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Brian Tyree Henry on ‘Atlanta,’ Improv and a Surprise Blonde Wig

Variety logo Variety 6/15/2017 Maureen Ryan
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Variety’s Scene Stealers:

Atlanta,” FX

Season 1, Episode 7, “B.A.N.”

Written and Directed by Donald Glover

“Atlanta” was one of the most critically acclaimed shows of 2016, and no episode of the FX comedy was more praised than the form-breaking “B.A.N.” The episode presented itself as a slice of programming from the fictional Black Entertainment Network, complete with surreal commercials for iced tea, cereal and the Dodge Charger.

But the centerpiece was the appearance of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) on the roundtable show “Montague.” The host, Franklin Montague (Alano Miller), took issue with statements the rapper had made online, and it was clear he expected Paper Boi to clash with another guest, a feminist professor. Not everything went as planned, however. Henry talked to Variety about the episode, which was written and directed by “Atlanta” creator Donald Glover. 

“I just screamed with joy when I read the script. I was really excited to show this side of him — to show that Alfred actually cares about things, and that he is sometimes misunderstood.

“Alfred is so damn smart, and he is actually a lovely person and has a big heart. He has a conscience. It was so much fun to do that episode with Donald, because I feel like him being in the public eye as a performer and as an actor — he’s gone through this before.

“Alfred thinks he’s going to go and rap and stuff, and then he finds out why he is there — for a misunderstanding over a tweet. It’s when he finally realizes fame is harsh. I don’t think that Alfred was expecting anybody to even pay attention to what he was saying, especially about the issues that they bring him on the show for. He didn’t realize that he’s not even getting paid to be there.

“Once he feels like the host is attacking him, he totally shut down, but he realizes that there is nowhere for him to go. He could have walked out, he could have stormed off, but he’s doing this for his cousin [Earn, Glover’s character]. His cousin still believes that he can still be a big success, so he has to maintain some kind of composure.

“It becomes clear that they don’t really care about where he stands and what his voice is within his community. They don’t care to really know where he comes from. They just want to put him on blast and embarrass him and have fun at his expense, and that’s not how it goes. He didn’t ask for any of this, but he’s going to show you who he is.

“Sometimes you get tired of trying to convince people that you’re this or you’re that, and so his last effort is going to be to play you. He’s going to find some kind of levity in the situation, because the whole thing is dumb to him.

“People put this label on Alfred of being this hothead and being uneducated, all these things. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. He’s actually smart. Oh, wait a minute, he does have a point of view. Oh, he’s incredibly tolerant of all these things.’ He’s never given an opportunity to show that, and nobody knows about [those kinds of misconceptions] better than me. It was such an honor to do that episode, and I’m glad all of that came out of the mouth of Paper Boi. I’m glad that he was the one carrying the flag for everybody who isn’t spoken for.

“We filmed the ‘Montague’ part of the episode all in one day. It was filmed in an actual television studio, a news studio. There were three big cameras that they use for the newscast. [My approach was that] Alfred didn’t care. He didn’t care where the cameras were. If he wants to text on his phone, he’s going to text on his phone.

“The actor playing Montague is a good friend of mine. He and I have done theater in New York, we’ve known each other for years. It was so much fun, because it was someone who was familiar. I felt like I was doing another play with Alano. We just had that trust with each other, even though the whole thing was that [the characters] don’t trust each other.

“The one thing that Montague never even thought was that me and the other guest were actually going to agree. We actually were like, ‘Wait a minute. We’re on the same page.’ Montague had no idea what to do when that happened. But we had taken a moment to listen to each other and support each other. I wish that could happen more often in life.

“Donald made it incredibly fun and easy to experiment and play with all the things Alfred might be going through when he’s feeling attacked. Donald is just so brilliant to work with, because he really believes in us and trusts us with these characters. He lets us go, just lets us do our thing. It’s not a set where we feel like you have to do this and you have to do that. He lets you discover things and he captures it in such a great way.

“I had no idea that they were going to have [the actor playing a ‘transracial’ character] on set, and I definitely didn’t know he was going to have that blonde wig on. He was off to the side. When I looked up and saw he was there, I totally lost it. I was like, ‘Can I go? Can I really just go?’ Donald and I came together and started throwing out all different kinds of things to say about this dude. When I called him Drake Malfoy, that was improv.

“I felt like that’s how Alfred would handle the situation. If you’re going to put him in such an absurd situation, he’s going to come back at you with something even more absurd. When I feel like I can’t say things in my life and I feel like I want to scream or say things to people, Alfred lets me do it, and that episode especially allowed that to happen.

“I think there was a realization for Alfred, that he can’t do all the things that he used to do anymore. It’s like, ‘You are now in the public eye, and this is how people are going to speak to you.’ I think that it was a good lesson for Alfred. I think that he walked out of there understanding that not everybody is for you. You’ve got to stand up for yourself in a completely different way to people you didn’t think you’d ever meet in your life. He had to pull it together in a huge way in that episode.

“There’s a moment I remember being so flustered personally with what Alfred had to do that I put my head down on the table — I had to take a deep breath before I had to say what I had to say. I feel like that is where Alfred is coming from all the time — he has to take a minute to re-assess, to put his head down, to collect his thoughts, so he can really say what he feels. He wants to show them that he is a black man trying to make it out here. He is not the enemy. He is a person — someone’s friend, someone’s cousin.

“You are constantly having to defend yourself and that gets awfully tiring. You know what I mean? It gets exhausting to do that, and that moment for me was about Alfred reminding himself, ‘No matter what, Alfred, don’t go off the edge. Take a moment for yourself, man. Don’t stutter. Don’t swear.’ You know, ‘Be real clear about what you feel, so that they feel it too.’

“I was so glad to see that bit made it into the episode. And then I see those images out in the world — I have never in my career ever thought that I would be a meme, ever. I never thought that people would take my facial responses from that episode and they would be all over the internet as reactions to things. I was like, ‘I made it. I’m a meme now!’”

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