Brian Tyree Henry was looking for hope when he signed on for “Causeway.” He found it — and the biggest role of his career to boot. The contemplative Apple TV+ film, billed as star Jennifer Lawrence returning to her soulful “Winter’s Bone” roots, tells the story of Lynsey, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan returning to her hometown of New Orleans to recover from a traumatic brain injury.
Although much of the film deals with the protagonist trying to escape her past, she finds comfort through an unlikely friendship with her car mechanic James (Henry), who also lives with a disability stemming from a traumatic event. Henry had many reasons for wanting to play James, from a desire to work with Oscar winner Lawrence, to finally finding a project where his friend and fellow Yale alum Lila Neugebauer would direct him, to telling a story about making it through to the other side of a trauma.
“It’s really easy to find stories that are giving you so much trauma on a plate, like it’s a trauma buffet, like, ‘This is what we endured and this is what we lost.’ But there’s never really any kind of hope of what’s on the other side,” Henry told IndieWire during a recent Zoom interview. “Most times it’s just, ‘We’re gonna elbow you with trauma,’ and that’s it.”
While the Emmy-nominated “Atlanta” actor summarized “Causeway” as a film where “you just have these characters existing in space, and not only do they find each other, they find potential in each other, and there’s a little bit of hope that they’ll make it to the other side,” it took quite a bit of dramaturgical work between him, Lawrence, and Neugebauer to discover that relationship as the core of the A24-produced film.
A gift for many amid the ongoing curse that’s been the COVID-19 pandemic has been introspection. “One of the biggest things that I found that I reflected on the most was connection. And some of us endured it alone,” said Henry of his early pandemic experience. “I think it’s safe to say everyone endured a loss in 2020. All of us had to figure out our identity in a big way in 2020, and really put a microscope up to our mental health in 2020.”
“Causeway” was in the middle of shooting before production shut down in March 2020. During a “break” that ended up extending over a year, Henry approached his co-star, also a producer on the film and coincidentally a neighbor, to say, as he recalled, “Let’s take a look at this.”
“And because Jennifer is so amazing, not only as a person but as a collaborator, she’s like, ‘Well, let’s crack it open,'” he recalled. “So we would sit down at the table and be like, ‘Well, what is missing from this? What is the thing that we want to see?’ And what we discovered was, ‘Oh, yeah, we want to see a connection between two people who have endured such a loss, who have suffered trauma, but don’t really feel like anybody understands that.’”
Once there was leeway for James to become more of Lynsey’s equal within the story, Henry then began asking questions. Lot of questions, like: “If we’re going to do that, shouldn’t we see where he lives? Shouldn’t we see the essence of James, and how much he’s a part of this city too, rather than him just appearing in her life? She’s also a part of his life, so shouldn’t we see where he lives? What if she drives his car because he drinks too much?”
He added, “That kind of trust, what that is. What if he picks her up and gets to see her home? That’s what friendships are. It’s easy for friends to celebrate each other, but when a friend is truly in need, when a friend really has lost something, that is the essence of elevating from friendship to family, in its own way, and we wanted to showcase what that was. We wanted to change the face of what that could be.”
Doing that work also led to some theorizing about the connections between living with a disability and experiencing grief. “When you are given a disability, that oftentimes means that something has to change in your life, from what you used to do normally. There needs to be some kind of alteration to your life whether you want it to be there or not. But what I also discovered is that we often tend to act as though grief is not a disability, and I sometimes feel like it is,” said the actor.
He continued, “I sometimes feel we should treat it like a disability, where you go and get treatment. Where you actually go to a group [therapy]. That it can be debilitating in and of itself. And so I think that most times when people suffer a disability, there is a part of grief that you go through because it is a loss of not being able to go back to the way that life was at one point. What happens when you meet somebody that actually can see through that to who you really are, regardless of what your disability is? What does that connection mean?”
Describing the arc of the characters that have made him and Lawrence contenders for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress, respectively, Henry said, “You meet James and Lynsey, finally finding that in somebody, finally finding space to feel free in that. Finally, being able to sit across the table and have a beer with somebody and just be like, ‘Look, this is what it is.’ Finally being able to shed their skin a little bit.”
On the other side of production, Henry, a current Outstanding Supporting Performance nominee at the upcoming Gotham Awards, not only found a deeper authenticity to his “Causeway” character, but a twin spirit in Lawrence, his collaborator and now friend.
“What I discovered, and what everyone else discovered, is that there was just an immediate understanding between the two of us. The moments that we weren’t rolling were the moments that were the truest,” the actor said. “When we would do these walks, and these talks. We’d yell at each other in a friend [way]. We realized that’s what was missing. That’s the extra flavor that needed to be added to the story.”
“Causeway” is now in select theaters nationwide and streaming on Apple TV+.