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Warning: This postmortem contains spoilers from the “Memphis” episode of This Is Us.
Brian Tyree Henry’s career is quickly becoming a tour of America’s greatest musical cities. He plays drug dealer/rapper Paper Boi in Atlanta, and he swung through Philadelphia for the Feb. 7 episode of How to Get Away With Murder (although technically they shoot in L.A.). This week he popped up as William’s confident cousin and ladies’ man Ricky on This Is Us. (Coincidentally, he booked his next stop yesterday when he joined the cast of White Boy Rick, a biopic about a mid-’80s undercover informant turned major drug dealer in Detroit that stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Jason Leigh.)
The Fayetteville, N.C., native spoke with Yahoo TV about being a part of William and Randall’s final road trip, working with longtime friends on a show he is a fanboy of, singing the episode’s pivotal original song, and why we won’t see Season 2 of Atlanta until 2018.
Was it hard to come on and be the new guy on a set with a cast that has clearly established itself as a very tight-knit group and for such an emotional episode?
Well, the great thing about doing this episode of This Is Us was that I was going on set with people that I [have] already known in my personal life for a long time. Sterling [K. Brown, who plays Randall] is my best friend, and Ron [Cephas Jones, who plays William], we go back since New York. We’ve done theater together, all three of us, for years so when I got to set, it was like, “Oh, what’s going on, guys? Let’s play. Let’s do this.” We’ve all had this rapport for so long. It was a really awesome opportunity to be a part of this experience, especially this episode in particular, because it’s all about family. And these people are my family. I’ve known them forever. It was really so much fun to go and play with them.
Beyond working with friends, was there something about the character or the show specifically that made you want this gig?
I knew that my character, Ricky, got to be a little bit more playful. I got to be that cousin that we all know that is a smooth talker. My character was going to be the part that showcased Randall and William, where their humor comes from, and how their family is. I felt like I was the thing that was going to tie together all these personalities of our family. And it came out that way because we would play all the time on set. Sterling and I are always joking and playing around with each other. It felt like that was what the little Ricky-William relationship was in the episode. It was really cool to watch Ron and Sterling play. They’ve established these great characters, so when I got to sit down and watch them work with each other and do these scenes with each other, it was really unbelievable. I felt like I was in a master class. There were a few nerves because I knew that I was singing a song, and people hadn’t really heard me sing before. But Ron and Sterling, and the entire crew, the directors, and everyone really had my back.
This Is Us has a special place in my heart. Not just because of Sterling or Ron or this amazing cast but because of the stories they’re telling. I’m really looking forward to the phone conversation I’m going to have with my dad after this episode tonight. It’s going to be a doozy. I’ve already got my Kleenex in every room of the house just to make sure that I’m not caught off guard.
So did you get considered for the role because you knew a guy who could put in the good word or was that just serendipity?
I would say both, actually. There are some great people at NBC. [They said,] “We really want to get a chance to see you and Sterling play together. So why don’t you come on and play a cousin?” I’m like, “Sounds perfect to me. Let’s do that.” I didn’t know that this cousin was going to be a Memphis jazz singer. That’s even better. I’m so happy and grateful to NBC for inviting me on to the show because This Is Us is an amazing show. I’m glad I’ll be a part of this franchise where I’m going to have people buying Kleenex by the pound tonight.
I thought it was interesting that in the beginning of the episode — because William’s mom makes the comment that he should not follow your lead and instead should get Ricky to follow his straight-and-narrow lead, and because Ricky seems like a guy who likes to have a good time — I figured Ricky was going to be the one who got him into drugs. And yet he actually turned out to be a really good guy who believed in his cousin’s talent and tried to lift him up and was protective of him and loaned him the money to take care of his mom.
