DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. We've devoted this week to revisiting interviews with some of this year's Emmy nominees. Today's guests are Alec Baldwin, nominated for his guest work playing President Donald Trump on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," and Brian Tyree Henry, nominated for two different Emmys, one for comedy, for his role as Paper Boi on the FX series "Atlanta" and one for drama for a guest appearance on NBC's "This Is Us."
We'll start with Alec Baldwin, who's memorable roles include a ruthless salesman in the film version of "Glengarry Glen Ross" and the network executive on NBC's "30 Rock." He won an Emmy for his portrayal on "Saturday Night Live" of Donald Trump last year and is nominated again for it this year.
Terry Gross spoke to him in April 2017 when he published his memoir called "Nevertheless." They began by playing a "Saturday Night Live" clip from 2017. Aliens have attacked the Earth. Kenan Thompson plays a military officer giving the troops a pep talk about how to save the human race. But first, he says, your commander in chief wants to say a few words. And he steps aside for President Trump, played by Alec Baldwin.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
ALEC BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Now, here's the deal. We are going to beat these aliens because we have got the best military. But we don't win anymore.
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) And the aliens are laughing at us. They're killing us, and they're laughing at us.
KENAN THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) We know the aliens are killing us, sir. They have the most advanced weaponized technology we've ever seen. What should we do?
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) OK, here's what we do. Here's what we're going to do. We are going to bring coal back, OK?
BALDWIN: (Donald Trump) We're going to have so much coal, you're going to say, where did all this coal come from? I never knew there could be so much coal.
THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) But, Mr. President, what about the aliens? They just vaporized the entire state of California.
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) So then I won the popular vote?
THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) Sir, please, everyone in California is dead.
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Even Arnold?
THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) Sir, yes. We are dealing with a highly advanced species here. They're from Zorblat-9. Their ships are invisible. They're telepathic.
BALDWIN: (Donald Trump) OK, now, we don't know that they are from Zorblat-9. I've actually heard Zorblat-9 is very beautiful, very fantastic.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, my God, does he have business ties on Zorblat-9?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Alec Baldwin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How did you start doing Donald Trump? And what stood out for you watching him that you thought you could do to caricature him?
BALDWIN: Well, I think other people can certainly do Trump more deftly than I can. I don't think I really do the greatest impersonation of Trump, per se. But we're not doing it on film. We're doing it live on a TV show at 11:30 at night in front of a live audience. So there's a kind of - you kind of blow it up. You know, it's kind of the Macy's Day Parade...
BALDWIN: ...Of Trump. You know, it's a very larger-than-life thing. And I think in the back of my mind, maybe I could do him a little more precisely if we were in a different venue. But for this, you've got to pick a couple things, which is just his - I mean, I always say the same stupid thing to myself. I say, you know, left eyebrow up, right eyebrow down, stick your mouth out as far as you can like you're trying to bite somebody's nose off and kind of growl with that irritability.
You know, Trump is someone, to me, where the things I try to lock into and kind of hold onto just for that brief five minutes of the cold opening is that he's not having any fun. He doesn't shut up about how rich he is. He doesn't stop talking about how much money he has and how much privilege he has. And he just seems miserable. I mean, if he's an advertisement for wealth and privilege, then, good God, I think it's terrible.
But anyway, so we did that. And he was always straining to find a stronger, better word in his language and never found it. So you'd have him pause. You know, Trump is always in there going, you know, (imitating Donald Trump) the people that I work with, they're just really, really the most fantastic people. They're fantastic.
BALDWIN: You know, he just always - you see him digging in some bin. He's, like, in a filing room looking for another word. And he'll say, (imitating Donald Trump) my son-in-law Jared is really just an amazing young guy. He's amazing. He's just amazing. I think he has, like, a glossary of about, like, 200 words.
GROSS: So Trump has negative tweeted about "Saturday Night Live" and about you in particular. I'll read a couple of tweets. This is October 16 at 7:14 a.m. (Reading) Watched "Saturday Night Live..."
GROSS: ...Hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election. December 4, 12:13 a.m. (Reading) Just tried watching "Saturday Night Live" - unwatchable, totally biased, not funny. And the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad. And you responded (reading) release your tax returns and I'll stop (laughter).
BALDWIN: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: He hasn't released them. You haven't stopped.
BALDWIN: No, I'm still waiting.
GROSS: What was your first reaction when you realized that Trump was tweeting about your impersonation?
BALDWIN: It is kind of absurd. Well, I mean, regardless of whether you're the subject of those tweets or one of them - 'cause all those tweets are kind of a multiple warhead, you know. He takes on the show, he takes on the press, he takes on me. But I think it's absurd that he would be doing that in the direction of anybody - any kind of comedy programming that's parodying him or commenting on him, whether it was Jon Stewart in his day and so forth or Colbert now. I find it amazing that he's doing that. And then when you think about it's me that he's doing it with, I find that even more surreal.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about your memoir "Nevertheless." One of the things I really enjoyed learning about you is that growing up in Long Island - Massapequa, Long Island, you watched a lot of old movies on TV. I grew up in New York City in Brooklyn and watched a lot of the same movie shows that you did - "The Late Show," "The Late Late Show," "The Early Show." What was the Sunday afternoon thing you mentioned?
