Brian Tyree Henry’s career blew up seven years ago with the debut of the TV show “Atlanta.” He earned an Emmy nomination for playing rapper Paper Boi, then landed ensemble roles in “Godzilla Vs. Kong,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Bullet Train.”
But in the quiet drama “Causeway,” he plays the lead character — James, a car mechanic who forms an unlikely friendship with a young veteran named Lynsey, played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Henry explains that James was the driver in a crash that turned him into an amputee and killed his nephew, so he walks around with a lot of guilt, shame, and grief. Then one day, Lynsey enters his auto body shop to repair a truck, and he sees hope in becoming friends with her and being seen anew.
Henry says he initially judged this character for being stuck in life. “Why is he in a place that reminds him of all the loss? And I think that I was screaming that mostly because I, Brian, needed to unpack what that was for myself.”
He continues, “What I discovered in playing James is that it actually takes more courage and more strength to stay … where you are. … There's something … that you yourself have decided … is actually beneficial to your growth and development. I always came from a place where … I'd always been the one to venture out and go somewhere else.”
In “the baptism scene,” as Henry calls it in the film, James removes his prosthetic leg and pants to go into a swimming pool with Lynsey after she finally convinces him to do so.
“Baptisms are a place where we essentially get all our sins washed away … then you apparently come out anew. And so when approaching the scene, there were a few things that I had to always keep in mind. And that was the sense of danger. … We are breaking and entering on a property that is not ours, in the middle of the night, drinking and imbibing and having a good time. So our guards are down. So I wanted to make sure that that was something that you got to feel James actually get to release, he gets to let his guard down.”
The scene is also one of exposure. “Something as simple as swimming was something that I thought about with James, like what it actually means to disrobe and expose yourself to someone, to actually show them the process that you have to do daily just to get in a pool, like to take your leg off and to really trust that this person … will not judge you, will not have any kind of reaction, will actually allow you to just be.”
He adds that he loves the characters’ “adolescent wonder” about each other. “Lightness came out of them the more and more they were around each other. And they were no longer just their disabilities anymore. They weren't bogged down by what everyone told them that they couldn't do, what their potential couldn't be. Their grief could be laid down for a while.”
While the two go through a “will they, won’t they” romantic dynamic, Henry says their connection is primarily about providing support.
“We wanted this to be an exploration of a friendship that just existed. … What if it was just two people who honestly were meeting each other in this space and time, and needed nothing more from each other than to find a place of healing. Who needed nothing more than to actually have someone see them for who they are, and where they are, and to have somebody usher them back to the place where they started.”
He says that together, James and Lynsey are able to let go of their pain.
“We hold onto our wounds and to our losses like they're tender babies. We carry them with us — some of us don't even know who we are without them. And I think for James and Lynsey, you get to watch them both finally take whatever this heavy load of what they've been carrying with them, or that has been put upon them, and get to lay it down.”
Henry says “the truest exploration” they wanted to show was the meaning of beginning again. “How many of us always tell ourselves, ‘Yeah, I'll start tomorrow?’ We all do this. It's terrifying. But it's also so gratifying when you get to begin with someone that's going to actually hold you accountable, that's actually going to be like, ‘You know what, it’s scary for me too.’ … In each other, they get to discover the possibility of how to begin.”
At the end of the day, Henry says he wants audiences to nurture and care about all the characters he’s played in his career. “I want people to leave their living rooms, or leave the movie theater, and just think for a second, ‘Are these men, okay?’”