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Brian Tyree Henry on ‘Causeway’: “I Wanted to Explore What Grief Was”



“What drew me to the script was the simplicity of it, the stillness of it. There weren’t scenes like, ‘Here’s the conflict, here’s the climax.’ It was actually just about being human and existing,” Brian Tyree Henry says of his new film Causewayfor which he’s already been nominated for outstanding supporting performance by the Gotham Independence Film Awards.

Henry was visiting Palm Springs — having flown back two days earlier to the US from Australia, where he had been filming the Godzilla vs. Kong sequel — in support of a Palm Springs International Film Society screening of Causeway last Friday that was hosted by Apple Original Films, A24 and The The News84Media.

Directed by Lila Neugebauer, an award-winning stage director making her feature film debut, Causeway stars Jennifer Lawrence as Lynsey and Henry as James, two survivors of trauma — she sustained a brain injury while serving in Afghanistan and he is an auto mechanic in New Orleans dealing with pain of his own — who slowly open up to each other as they tentatively explore a possible friendship. Written by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders, the sensitive two-hander was produced by A24 and is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

Henry knew Neugebauer from their days at Yale, where she was an undergraduate while he was studying at the School of Drama. “We both saw something in each other that we’d see each other somewhere, somehow, someday, but I never thought it would be this way,” Henry says. “But when I saw the script and saw who was a part of it, I jumped right into it. I’ve always been a fan of Jennifer Lawrence and her craft and her ability to display humanity.”

During the course of his film career, Henry — an Emmy nominee for his work on FX’s Atlanta — has proven adept at moving between intimate dramas like If Beale Street Could Talk and large-scale action movies like Eternals and Bullet Train. Causeway offered the opportunity to move back into a quiet-spoken mode.

“The character of James was really appealing,” Henry says. “There was something about this man — it was easy to look at him and think that he was somebody who was tortured, that he was somebody who was on the down-and-out. But I really wanted to understand how he got to where he was because I know he didn’t start there. I know there was some sort of spirit in James, because of where he’s from, what he does. But then this tragedy came about and changed him. I wanted to explore what his grief was, explore how he was navigating loss. The thing that I didn’t know was the connection that was going to pop out with Jennifer. We honestly discovered what the movie truly was in between takes. Really talking, calling each other out on our shit, really being around each other and realizing that’s the essence of who James and Lynsey are.”

And not just between takes. Filming was suspended in the spring of 2020 because of the COVID pandemic and did not resume until the summer of 2021. But during the shutdown, Lawrence and Henry continued to talk with each other and delve even more deeply into their characters.

“At one point midway during the pandemic, I realized she lived just over the hill from me,” Henry explains. “And we would check in with each other. But there was always the sense that there was something unfinished. So we would call each other up and say, ‘Let’s break this shit open.’ We had a lot of deep discussions about what we’d each been through and what losses we’d endured. The craziest part was when we went back to New Orleans to finish it, everything was different. New Orleans was different, we were different. I think that was something we had to bring to it, how we wanted to find a connection again after so long sitting in isolation and sitting with our own thoughts. Let’s find out what the true connection is between these two people.”

As he tells it, the effects of trauma and grief were central to both their discussions and then their performances.

“There’s this weird thing that happens when trauma bonding happens,” explains Henry. “Because you are bonding with someone over a great loss, a great weight, and you kind of end up being stuck there. What we wanted to figure out is what it looks like on the other side of that. What if a connection comes that’s just for two people, for the moments they are with each other, when trauma falls by the wayside? They actually see a light of connecting in another way. That was a big part of what we came back to do. It was a true collaborative effort with Lila and Jennifer to come together to tell this story.”

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