, then we have to sit there and watch them slaughtered. So it would be best if you thought about the ramifications of what that looks like when you put my body into a film. I don't think we always deserve to be fucking killed all the time."
Henry grew up in Fayetteville, N.C. as the only boy with four sisters. When his parents divorced, his mother, a middle school teacher, moved to Washington, DC, with her children (she died in a car accident on the day he wrapped 2016's first season of Atlanta). Henry then attended Morehouse College—an all-male Historically Black College/University. The curious and well-read boy who grew up in a house full of women suddenly found himself surrounded by Black men.
Authenticity and connection are essential to Henry. He is clear that his Blackness—navigating his life and this world as a Black man—is the source of his creativity and skills. "I'm still shocked that there are people in this world who have never encountered a Black person," says the 40-year-old. "I'm shocked that there are people who don't have Black friends, who live in areas where they don't see Black people, who can live a Blackless life."
His matriculation at Morehouse (alumni include Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson) provided the foundation for his self-awareness and confidence. "I felt anchored in Atlanta. It accepted me for who I am while also contributing to how to navigate the world."
Henry certainly has a unique point of view. From his characterization process to the biggest lesson that's changed his life, learn more about the actor as his conversation with EDITION's Editor-in-Chief Isoul Hussein Harris continues below.
Was playing a Black Brit in Bullet Train challenging?
I've always wanted to play a British person and an assassin. I've wanted to embody characters that I've watched over time in different action movies and bring my little flare to it. I wanted to explore another side of another man I had watched but never seen represented the way I wanted him to.
How do you determine your challenges?
I'm always trying to push myself with each role I take from one to the next. I'm always trying to figure out what or who these Black men are to me when I pick these roles, [along with] what sides of them are in me because there's something that I must connect to play them, these men.
Henry and Brad Pitt (playing Ladybug) on set. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES
“I want people to root for them at the end of the day. I want people to care. I want people to consider whether the characters are okay when they're not on screen. That's what I try to do with every part I take.”–Brian Tyree Henry
Was there a connection between this film and what was going on in America two years ago when you were filming in Los Angeles?
I'm sitting there with suspenders and a Canadian tuxedo, with blonde hair, bruises, and blood dripping from my mouth, talking about how I want [President Joe] Biden to win. I'm on the train smacking white people around, and then I get to go and look at the inauguration. I was like, 'Ah, this feels cool. This feels like progress.'
What is your purpose with each character you portray?
I have chosen never to play these characters in a way that shows them in a terrible light. I never want them to feel like they're not seen. I never want them to feel like they're not recognized. There is a testimony to what I'm trying to do every time I step into these Black men's shoes. I want people to root for them at the end of the day. I want people to care. I want people to consider whether the characters are okay when they're not on screen. That's what I try to do with every part I take.
Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (playing Tangerine) in Bullet Train. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES
What do you feel, if anything, are you looking to learn for yourself?
I think that's also been something in my career that I've always been trying to chase what is this fraternity that I have, what is this connection that I have with brotherhood, what is this link that I have in almost everything that I do because I grew up without brothers. I grew up in a house full of women, always searching for what this connection to manhood was for me. And so playing these men, I'm trying to figure out what that is. I'm trying to bring different elements of what that is so I can be more enlightened and walk through the world with a better understanding of who I am.
Props to you for the blonde hair. I told my friend the other day I wanted to dye my hair blonde this summer.
Do it, man. Just do it. First of all, we can do anything we fucking want to do. Go platinum, Bro. Because I was like, 'They did it in The Meteor Man. The Golden Lords looked terrific when they did it, so that's all I thought about. And now I can say that I did it. And I always want to push myself on my character's appearance and how they move in the world. I don't ever want to be limited in what I can do.
I appreciate the encouragement. So speaking about you pushing yourself, What is your process of creating these memorable characters?
It changes every time. I'm currently in Canada filming my first biopic about Claressa Shields, the first Black female gold medalist in boxing. I'm playing her coach, Jason Crutchfield, and this is an entirely different bag because this man exists. This man is living and breathing as we speak. And so there's another kind of layer that comes with that. I must talk like him. Move like him. There's wiggle room to bring my own thing, but I want to honor him because he exists.
Henry as "Lemon" in Bullet Train. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES
I believe those familiar with your work would say that you play each of these Black men as if they have flesh and bone.
Thank you. I think a part of me when I take on characters, I usually put them in that place where they exist somewhere, and I want somebody to care for them. I know it's easy to live in a world where you don't need to know these Black men. I'm just so shocked that it is so easy for people to make us nameless and faceless in this world in 2022. And so, my job is to make sure that they never forget who these men are. It is easy to turn a blind eye to who we are as Black people; I don't want that.
What has been one of your biggest lessons since becoming a success in this space?
People don't have a big enough imagination, and sometimes you must show them what something can be. It's easy in this business and in this world to grow up and have your imagination stripped away from you because everybody wants you to grow up, and everybody wants you to be. Especially being Black in this world, we are wholly anchored in reality. There's nowhere we can go where we don't know what reality is. The biggest thing is to hold onto my imagination because it's kept me alive. It's the thing that kept me holding my head up, and I just realized that most people don't have it. Therefore, you must start with embracing yourself. Know that you are more significant than the imaginations of most people.