That did set it up a little, but this episode is about how important family is and how we take family for granted sometimes. We put certain things on family members because family is always the hardest on each other. That’s why they’re like, “Never work with your family. You can’t take your family nowhere. Don’t let them sign a loan for you.” But they’re the ones that really know you and who end up being there when it goes down. We share DNA. We share these experiences together. That’s what I like about Ricky. He’s like, “No matter what your mom says about me, I love your mom.” And he lends him the money to get to her. Always know that family comes first, no matter what. Even if I have to put my dream on hold for you to go do what you’ve got to do, family comes first. And I think it’s so brilliant.
I really love the relationship between Ricky and William because, like you said, you thought I was going to be the one to introduce him to all these things that destroyed his life. But actually, all I wanted to do was pull him up and remind him of how talented he is, how he can reach any dream he has. I really love that Ricky is that guy to be that for him, and we do make it back to each other in the end. And in the end, all I need him to do is play again. Get behind those keys and play the way I know you know how. That scene was something special.
And in the end, the second most beautiful thing William experiences on the trip is getting to play one last time on stage.
Yeah, I love that scene. I think one of the best parts about that is that Randall has no idea that this is what his father can do or that this is where he comes from. All of us are in Randall. Him realizing that music is a part of him is really powerful.
One of my favorite scenes is where they’re on the road trip and William’s is like, “Let’s stop and talk to your dad.” And I was like, “Oh, my God. Oh, God. Oh, I’m losing it already.” It was so beautiful and touching to see him thank Jack for raising him. It has been so beautiful to watch Randall and William grow over this season, to watch that power of forgiveness and acceptance. You can’t go back in the past and make up for lost time, but you really are responsible for making the best of the time you have. That’s what this episode is all about. I love this father-son relationship.
How about seeing yourself aged up with makeup?
I have to age to 76 years old in this episode, so I showed them a picture of my father, who is 76. They literally made me look exactly like my dad — from the glasses, the shirt, the chain — and it’s an honor. I’m very proud that I got to do that, in a way, to play my father, actually.
And I was so emotional at times because I [realized], no matter how far I run or no matter where I go, my father is always with me. It’s like I’m looking right at him. Sterling and Ron, with these characters, really drive home the importance of the father-son relationship. No matter how estranged you are or how far apart you are from each other, that father-son relationship is important and beautiful. Even to the very end, they were discovering new things about each other. I’m glad that the world’s going to be able to see that tonight. I’m really glad to be a part of this episode. I’ve never been prouder.
You also get to play the past version of Ricky. So much colorful pleather.
I want you to know I was so happy when I got my costumes. I was saying, “Please put him in all the polyester you can find. Please make sure that Ricky is the suavest dude in there.” He has this confidence. No one can tell him who he is or that who he is is wrong.
You mentioned that there were nerves about singing on the show. Even though I know of your history with Book of Mormon and playing a rapper on Atlanta, I was legitimately impressed by your skills. You could totally have a career as a classic soul singer.
Wow. Thank you. I was in a musical for a while, and I sing around the house all the time, but I don’t ever think of myself as a singer. When they told me that they had an original song [for me to sing], I was like, “Ah‑ha‑ha‑ha. OK.” And then I got nervous. But Sid [Siddhartha Khosla, the show’s composer] and Chris [Pierce], who wrote and composed the song, are so brilliant. We worked together so closely. They made me feel so comfortable and let me put my flair on it. Chris is in the band with me [onscreen] as my guitarist. He was right there every step of the way. When we got together, we were just playing, and they made it feel so comfortable, which was important because it’s a song that has to come from somewhere. You’re not just singing the song willy‑nilly. You really have to mean what you say. It has that kind of Otis Redding/Sam Cooke thing about it. When they opened their mouths, you could hear that it’s coming from some place in their past, from the heart. They really helped me just dig in and dive into the song. I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s so beautiful.
Was it easier to find the slick rapper in present day on Atlanta or this slick guy from the ’60s and ’70s?
