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Actor Brian Tyree Henry On Fame, Authenticity And 'Atlanta'

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 20, 2018 10:26 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Brian Tyree Henry, co-stars in the Emmy Award-winning FX series "Atlanta" as Alfred Miles, who raps under the name Paper Boi. Thursday night's episode focuses on that character. The main characters are struggling to make money. When the first season started, Alfred was selling drugs for a living because rap was not paying off. His cousin Earnest, known as Earn, is played by Donald Glover, the creator of "Atlanta." Earn dropped out of Princeton and was broke, so he became Alfred's manager, hoping it would pay off for both of them.

But in season two, which is now underway, Alfred - Paper Boi - has become more successful and is being introduced to people with more experience and connections in the industry. But it's not a world he feels comfortable in. Like in this scene, when he's visiting a music streaming service and is asked to go in the studio and record a promo, which he does very reluctantly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Alfred) This is Paper Boi. And you're tuned into the Fresh mix rap playlist. Long live Fresh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK, all right, let's do another take, but let's do one that's cool - that's just, like, cool.

HENRY: (As Alfred) This is Paper Boi. And you're tuned into the Fresh rap mix playlist. Long live Fresh, [expletive].

GROSS: Brian Tyree Henry is also starring now on Broadway in "Lobby Hero." He was in the original cast of "The Book Of Mormon." Brian Tyree Henry, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I should mention, at the end of yesterday's show, when I was saying that you'd won an Emmy for "This Is Us," I basically gave you an upgrade because you'd only gotten a nomination.

HENRY: Yeah. You did.

GROSS: So do you want to start the interview by thanking me for the upgrade?

HENRY: Absolutely. I mean, you and the committee and everyone else who voted.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: You know, it's interesting. You're not the first to do that. There was another article - I think it was in Variety - where they said that I won the Emmy last year. I was, like, look, if you guys want to put that in the e-post, I will let you do that. Like, (laughter) I'm not going to go...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: ...And run and take that from myself.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: So you know, thank you guys for jumping ahead for me and giving me an Emmy. That's great.

GROSS: Well, I just want to say, you're so welcome.

HENRY: (Laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) So I'm going to ask you to describe your character on Atlanta. And I'm wondering if you're going to do two descriptions or one. I'm wondering if you're going to do, like, an Alfred Miles description and a Paper Boi description, or if you see them as one and the same.

HENRY: And, you know, you are the very first person that has ever given me the chance to do that. Because any time that I talk about him, I only call him Alfred. I've never referred to him as Paper Boi. Like, it just doesn't - it's not who he is. You know what I mean? Like - so I'll describe Alfred for you because Paper Boi is the persona that he has created, and I want to talk about who he is as a person. So Alfred is the cousin of Earn, played by Donald Glover. And he is raised - born and raised in Atlanta. And he is a - what we would call a trap boy.

And what that basically means is - I don't know if people know what trap means - but basically, you know, when you're from - and I hate the term when they use inner city or, like, you know, a very poor neighborhood which is predominately black, you know, when you got the projects and things like that. Have you ever noticed that these residences look like prisons, or they look like - you know, there's a certain structure of these neighborhoods? And we call them the trap because what do you do with a trap? When you're in the trap, there's really no way for you to get out.

So basically, him being a trap boy, he sells drugs. But, you know, he also, you know, is a man that likes to rap on the side. You know, he has a couple of hustles. And one of his hustles was rapping. But he never thought that it would ever become anything.

So you know, his cousin comes along, gets his mix tape, goes behind his back, gets the mix tape into the radio. And now those radios are playing his song all over the place, and now celebrity has happened to him. In this season especially, you're going to see him now being known as Paper Boi. Like, that's it. Like, no one calls him Alfred anymore.

GROSS: But instead of being famous kind of paying off with, like, admiration and people wanting to, like, celebrate him, a lot of the people he meet, like, want to kind of, like, sponge off of him, or steal from him or...

