TVGuide.com's Best Performances series focuses on stand-out actors and actresses from the past year of television. Whether they made you cry, laugh or a mix of both, these are the performers — and characters — we won't forget, all year long.
Brian Tyree Henry is having a moment, and it's quite literally due to a tale (or tales) of two cities. He spent a good portion of 2016 scooping up accolades for his turn on FX's sublime Atlanta; but he officially joined the ranks of TV's most-talked about talents this year with his stunning guest spot in "Memphis."
That's not a show, but the name of the pivotal This Is Us episode that's been entered in nine Emmy categories — including Best Drama Writing, Best Directing and Best Guest Actor, for which Henry is potentially up for a nomination. In that Kleenexfest, Henry plays Ricky, the long-lost and pissed-off cousin of William (Ron Cephas Jones). William, dying of cancer, with his newly reunited son Randall (Sterling K. Brown) in tow, shows up at Ricky's doorstep decades after last seeing him for one, last goodbye.
Through flashbacks, we get to see Ricky and William's formerly solid relationship, and the beautiful music they make together. "We Can Always Come Back to This," the stirring soul song Henry-as-Ricky performs, is exemplary proof of that. Henry initially plays a womanizing, smack-talking bigshot — a counterpoint to William's meek, mild-mannered disposition — but then he sings.
Henry, who actually did the singing in the episode, wails like a seasoned crooner; he sings like a man able to summon the true spirit of of the Stax sound, the legendary Memphis label subtly hinted at earlier in the story. In the story, Ricky has the enraptured crowd worshipping at his feat; in real life (and online) Henry earned applause from viewers for not only his singing skills, but the heartbreaking addition he made to the cast of This is Us.
As Henry told TVGuide.com, he's not a singer — making the spot all the more impressive. "I was in show choir in high school," said the Yale-trained actor, also known for appearing in the original run of The Book of Mormon. "But then they gave me this song and I swear to you, I don't know what happened; it kind of just took over me."
An original piece written for the show, "We Can Always Come Back to This," is a whiplash of emotion and resonance, with lyrics that allude to what might've been had William not left and turned to drugs, as well as the homecoming that had William atoning for his sins and Randall reconnecting with a history he'd never seen.
Henry, handpicked by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, said that part of the reason he was able to access the brutal tenderness of the song was because he'd experienced his own profound loss himself recently — no doubt referring to the death of his mother, who was tragically killed in a car accident the day after he wrapped Atlanta.
Performing the song wasn't easy. "It was difficult," Henry recalled. "It was incredibly hard to put all of myself into it, but I knew that I had to. Because that's what the song is about. And I couldn't sing it without my heart being in it at all."
Challenging as it was, Henry said he's grateful for the song — and the experience. "It totally shaped my heart in a completely different way once it was over." Us too man. Us too.
This is Us returns to NBC this Fall, airing Tuesdays at 9/8c.
Additional reporting by Alex Zalben.