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Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry: Breakthrough Stars’ Friendship Began Over a Pair of Beard Clippers

Listen as the "This Is Us" and "Atlanta" stars swap stories about supporting each other, their mutually huge year, and their takes on the role of an artist under a Trump presidency.

KCRW's The Spin-Off

Brian Tyree Henry and Sterling K. Brown

KCRW

Ten years ago, Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry met while working on the Tarell Alvin McCraney play “Wig Out” at the Sundance Theater Lab.

Both actors were playing drag queens, and one day, Henry – who was sporting a thick beard at the time – asked Brown to help shave his face.

“He did it,” Henry recalled. “He went and got clippers, and we’ve been best friends ever since. Once you shave a guy’s face, man, you’re best friends after that.”

Cut to 2016, and after years paying dues on stage and in small roles, Brown and Henry both coincidentally had the breakthrough year of their careers.

Brown, of course, won an Emmy portraying Christopher Darden on FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and now stars in the fall’s new hit NBC series “This Is Us.” (He also just landed a role in “Marvel’s Black Panther.”) Henry earned raves for his turn as Albert “Paper Boi” Miles in FX’s “Atlanta,” which just won the Golden Globe for best comedy.

READ MORE: How ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Changed Everything for Breakout Star Sterling K. Brown

“His wins are my wins and my wins are his,” Henry said. “I’m really, really grateful to have not just another male figure in my life but another black male figure, another black male actor who has traversed this path before me and I learn from him every single day. It’s just really amazing to just see how this year. It’s kind of uncanny.”

The day before the Golden Globes, we sat down with Brown and Henry to record an episode of KCRW’s “The Spin-Off” podcast and get a snapshot of what the past year has been like for these two buddies. It was a bit of serendipity that the two actors got to simultaneously see their stars rise. (The duo shares the same manager, and even the same publicist, giving their team a double win this year as well.)

KCRW The Spin-Off

Brian Tyree Henry and Sterling K. Brown

KCRW

Brown and Henry even studied under the same acting teacher, Ron Van Lieu, who was at NYU when Brown was there for grad school, and later moved on to Yale School of Drama, where Henry studied.

It’s clear this brotherhood, forged on stage and through a common devotion to the craft of acting, has only strengthened, even though they live on opposite coasts.

“Any time I’m in New York, I kick it with Brian,” Brown said. “He comes out to L.A. he kicks it with me and it’s just family, like for real.”

Brown even found out before Henry that “Atlanta” had been picked up to series. “I was at the FX Fan Meet and I talked to one of the producers and like, ‘Oh yeah man. It’s picked up.’ I was like, ‘Have you told everybody?’ ‘Not yet.’ I was like, ‘Brian, Brian!’ To see the way in which this man transformed himself from Brian to Alfred, I could not have been happier. As the series progressed, in my humble opinion he was the heart of the show. Donald [Glover] creatively, the writing, the producing, it’s incredible, but the heart of ‘Atlanta’ to me was Paper Boi.”

Henry said he has become really protective of his character. “I just really wanted to make sure that the Alfreds of the world were represented… I really wanted to make sure that he wasn’t just put in this place of being a rapper and a thug. He is someone’s cousin. He is someone’s son. He’s someone’s friend. He’s someone’s protector and I really wanted to make sure he came off that way. That’s why I rarely call him ‘Paper Boi.’ He’s Alfred.”

The pals have rarely gone up for the same role, although Henry did audition for Darden on “People v. O.J.”

As for landing “This Is Us,” Brown said he read the script while shooting “People vs. O.J.” and confided in co-star Sarah Paulson about the part. “The opportunity to be a part of something of that kind of quality on network television was simply just too good to pass up,” he said.

The morning Brown scored SAG Award nominations for both “People v. O.J.” and “This Is Us,” he posted a tearful thank you on Twitter – and Henry enjoyed teasing him about it.

“Sterling is one of the most sensitive people that I’ve ever seen and when he feels it, he is going to let you know,” Henry said. “That moment it got me. I’m not going to lie. I laughed the first time. I was like, ‘Look it, look it. Oh look at this cry face. Oh God, all right.’ But you know I love that there’s no shame in that, that you can go up there and do that. It was warranted man, but you’re just so damn emotional!”

READ MORE: The 16 Best Breakthrough TV Performances of 2016

Meanwhile, Henry and Brown admitted that although 2016 was a stellar year for them professionally, Henry said it came after a particularly difficult personal time for him.

“On top of trying to find my way in this business and losing my mother and trying to figure out what family meant to me and everything,” he said, “2016, there was a lot of anger from me and a lot of anger all around. I think the hardest part was to really realize that all these things, it’s worth it. I have to survive and with the help of good friends… the hardest thing was to try and believe in myself as well.”

The actors said they were also both affected by the changing political and cultural climate triggered by what was a racially charged election.

Said Brown: “After the election I put up a Facebook post saying like, ‘Hey America, thought I knew you. Maybe I need to get reacquainted.’ I’m a little surprised. I’m a little confused, but I’m fighting this urge within me to be angry and label everyone who voted a particular way as an enemy. I feel like there is an opportunity for understanding that I need to embrace within myself that I try to bring to my work, and I’m thankful to have ‘This Is Us,’ which has a way of sort of bridging gaps in a way that I didn’t anticipate.

“I had one person respond to me saying like, ‘I hate it when you get political. Can’t you just basically do your job?’ I said, ‘Well I’m sorry but I am a citizen, and what I’m trying to do is encourage a dialogue so I don’t have to walk around thinking one thing necessarily about people, but they can express themselves to me.’ Because I feel like it’s become so partisan and everyone has become so antagonistic towards one another that if that continues the status quo cannot persist. People have to come together because it’s becoming less about governments and more about winning. I don’t want to win. It’s been a stalemate.”

KCRW The Spin-Off

Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry with “The Spin-Off” host Michael Schneider

KCRW

Henry said he hopes that audiences continue to connect with shows that tell relatable stories, regardless of race.

“It’s really humbling and gratifying to see that people are finally realizing that we are talented and we have things to say and that our stories are just like your stories. There’s no reason that anybody from Wisconsin or Turkey can’t relate to ‘Atlanta,'” he said.

“There’s no reason that these landlocked states can’t feel like they can assess this story or the journey of these characters… As artists we feel like we have an obligation to make sure that those stories of those characters are told in the truest of lights. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying to know that this man is our president, but at the end of the day I really feel like a revolution is going to happen and I think it has already started by even us just sitting here and doing what we’re doing.”

Head over to KCRW’s The Spin-Off to hear the entire podcast featuring Brown and Henry — or download it via iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you access podcasts. (It’s also available via KCRW’s smartphone app.)

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