BALDWIN: "Picture For A Sunday Afternoon."
GROSS: Yeah, "Picture For A Sunday Afternoon." And then you explain in your book that you bonded with your father watching, like, the late-night old movies on TV and you bonded with your mother when you faked being sick and stayed home from school and watched daytime TV with her.
BALDWIN: Dinah Shore.
GROSS: Yeah, so I just thought that's so interesting that you became an actor and, like, TV, you know, like, movies and TV were ways of bonding with your parents. But - so with the movies that you saw on TV, what are the movies that you saw the most that made the biggest impression, ones that you were able to watch over and over?
BALDWIN: I guess, you know, when I was young, my dad - I'm perfectly willing to see now that what I loved and what I was doing and what I was opening up my mind to was to communicate with my dad. He would come home from work. He'd lay on this day bed in the den of our house. There was a TV. And I'd sit in a chair and, you know, this was his sacred time, his alone time. No one could get near him or really, really bother him in the evening 'cause, you know, he'd get home sometimes, you know, 10, 11 o'clock. And sometimes I think he stayed away. Maybe he pretended he had a job at night, and he was really just doing something else.
But he was - it was tough. You know, he would come home and six kids and my mom - and I think everybody was just stressed out. And he'd be reading the capsule reviews in The Times' TV section. And my dad would say, wow, "How Green Was My Valley." That's a good one. At 11:30, I'd say, can we watch "How Green Was My Valley," Dad? I was 10 years old. He'd say, no, no, no. It's too late. He goes, well, let's just watch 10 minutes - 10 minutes, 15 minutes of "How Green Was My Valley" and you have to go to bed. I'd be like, sure, Dad, sure. It would work like a charm. TV comes on, "How Green Was My Valley," my dad passes out on the couch. He falls asleep, and I watch all of "How Green Was My Valley." I watched the whole thing. Some nights I actually got away with watching a piece of the next one that was on at, like, 1:15 in the morning.
GROSS: In your memoir, you write that you learned lines from a lot of different films. So I'm going to ask you to do a passage from a film that you still remember.
BALDWIN: (Laughter) Oh, God.
GROSS: Yes? Yeah.
BALDWIN: Well, I'll always remember, like, just lines that I used to think were funny. You know, like, those men - I loved men in movies who they always won. And they won in some funny way. Like, there's that time that Bogart has got - Elisha Cook Jr. has gotten him in the hotel. And he's walking him up to go meet Sydney Greenstreet in "Maltese Falcon." And he's got the gun on him. And Bogart disarms Elisha Cook Jr. And he gets the gun away from him and he points the gun at him and says, come on. And he says, that will get you in real good with your boss.
BALDWIN: And I just love things like that, where the guy - the hero wins. And they really were great bad guys. I mean, they were - they made the bad guys really bad, you know, really bad. And, you know, "Treasure Of The Sierra Madre" - what's three times $35,000? I bet you $105,000 you fall asleep before I do, he'd say to those guys. So all those movies - you know, Bogart was, like, the great one. He was such a great actor and so different and so unique. But Cagney, Bogart, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson...
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait - I'm going to stop you. Everybody used to do impressions of Cagney. All the comics used to do impressions of Cagney when I was growing up.
BALDWIN: Yeah, yeah - when I was a kid, yeah.
GROSS: Did you have a Cagney impression?
BALDWIN: Cagney was - well, I mean, I always get the line wrong because I went back and saw the movie "Public Enemy." I think he's got the guy in the trunk of the car where the guy goes - (imitating character) open up, open up. I can't breathe in here. I can't breathe. I don't have any air.
BALDWIN: And Cagney stands outside - Cagney goes, (imitating James Cagney) Air? You want air? I'll give you air - boom, boom, boom. And he shoots him through the trunk of the car.
BALDWIN: And I thought, God, what a horrible thing to say. (Imitating James Cagney) You want air? I'll give you air. And we used to do that. I'd lay in bed next to my mother. My mother was trying to sleep. She would take naps every day. This was when I was like 10, and my mother had six little kids. You realize - I look now at my children, my young children, and I realized my mother had little children. So they need to be constantly watched.
When the kids - when my brothers and I got to be, all of us, got to be 16, 15, 14, my mother just opened the door and kicked us out of the house. She said, I don't care what you do. Just make sure you don't get hit by a car but get out. And she banished us from the house in the driving snow. She evicted us from the house. She just didn't want us in the house so she wouldn't lose her marbles. And - but when I was a little boy and I lay in bed next to my mother, my mother would be sleeping. And in this very quiet voice, you'd hear me go, (imitating James Cagney) Air? You want air? I'll give you air. Boom, boom, boom. My mother would hit me and say...