HENRY: Well, and you know what? That's like - that's kind of...

GROSS: ...(Laughter) Use him in some way.

HENRY: Yeah, like - but that's kind of like what fame is. Because, you know, I've never said the phrase, forgive them, Father, because they know what they do, more than now because it's like - I think that is - people see someone that is - they don't know why they should be liking you. They just know that they like you because you're a celebrity. You know what I mean? Like, he's dealing with the fact that people now want all parts of him without really getting to know the parts of who he is or what made that person. You know what I mean?

And it's causing him to get a little further away from the essence of who Alfred is. And, you know - and it's a struggle. Like, I say all the time that this season is mostly about his restraint, in every sense of the word. Because, you know, in the first season, you know, I could - I'd tell my cousin, I don't like the club, and - but because I'm a rapper, you got to go and do appearances at the club. But I told you that I don't like the club.

So you know, there's a instance in there where he gets into a altercation with the owner because the owner decides to stiff him because the owner's telling him, well, he's nobody. I mean, he's like - he's - yeah, OK. He's got that song on the radio. But he ain't really nobody, so I don't have to pay this dude. But then you neglected that I'll come in here and probably kill you. So now, this season he (laughter)...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: ...Can't really do that anymore because, A, he has gotten in trouble for those things. And B, he realizes that the important - he realizes what the importance of being Paper Boi is. Like, Paper Boi is about getting the paper. And the paper is not just for me now. It's going to put food in Earn's mouth. It's going to put food in Earn's baby's mouth. You know, it's going to put - it's going to provide something and build something.

And it's a weird kind of - I guess - life, if it is any kind of life at that point, because, you know, his needs are never - no one asks what he needs. You know, no one asks what, you know - how he's feeling today. Probably nobody's told him they love him, you know, today. You know what I mean? And those things matter. And I think that he's just learned how to not - how to compartmentalize those things a bit. But now, this season you're starting to watch the cracks show a little bit. You know, you're starting to watch how it really is becoming bigger than him.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from Season One. And this is a scene with a guy named Zan, who's a kind of, like, parasitic...

HENRY: Oh, Jesus - this guy.

GROSS: ...Wannabe social media star who's - who makes, like, mocking videos and memes of people who are better-known than he is and then takes these, like, ambush selfies with them. And after Paper Boi becomes Zan's target, and Zan does an online review of Paper Boi's recording, questioning, like, well, how authentic is he really? And does he really deal drugs? So Alfred becomes really fed up with all of us. And he tracks down Zan, finds that he's actually delivering pizzas for a living. And he gets into Zan's car, and they have this conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

HENRY: (As Alfred) Admit it. You ain't no critic or photographer. You - you're like a salesman or something.

FREDDIE KUGURU: (As Zan) What's the difference? I mean, it's all the game. We're all just hustling - you too.

HENRY: (As Alfred) Because I have to. I scare people at ATMs, boy. I have to rap. I mean, that's what rap is, making the best out of a bad situation, bruh (ph).

KUGURU: (As Zan) Right. You're exploiting your situation.

HENRY: (As Alfred) What?

KUGURU: (As Zan) You're exploiting your situation to make rap. And I'm exploiting you exploiting that. Money, bruh.

HENRY: (As Alfred) Whatever, man.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: And there it is, I mean, in a nutshell. There we go.

GROSS: Yeah. But, you know, the whole question of authenticity. Like, what makes you a real reviewer, or a social media star or an authentic rapper? The question of authenticity is so kind of permeating our culture right now. And I just wonder, like, what does that word mean to you?

HENRY: I've been running up against this a lot lately, especially with the characters that I've been playing, because it's, like, Alfred made a good point. Like, he - like, rap is making the best out of a bad situation. I have to rap. I scare people at ATMs. Do you not hear what I just said? Like, that's what I have to do. And then still, you can't even receive that. And you have to bounce back, well, you're exploiting it. I'm exploiting you exploiting that. Money - I'm not even talking about the hustle, man. I'm telling you that I scare people at ATMs. Can you hear that?

