All things considered, Brian Tyree Henry should be wiped out.
The breakout star of FX’s “Atlanta” flew in from New York just a few hours earlier to attend the premiere of the second season of the offbeat comedy, which returns Thursday. He’ll be catching the red-eye back right after the event to resume rehearsals for the upcoming Broadway production “Lobby Hero,” by acclaimed writer Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”).
But battling jet lag and a lack of sleep hasn’t dampened Henry’s mood on this frosty February afternoon as he settles into a booth at a West Hollywood lounge. Joking and animated, his words flow rapid-fire as he attempts to describe what it’s like to be caught in a whirlwind.
“I’m exhausted beyond belief,” he says, his hands gesturing in front of his Janet Jackson T-shirt. “It’s like I’m one of the Looney Tunes characters who has been shot out of a catapult. But it’s all good and it’s all worth it.”
Being exhausted and excited makes sense given that Henry experienced a year in which he was featured in one of TV’s hottest comedies, earned an Emmy nomination for his work on one of TV’s hottest dramas (“This Is Us”), worked on several films with a roster of top names including Oscar winners Viola Davis, Jodie Foster and director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), and is now Broadway-bound.
I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and to have this kind of breakout moment is fantastic.
“I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and to have this kind of breakout moment is fantastic,” says Henry, who first made a splash originating the role of “The General” in the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.” “I don’t even want to call it a moment, because I want it to last.”
He’s particularly pumped about “Atlanta,” the series created and produced by Donald Glover about two cousins maneuvering awkwardly through the city’s hip-hop music scene. Henry earned raves for his performance as rough-edged rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles who is armed with both a withering glare and a pistol.
The first season drew widespread critical raves and scored two major Emmy wins — lead actor and director for a comedy for Glover — as well as a nomination for outstanding comedy.
A key story line in the first season revolved around Paper Boi’s grass-roots success. His celebrity factor was bolstered by street cred due to his involvement in a shooting. Seeing an opportunity to make money, Alfred’s hapless cousin Earn (Glover), a Princeton dropout bordering on homelessness, becomes his manager.
In person, Henry is considerably more approachable and good-humored than his often ill-tempered, weed-smoking alter ego.
“When I first read the script and saw who Albert was, I fell in love with him,” says Henry, who graduated from Morehouse College and received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama. “I immediately knew who this guy is. He’s like every cousin I have, like every best friend I still have.”
“I also want to make sure I do him justice,” he adds. “He has a protection about him, which is why he has a distance. He was born and raised in Atlanta, and he saw everyone he knows leave, and he’s had to figure out a way to survive there. But he’s one of the most loving people I’ve ever seen. He will do anything for the people he cares about.”
In a nod to the increase in robberies around the Christmas holidays when people are purchasing gifts, Season 2 has been dubbed “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season,” which exposes Paper Boi to the double-edged blade of celebrity.
“Now Alfred has to navigate this city in a totally different way,” says Henry. “That is terrifying to him, and it makes him vulnerable. He’s uncomfortable— he’s not a rapper, he was just trying to make some money real quick. Now all of a sudden his success has run away from him. He can’t go to the same restaurants, he can’t run around on the same corners because now there’s a factor that has put him at risk.”
“We wanted to explore the idea of what fame really means,” says Glover in a phone interview. “Popularity has value, and Alfred is an actual person who all of a sudden has this coming to him. There’s this crazy thing about rapping. It starts out as something very personal, but then it goes out in the world and people start to judge it and they have no idea what you’ve been through.”
Glover offers high praise for his costar’s performance. “I can’t think of anyone who could have done as good a job as Brian has,” the creator-writer-actor says. “He really brings a lot of humanity to this character. He can balance being intimidating and also being sweet and precious — he shows all sides of this character. He’s so different from Paper Boi and Alfred, you forget this is coming from an actor. This show would not be as successful without him.”
Though Henry is ecstatic about “Atlanta,” he’s equally jazzed about his stint onstage in “Lobby Hero,” which also stars Michael Cera (“Juno”) and Chris Evans (“Captain America”).
“I’m so happy to be home; the theater is where I started,” says Henry who in addition to “Book of Mormon” appeared in several productions at the Public Theatre. “I feel like this is a gold medal Olympic win — going home, cultivating all my artistic curiosity and being on Broadway with this awesome cast.” He plays William, the head of security in the drama, set in the lobby of a mid-income Manhattan high-rise apartment building.
At the “Atlanta” premiere screening, Henry had a joyous reunion with one of his best friends, “This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown. Henry nabbed a guest actor Emmy nomination on that drama’s episode “Memphis,” playing the cousin of Randall’s dying father.
“Doing that show and being with Sterling was one of the magical moments of my life,” said Henry.
The two friends will appear together in the upcoming film “Hotel Artemis,” which also stars Jodie Foster. Other work in the pipeline for the North Carolina native includes “Widows,” directed by Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis, “White Boy Rick” with Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey and “Fam-i-ly” with Taylor Schilling (“Orange Is the New Black.”).
“I’m working with all these artists I’ve admired,” says Henry. “I’ve always said, ‘Please just let me in the ring.’ I wouldn’t trade what’s happening now for the world.”
But hopefully, he can get a little sleep.