“There’s no greater feeling in the world than slamming Brad Pitt’s face on a tray table,” muses Brian Tyree Henry. The burly yet affable chameleonic actor is alluding to his bonkers fight scene with the Oscar-winning Hollywood icon in the dizzying, hilarious and outrageously violent action assemble Bullet Train (based on Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel Maria Beetle). Henry plays one half of the quirky British brothers/assassins Lemon and Tangerine, who are trying to survive a bloody, high-speed Japanese rail ride with a parade of body count-amassing killers that includes aforementioned headliner Pitt, Bad Bunny, Joey King, Hiroyuki Sanada, Andrew Koji, Karen Fukuhara, Michael Shannon, Atlanta co-star Zazie Beetz, and “twin” Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
“I know the dynamic of having a Black guy and a white guy team up to go on the same mission,” Henry explains of his unlikely, fraternal, onscreen bond with Taylor-Johnson. “But usually those duos are two men from different worlds coming together like in Lethal Weapon or Pulp Fiction. But with Lemon and Tangerine, we don’t know what their upbringing was like, but we know they went through it together. I’m really grateful to David for allowing us to explore that because you don’t really get the chance to see that kind of kinship and brotherhood between two people like us.”
“To me getting that gray is the testimony of making it. Every year in our lives it feels like you are beating a statistic.”—Brian Tyree Henry
David, of course, is Bullet Train director David Leitch, who has nothing but unmitigated praise for the classically trained Yale School of Drama thespian. “He’s an actor’s actor,” the auteur behind such face-smashing joyrides as John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Dead Pool 2, and The Fast & The Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw says glowingly of Henry. “For the first week our sound mixer, who is Irish, was convinced that Brian was British [laughs]. He actually asked Brian, ‘Hey, how do you like being over here in LA?’ And Brian was like, ‘I live in Atlanta, man.’ He was not just going to phone in a British accent.”
The irony is that when Henry, 40, first set foot on the campus of Morehouse University a professional acting career was not something he believed was ever attainable. “I thought either you had it or you don’t, and that primarily meant being white, pretty, thin and all that shit,” he explains. “I did theater for fun… I did it for escapism, honestly.” It wasn’t until the Fayetteville, North Carolina native was convinced by friends at Spelman College to audition for the classic Greek play Antigone that he knew he had found his calling. “That was the best feeling for me to know that there were no limitations to what I could play or be,” he says.
That’s an understatement. Ever since his breakout run in the Emmy-winning surreal FX comedy series Atlanta as uneasy rapper Paper Boi, the man has been an omnipresent screen titan—genre-jumping from the Oscar-stamped drama If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and underrated crime heist release Widows (2018) to the comic book blockbusters Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse, Joker (2019), and Marvel’s Eternals (2021). Next up for the Emmy nominated Henry: a big screen Apple film pairing him with Jennifer Lawrence titled Causeway, due out later this year, and his first two lead television roles in FX sci-fi FBI drama Class of ’09 and in another Apple production, Sinking Spring.
Try and catch up.
CassiusLife: So let’s start with the British accent. Where the hell did it come from?
Brian Tyree Henry: What I wanted that accent to be was a hodgepodge of you not knowing where to place him actually. Because of the backstory, because of [Aaron Taylor-Johnson and I] being raised in the foster care system that threw us around we were able to develop a backstory of these characters while we were filming. Because the first thing you hear about Lemon and Tangerine is they are twin brothers, and it’s very clear they ain’t fucking twins [laughs].
I mean, that’s clear as day…
But what actually ended up happening is when I was doing the press tour in Europe [someone told me] Lemon’s accent is cockney. It’s more East London based and I think that’s kind of been an influence because of Aaron who plays my brother. Also, I have a lot of Black British friends and I wasn’t going to have them slapping me in the street.
One of the most interesting aspects about Bullet Train is all of the characters go beyond one-dimensional movie tropes. Lemon gets his philosophy from the Thomas the Tank Engine kids show. What is your take on Lemon’s offbeat reading of people?
With Lemon you got this big, 6’2 Black guy on a Japanese bullet train. I already stick out like a sore thumb, so I wanted to lean into that. Once I saw that he was using Thomas the Tank Engine as his own form of horoscope to tell who was good and who was bad I knew there was playfulness to this guy. I mean he dyed his hair blond because he’s Lemon. And on top of that he takes his job [as an assassin] very seriously.
