Causeway's Brian Tyree Henry, the contenders who are up (and down) in the Oscars race, and more in EW's The Awardist
Brian Tyree Henry: 'The possibility of being more — and doing and showing more than what people want to put on you — is the most exciting part of my job'
Interview by Joshua Rothkopf
A relaxed, unfussy showcase for two of the most sensitive performances of the year (maybe the last several), Causeway feels as rare as a unicorn in today's overheated awardscape. As exciting as it is to see Jennifer Lawrence pare down to the essence of her craft — she plays an Army veteran rebuilding her life in New Orleans after suffering a battlefield catastrophe — it's Atlanta's Brian Tyree Henry (one of EW's 2022 Entertainers of the Year) who turns in the movie's real revelation, as a local mechanic with buried trauma. We spoke with Henry, 40, on the cusp of a new phase, about the most challenging role of his career, and why he does what he does.
Cover illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've known the director of Causeway, Lila Neugebauer, for a while, right?
BRIAN TYREE HENRY: Yeah, we go back almost — it's crazy, 18 years or so. Lila was an undergrad at Yale, and I was a first-year at Yale School of Drama. Our rehearsals were pretty much closed. It's an intensive program, so they're closed off to the public. But Lila somehow found her way into the plays. She would be there, and the tenacity of this person was just very cool to see. We would smoke cigarettes and get coffee and sit on the steps of the theater. And I always knew that she was going to go off and become this amazing comet that she is. Her brain is one of the most fascinating, most complex, and most caring places I've ever had the luxury to walk through.
Does she have a technique or tactic that she uses?
I don't want her finding me and taking my kneecaps out about it, but there's this special quality of her that I really care about. I call it the "Lila squat." Basically, let's say we're in the middle of our scene, and we're doing our thing and "cut" is called. And you're having a conversation with your scene partner. And then you turn and Lila is right there. Right there. And she wants to discuss. It's something that's very rare. It's truly a gift.
I think the reason that she gets that close is because there's an intimacy to her direction. She's right in the thick of it with you. You feel like she's in the trenches with you. She doesn't care about the time. She doesn't care what the next shot is. She's not going to move until she feels that you have some kind of blood flowing through you, that you can go on to do what is asked of you.
On paper, Causeway is the kind of project that actors dream of: two people, scene after scene, coming to an understanding that's not closed. How rare is it, getting a script like that?
It is very rare. I, at one point, was worried about how I thought viewers wanted to see me. I know that I had made a really good name for myself in the world of comedy, in the world of television. And then, in film, I was used to kind of serving the story by ushering the story along but not really being the focus.
And so when I saw this script with James, there was something that really intrigued me. I think the most intriguing part was his stillness, watching this man walk through the world with the weight of the world on him. There was a quietness to him. Oftentimes in the quietness and stillness is where the loudness is able to reverberate. And I wanted to experience that, because I don't ever want to be pigeonholed. I don't think any actor worth their weight in salt wants that, especially any actor of color.
Did you approach James's guilt and grief from a personal angle?
Part of me was really trying to confront a lot of the things that I was dealing with myself, the parts that I was angry with. But I also had a true sense of care for him. That was something that was very important — I really cared about him a lot. I really wanted him to be okay, in the simplest ways of just dropping the load just a little bit, being able to walk with his head up just a little bit.
And working with someone like Jennifer Lawrence, returning to her Winter's Bone roots, must have been special.
I have been a fan of Jennifer's, as many people have, for quite a long time. She has been doing this since she was 17, even younger. She's a pro. And she started in independent filmmaking. And so to watch her come back to true character development and dissection and research — what it's like to get to the true essence of what it means to be human — was beyond exciting to me. Incredibly intimidating. But at the same time, I felt that there was an opportunity for both of us to raise each other up, to test these quarters that we hadn't really explored yet, to find a place of safety in that exploration.
I hear you revised the script with her when the production halted due to the pandemic?
So, 2020 happened, right? All the language was very much: Isolate, lockdown, shelter in place. And so I find out, at some point, that Jen has been staying and sheltering over the hill [in Los Angeles] from me. She's literally on the other side of the hill. And we were like, Screw it. Let's get together. I know there are protocols. Let's meet outside. Let's stay six feet apart, but we have to break this thing open. And we're just sitting out in her garden, talking about the parts that we felt we needed to see, and the parts that we felt we needed to champion for, and the parts that we thought would actually aid in the healing for the two of these characters.
What was missing?
There was something quite beautiful in the discovery of this adolescent pique in them. You see this spark happening with both of them where they're not their disabilities. They're not their losses. They don't have to be the things they carry. And that's life. That is truly how navigating grief feels like.
Somewhat unrelated, I know a lot of people enjoyed your performance in Bullet Train as a thoughtful assassin. Is there a throughline here for you in terms of how you choose your roles? Do you have a philosophy to it?
