There’s just no stopping Brian Tyree Henry. Once again, the man’s had a hell of a year. After a 2021 of memorable appearances in projects like Godzilla vs. Kong, Eternals, and The Woman in the Window, it seemed like Brian Tyree Henry was bound to show up just about everywhere. Thankfully, 2022 continued this trajectory, giving the actor three widely diverse roles sure to yet again turn attention in his direction. This year, apart from starring alongside Jennifer Lawrence in the restrained psychological drama Causeway, Henry stole the show in the star-studded action comedy Bullet Train, and reprised his vital supporting role in the final two seasons of FX’s Atlanta. With each of these performances showcasing the actor’s ceaseless consistency, it’s become clear that Brian Tyree Henry has become one of the most captivating actors of the time. What makes him all the more impressive as an actor, though, is his ability to disappear into supporting roles and command scenes while giving his leading co-stars the room they need. All that said, let’s just face it: Brian Tyree Henry is 2022’s best supporting actor.
Even if 2022 is his biggest year yet, Brian Tyree Henry has for years been capable of leaving a lasting impression with only a minimal amount of screen time. His comedic turn in Godzilla vs. Kong recalled the eccentric characters found in the wonderful camp of the franchise’s prime during the Shōwa Era. Popping up in a few spare scenes in Barry Jenkins’ immaculate James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk, Henry played a traumatized ex-con reflecting on the crushing horrors of prison life as a Black man. In blockbusters like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Eternals also gave the actor the opportunity to contribute to big-budget superhero spectacles in minor-but-crucial roles. Alongside a talented cast list in Atlanta, Henry’s role as Al “Paper Boi” Miles is an all-timer and has been since its debut in 2016.
Brian Tyree Henry’s Performance as Paper Boi in ‘Atlanta’ Is Particularly Riveting
With the airing of Atlanta‘s final two seasons throughout 2022, viewers were treated to an emotionally complex conclusion to Earn (Donald Glover) and Paper Boi’s story, and these episodes are a fantastic showcase of Henry’s talent. Back in Season 2, Henry earned a Emmy nomination for his acting in the episode “Woods” (an entry easily amongst the show’s best), and the final two seasons of Atlanta give the actor plenty of opportunity to deserve a solid win. As the series heads towards its end, it continues to explore the emotional complexity that makes Paper Boi such a fascinating character, unpacking his psychology and giving him a greater depth that the earlier episodes peeked glimpses at.
As Earn and Van (Zazie Beetz) navigate the tribulations and uncertainties of their relationship—while meanwhile soul-searching and digging into themselves to find out who they really are as individuals—Paper Boi struggles with his newfound fame and all of its consequences. Even more than in the previous seasons, 2022’s episodes of Atlanta paints Paper Boi as so much more than an up-and-coming rapper. It’s not just that he’s become a star (he has, as a European tour and plenty of extra cash to waste proves), it’s also that he begins to come to terms with the imperfections of stardom.
Like a superhero alter ego, Paper Boi is braggadocios, confident, with an effortless charisma that only somebody at the top of their game can possess. He’s charming and coolly aloof, just as rappers and rockstars tend to be. Meanwhile, as Al, he’s increasingly uncomfortable in his success. Now that people know who he is, it’s like he always has to be switched on. He can’t escape from being recognized in public. In the hilarious and top-tier season 4 episode “Crank Dat Killer”, he dons a half-assed disguise (pair of shades, hat sans logo, the sort of stuff that only comes off as an ironically conspicuous attempt at blending in), while attempting to avoid being noticed by a potential serial killer. He’s still cool and charismatic, but he’s also scared, vulnerable, and alienated from those around him. It all works because of the complexity of Henry’s performance. He’s able to carry himself across the room with an untouchable confidence yet still reveal a hidden vulnerability through an expression moments later.
