“Get off me!” At an Emmys event for “Atlanta” in June, Brian Tyree Henry jokingly brushed off the conciliatory hand of one of his co-stars after he was reduced to tears on stage. The usually stoic actor was addressing the recent death of his mother Willow Deane Kearse, in relation to the episode “Woods,” and broke down several times during the Q & A session.
“The first thing I have to do is say thank you to all of you for letting me do that… because you all were with me through the whole thing. I’ve been talking about this episode for a month and this [crying] has never happened,” he said while wiping his tears. “I’ll just say this. It was very personal. It was very cathartic. It was very therapeutic.”
In a way, it makes sense that the tears didn’t come until this point. Even though he’s discussed the importance of “Woods” — which was written by Stefani Robinson — in all the interviews, he’d always maintained his equanimity. Henry seemed as if he had mourned but made his peace with the loss of his mother, who had died suddenly in an automobile accident shortly after finishing shooting the first season of the Emmy-winning FX series.
“We were having a wrap party. I remember us having the time of our lives with each other,” he said. “Literally the next morning I got the call that my mother’s gone and [I’m] just sitting there. Your brain just goes through that: How could you possibly go through having the best moment of your life doing this thing and…? The first person I called was [executive producer Dianne McGunigle]. I felt so bad because I was just like, ‘I can’t call Donald [Glover] and I can’t call ‘Keith [Stanfield]. I don’t want to take this away from them.’” One by one, department by department, each person learned of the news from McGunigle and then checked in on Henry.
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“It was this care of everybody,” he reflected. “So then we go away and we’re gone for a year and then we come back and Stefani is like, ‘So, you know there’s this episode called “Woods.”’ I still didn’t really think anything about it. The way it works is, you don’t really get the scripts ahead of time. That is what I kind of love.”
It was only later that the episode’s subject would register when director Hiro Murai confirmed it to the actor. “The only thing I asked was, whoever is playing my mother, I can’t see her,” said Henry. “I just don’t want to meet this woman. I just had to do [the episode].”
It’s a reasonable request, but also one that shows how much he was willing to trust in the show’s creative vision, even if it involves his personal tragedy. “Woods” opens with Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Henry) asleep on his couch, and the phantom presence of his mother enters his apartment, starts cleaning and gives him grief for being lazy. The rest of the episode takes place over the course of the day, the anniversary of his mother’s death, and other characters keep calling attention to the fact that he’s not truly living. He claims he wants fame, but he’s still caught in the inertia of grief.
Alfred’s odyssey to making a change in his life begins with physical pain. Three guys recognize Paper Boi and take advantage of him being by himself and mug him. The beatdown is swift and brutal, leaving Alfred bloody.
“It was very very hard. That situation was not something that is very beautiful to watch,” Henry told IndieWire on the red carpet for the FYC event. “But it was fun to go there. It was fun to actually get Alfred to his knees and to a place of him having to realize that he is not the same person that he used to be, that he can’t really walk the streets the way he used to.
“The whole episode took about four or five days, but yeah it took a little while because we wanted to get the essence of what it was for him to really have to be brought to his knees, to really bring him down to a place where he needs refuge, and it wasn’t something that we took lightly,” he said. “It stuck with me, and it’s really hard to watch, but I’m glad that I committed to it. I’m glad that Hiro guided that and moved that the way he did, and it came out in a way that I still can’t believe. But it wasn’t that easy to do.”
After the attack, Alfred flees into the nearby woods, where he gets lost. This portion of the episode is also disorienting for the viewers because as the sun goes down, so does the light in the episode.
“That was the woods. It was dark. What you saw is what you saw, seriously, with a few lights here and there,” said Henry. “But the whole environment, the whole terrain was real. Nothing about that was staged at all. We were out in the middle of nowhere and we had the elements going. All those animals you heard were there. It’s the south. You know what it’s like. And the woods out there, it’s very real and very rough. So everything you saw was real.”
Working in the darkness and relying on others was emblematic of what Alfred had been doing throughout the season. At the FYC event, Henry noted that Alfred was rarely the driver this year, but that he ended up being the passenger for his barber Bibby (Robert S. Powell III) in “Barbershop” and his ambitious stripper friend Ciara (Angela Wildflower).
“Every time I was the passenger with somebody, some shit goes wrong. If I let somebody drive me somewhere, shit goes left,” he said. “I kept telling Stefani [who received an Emmy nomination for writing ‘Barbershop’], what’s with the restraint? I’m so restrained this season. Before I could just pop in and beat someone’s ass and say what I wanted to say and throw this and do that, but this time it’s like I had to go with another consciousness.”
This loss of control continued through the mugging and then comes to a head later in the woods when Alfred has a strange encounter with a bum named Wally (Reggie Green), who makes Alfred examine his life. At one point, Wally holds a boxcutter to Alfred’s throat and says, “Make the decision. Keep standing still, you’re gone, boy. You’re wasting time, and the only people who’ve got time are dead.”
“He just came out of nowhere to tell me something that I didn’t want to hear but had to hear, right?” said Henry.
Poised on the threshold of getting hurt again, perhaps even fatally injured, Alfred makes a decision. He stands up and walks away as Wally stays frozen, holding the boxcutter and talking to the empty space where Alfred once was. That move wasn’t written into the script, but was a suggestion by Murai while shooting the scene. Although Henry was skeptical, he tried it. “It was so unbelievable,” he said. “I think I ran and hugged [him] after that.
“I was terrified. And Stefani, man, she just wrote it, and I just had to do it,” said Henry. “Here I am in these woods, and Hiro just let me go places that I didn’t think I would ever want to go. I also didn’t think I would have to address this part of my life, [but] mental health is real. I think everybody saw what I was going through and everyone saw what I was dealing with. And Alfred was dealing with that too. He literally lost his mother. You feel that way.”
In the end, Alfred wandered out of the woods, beaten but determined to do what he needed for success. In the next episode, he’s taken the wheel, literally, as he drives to an event at a nearby college.
As for Henry, relying on his writer, his director, and his co-stars allowed him to open himself up and work through his grief onscreen. This July, the actor earned his second Emmy nomination (after “This Is Us”) for his meaningful performance.