GROSS: You all...
BALDWIN: ...Lie still.
GROSS: (Laughter) You also used to watch "Chiller Theater" when you were growing up, which was the Saturday night late-night monster movie...
BALDWIN: "Chiller," yeah.
GROSS: ...That Zacherley hosted. And my older brother would watch that, and I was allowed to stay up for a few minutes of it. And it terrified me. I fell in love with monster movies, you know, 'cause the things that really scare you...
GROSS: ...Then you fall in love with afterwards. So...
BALDWIN: Lugosi, all those movies. Well, Lugosi...
GROSS: Yeah, what really scared you when you were young? Yeah.
BALDWIN: Oh, "Dracula." I'd watch "Dracula" 50 times. (Imitating Bela Lugosi) Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make, he'd say.
GROSS: I love that (laughter).
BALDWIN: And then - love that one, and I love - my favorite line - Matthew Broderick and I always regale each other with our Claude Rains line readings from "Invisible Man" because we're "Invisible Man" junkies. And whenever Matthew and I see each other, we look at each other and say, (imitating Claude Rains) sit down, you fool, and let's have a decent fire...
BALDWIN: ...Because he says that to his enemy in the film. And the very first movie that I watched with my dad that I was - that made me an addict - was we would watch "Million Dollar Movie." And "Sorry, Wrong Number" came on with Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. And that movie scared the hell out of me. The idea that a man would pay people to kill his wife to collect the insurance - and I was probably 8 or 9 years old. And I was a complete idiot. I'd look at my dad and say, gee, Dad - I was like Dondi out of "Dondi" comics. I was like, gee, Dad, do people really do that, Dad? - pay people to kill their wives to get the insurance, Dad? My father would, like, glare over at my mother and go indeed they do, yes, indeed they do.
BIANCULLI: Alec Baldwin speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. He's nominated for an Emmy for his impersonation of President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" for the second year in a row. He won last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Alec Baldwin. He's nominated this year for a guest actor Emmy Award for his portrayal of President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live." Terry spoke to him in 2017 when his memoir called "Nevertheless" was published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So you grew up in Massapequa, Long Island, and - you point out - not the affluent part. There were two high schools. Your father taught at the one where the more prosperous families sent their kids, and you went to the other one. Your father taught history and economics. He coached football and riflery. He chaperoned dances, supervised weekend recreation programs, directed one of the school district's summer camp programs. And you say he was strict with you because he'd seen what happens to kids who go off the track and who start drinking or using drugs. So in what way was he strict with you?
BALDWIN: Well, my dad grew up in Brooklyn. And I think my dad just, you know, he saw a tough part of Brooklyn. He played football at Boys High. He went to Syracuse and played football, and he was around some pretty tough people. And they moved to a tough - to Fort Greene when Fort Greene was not a good area like it is now. It's all been built up. And I think when he moved out to Long Island, like a lot of city dads, it was almost like we didn't move out here for you to get it wrong, you know?
And he didn't realize - well, I take that back. He did realize, but I think he was puzzled with how to deal with the fact that people that moved out from the city brought all of the problems of the city with them as well - 'cause kids that are unoccupied, they're going to do drugs and drink and party and things like that. So my dad was very, very - I'm not going to say menacing, but he was very, very forceful with us.
He would, like, look at me and say - where are you going to go? I'd say, I'm going to go to my friend Jeff's house. He goes, what are you guys going to do? Did you leave the phone number with your mother? And everything was very calm and very officious. And then at the end he'd say, what time are you going to come home? I'd say, I'm going to be home at 10:30. And I'm tense the whole time. I mean, like, I'm waiting for the bomb to drop. He'd lean in and press his finger into my shoulder. And he'd say, if you're not back at this house at 10:30, I'm going to break every bone in your body. Do you understand me? And I was like, yes, yes. Oh, God. Oh, God. Yes.
BALDWIN: I was just terrified. I mean, that's what - other people who we grew up with, those dads had other things to withhold from their kids to control them. You can't use the boat this weekend. I'm going to take your car away. I'm going to take your allowance away. We had none of that. My father had nothing to give to us, you know, in addition to what was normal - our clothes and food and housing and if we needed money for certain - specific expenses related to our school and trips. But he wasn't handing out allowances ever. That was just - it didn't happen. We had to go out and earn our own money. And so the only thing he had was the fear program.
GROSS: Did he ever use the threats? Did he ever...
