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Location: Chicago

Cocktail: Frisky

1.5 oz. whiskey

3 oz. Fresca Original Citrus Sparkling Soda

Add whiskey and Fresca in glass filled with ice and stir. Garnish with a lemon slice.

Thanks for coming over. We have a lot to toast to! Cheers to your Emmy nomination for your role on “Atlanta,” the Tony nomination with Broadway play “Lobby Hero” and now the Oscar buzz with “If Beale Street Could Talk.” How are you staying grounded through all of this?

It’s interesting because I spend a lot of time in the air lately, so I find that what I leave on the ground is not necessarily going to be on the ground when I land. I tend to get news that things are happening once I land. As far as you saying the Oscar buzz thing, that is a shock to me. I’d just done the premier last week in New York and I had to fly out to finish filming in Vancouver and when I landed I was getting all these texts. I find that it’s easier for me to take news about my career if I’m in the air. Anytime I do a project I try to get on a plane immediately, therefore I don’t have to know about what’s going on down on the ground. It just works itself out. It’s like that scene from “Outbreak.” Something happens here and then it spreads out. I don’t want to consider my career an outbreak but it feels like it’s spreading really quickly. All I can do is just be there. I’m bad at metaphors, by the way. I do a lot of stupid metaphors when I drink. 

You shot “Widows” here in Chicago last summer. What was the camaraderie like on set and what was your experience working with director Steve McQueen?

Chicago was a place that I always wanted to visit. I’m a hot dog fan. If you put a hot dog in front of me I’m always going to eat it. I didn’t realize that I had been eating my hot dog Chicago style most of my life, so when I finally got off the plane I ran to a hot dog stand. I had met Steve McQueen briefly because he flew me out to see if this was a project I wanted to be a part of and if my head was in the game for it. I think what he meant by that was, “Are you ready to do a scene with Viola Davis?” I thought, “Is anyone ever ready to do a scene with Viola Davis?” I didn’t know that once I said yes to the project he was going to fly me back out to sit at a table and read the scene with Viola.

Do you get nervous in those situations?

You know what, I’ve never had stage fright. I’m more afraid to talk to people in regular life. When I’m doing a character it’s much easier. I don’t want to say it’s method because if I did something method I’d probably get fired, but I guess it was like a chemistry read. We totally hit it off but once it came time to do the actual scene there were a lot of elements that were very threatening and intense. There’s no way you can really prepare for that. You just gotta go for it and Steve creates this environment where… he’s like Gandalf. He knows how to guide you and bring out all your wizardry. I’m such a geek. Either way it was great. 

I would imagine in every role you’re learning and evolving. What was one nugget you took away from working with Steve that you’re going to bring to future projects? Did he push you in a certain way?

Oh, yeah. I think just the constant state of being malleable. To be able to be molded and find out things that you didn’t even know about yourself. He really gets in there.

What did you not know about yourself?

Just how intimidating I can be. I take for granted that I don’t see myself on the outside. I keep forgetting that I’m 6 feet 2 inches and a 260-pound guy, but I think I’m the gentlest person in the world. There’s a certain intimidation, drive, darkness and grit that this character [in “Widows”] needed that I didn’t necessarily think I had — which I know sounds weird because I play a trap rapper, dope dealer in “Atlanta” — but for this one I was in a suit. I was playing a native Chicagoan and I didn’t want to offend anyone or toe the line of being a caricature of what I thought somebody in politics was. There’s something about being directed by British directors who have an accent that automatically makes you want to be better. The story is something that’s really necessary right now and still very prevalent in society and the community of Chicago. Being the male of “Widows,” I was there to support the women. It’s mostly about these fierce, ferocious women who were grabbing life by the balls and doing what they had to do to survive which I think should be the statement of a lifetime. I wanted to be there like a chess piece. I consider myself the rook. I sit there, protect the queens and do what I have to do. I think it came out incredibly well.

With four films releasing this fall — one of which being “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — and shooting three right now, is it easy for you to shift gears for each project?