I don't. I'm going to sound like a hippie — no diss to hippies — but I let these characters tell me. I let whatever these Black men have to say tell me. I've been told most of my life how to be, how to show myself, how not to be, especially more often than not, how not to be. And I feel like what I've been able to do is find these different characters, find these different souls who are yearning to be seen in a way that they haven't been seen before.
And that's exciting. The possibility of being more — and doing and showing more than what people want to put on you — is the most exciting part of my job. I don't care how many lines. I don't care how many scenes. I don't care if he's in the background for a number of hours. You will feel him. You will see him. You will relate to him in some way. And they're all worthy of being seen.
Causeway is now available to stream on Apple TV+.
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Heat Index | Contender or Pretender?
Angela Bassett roars as guilds and Golden Globes cause chaos for Michelle Williams. We take a look at some of the big swings in the race. By Joey Nolfi
- DIRECTOR: Joseph Kosinski, Top Gun: Maverick — Whether voting in the Academy or the Directors Guild of America, it's the filmmakers who often throw the biggest wrenches into the awards machine. This year's DGA nods included two shockers: no James Cameron (more on that later) and the addition of the Top Gun: Maverick helmer in his place. On paper, Kosinski's nod makes sense, as he directed one of the biggest global blockbusters of the year that also earned standout praise from critics. But his precursor report card is severely lacking, and there might not be enough support from the Academy's increasingly international voter base (particularly in the directing branch) to warrant predicting him for an Oscar nomination just yet.
- PICTURE: The Whale — Brendan Fraser's polarizing drama got a boost when SAG surprised by including Hong Chau among its Supporting Actress nominees, but the Producers Guild of America provided an even bigger boost to the film (which, outside of Fraser's leading role, hadn't registered much of anywhere on the precursor trail) by including it among its 10 nominees for best film of 2022.
- ACTRESS: Ana de Armas, Blonde — The race between Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and Cate Blanchett (TÁR) remains neck-and-neck, leaving room for other contenders to bubble up while pundits gauged the bigger contest. Though her nomination at the Globes wasn't enough to push her into safe territory, the fact that de Armas' portrayal of Marilyn Monroe squeezed into the SAG nominations is proof enough that the industry itself — not just a band of journalists with no ties to Hollywood — is looking right at her.
- ACTOR: Austin Butler, Elvis — Playing a real historical figure like Elvis Presley is a surefire way to get on the Academy's radar, and Butler translated sizzling interest in his performance into a big win at the Golden Globes over tough category competition from The Whale's Brendan Fraser.
- SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — You heard the eruption of cheers in the room at the Beverly Hilton when Bassett won at the Golden Globes on Tuesday. She's a star beloved by all corners of the industry, from journalists (like those in the HFPA) to her peers (including those who nominated her for a SAG Award the day after her Globes victory) — plus, she's starring in one of the most widely-seen films of the year, and gave a rousing acceptance speech on TV in front of millions, making it nearly impossible for the Academy's actors to forget her when casting their nominations ballots.
- SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once — Whether the controversy-stricken Golden Globes will remain relevant to the annual awards conversation remains to be seen, but their revival telecast on NBC certainly provided a prime platform for Supporting Actor champion Ke Huy Quan to give a touching speech as he accepted his prize from the HFPA. The performer teared up as he thanked his family and friends, notably pausing to acknowledge Steven Spielberg — the man who gave him a shot as a child actor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies — for believing in him at an early age. The Globes might not be everyone's cup of tea, even in their rehabilitation era, but giving a speech like Quan did on national TV is never going to count against a campaign, especially one that's already amassed major hardware.
- DIRECTOR: James Cameron, Avatar: The Way of Water — He directed a titanic blockbuster (okay, pun intended) that, in just a few short weeks, became one of the top-10 highest-grossing movies of all time, and was hailed as a feat of technical prowess. That wasn't enough for the DGA, who snubbed Cameron from its annual roster of nominees, but it doesn't mean he's out for good: The Academy often swaps out one or two nominees for the DGAs, so there's no need to feel as blue as a Na'vi over his trajectory just yet.
- ACTRESS: Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans — She's felt like a lock all season, but Williams' failure to show up among the SAG nominees (despite The Fabelmans landing an individual nod for Paul Dano and an ensemble nod for its entire cast) could signal the impending derailment of her campaign, and recalls the same kind of head-scratching that occurred at the top of awards season, when the star entered the race in the lead categories. Supporting Actress is inarguably less crowded this year, and would've provided an easier path for Williams to score a nomination, and even win.
Keith Beauchamp, producer and co-writer of Till, honors the legacy of Emmett Till and 'mentor and friend' Mamie Till-Mobley
By Nashia Baker
Galvanizing the Oscar race with its fierce central performance by Danielle Deadwyler, Till pays homage to the life and legacy of Emmett Till, lynched at age 14 in 1955, and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Deadwyler), who went on to crusade for justice in her son's name.