BALDWIN: I mean, there were times my dad would, like, you know, grab you by the shirt and, like, slam you up against the wall when you were, like, 15. That was a different generation. I mean, my dad wasn't somebody who was beating us with a pool cue. But he was someone who would - and every time he'd lose his temper and he'd grab you - and he was a pretty tough guy. My father was a very physically powerful, very tough guy when he was, especially when he was younger. He deteriorated very quickly in his 50s and died when he was 55 years old of cancer. But he never really got a chance to see me do what I do.
I was doing this daytime TV show, which was fun. And it was important 'cause it was the beginning for me. But I just think about what I would have done to - you know, to show my dad how much I loved him and cared about him, too. You know, he - my dad was somebody who if - you know, I would have sent him around the world 10 times to enjoy himself to pay him back for what he did for me.
GROSS: How did you decide to pursue acting in the first place? You were interested in politics. You ran for the president of George Washington University when you were a student there. You lost. And then it seems like a big switch from politics and history to acting.
BALDWIN: Well, I think that, you know, the year ahead of me was kind of a gut year, as they used to say. I don't know if they use that term now. But I had done all my hard classes in my sophomore and junior year and got involved in student politics 'cause it interested me to a degree. And I wanted to go into politics and run for office and get a law degree to help supplement that or help to facilitate that. So I - my girlfriend broke up with me. I was in love with this woman when I was very young, and she said, I can't be with you 'cause you're not Jewish. Her grandparents told her to break up with me, and she did. Her grandparents said lose the shegetz boyfriend.
BALDWIN: And she did. And I go to visit a friend of mine. She says, why don't you audition for the acting program? I auditioned for the program. And I think, because I was...
GROSS: Why did they say audition for the acting - like, what evidence was there that you had any...
BALDWIN: I would hang out with them, and they'd say, oh, you're so funny. And, you're so cheery.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
BALDWIN: And you're such an animated person.
GROSS: Were you doing impressions for them, too, of your favorite movie lines?
BALDWIN: I would do - yeah. Air? You want air?
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
BALDWIN: I'll give you air.
BALDWIN: Whatever you were doing, your shtick. And then the next thing you know, a friend of mine, who was at NYU, her roommate was in the acting program. I went to visit my friend, and her roommate said, my God, you should audition for the program just for the hell of it. And I did. And I got in, and they gave me a need-based scholarship for the whole year there. And the joke in my family is that I called my parents, and my mother was apoplectic. I mean, she was screaming on the phone. What is wrong with you? And I said, I'm going to leave GW to go to NYU to study acting. And I said, now, Mom and Dad - I said, when I go back to New York as a returning New Yorker, I'm eligible for all of this financial aid that I lost when I left town. So when I went to D.C. - so actually, NYU was more expensive than GW, but it's going to cost you less money. And my father literally went, well, let's hear him out. Let's hear him out.
BALDWIN: And I moved there, and I said to myself, I'll do this for a year - one year only. I'll study. And if I get any kind of encouragement that I might have a career in this, I'll do it. And if I don't, I'm out. I'll go back to - I'll finish my poly-sci program and go to law school, and that's that. And I did the program for a year and got out. And I got a job right away, and I never stopped working since then.
GROSS: Just one more question. I haven't heard you as the announcer of the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts. I know you fell in love with classical music being stuck in traffic jams in LA and listening to the radio. Do you do, like, an announcer voice, the kind of voice you grew up with?
BALDWIN: Yes. The guy that was the booth announcer, Robert Malley (ph), who was on the WOR booth announcer - they'd have the guy live in the booth in case there was a technical difficulty in the pre-digital age. And Malley would say, next on "Million Dollar Movie," Barbara Stanwyck tells Gary Cooper where he can go on "Ball Of Fire." And I used to sit there and go, my God. And when I did the Philharmonic, they'd say to me, you've got to articulate because you're going to be saying names. It took me 40 minutes to learn how to say Christoph von Dohnanyi.
BALDWIN: I was reading it going what the - Christoph. I'd say the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Christoph von Dohnanyi conducts the New York Philharmonic. And I always pop the word New York 'cause I'm marketing. I'm selling. So I always go, this is the "Mahler Ninth Symphony." Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic 'cause I'm helping to sell the product.
BALDWIN: I'm a pitch man. I'm a pitch man. Anyway, thank you so much.
GROSS: Alec Baldwin, thank you so much.
BALDWIN: I love your show. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: I'm so - thank you for doing it.
BIANCULLI: Alec Baldwin speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. He's nominated this year for a guest actor Emmy Award for his portrayal of President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live." After a break, we'll hear from another of this year's Emmy nominees, Brian Tyree Henry nominated for two Emmys. One is for his role as Paper Boi on the FX series "Atlanta," and the other is for his guest appearance on "This Is Us." We'll also remember choreographer Paul Taylor who died Wednesday at age 88. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DENNIS TAYLOR'S "SPECIAL K")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're continuing our week-long salute to some of this year's Emmy Award nominees by featuring Brian Tyree Henry, who is up for Emmys in both drama and comedy. The drama one is for a guest actor appearance on the NBC drama series "This Is Us."