You know, sometimes you just gotta go. I was telling someone recently… I love to drive and get my playlist and just coast, but lately in all my dreams I’ve been driving stick shift. I don’t know how to drive a stick shift in real life. I know the concept of it, but in my dreams I’m always driving a stick shift car and I’m thinking, “That’s just what I do.” I may not know the make and model of the vehicle, but I know there’s a destination to get to and if it’s a stick shift I just have to go with it. You gotta crash sometimes — hopefully you don’t— sometimes it stalls. That’s like me. I just like to get in the driver’s seat because the destination is the important part for me. Metaphor, holla! That’s kind of how it’s been, honestly.

Have you always had the attitude of just figuring things out as you go?

Kinda… Any time that I had an inkling of wanting to do something that I was really passionate about that I couldn’t go to sleep without thinking about. For example, my marching band in high school— the Magnificent Marching Machine at E.E. Smith High School. It’s one of the best marching bands ever and it’s like an all black marching band. We were doing Beyoncé Coachella stuff, getting on the ground and I could not play an instrument to save my life. I never picked up an instrument but I thought, “I’m really tired of seeing these halftime shows and I’m not out there.” I literally pretended that I knew how to play an instrument. I started off with a mellophone horn which is like a bigger trumpet. I knew I could fake it until I made it. I thought that by the time the season started I’d know the notes. You should have seen me— I would write the numbers and fingering down on the notes and eventually I learned it. I really wanted to be a part of it. What they did was just so masterful. Our homecomings were lit and I just wanted to be a part of that… to see the reaction it got out of people and the way they could captivate the crowd. I don’t want to say I was a poser, but once I put my mind to it I tried to hone the craft. I practiced every night and was outside making sure I knew the formations. That’s how I’ve been. Once I find that passion about something and I’m really excited about it… I go all in.

Did you ever feel like giving up along the way with acting? 

I think there comes a point in every actor or creative’s life when you have to take a step back and ask yourself if you want to do this forever. Is this something you really want to do? When I got out of Yale I was fortunate enough to book some things before I left. I did Shakespeare in the Park right before I left school. I was 25 and making no money … I was on food stamps and everything, but I was happy. I was living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and the public theater was in Astor Place. Let me explain the distance of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn to the east side of lower Manhattan. The closest train station was a 20-minute walk and then you took the train — which is local — for about an hour and a half into the city. I did that six days a week for eight shows making baloney and cheese sandwiches and I was the happiest I’d ever been. I was the skinniest I’d ever been. Once I got what they consider a “government job” — once you do a Broadway musical that lasts and keeps going people call it a government job — you make the money so why would you ever leave it? I knew that wasn’t all there was for me. I had to get out of there.

What did you do next when you knew it was time to make some moves?

I remember leaving “The Book of Mormon” — which was very bittersweet and very hard to do — and I stood in my kitchen. I was 33 at the time which I call the Jesus year. I stood there and thought, “Well, you got some options. Either you can continue to do this or it’s not too late to pick another trade but you need to figure out what it’s going to be.” I thought that if I wanted to go back to college or anything else I better do it now because Jesus only made it to 33 and he decided to be a carpenter and that was it. I was just trying to figure out if acting was what I wanted to do. Once the checks stopped coming, I sat down and thought, “Okay Brian, maybe this isn’t for you but if it is it will show itself.” Luckily my best friend, Sterling K. Brown, introduced me to his manager seven years prior. Me being the hardheaded kid I was, I didn’t think I needed a manager at the time. I thought in order to have a manager you need something to manage and all I did was “The Book of Mormon.” She literally pulled me aside and we went to a noodle bar and discussed my career. I think it was the next night she gave me the script to “Atlanta” and said, “I think that you need to read this script.” I got five pages in and I was like, “Real quick, who do you want me to read for?” I was sitting there and in my mind I thought, “Please let it be Alfred, please let it be Alfred,” and she said,” Alfred.” I said, “Great! Got it. When is the audition? I’m ready.” Sometimes it just takes that, you know?

Did you ever have a side job?