What’s your coolest Brad Pitt story?
Jesus, man [laughs]. There’s a lot. I consider myself very fortunate to be on this journey with Brad Pitt at this point in his career. He’s been doing this for three decades or so. Our fight in particular was really crazy and fun because it was the first fight to be shot for the movie, so there was a lot of pressure. Not only was it the first fight, but like you said, it takes place in a quiet car [laughs].
So Brad and I are trying to figure out how to do all of this different fight choreography where we have to be quiet. At one point [during the scene], I told him, “You look like every homeless white man I’ve ever seen. You are going to sit in front of me wearing a bucket hat? Oh, fantastic.” I just said, “Let’s go in, man.” And Brad had a great time with that. I’ve been fortunate enough to been on this leg of the Brad Pitt Fun Tour.
What were the chances that you would end up in the same movie, again, with your Atlanta co-star Zazie Beetz?
Me and Za have an ongoing joke. Like on Atlanta it’s very rare when she and I ever get to have scenes together. So flash forward to the Joker. We both get cast in that movie and I was like, oh my God, yet another project where I don’t have any scenes with Zazie! And then I’m in Bullet Train and I was like, still no scenes together. I just told Zazie at this point this should just be our cosmic joke for the rest of our lives.
Were you excited about turning 40? What did that milestone mean for you?
I’m not going to lie… getting a silver crown is pretty great, man. To me getting that gray is the testimony of making it. Every year in our lives it feels like you are beating a statistic. Now I just want to focus on the living at this point because for the first 39 years it was [just] me trying to survive.
“[Acting] gave me an opportunity to play several different layers and several different sides of who a Black man can be in this world. I just want to constantly do this as a reminder that you can do anything.”—Brian Tyree Henry
Atlanta is returning for its final season later this year. Last season was pretty much a mind f–k…
[Laughs.] That is what we wanted to reflect because Atlanta is its own magnifying glass on our own personal lives and trajectory. I think there’s never been a show like Atlanta doing what we have done, telling the stories we are telling and turning the lens back on the viewer like, yeah, shit is absurd, right? I know that last season got some mixed reviews because we teetered off the path of the ordinary formula that people expected. But it’s like, look, man. When we started this Atlanta was something y’all didn’t expect either. We didn’t think y’all would rock with an invisible car, but you did.
One particular episode that got a lot of viewers’ attention was the edibles episode in which Paper Boi has a hallucination about a woman named Lorraine, who as it turns out, was the name of his late mother. How hard was it to film that one given your real life experience of losing your mother?
There’s really an amazing, unspoken language between Donald [Glover], Hiro [Murai], and Stephen [Glover], and the writers and creators. We care about each other a great deal… we have become each other’s place of safety. I never experienced anything ever in my life where my trajectory was going up and I lose the most important person in my life. How do I navigate that?
How were you able to get through the episode?
I have had the luxury of doing a few Donald-written episodes, and I always feel that part of me and Donald’s connection is there’s a sinew of that kind of grief and understanding of what the fuck is going on right now? I think that Alfred (Paper Boi) lends himself to be that guy. He’s the guy who just didn’t really think he could go as far as he went in his life. At the end of the day, I want people to care about each and every character I play.
You are pretty hard to pin down as an actor…
I like a lot of different kind of genres. I’m still pinching myself. For example, I just filmed a movie with Jennifer Lawrence not too long ago. It’s called Causeway. I remember us coming together, we are making this movie and here I am opposite Jennifer Lawrence. And I’m like, well, what does this mean? What does this relationship mean? Has this relationship ever been reflected onscreen yet? But I never want to limit myself. I’m really doing this for my younger self who loved these movies. I was serious! I literally went to the dollar theaters. I would watch four movies in one day and just leave thinking, Oh, my God! That was the most amazing thing. But only if they had a character that looked like me.
Oh, you were a serious movie nerd, huh?
I remember watching Jurassic Park thinking, man, I want to be that little kid! I grew up as most of us Black men and Black women in a society hearing what we can’t be. We’ve been told, no, you can’t aspire to be that. Make sure that you push everything down and don’t feel anything. So what I’ve had the absolute honor and grace of being able to discover in acting is it gave me an outlet. It gave me an opportunity to play several different layers and several different sides of who a Black man can be in this world. I just want to constantly do this as a reminder that you can do anything.