The film details the aftermath of Till's murder and how Till-Mobley helped spearhead the civil-rights movement through her decision to allow images of Till's desecrated body to be published.
Keith Beauchamp, 51, a co-writer and producer on Till (and also a filmmaker himself), has a connection to Till-Mobley that goes beyond the big screen. He first recalls learning of the horrific murder of Emmett at age 10 during his upbringing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while in his parents' home study.
"I was going through old vintage magazines that they kept over the years, and I remember pulling out a Jet magazine and opening up those pages," Beauchamp said following a screening of Till.
On one side of the page, Beauchamp saw the "angelic face of this young little boy, sort of a mirror image of myself at the time," he says. On the other side, Jet included the published image of Till's disfigured face after he had been beaten and shot to death.
Beauchamp's mother happened to pass by the study as she noticed her son visibly grappling with the latter image in the magazine. "I recall she called my father in," he remembers, "and they both looked at each other, and they said, 'We need to tell him the story now.'"
Throughout Beauchamp's life, Till's name continued to resurface. When he interracially dated in high school, his parents warned him not to let what happened to Emmett Till happen to him. After later being assaulted by an undercover police officer for dancing with a white classmate, Beauchamp used his own personal experience to share Till's story as a tool to fight racial injustice.
After fighting nerves to contact Till-Mobley directly, Beauchamp found her phone number and decided to call her. "She told me, 'Baby, just talk to me — calm down,'" he said. "And we ended up talking for two-and-a-half hours that first day." Beauchamp and Till-Mobley, who he affectionately calls Mother Mobley, met two weeks before Christmas in 1996, and they developed what she called a "great love affair" from that point until her death in 2003.
"All I ever wanted to do was to resurrect my mentor and friend," Beauchamp says. "She actually sculpted me into this activist filmmaker I have become. And spending time with her, she was a great inspiration to my life. This is why I've been on this road for so long. I would not have become a filmmaker without her and her legacy."
Till-Mobley encouraged Beauchamp to direct and produce a documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, the product of nine years of research that led to the 2004 reopening of the case of Emmett's murder. To this day, Beauchamp pushes for the prosecution of Till's white accuser, regardless of her age, because of the active role she played in his abduction.
When asked to reflect on how Till-Mobley would feel about the film Till, Beauchamp knows she would be "tickled pink" by the awareness it has raised. But the fight continues.
"I think she would be upset that we're still dealing with the same social ills that she was dealing with in 1955," Beauchamp offers. "Until her last breath, she was on the front lines trying to provide platforms for other mothers who lost their loved ones. I know the fighter in her would say that we have to press on regardless, and we know that to be true."
Nina Hoss calls watching TÁR costar Cate Blanchett develop her performance 'mind-blowing'
As dominant as Cate Blanchett has been in this year's Oscars race, her turn doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Cracks in Lydia Tár's facade arrive via the loaded glances and exquisite subtlety of Germany's Nina Hoss, playing Sharon, the title conductor's neglected longtime wife, concertmaster, first-chair violinist and collaborator.
Hoss, a standout in 2014's Phoenix and a serious contender for Best Supporting Actress, has only praise for her two-time Oscar-winning co-star.
"Cate and me, we were both scared when we learned from [writer-director] Todd [Field], sadly, we have to start the shoot with doing all the scenes with the orchestra," Hoss told EW's Dave Karger. "And we were both like, 'Oh, my God.' I had to learn all these pieces. She had to learn conducting. So for me, as Sharon, that was great because I saw the whole character of Lydia evolving in front of my eyes. I mean, what she pulled off there is just mind-blowing. It was just great to watch her."
Watch a clip of Hoss speaking about working with Blanchett above, and listen her complete interview on EW's Awardist podcast below.
Dave Karger's updated Oscar predictions for Best Picture
After weeks of nominations and awards from critics groups with virtually no overlap with the voting body of the Academy, we finally have several results from the guild awards to analyze. Since many guild-award voters also vote for the Oscars, the overall race is now coming into clearer focus. Here's where things stand now, with just days to go before the Oscar nominations. My top six ranked films remain the same, but the second half of this year's mandated 10 nominees in the category are a bit murkier. Any of the films below ranked seven through 12 (including the troubled Babylon, which did score a SAG ensemble nomination) could make it into the race.
- The Fabelmans
- Top Gun: Maverick
- Everything Everywhere All at Once
- The Banshees of Inisherin
- Avatar: The Way of Water
- Women Talking
- All Quiet on the Western Front
- Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
- Triangle of Sadness
Click here for more of Dave Karger's predictions in the major categories.
- Brad Pitt celebrates Brian Tyree Henry for EW's 2022 Entertainers of the Year: 'Give him Human of the Year'
- Cate Blanchett on her ferocious TÁR turn: 'She believes in the power of being the exception'
- Danielle Deadwyler on playing Mamie Till-Mobley in Till: 'Even at the nadir of your life, you have will'