Maybe give me - possibly give me a suggestion of how not to do that, you know what I mean? But no, you decide to take this and flip it around here. And I think that's why Alfred - I've kind of put Alfred in this place where he has to say everything without saying a word sometimes. You know what I mean? Like...

GROSS: Have you ever felt in the situation that Alfred's in - that you felt that you scared somebody at an ATM machine?

HENRY: Oh, my God, all the time. Look, I went to Yale for drama school, drama. And, you know, like, it's in New Haven. And there's something about these Ivy League schools that you have an Ivy League school, and immediately around the Ivy League school is the ghetto - like, immediately.

And so there was a time in New Haven where, like, there was a lot of robberies or whatever. And so they would make these - draw these pictures of, like, the suspects, you know? And he would always be a black man with a goatee and a hoodie. I, at the time, was a black man with a goatee and a hoodie. And I would stand outside of my building to smoke a cigarette every now and again. And I could not deny the fact that every time - even though these girls see me coming in and out of these buildings every day - they would really, like, go the other way or clutch their purses. And instead, I had to constantly tell them - I'm like, just so you know, I'm a student here. Just so you know, I'm in grad school here.

So it's like, yeah, absolutely that feeling is there. Like, Alfred is not stupid in any way. He knows what he looks like. He can't help that. He knows what people are going to put on him before he even says a word. You know what I mean? And so at some point when you keep putting these things on people, it's going to wear them down. Now, like, you keep poking the bear, somebody's going to get bit.

GROSS: So the song that puts - the rap that puts Paper Boi on the map is called "Paper Boi." And we hear it in the series, but it's actually not you doing it. It's done and it was written by Stephen Glover, who's one of the show's main writers. And Stephen is the brother of Donald Glover, "Atlanta's" creator and star. So how come you're not doing it?

HENRY: Because I didn't have to. You know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

HENRY: Like, when people would ask me if I could rap - you know, the character calls to be a rapper. You know what I mean? Like, it says that he raps. And as an actor, I would like to believe that, yeah, man - if rapping is what it is, I should be able to do that. I'm an actor. Like, I don't want to say I can't do that. But I was like - you know, I look at Nashville, you know, and I'm like nobody asked Hayden Panettiere if she knows how to sing country. I know they didn't, but she's playing a country singer.

So it was like - it was very interesting to have to, like, kind of, like, answer for that. But what I did do is I - I could lip dub it. You know what I mean? I knew what the essence of what the song was going to be. And, you know, I had Stephen right there helping me out. So it's like - I didn't rap it because I didn't have to. I was like, great, there's somebody else who caught - captured the essence of that. And I can go in and, you know, get - put the body to it.

GROSS: So even though it's not you, let's just play some of "Paper Boi" so our audience can hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER BOI")

STEPHEN GLOVER: (As Paper Boi, rapping) Paper Boi, Paper Boi - always about that paper, boy. If you ain't on your grind and you flexing, you's a hater, boy. Paper Boi, Paper Boi - always getting paper, boy. If you ain't making money, then you ain't a moneymaker, boy.

GROSS: So that's "Paper Boi." That's actually done by Stephen Glover on the series "Atlanta." As you put it - even though you don't do the music yourself, you put your body to it (laughter), as you said. So have you watched - I know you've seen a lot of rap over the years. You've seen a lot of performers. But when you knew you had this part, did you study them to see what movements you wanted to pick up on...

HENRY: No.

GROSS: ...In that role?

HENRY: I wanted to be so far removed from that because I think that every rapper, you know - even their names are ways that they want you to know them. It's not their birth names. It's not, you know - it's very rare that you get a rapper that's known by their own name, except like Kendrick Lamar. And, like, first of all, he's just a genius. Congrats on that Pulitzer, Kendrick. But, like, the rappers make personas or names, so therefore it's - 'cause I felt like it was a way of protection, you know what I mean?