And the comedy nomination is for a supporting actor role on the FX series "Atlanta." He plays Alfred Miles, who's rap name is Paper Boi. When the series began, Alfred was selling drugs for a living because rap wasn't paying off. His cousin Earn is played by Donald Glover, the creator of "Atlanta." Earn dropped out of Princeton and was broke, so he became Alfred's manager, hoping it would pay off for both of them. In season two, Paper Boi became more successful. And he's often challenged by people jealous of his new fame.
Terry Gross spoke with Brian Tyree Henry last April.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Brian Tyree Henry, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to play a scene from season one.
BRIAN TYREE HENRY: OK.
GROSS: And this is a scene with a guy named Zan, who's a kind of, like, parasitic...
HENRY: Oh, Jesus. This guy.
GROSS: ...Wannabe social media star who's...
GROSS: ...Who makes, like, mocking videos and memes of people who are better-known than he is and then takes these, like, ambush selfies with them. And after Paper Boi becomes Zan's target, and Zan does an online review of Paper Boi's recording, questioning, like, well, how authentic is he really? And does he really deal drugs? So Alfred becomes really fed up with all of us. And he tracks down Zan, finds that he's actually delivering pizzas for a living. And he gets into Zan's car, and they have this conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")
HENRY: (As Alfred) Admit it. You ain't no critic or a photographer. You - you're like a salesman or something.
FREDDIE KUGURU: (As Zan) What's the difference? I mean, it's all the game. We're all just hustling - you, too.
HENRY: (As Alfred) 'Cause I have to. I scare people at ATMs, boy. I have to rap. I mean, that's what rap is, making the best out of a bad situation, bruh.
KUGURU: (As Zan) Right. You're exploiting your situation.
HENRY: (As Alfred) What?
KUGURU: (As Zan) You're exploiting your situation to make rap. And I'm exploiting you exploiting that. Money, bruh.
HENRY: (As Alfred) Whatever, man.
HENRY: And there it is, I mean, in a nutshell.
HENRY: There we go.
GROSS: Have you ever felt in the situation that Alfred's in - that you felt that you scared somebody at an ATM machine?
HENRY: Oh, my God, all the time. Look, I went to Yale for drama school and drama. And, you know, like, it's in New Haven. And there's something about these Ivy League schools that you have an Ivy League school, and immediately around the Ivy League school is the ghetto - like, immediately. And so there was a time in New Haven where, like, there was a lot of robberies or whatever. And so they would make these - draw these pictures of, like, the suspects, you know? And he would always be a black man with a goatee and a hoodie.
I, at the time, was a black man with a goatee and a hoodie. And I would stand outside of my building to smoke a cigarette every now and again. And I could not deny the fact that every time - even though these girls see me coming in and out of these buildings every day - they would really, like, go the other way or clutch their purses. And instead, I had to constantly tell them - I'm like, just so you know, I'm a student here. Just so you know, I'm in grad school here.
So it's like, yeah, absolutely that feeling is there. Like, Alfred is not stupid in any way. He knows what he looks like. He can't help that. He knows what people are going to put on him before he even says a word. You know what I mean? And so at some point when you keep putting these things on people, it's going to wear them down.
GROSS: So the song that puts - the rap that puts Paper Boi on the map is called "Paper Boi." And we hear it in the series, but it's actually not you doing it. It's done and it was written by Stephen Glover, who's one of the show's main writers. And Stephen is the brother of Donald Glover, "Atlanta's" creator and star. So how come you're not doing it?
HENRY: Because I didn't have to. You know what I mean?
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
HENRY: Like, when people would ask me if I could rap - you know, the character calls to be a rapper. You know what I mean? Like, it says that he raps. And as an actor, I would like to believe that, yeah, man - if rapping is what it is, I should be able to do that. I'm an actor. Like, I don't want to say I can't do that. But I was like - you know, I look at Nashville, you know, and I'm like nobody asked Hayden Panettiere if she knows how to sing country. I know they didn't, but she's playing a country singer. So it was like - it was very interesting to have to, like, kind of, like, answer for that.
But what I did do is I lip - I could lip dub it. You know what I mean? I knew what the essence of what the song was going to be. And, you know, I had Stephen right there helping me out. So it's like - I didn't rap it because I didn't have to. I was like, great, there's somebody else who caught - captured the essence of that. And I can go in and, you know, get - put the body to it.
GROSS: So even though it's not you, let's just play some of "Paper Boi" so our audience can hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER BOI")
STEPHEN GLOVER: (As Paper Boi, rapping) Paper Boi, Paper Boi - always about that paper, boy. If you ain't on your grind and you flexing, youse a hater, boy. Paper Boi, Paper Boi - always getting paper, boy. If you ain't making money, then you ain't a moneymaker, boy.