Well, they are very similar, actually. Where I come from is that at the end of the day, that’s who they are. They are confident in who they are. It’s so easy for people to label them and say that they’re this or that based on how they dress or what they look like or even how they may talk. But my whole thing with them is just to try to show that they: a) have confidence and b) have big hearts and really care about people. That’s the only way I could do this character. He cares about [William] so much. I know these guys. We all have a cousin Ricky. I play from what I know, from the heart of who they are. Even if Ricky couldn’t sing, I guarantee you he’d go up on that mic and make you think he could. If Paper Boi couldn’t rap, he would still. You play the honesty of the characters and show a side of them that people can relate to and want to get to know. You want to see them grow. You want to see them win for the most part.
He loves his cousin more than anything in the world, which is another thing that Ricky and Alfred from Atlanta share. This is what I love about cousins, because cousins are like brothers and sisters. You grow up with them and you discover all these things together. They have your back no matter what. I’ve never seen people ready to fight for anybody more than their cousins. Like, “Oh, are you messing with my cousin? Well, I’ve got to come for you.” There’s this protection, this trust between cousins.
I’m still laughing that you thought Ricky would be the downfall of William, but actually, he is the one holding him up and believing in him. It’s the same with Alfred [Paper Boi] and Earn [in Atlanta]. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for Earn, but I know that people think that I’m going to be the one that’s going to be the f***‑up and ruin the innocent. I think that these guys live for that. They know that people are waiting for them to fail, and at the end of the day, they have to believe in themselves even more. So these guys are very special to me, because I’m that guy. I really am. I can’t help how people view me or what stigmas they put on me, but I know I’m a good person and have a big heart. I’m not going to try to prove it to you to every day. I’m going to live my best life. You come to realize that you need more people like that, these true friends, in your life. Usually, it comes from the unlikeliest family members.
Atlanta was the surprise winner at the Golden Globes. Not that I didn’t think you guys deserved it, but I was in shock when it happened.
We were too. I still am. I’m like, “What just happened?”
But with that success and guest-starring gigs on two acclaimed series within a couple of weeks of each other (the other was an episode of How to Get Away With Murder, in which he played a lawyer), does it feel like your career has gone to the next level all of a sudden?
Yes. There were a lot of things that happened this year, not just with my career but with life, period. What I’m very grateful for is that I surrounded myself with good people like my manager, who is literally like my personal Red Cross, and I’ve worked in the places that I felt my heart would be protected and be cherished the most. The projects that I’ve been fortunate enough to do are all projects where I followed my heart. I didn’t follow the money or the names. It’s all about reflecting my life and my art. Life should be art, right? That’s what this whole year has been. And now that I know I can do that, there’s no limit for how much art I’m going to make. As long as I keep listening to my heart, it’ll go the way that it needs to.
So what is the next series you’d like to do while Atlanta is on hiatus?
Honestly [laughs], I really want to do Drunk History. I feel like you can’t lose either way, whether you’re the drunk person telling the story or you’re reenacting a drunk person’s story. And if not that, I would happily do Grey’s Anatomy. I’m just putting that out there because I love that show and I love Shonda [Rimes, the show’s creator]. I want to be a doctor or, if I’m going to be a patient, I want something so bizarre to have taken me to the hospital. Like I want my character to crash into a technology store and have a tripod through my spleen or something. I want it to be the weirdest thing that has ever happened at the hospital, and then it needs to take them four episodes to save me … or kill me. Those are my dreams right now.
And any teases on Atlanta Season 2?
Well, our second season won’t be coming out until 2018. It’s all for a good cause. Donald [Glover] is Lando Calrissian in a Star Wars movie, and we are so proud of him. That’s a big deal. But trust and believe we will make it worth the wait. I will make that promise today. We got you. You just gotta wait a little bit, and by a little bit I mean a year. But hopefully if my streak keeps going the way it has been going, you guys will see me all over the place, and no one will even have a chance to miss me.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Watch clips and full episodes of This Is Us free on Yahoo View.