Like, if I tell you I'm Paper Boi, then you don't - I don't have to meet your expectations for this or anything like this. I'm Paper Boi. Remember that's who I am to you, but I get to keep this part of myself over here. So I didn't really want to study any rappers per se because I wanted to get to who he was, you know, who, like - who Alfred really was and where he came from before I could even go to where he was going. Like, Paper Boi is where he's going.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Tyree Henry, and he stars in the FX series "Atlanta" as Alfred, aka Paper Boi. That's his rap name. And this week's episode is going to be devoted to that character. And Henry is also starring in the Broadway show "Lobby Hero." So we're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Tyree Henry who co-stars in "Atlanta" - the FX series - as Alfred, aka Paper Boi. And he is also starring on Broadway in the show "Lobby Hero."

So we were talking about - earlier - how the rap recording of "Paper Boi" that's used in the series - that you don't actually do it - that Stephen Glover, one of the writers for the show, does it. But you actually have a terrific singing voice, as you demonstrated in an episode of "This Is Us" for which you were nominated for an Emmy Award. So, like, let's hear you sing, and then we'll talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

HENRY: (As Ricky, singing) Standing at the station, we don't know what to say - looking out the window as you're rolling away. If I'm going to be alone, let it be with you.

(As Ricky) You officially ended our days as a cover band, boy.

JERMEL NAKIA: (As Young William) On the five.

HENRY: (As Ricky, singing) Mother, don't you cry. We're going to be all right. Open up your suitcase when you get there tonight. You're not alone. I'm always - always be here with you. So don't give up on me. I'll never give up on you. Everything's going to be all right. I know you believe it, too. If I'm going to be alone, let it be...

GROSS: So that was Brian Tyree Henry singing in an episode of "This Is Us" in which he was a guest star. So you sound great. When did you start to sing?

HENRY: Thank you. I guess since I was a little kid, but the recognition that I could sing didn't happen until high school. You know, like, you know, my parents had an amazing record collection growing up. I mean, the vinyls as far as the eye can see. Like, it was unbelievable. Like, I grew up in a house full of adults. By the time I was born - everyone was adults, including my sisters. So no one really told me what vinyls were.

You know, like, I was discovering music on my own and I would just pull vinyls out and like - throw them up on my little Winnie the Pooh record player that was only supposed to play plastic Winnie the Pooh records. And I would, like, stretch the arm to, like, where the record could start. And I just remember hearing, you know, Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" album, the very first album - I mean, I remember I, like, I'm seeing the memory in my mind of me in a diaper, I know it's weird.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: I know most people can't think back that far, but yeah, I remember hearing that, and I was like, whoa. Like, and then remembering what it was like to open the cover of it because, you know, vinyl, they don't make artwork for records like they do anymore - like did back then. So like, you would open this "Off The Wall" album and, like, it was - the top half was Michael Jackson's face and torso, and the bottom half was his legs with these socks that, like, lit up. Like the socks were like the - it was unbelievable. And I was like, oh, my God, this is amazing. Who is this person?

So like, you know, singing was always in my home. You know, my mother sang all the time. And it wasn't her singing to be heard, she just had a song in her heart, you know what I mean? Like - and I just remember I'm like, oh, my mom, she can carry a tune, like, she sounds really nice. But, you know, it wasn't about whether or not she sounded great or not. It was about, like, you could tell that she meant what she was singing when she sang it, you know? I love people who sing loud and wrong, you know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: Like, I love people who have no fear. You know, like, it's a fearlessness that I think is really cool. So I never considered myself a singer because I thought singing took discipline, you know what I mean? Like, you know, I was in show choir in high school and that was the one thing I definitely learned. My amazing show choir teacher, Ms. McNair (ph), who really taught me how to be fearless with it. Like, there was no reason for you to open your mouth and sing a note unless you knew why you were singing that note. Like, you better know what you're - sing it with feeling.