GROSS: So that's "Paper Boi." That's actually done by Stephen Glover on the series "Atlanta." So we were talking about how the rap recording of "Paper Boi" that's used in the series - that you don't actually do it - that Stephen Glover, one of the writers for the show, does it. But you actually have a terrific singing voice, as you demonstrated in an episode of "This Is Us" for which you were nominated for an Emmy Award. So, like, let's hear you sing, and then we'll talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")
HENRY: (As Ricky, singing) Standing at the station, we don't know what to say - looking out the window as you're rolling away. If I'm going to be alone, let it be with you.
(As Ricky) You officially ended our days as a cover band, boy.
JERMEL NAKIA: (As Young William) On the five.
HENRY: (As Ricky, singing) Mother, don't you cry. We're going to be all right. Open up your suitcase when you get there tonight. You're not alone. I'm always - always be here with you. So don't give up on me. I'll never give up on you. Everything's going to be all right. I know you believe it, too. If I'm going to be alone, let it be...
GROSS: So that was Brian Tyree Henry singing in an episode of "This Is Us" in which he was a guest star. So you sound great. When did you start to sing?
HENRY: Thank you. I guess since I was a little kid, but the recognition that I could sing didn't happen until high school. You know, like, you know, my parents had an amazing record collection growing up. I mean, the vinyls as far as the eye can see. Like, it was unbelievable. Like, I grew up in a house full of adults. By the time I was born - everyone was adults, including my sisters. So no one really told me what vinyls were. You know, like, I was discovering music on my own and I would just pull vinyls out and like - throw them up on my little Winnie the Pooh record player that was only supposed to play plastic Winnie the Pooh records. And I would, like, stretch the arm to, like, where the record could start. And I just remember hearing, you know, Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" album, the very first album - I mean, I remember I, like, I'm seeing the memory in my mind of me in a diaper. I know it's weird.
HENRY: I know most people can't think back that far. But so like, you know, singing was always in my home. You know, my mother sang all the time. And it wasn't her singing to be heard. She just had a song in her heart, you know what I mean? Like - and I just remember I'm like, oh, my mom, she can carry a tune. Like, she sounds really nice. But, you know, it wasn't about whether or not she sounded great or not. It was about, like, you could tell that she meant what she was singing when she sang it, you know? I love people who sing loud and wrong, you know what I mean?
HENRY: Like, I love people who have no fear. You know, like, it's a fearlessness that I think is really cool. So I never considered myself a singer because I thought singing took discipline, you know what I mean? Like, you know, I was in show choir in high school and that was the one thing I definitely learned. My amazing show choir teacher, Ms. McNair (ph), who really taught me how to be fearless with it. Like, there was no reason for you to open your mouth and sing a note unless you knew why you were singing that note. Like, you better know what you're - sing it with feeling.
So when I was approached with this song, all I could think about was my mother because - even the content of the song, you can't sing that song without feeling every single word and what it means, like, you can't. There's no way that you can sing that song and not feel what - the weight of what it is. And...
GROSS: And I know you lost your mother two years ago, too.
HENRY: Yeah, so I knew that that song was written at that time for a reason. I mean, I know it sounds really hippy-dippy but, you know, that was the first side - the fact that I'm about to expose my voice to the world - to the world this way. It was very gratifying because I knew what it was for. So for all those people who were like, well, you didn't rap that song. You know, you didn't rap, Paper Boi. No, I didn't, but this song I sang, you know what I mean? Like, I got to sing this song this way.
BIANCULLI: Brian Tyree Henry, nominated for two Emmys. One for comedy. One for drama. Terry Gross spoke to him last April. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD PURDIE & FRIENDS SONG, "KEEP ON SHINING")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last April with actor Brian Tyree Henry. He's been nominated for two Emmy awards this year. One for drama, for a guest role on NBC's "This Is Us," and one for best supporting actor in a comedy for his regular role as Paper Boi on the FX series "Atlanta." When we left off, he was talking to Terry about how he grew up listening to his mother sing at home and how he sang in his high school show choir.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
HENRY: So let me explain what show choir is exactly. So in my town of Fayetteville, N.C., there is this group from the predominately black high school - well, the only black high school in Fayetteville - E. E. Smith High School, home of the Golden Bulls, big ups. There's a show choir. And I remember being in junior high and even elementary, watching this group of these black teenagers come in - soprano, alto, tenor, bass - and they would have these black and red vests on. The costume was very formal, so it was like a black and red vast with black slacks, black shoes, a white shirt and a red bow tie. That was the uniform.
And they would come into these assemblies and do these formations and do these dances and coreo and sing their faces off, man. They would sing their faces - like, it was unbelievable. Once I finally got to high school, my best friend Victoria (ph), who was the daughter of Ms. McNair, who leads the show choir - and she was like, you've got to audition for that. So it was unbelievable. That's why I found it really funny that "Glee" came along. I was like, oh, we're doing shows about this now, man?
