New York, NY - October 9, 2018: Brian Tyree Henry attends premiere of If Beale Street Could Talk. Photo credit: lev radin /

Brian Tyree Henry’s performance in “Causeway” has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of James Aucoin, the New Orleans auto mechanic and amputee, who experienced a painful personal loss. His character befriends Lynsey, a soldier suffering from a traumatic brain injury played by Jennifer Lawrence. 

The versatile actor’s career spans theater, television, and film, and his roles range from The General in the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” to the rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in the hit TV series “Atlanta,” to lending his voice to Marvel’s animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In “Causeway,” the North Carolina native was able to surrender to his role by breaking down barriers between himself and his character. 

Surrendering to the character 

In 2016, Henry tragically lost his mother due to a car accident—and so James Aucoin’s grief challenged him to dig deeper into his own personal grief. He told Variety, “For a long time, I used acting as a shield. I was like, ‘Well, that’s them. That’s not for me. Now, it’s gotten to a point where people can see the performance, but they’re also getting closer to seeing me at the same time. And it feels bizarre, but it also feels necessary, because then there’s a care that goes into what people want for me, instead of what they want from me. It really touches me.” 

Henry acknowledges how hard it was to surrender and allow himself to be most vulnerable. Indeed, while working on “Causeway,” he’d find himself crying uncontrollably at home while stirring macaroni and cheese. “James did quite a few things for me because there came a true surrender with him, for me personally, because I didn’t have any hang-ups about presentation or showing pain or loneliness or solitude,” he revealed. “I owe him a lot of gratitude because I was able to lay a lot of things down because I was able to let him move through me.” 

Saying goodbye to his characters

After a project wraps, the “Godzilla vs. Kong” actor admits he struggles with letting go of his characters. Following “Causeway,” he had to remind himself to “Leave James alone,” telling himself: “You did your job. You exposed those parts of him that needed care and that people didn’t necessarily see, and now you can just release it.” 

He also took some creative actions in hopes of quickening the process of letting go. “I’ve finally learned, I have talked, I have gone to therapy, I have journaled, I have burned sage, I own palo santo, I’ve done every ritual that any person could do,” he shared during a SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversation. “It really is just a testimony to them and to yourself. Look, we all walk around with wounds that we’re trying to cover up; we all do it, we’re doing it right now. And that’s why ‘Causeway’ was so important to me, because I was like what happens when you meet someone or walk in this world and somebody can see your wounds? And somebody can give you some salve and go, ‘Put that on,’ and then someone can go, ‘All right, let’s go get a burger. Like I got you; we can see past all that.’” 

The most rewarding aspect of acting

In cultivating each of his characters, Henry makes a point to shed light on their unseen, hidden, and unexpected personal qualities. “I’m just going to be honest—anytime I pick a character, or anytime that I do a part, all I want honestly is for the audience at some point to turn off their television to to leave the theater and then just have a moment and go, ‘I wonder if he’s okay,’” the Yale graduate said. “That just means that there’s something that happened; there’s a visceral shift inside of you that becomes bigger than you when you care about something and somebody more than you at that moment. And even if it’s a person on the screen, because I find that most of my characters with some of my audiences, they’ve never seen these men before; they’ve never even interacted with these men before. But these men exist. And so I want to make sure people have a little bit of compassion for them at the end of the day.”