So when I was approached with this song, all I could think about was my mother because - even the content of the song, you can't sing that song without feeling every single word and what it means, like, you can't. There's no way that you can sing that song and not feel what - the weight of what it is. And...

GROSS: And I know you lost your mother two years ago, too.

HENRY: Yeah, so I knew that that song was written at that time for a reason. I mean, I know it sounds really hippy-dippy but, you know, that was the first side - the fact that I'm about to expose my voice to the world - to the world this way. It was very gratifying because I knew what it was for. So for all those people who were like, well, you didn't rap that song. You know, you didn't rap, Paper Boi. No, I didn't, but this song I sang, you know what I mean? Like, I got to sing this song this way.

GROSS: My guest is Brian Tyree Henry. He plays Alfred aka Paper Boi in the FX series "Atlanta," and he's starring on Broadway in "Lobby Hero." We'll talk more after a break, and we'll listen back to my 1994 interview with former first lady Barbara Bush, who died yesterday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "JINGLES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Brian Tyree Henry. He co-stars in the FX series "Atlanta" as Alfred Miles, who raps under the name Paper Boi. Henry's also on Broadway starring in the Kenneth Lonergan play "Lobby Hero." He was in the original production of "The Book Of Mormon." He started performing in high school in show choir.

What did you sing in show choir in high school?

HENRY: So let me explain what show choir is exactly. So, in my town of Fayetteville, N.C., there is this group from the predominately black high school - well, the only black high school in Fayetteville - E. E. Smith High School, home of the Golden Bulls, big ups. There's a show choir.

And I remember being in junior high and even elementary, watching this group of these black teenagers come in - soprano, alto, tenor, bass - and they would have these black and red vests on. The costume was very formal, so it was like a black and red vast with black slacks, black shoes, a white shirt and a red bow tie. That was the uniform. And they would come into these assemblies and do these formations and do these dances and coreo and sing their faces off, man. They would sing their faces - like, it was unbelievable. Once I finally got to high school, my best friend Victoria (ph), who was the daughter of Ms. McNair, who leads the show choir - and she was like, you've got to audition for that. So it was unbelievable.

That's why I found it really funny that "Glee" came along. I was like, oh, we're doing shows about this now, man? Like, nobody was talking about this when I was in high school, but we're going to do "Glee" and "Pitch Perfect" and all this stuff. I was like, oh, that's real nice. But I was a part of that, man. And the great thing was about it is that no one dogged you out for it. Like, people respected you if you were Smith 16. It was amazing.

GROSS: So you were also in marching band in college.

HENRY: I sure was.

GROSS: So in high school, you're in show choir. You're in marching band. You love them both, spend a lot of time with them. You go to Morehouse, and you become a business major. So why were you - given your passion for music and probably for performing, why did you go into business?

HENRY: Well, because no one told me I could make a living out of that. There was nothing to showcase - to show me that that was something that I, a black boy from the South, could do. You know, like, also, the institution didn't have fine arts at the time, so even this institution was saying, yo, you're a man; you ain't doing fine arts, you know? And, like, I knew that I loved it. I knew I had passion for it. But I literally didn't see any way that I could make a living from it.

And I'm sorry. Like, you know, there was no representation or nothing to tell me that I could go and do that. I became a business major because that's what I thought was logical, you know? I was always told to choose the things that were logical. And I suffered through it for, like, a semester. And two of my best friends, who are still my best friends to this day, Theo and Will, they knocked on the window of my classroom because I was literally sitting by the window, staring out of it. And this class was overpacked. Like, there were 50 dudes in this class. It made no sense. It was just - it was stupid. And they were like, you should come and audition for this play. And I literally skipped that class. I walked out and went and auditioned for this play. And I never looked back.