HENRY: Like, nobody was talking about this when I was in high school, but we're going to do "Glee" and "Pitch Perfect" and all this stuff. I was like, oh, that's real nice. But I was a part of that, man. And the great thing was about it is that no one dogged you out for it. Like, people respected you if you were in Smith 16. It was amazing.
GROSS: You mentioned that, at one point, your mother sent you to live with your father after they'd separated, which surprised me only because I'd read how close you were with your mother. She died a couple of years ago. So I was just surprised to hear that.
HENRY: I think she did that because she had to do that - you know what I mean? - like, because, I mean, I was literally promoted from the sixth grade. I had done all of elementary school in D.C. It was...
GROSS: Where you were living with her.
HENRY: Yeah, and my - yeah, I was with my mom. And I remember crossing the stage, getting my little sixth-grade diploma and walking back to our apartment, which was up the hill. And my father had driven to come see me graduate. You know, he didn't really drive up to visit me when I was living with her, but for some reason, he was there for this weekend. And I saw all my stuff in my father's car. And then she was like, OK, like, you have to go live with your father.
And I didn't have any say in it. I just had to go and live with this man that I loved. I loved my dad, but I loved him in the way that I knew how to love him, which was from afar, you know what I mean? It was like, what do you mean we're under the same roof now again? But to go back there and live with him, it was very - I don't know. Like, my father, since I was a child, has been a senior citizen. Like...
HENRY: ...He's just always been old. But he's just always been an old guy, set in his ways - you know. But I'll tell you this, man. I really admire and love that man beyond anything in the world. And it was amazing to get to do "This Is Us" and age to 76 years old, which was my father's age at the time. And I showed them a picture of my dad. And I was like, can you please, please make me look like this man? Not that you don't - you don't have to do much. Like, just shave my head and put this here.
And I was so proud to be able to do that for him because no matter - whatever the misunderstandings of what we had in my upbringing, he deserved to have that. You know what I mean? Like, it was my way of kind of revealing - because I lived under this man's roof. And he really didn't know I could sing. He didn't know I could act. He didn't know I could do these things. Like, he - like, my father was hardened by life. You know what I mean? Like, he was hardened.
And to be able to play him in that show and to call him - Lord, I'm not going to cry - so I'd tell him. I was like, hey, man, I just want you to turn this on. Like - and he saw himself looking back at him. And he was like, that's you? It's - he was like, but that's me. He was like, that's you, but that's me. Like, that's - like, it was just the most amazing feeling in the world.
GROSS: Brian Tyree Henry, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
HENRY: Thank you for having me. Absolutely.
BIANCULLI: Brian Tyree Henry speaking to Terry Gross last April. He's nominated for two Emmys this year as guest actor in a drama for NBC's "This Is Us," and supporting actor in a comedy for the FX series "Atlanta." After a break, a tribute to choreographer Paul Taylor who died Wednesday at age 88. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "GIMME ALL YOUR LOVE")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Choreographer Paul Taylor, a singularly talented dancer who brought to life dances by some of the world's most renowned choreographers before establishing his own dance troupe, died Wednesday. He was 88 years old. As a young dancer in his 20s, Paul Taylor created roles for such master choreographers as Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and Martha Graham. He then started his own dance company, whose subsequently famous members included Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean and Dan Wagoner.
Taylor's style emerged from a period of radical experimentalism in the 1950s. And his company established itself as one of the world's best and most acclaimed dance troupes. But Paul Taylor had no early training in dance. He studied art in college while on a swimming scholarship. Terry Gross spoke with Paul Taylor in 1987 when he had just published his memoir titled "Private Dancer." She asked him what it was like to begin dancing at age 22.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PAUL TAYLOR: I do think that there's something to be said for starting late. A lot of people do, more than you'd expect, perhaps.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: I think probably more men than women too.
TAYLOR: That's right. Yeah. I think you're - you've developed as a person a little more. You know, a lot of ballet children are sent very, very early. And they go through their childhood and their teens and even, you know, into adulthood in a kind of hot house. And they don't have the kind of perspective view that a person who's been out of that has. And I think this affects the dancing. I think everything we are is seen on stage.
GROSS: You danced with Martha Graham for several years, and I think she was a mentor to you as well as the head of the company. What were some of the things you felt that you learned from her?
TAYLOR: I think the main thing I learned from Martha was a very deep respect for the art of dance. We were - all of us that worked for her and have worked for her and will work for her, even now - I think are given this kind of brainwashing, I suppose (laughter). And it's a very good kind of brainwashing, and we're made aware of the importance that dance can be and a dancer and an almost religious attitude towards dancing.
GROSS: One of your first dances got you a lot of attention back in 1957 - was a series of postures that you did to basically the telephone time check. And a lot of people walked out on the performance. One review was a blank column in response to your minimalist dance...
TAYLOR: No, not a column - just a couple of inches. It wasn't even (laughter) very long.
