How Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry Finally Got Seats at the Emmy Table

Until last year, Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry had carved out parallel careers as recognizable but not particularly nameable actors.

After meeting 10 years ago at the Sundance Theater Lab, as part of the cast developing “Wig Out!” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, they became close friends as they worked together, on plays including Mr. McCraney’s “Brother/Sister Plays” trilogy, and separately — Mr. Henry was in the original cast of “The Book of Mormon” and Mr. Brown appeared in television shows like “Supernatural” and “Army Wives.” Along the way their bond deepened as they watched peers break out.

“Brian and I both, for a long time, we would see film roles and TV roles go to people,” Mr. Brown said. “And we’d be like, ‘Oh man, good for them, but when is it going to be our turn?’”

The answer: 2016, when the actors appeared in three of the most acclaimed new series of the year. Mr. Brown, 41, won an Emmy for playing the prosecutor Christopher Darden in FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” and stars as Randall Pearson, the high-strung family man, in the NBC breakout drama “This Is Us.” Mr. Henry, 35, is now best known as Paper Boi, the gruff but hilarious rapper in “Atlanta,” also on FX. The roles have brought more opportunities — Mr. Brown has a role in Marvel’s coming “Black Panther,” among other movies, and Mr. Henry will work on a total of six films this year, including “Hotel Artemis,” a futuristic thriller in which he is the brother of a hero played by … Mr. Brown.

In July they each received Emmy nominations for “This Is Us,” with Mr. Henry getting a guest acting nod for his appearance in a February episode.

“I’m still in shock,” he said. “We’re both at the Emmys together, for me being on his show? I was like, ‘O.K. this is crazy, man.’”

In a joint conversation, the actors discussed their friendship and how it shaped their journeys from upstarts to Emmy nominees. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Did I read somewhere that you bonded in the early days because one of you shaved the other?

BRIAN TYREE HENRY When you put it that way…

STERLING K. BROWN It sounds really sordid.

HENRY It sounds so “Crying Game.” I had a full beard, but I was playing a drag queen in [“Wig Out!”]. So Sterling was like, “I’ve got some clippers,” because we’re in Park City, Utah, where I’m definitely not going to find any black barbers. And he shaved my face for me. It was very nice — I don’t know many people who would’ve hooked a brother up like that. I also think he was being very particular about his clippers.

BROWN That’s exactly what it was.

Last year you were both “overnight successes.” What was that experience like?

BROWN What’s it like, Paper Boi?

HENRY You took a different route than me. I’m all about the casting couch — I slept with everybody I could. I don’t know what you did. Sterling has been a huge component of keeping me together, keeping my mind right. We check in with each other. I never thought that “Atlanta” would go off and do what it was gonna do. I never thought that I would get recognized for that show the way that I have been.

BROWN People come to know you whenever they know you. I always felt when I watched Brian, it’s just a matter of time. The man was killing it on Broadway for four years in a row in “The Book of Mormon,” right? But even before, when we were in the “Brother/Sister” trilogy — we’re doing a play by Tarell McCraney. We have Kimberly Hébert Gregory, who’s on “Vice Principals” and now has a show on ABC. You got André Holland, who went on to do “The Knick.” You got Brian and I. So we’re sitting in this room with each other at the Public Theater, and we’re like, “Yo, man, I think we’re pretty decent at this whole thing.” And nobody else knows, but at least we know. So yeah, people come to know you when they do, and I don’t think about it one way or the other. The universe meets you exactly where you are. So I think it’s a testimony that we were ready for this moment that we’re having right now.

Those check-ins you mentioned, what does that mean, exactly?

BROWN At each point in the journey, Brian was a key check-in for me. I left “Army Wives,” here’s a big contract renegotiation, and I decided not to go back. He’s like, “Good, Brown, you need to be doing some theater anyway. I don’t know what you’re doing.” I was like, “Yeah, man, but it’s a lot of money.” He’s like, “No, Brown, you need to be doing other things.” I had a recurring role on “Person of Interest,” and when I came to New York to shoot the show, whose couch did I stay on, except for Brian Tyree Henry’s? We’d sit up, we’d talk trash, we’d watch TV, we’d eat food, we’d kick it. And we’d talk about what it’s like to be in this business. And you keep throwing jabs until you get an opening for that left hook or that straight right, and hopefully people will take notice once that punch comes. And we both got that good punch at the same time.

HENRY How long have you been saving up that boxing analogy?

BROWN That was off the dome.

“This Is Us” was the first time you worked together since the New York stage days, right?

BROWN We didn’t have that much to do in “This is Us.” The episode was just black people in it —

HENRY And we still didn’t get the chance to play in it. So I guess it wasn’t until “Hotel Artemis” that we finally got to show what we can do together, and that was great. I always wanted to see Brown as an action hero, kind of like Wesley Snipes in “Passenger 57,” you know what I’m saying? There were moments where I got to watch Brown look over his shoulder and give a one-liner. What would they call it, Brown, the hero shot?

BROWN They call it the hero shot, but it’s because of the angle of —

HENRY Whatever, dude. It was a hero shot, because it was really the dopest thing to watch and to know his inner Bruce Willis. It was something I’ll never forget.

BROWN You’re dumb.

Did you talk on the day of the Emmy nominations?

HENRY Of course we did. I was in Chicago filming a movie with Steve McQueen at the time —

BROWN Who was it? You dropped a name real quick. Want me to pick that up, Brian?

HENRY Oh, did I? I’m so sorry, Viola Davis was also in it, too. It was weird because I wasn’t expecting to get an Emmy nomination, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get a personal Emmy nomination for “This Is Us.” So once that came through, and then I saw Sterling’s show and his Emmy nomination, I had to call and scream at the fool.

BROWN I was very thankful for the nomination, but I wanted to see that Paper Boi nomination. And I was sad that one did not come through, because my man blazes that show like nobody’s business. So I’m happy you got at least the one, but I’m looking forward to Paper Boi getting his due.

HENRY You know how to make a black man blush, dude. That’s damn near impossible.

What have you learned from one another over the years?

HENRY I feel like it’s an investment, this friendship, because I know for a fact that at the end of the day that there’s nothing that Sterling can’t do. And it’s so nice to know that there’s somebody out there that feels the same way. Because at the end of the day, you don’t ever want to go out and do anything mediocre or do anything that is not representative of the person who loves and sees you more than you see yourself sometimes. I’m really thankful we can traverse this whole thing together, you know what I mean?

BROWN You know what I love about this moment right now, honestly? For a long time it seemed there were only slots for a very limited few. Anthony Mackie would go from job to job to job. Then Chad [Boseman] came around, right? And then Idris [Elba] came around. And then David Oyelowo came around. Now all of a sudden, it seems there’s a bit of a renaissance where we understand, collectively and internationally, that stories with people of color in leading roles are not only economically viable, but socially and credibly relevant.

So we all can have a seat at the table. And the fact that me and my man get a chance to sit at the table at the same time, that’s pretty cool.

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