The Season 3 Episode “New Jazz” takes Al on a drug-addled odyssey through Amsterdam’s red-light district, and much like “Woods”, which used flourishes of dream-like surrealism to explore Al’s past and his emotional connections to it, the episode breaks the man down in order to make sense of his inner being. Here in particular Al is wounded, vulnerable, and Henry often makes this clear through mere gestures and expressions. When Alfred finds himself living an isolated, yet idyllic life removed from the city in the series’s penultimate episode, “Andrew Wyeth. Alfred’s World.”, Alfred’s daily routine is one of tremendous highs and lows. He becomes exasperated and relieved. He struggles and succeeds. He fights for his life—literally—and perseveres. Through it all, through every emotion and mood, Henry doesn’t falter. It’s all a wonder to watch, and it’s easy to forget that Paper Boi is a fictionalized rapper.
‘Bullet Train’ Shows Audiences How Funny Brian Tyree Henry Can Be
With Atlanta being billed as a comedy, of course there are plenty of opportunities for the cast to show their comedic talents, but in 2022 it was Bullet Train that showed audiences how funny Henry could be. In the film, he plays Lemon, a motor-mouthed British assassin with a knack for style and a tendency to treat Thomas the Tank Engine as though it were scripture. He swaps whip-like quips with Brad Pitt and disappears into lengthy bits of dialogue comparing the train’s passengers to Thomas characters. Bullet Train, though far from perfect, works largely because of its impressive ensemble cast and their ability to play cartoonish, exaggerated roles, and Lemon, with his frosty hair, thick British accent, is the undeniable highlight of the film.
In interviews supporting Bullet Train, Brad Pitt has lauded Henry with substantial praise, and has even penned a tribute for the man’s prowess. It’s foror good reason, too: the man is a riot. Comedy seems to come completely natural to him. Across from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Lemon’s partner Tangerine, Henry has some excellent comedic chemistry. He’s able to play off his co-stars to make the script pop with life. Paired with Taylor-Johnson in particular, he’s able to conjure bit after bit, with an Abbot and Costello-like breeziness.
Henry’s Performance Resonates Emotionally in ‘Causeway’
If Bullet Train showcased Henry’s comedic prowess promised by Atlanta, Causeway provided viewers with even more of the emotional resonance shown by the same series. Existing on the opposite end of the spectrum of Henry’s talent, Causeway pairs the actor opposite Jennifer Lawrence as a kind-hearted but melancholic mechanic whose personal history has left deep, unseen scars on his mental state. It’s a role that could be easily overplayed, and some actors might’ve tried to tear the film away from Lawrence, but Henry manages to give his costar plenty of room to work with while remaining a captivating presence that’s impossible to overlook. By its very nature, a role like this—a traumatized man with a prosthetic leg and an inability to reconcile with his own mistakes—often leaves too much room for overacting. Instead of a series of melodramatic climactic moments where he shouts and screams his way across scene, Henry does something much more complicated: he portrays a well of emotions with great reserve, using subtleties and expressions to drive his point home.
He doesn’t chew the scenery. He doesn’t ham it up. His character is worthy of empathy but not pity. The guilt that plagues him, closing him off to most of those that surround him, is understandable, but it’s also forgivable. Here is a character who isn’t defined by his handicap or his past, but one who undeniably faces struggles because of them both. Brian Tyree Henry is the ideal actor for the role largely due to his ability to be both charming and emotionally vulnerable. The film, which is ultimately about Lynsey’s (Lawrence) difficulty with overcoming her traumatic injury as a soldier, focuses heavily enough on its protagonist to avoid narrative drift, and that’s partially due to Henry’s captivating-but-generous performance. What he does in Causeway is Oscar-worthy, the kind of role that sure to catch the attention of many a filmmakers (if they haven’t already been paying attention).
With Atlanta, Bullet Train, and Causeway all under his best, it’s clear that Brian Tyree Henry has a bright future ahead of him. He’s set to return for the upcoming entries in the Spider-Verse and Godzilla vs. Kong franchises in supporting roles. The guy’s been consistent as hell thus far, and we’ll hopefully see him pop up with more frequency in the future. He can play sweet and intimidating, funny and sympathetic, and he can evoke both laughter and tears. A natural entertainer, he’s got the bravado and the talent to be a leading man—and I really hope to see him land a few top-billings in 2023 and onward—but in the meanwhile, it’s been a blast to see him as a supporting actor. This year in particular, he’s shown what he can do, and it’s awfully hard not to be impressed.