GROSS: So I want to get back to your formative years. So you had mentioned that your parents had a huge vinyl collection.

HENRY: Yes.

GROSS: The problem with vinyl is that every scratch harms the music, and you had to be really careful when you're dealing with vinyl. So did your parents have parties, and were they very protective of their records when they did? Were they protective of their records against you when you were a child? And maybe you were going to, like, mishandle them or spill food on them.

HENRY: My parents were the party throwers, OK? Like, I remember being a child walking around - I hope this does not get anyone in trouble. I remember walking around serving drinks to their guests. Like, I (laughter) - like, my sisters would be bartenders, and I would be serving drinks. Like, I would take their empty martini glasses. I would take their empty Solo Cups or whatever it was. And yeah, like, that's what those vinyls were there for. Like, you came to my parents' house to dance, to have a good time, to drink, to do your thing, you know?

But like I said, like, they couldn't watch this little baby all the time, so, like, I would literally crawl - like, my father had this bookshelf that was about five tiers high. And I would crawl to the top to get whatever album was at the top. Like, I wasn't stupid. I was like, I know that these vinyls are special, and if I scratch these, it'll be - but that's why I used my Winnie the Pooh record player. I broke the arm so the wires could come all the way out. I knew exactly how to lay the needle down - you know what I mean? - like, because the music was that important to me. And I didn't want to die. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: I'm, like, not going to, like, mess these records up, you know what I mean? I wasn't that frivolous. So - and then it literally taught me how to care about music now because you should see me now with my music. Like, and now that music has all been converted to, like, MP3s and everything like that, like, I will not give my iPod to anybody. Like, to me, giving your iPod to somebody is like sharing - giving them your diary. Like, giving them - like, giving - to me, giving somebody your iPod is like giving them all your passwords to everything you have in your life. Like, you might as well go to my bank. You might as well take all my money out because I gave you my iPod. Like, this - like, the iPod is the window to my soul.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what's on your iPod now. Like, what do you listen to?

HENRY: Didn't I just say that tell - giving you my iPod is like giving you my diary?

GROSS: I'm not asking for the whole thing. I'm not asking for the whole thing.

HENRY: Oh, my God. I mean, I'm not going to lie. I have Cardi B up there. I have mixed amongst - like, Broken Social Scene mixed in there with a little Barry White mixed in there with, you know, Rufus and Chaka Khan mixed in there with a little bit of Little Dragon mixed in there with a little "BBO" mixed in there with A Little Tribe Called Quest. I love Carole King. You know what I mean? Like, I was like, I'm sorry, like, I'm going to listen to "Far Away" right now. Like, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: This is my - one of my - this is my favorite song. It's beautiful, and I'm going to play it, and you guys are going bob with it or you can leave the room. You know what I mean? I'm constantly in awe of where music is going and where it's - acting is going and where, you know, entertainment is going because, to me, these are the places that I found safety. You know what I mean? Like, me getting a record and listening to my father's record when my parents are out and being able to hide - you know, I would, like, hide behind the couch with it and have my headphones on. It was my personal space.

GROSS: Do you mean, like, emotionally safe or physically safe?

HENRY: Yeah, all that, you know, because, you know, not to get too deep or personal in my life, but, like, you know, my house - it was hard to be in my house sometimes. I was in a house full of adults. You know, my oldest sister's 16 years older than me, and then the next sister's 15 and the - years older - and then the other one is 13 years older. Then the other's seven years older. So everybody had their own lives, you know what I mean? Like, they had their own lives. And I always had to get used to watching people leave. So yeah, they graduate high school; they go. They da-da-da (ph); they go. Like, that's what you do.

GROSS: You mentioned that, at one point, your mother sent you to live with your father after they'd separated, which surprised me only because I'd read how close you were with your mother. She died a couple of years ago. So I was just surprised to hear that.

HENRY: I think she did that because she had to do that - you know what I mean? - like, because I - I mean, I was literally promoted from the sixth grade. I had done all of elementary school in D.C. It was...

