Last year, just after Memorial Day, I had the highest-octane weekend of my life. I was shooting a film, everything was going great, and, thanks to a convergence of art, schedules, and geography, life turned into an episode of 24. We were about three weeks into shooting the ’80s true-crime film White Boy Rick, in Cleveland, and I heard I got the film Hotel Artemis—a cool role in a cool movie with my best friend, Sterling K. Brown. I was like, All right, definitely doing that. They were gonna be shooting in LA, and with film contracts, if you’re not physically on set at the start date, you’re not in the movie. I couldn’t imagine that being an issue, but then I learned the start date for Hotel Artemis was the day after my wrap date for White Boy Rick. So, after my last scene, I’d have to jump into a car to Detroit, catch a plane to LA, then drive straight from LAX to the film set. Which was all good, assuming there weren’t any travel hiccups and nothing went wrong with shooting.
With shooting, something goes wrong every five minutes.
I tried to stay calm that morning. Since I was playing an ’80s narcotics cop, I had this big ’80s cop mustache and sideburns and an ’80s bulletproof vest that, real talk, weighed a ton. We were suited up and shooting by 11 a.m., and technically it was just one scene, but it was a big, big scene—a raid—and I had all these cops behind me set to storm the house. Every hour, during every single thing we did, I could feel the clock running down. Before each take, I was thinking, We’re gonna nail this scene. Let me tell you, in that raid scene, you’re gonna see the most intense, focused cop ever. It was the most method acting I’ve ever done. I had to kick down a door, throw people against walls, grab this kid, pull him out, toss him in a cop car, get into my own car, and tear off. And then you had Bel Powley running around the street in her underwear and Bruce Dern screaming at me from across the street. We did that take about 25 times before lunch break at 3. At 4, we picked up exactly where we had left off.
Then something really, really weird happened. On one of the real cops’ walkie talkies, we heard there’d been a shooting and an active pursuit in our vicinity. Like, in real life, guys running from the cops. I looked around, all of us are dressed as cops, but we were getting told to run inside the house. So we were all in there: director, cinematographer, line producers, extras, Matthew McConaughey. And after a while, I said, “Well, as long as they’re not coming through here, we’re good, right? We can keep going?” No! Not the case. Because now they were within a block, and they were armed. And I was thinking, Wow, I really hope they catch these guys quick because I have a plane to catch!
Finally, at 8 o’clock on the dot, for the last time I sped past Bruce Dern, yelled at him, and heard, “That’s a wrap on Brian Tyree Henry!” I felt like driving that Crown Vic straight to Detroit, but I stripped off the vest and traded in the Vic for a new Lincoln limo. I made Detroit just after 11 p.m., got dropped at a hotel attached to the airport, went to my room, opened the blinds, and looked out right onto the tarmac near my gate. I tried to sleep, but then I got up and saw my plane was ready, so I grabbed my bags and headed down to check in.
When we touched down in LA, I went straight to the set. I mean straight to the set. I thought maybe there would be some fittings, some setups, but no, it was straight into makeup and wardrobe: cut off the ’80s sideburns, cut off the mustache, get into a three-piece suit and a futuristic half-face mask, and head straight to rehearsal and shoot. It was an exterior shot in downtown LA—this beautiful building with a real bank vault—and I had hostages and customized silver-and-gold-trimmed guns. Also, this character is supposed to be strung out, so I was really sweaty, covered in glycerin, and acting really erratic because I was robbing a bank in the midst of withdrawal. This was around noon, so I went from being a cop upholding the law to a violent junky criminal in under 24 hours.
The day ended at 9 p.m., and I checked into my new hotel, which had my favorite channel in this entire world, Investigation Discovery. They were playing my favorite show, Murder Calls, and I was like, Yes! This is perfect! But I don’t remember a single bit of it, because the next second I was out.
Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor Brian Tyree Henry (best known for playing Paper Boi on FX’s Atlanta) stars in four films this fall, including this month’s White Boy Rick.