That’s really interesting you ask that because I’ve been fortunate and in 11 years I’ve only had to do a side gig twice in my life and then service jobs. Out of those service jobs I worked for no longer than three weeks. I was working at this French brasserie and I just couldn’t stand it. I hated it, but I was making bank. You could leave there every night making $600 but I was like, “If someone slams this black Amex on the table at me one more time I’m probably going to commit arson,” so it just put a drive in me to get the hell out of there.

What else were you doing to clear your mind when you were in that transition and had to make some big decisions?

I tried to start at the very beginning of the simple things that I like to do. Go and find the finest baloney and cheese that you can and start making your baloney and cheese sandwiches again. I think for me it was mostly about reconnecting with the people who I knew from the beginning. My classmates from Yale were incredibly vocal and helpful with keeping my spirits up. I went to go see theater and saw what my peers were doing. I have such anxiety for live theater because I know that if that curtain doesn’t rise at a certain point in time something could go wrong. When I leave a play my pit stains are all the way down to my waist … I knew there was no going backwards. I knew there was no way I could serve people again, I knew there was no way I could not use whatever this talent and training that I had was. There’s a reason why they say if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. It’s really true because at that point I had fallen so in love with the city and I refused to be rejected by a city. I tried to get back to the things I really cared about like hosting parties with my friends to watch different TV programming that our friends were on. It was about trying to stay inspired. It’s tough but [like I said] I just remember standing in my kitchen. I had bourbon, my sink was full of dishes and I didn’t know how to work my own dishwasher. I thought, “Man, come on Brian. You can’t go out like this.” Sure enough once I decided to take a step on a ledge and really realize that it’s either this or… what do they say, “Sh-t or get off the pot.” I literally just let the doors open for me. There is something serendipitous about what has happened. I don’t like to say I collect people but I know that these people are in my life for a reason. I try to make sure that I tap into that. There is nothing better than having a great support system. It’s okay that you’re a fan of yourself but when you have people who are really fans of not just what you do but of who you are, it puts another fire under you. Everyone kept saying, “You’re so good at this.” I definitely didn’t believe in myself. I had to go as far as I could because I’m actually terrified of my friends. If I didn’t do as much as I possibly could do they would beat my a–. They see what I can do beyond what I can do.

That just shows how important it is to surround yourself with people who lift you up.

You have to. People will drop in and drop out and life is so short. I remember hearing those three words “life is short” and thinking that’s such a cliche but it’s really true. It’s the truest thing in the world. In an instant it’s gone. And me being the kid I am, I was gonna take every advantage I possibly could especially if I knew that my friends would show up at my door if I didn’t. I don’t know where I’d be without them. And also because I’m such a fan of what I do. When I was a kid I would go to the dollar theater because I couldn’t afford the theater when movies came out over the weekend. I’d see three movies at one time. I just remember that feeling of waking up at 11 o’clock in the morning and getting my dollar ticket. I don’t ever want to lose that feeling of how exciting this world of this artistry made me feel. It wasn’t so much an escape as it was a realization that I could create any world I wanted to if I really cared enough.

What sets you apart? If you could attribute your success to one thing, what would you boil it down to?

The lack of importance of what this is. I know some people see this as glamorous but it’s make-believe. If you put a striped polo and a gold chain on me then I’m Alfred. If I decide to put a badge on then I’m a detective … The world right now is just so harsh and heavy and it’s going to be that way but if you have that power to create make-believe for people for five minutes, two hours… that to me is a great superpower. I never want to take any of this too seriously because it’s already hard enough to wake up and go outside your door. Somewhere out there these characters resonate within people so I like to give them my all. There’s something about the land of make-believe that just makes me all fuzzy.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?

Serena Williams, man. But she isn’t ever going to drink because she’s always training. She’s my hero. I want to be the Serena Williams of acting. She’s the beast. Can we toast to Serena Williams? If I could sit with Serena Williams and have a drink that would definitely be it.

Photography by Kirsten Miccoli

Presented by Fresca

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