GROSS: Where you were living with her.

HENRY: Yeah, and my - yeah, I was with my mom. And I remember crossing the stage, getting my little sixth-grade diploma and walking back to our apartment, which was up the hill. And my father had driven to come see me graduate. You know, he didn't really drive up to visit me when I was living with her, but for some reason, he was there for this weekend. And I saw all my stuff in my father's car. And then she was like, OK, like, you have to go live with your father. And I didn't have any say in it. I just had to go and live with this man that I loved. I loved my dad, but I loved him in the way that I knew how to love him, which was from afar, you know what I mean? It was like, what do you mean we're under the same roof now again? But to go back there and live with him, it was very - I don't know. Like, my father, since I was a child, has been a senior citizen. Like (laughter)...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: So he's just always been old. But he's just always been an old guy, set in his ways - you know. But I'll tell you this, man. I really admire and love that man beyond anything in the world. And it was amazing to get to do "This Is Us" and age to 76 years old, which was my father's age at the time. And I showed them a picture of my dad. And I was like, can you please, please make me look like this man? Not that you don't - you don't have to do much. Like, just shave my head and put this hair.

And I was so proud to be able to do that for him because no matter - whatever the misunderstandings of what we had and my upbringing, he deserved to have that. You know what I mean? Like, it was my way of kind of revealing - because I lived under this man's roof. And he really didn't know I could sing. He didn't know I could act. He didn't know I could do these things.

Like, he - like, my father was hardened by life. You know what I mean? Like, he was hardened. And to be able to play him in that show and to call him - Lord, I'm not going to cry - so I'd tell him. I was like, hey, man, I just want you to turn this on. Like - and he saw himself looking back at him. And he was like, that's you? It's - he was like, but that's me. He was like, that's you, but that's me. Like, that's - like, it was just the most amazing feeling in the world.

GROSS: So one more thing I want to ask you. I read that you have - I think - 11 nieces and nephews because you have...

HENRY: (Laughter)

GROSS: ...Several older sisters. But I also read that you don't want to have children of your own. I am always interested in how people make their choice, when they make a choice, about whether to or not to have children. So if you are willing to talk about it, I'd...

HENRY: Sure.

GROSS: ...Be really interested in how you've made your choice, at least so far.

HENRY: You know, because, one, I was around these kids my entire life. Like, when my sister started having these kids, I was 7 years old. So I already was changing diapers, warming bottles. Like, and I - like, I think of my nieces and nephews literally as my children. Like, I - and, you know, I just - oh, my goodness. I love them more than anything in the world. But, you know, my family is really fertile.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: Like, we are fertile, clearly. And, you know, like, the relationship I have with them in watching them grow up - because now I'm the great uncle to six nieces and nephews.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

HENRY: However, I just know that that's not my calling. I knew that that was not something I needed in my life. Now, here's the thing. I don't mind adopting. I don't mind fostering. I think about - those things are still there. But I know for a fact I get more of a gratification of watching my nieces and nephews and my godson grow up. You know, big ups to...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: ...People who know they don't want kids. You know (laughter) what I mean? Like, it's OK to not want children. I totally get it. My sisters kind of grill me about this. And they just kind of - they were just like, you would make such a good father. Oh, my god. I was, like, great. I'm glad you know that. That's so fantastic. I'm not having any kids.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: OK? Like, let's just stop it. And, you know - and I love that that they can say, see - they can still say that I make a good father without me having kids, so there we go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: There it is. So you know, like, it's - I'm doing the right thing. That's all that matters.

GROSS: Brian Tyree Henry, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

HENRY: Thank you for having me, absolutely.

GROSS: Brian Tyree Henry plays Alfred, AKA Paper Boi, in the FX series "Atlanta." Tomorrow night's episode focuses on his character. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to my 1994 interview with former first lady Barbara Bush. She died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.