GROSS: Oh (laughter). What were your intentions with that dance?
TAYLOR: Well, I thought I'd really discovered something wonderful that I would like to point out, and that is that just ordinary posture, which is connected with gesture, can be very beautiful to look at. And I learned a lot from doing this concert. It was a whole evening of dances, a suite. And I went into it very seriously.
But of course, what I hadn't realized was that - how the audience might take it because we did a lot of holding still as a part of it, and it was not exactly athletic. And so at the time when this was done, the audience - the modern dance audience, concert audience was not at all used to this (laughter) sort of thing and, as you say, very quickly left. Most of the audience got up and left within ten minutes after the curtain (laughter) raised.
GROSS: So you feel that, since then, your dances have been more accessible to audiences?
TAYLOR: Yes. At least, I've made an effort to make them more understandable, not that they're all completely (laughter) understandable. I think of dance like poetry. I mean, there has to be a kind of little air left somewhere for the reader or the watcher to bring what - their own experience to.
GROSS: Let me quote something that you say in your autobiography. You write a letter to someone giving them career advice. You write, both a dancer's stage minutes and his career days are numbered, and dancers have to accept this chilling fact. Sadly, just as their talent and experience begin to mature, their technique and their poor temporal bodies have already slid over the hump. Did you think about those things when you were still dancing? Did you feel like you were cherishing your moment?
TAYLOR: Yes. I felt it was a race against the clock. I was always aware of that, especially starting late as I did.
GROSS: You had broken an ankle, and then another ankle started splintering. And in - I think it was your last performance on stage, you ended up performing in a pool of blood from your shattered ankle.
TAYLOR: (Laughter) Yeah.
GROSS: Do you feel like you needed for that to happen in order to stop dancing?
TAYLOR: Yes. I would have gone on if I hadn't - if my body hadn't revolted (laughter). And the - if I'd been in better mental and physical health, I certainly could have gone on. But after I'd stopped awhile and took the time that I needed to recuperate, the urge to dance was no longer there. And I somehow had sensed in that time that I could go on working and perhaps producing better dances by not dancing myself, by simply choreographing. So that's what I did.
GROSS: What are - are there certain movements that the female body can do and the male body can't, or vice versa, that you keep in mind when you're choreographing?
TAYLOR: I don't know if - I wouldn't know about individual movements, but there are very definite differences in - oh - stamina sometimes and pain. I think women can stand pain a lot better than men. Men are sometimes more energetic in their dancing, but they can't sustain it for as long as a woman can. Women seem to go on and on and endure throughout (laughter) all evening.
There's structural differences. Women are usually a lot more stretched in pelvic area than men are, that men are tighter. The men can usually jump higher. There are - you know, there are loads of differences. But as far as executing, you know, particular steps other than leaps that I just mentioned, I think they can both - they're pretty equal.
GROSS: The head of a company is almost like a parental figure and a spiritual adviser to the dancers. And you wrote that, in your early years, you confessed your confusion to Martha Graham about your sexual preference. And you asked her for advice. And I wonder if you encourage dancers to ask you about things as personal as that.
TAYLOR: No. No, I don't. And I don't ask personal questions about their lives. If they come, of course, and I can - I'm glad to listen. But they - their personal lives, the dancers in my company, they keep pretty separate from their stage work. And we're together so much of the time, and they're together so much on the road, that to come home and have a personal life at all is - you know, is nice for them, those that have it.
GROSS: Some dancers now who have top companies are alumni of your group. And I'm thinking of Twyla Tharp, Dan Wagoner. Do you ever feel competitive with (laughter) them, you know, that your children are now competing with you?
TAYLOR: (Laughter) Yes, I did. I resented that I'd invested in these dancers, had brought them along, had trained them to a style, had, you know, done the best I could by them. And they'd up and start their own companies, get bookings and be, in a sense, competitive. But that's the way it works. I don't begrudge that (laughter) now. And it's fine. I'm quite proud when someone makes a go of it after dancing with me.
BIANCULLI: Paul Taylor speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The renowned and influential choreographer died Wednesday at age 88. Monday on FRESH AIR, we conclude our series of Emmy nominees with Issa Rae, who's been nominated for her starring role in her HBO series "Insecure," Peter Morgan, creator and writer of the historical drama series "The Crown," nominated for 13 Emmys, and with Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," nominated for two Emmys. Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. We'll close with music by Aretha Franklin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY MATTY'S")
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Every day, I'm making my way to Matty's in the morning. Every day, I'm making my way to Matty's in the morning. Matty's is kind of lowdown, and I hear there's going to be a showdown in Matty's this morning. What's happening, Mella? I wonder, are you on your way to Matty's this morning? I'm going to be all up in there. There's going to be a group of people from everywhere in Matty's this morning. So go on and do your do, try to hurry up and get through and meet me at Matty's this morning, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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