Cousin Greg is 2019, and 2019 is Cousin Greg.
For those who have had the distinct pleasure of watching HBO’s Succession, that statement will make total sense. Cousin Greg, the ne’er-do-well who, through coincidence and malfeasance, wormed his way into the inner sanctum of the series’ fabulously wealthy Murdoch-esque Roy clan, is a walking, talking, stumbling personification of these past 12 months. The character is a nervy, awkward ball of anxiety and failure – aware that ground is crumbling beneath him but reluctant to do anything about it lest he doom his own chance at reaching higher ground. His stuttering cadence and screwy attempts at self-perseverance could be glimpsed everywhere in 2019, from Rudy Giuliani’s myriad Ukraine adventures to Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony, the latter of which was presciently mirrored on Succession a few weeks before.
And for those who have yet to watch Succession, well, actor Nicholas Braun is here to ask you: What have you’ve been doing with yourself for these past 12 months? Braun, who plays Cousin Greg with such a sympathetic deference to power – despite the fact that the 6-foot-7 actor towers over his cast mates, Braun’s character often feels like the smallest man in Succession’s many fabulously appointed rooms – is currently in the midst of a media blitz to promote the show’s second season, which is now available to binge-watch on Crave over the holidays.
During a press stop in Toronto the other week, Braun sat down with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz for an in-depth discussion about nerves, the media, and life after Greg.
When I found out that I was going to interview you, I posted a screenshot of the confirmation e-mail on Twitter; I’ve never had such a popular tweet.
What?! Wow, that's cool, but I don't know, I don't know. It's great because I love the character and I love putting a lot of myself into him. And I feel [showrunner Jesse Armstrong] and the writers are all blending it together, and building a nice arc for him. They're slowly turning the dial on what he's capable of.
You’re the face of the series now, which isn’t easy given it’s populated entirely by larger-than-life characters.
In a story sense, it’s cool because Greg is the audience’s perspective – this naive kid going into this dark world. But it does feel exciting to promote something that I love, too, because this show has changed my life. It’s creatively fulfilling, on a network that I’ve always wanted to work for. I was watching Oz and The Wire when I was like 10 years old. Now I’m on HBO doing a show that’s well-received? It’s amazing.
Succession helps prove a pet theory of mine that despite this onslaught of television we have right now, HBO is still the only network producing stuff of the highest calibre, that can capture the culture’s attention. Between this, Watchmen, Game of Thrones, they’re defining the year.
They give you what you need to make a good show. If we're making a show about billionaires and how they live, you need to see the excess. We're really going on yachts in Croatia, to castles in Scotland. And we shoot on film, so it feels cinematic and substantial. The show is also helped by the fact that we don't have a big star. [Brian Cox] is a legend in his own right, but everyone else isn't necessarily a star. So you can project these characters on the actors more so than if you've seen these people a bunch before. HBO's done that before, with James Gandolfini and Michael K. Williams. They create icons out of their actors.
Greg has been an aimless guy, but you’ve been anything but, acting since you were a child.
I started when I was six, and made my first movie at 11, in Toronto actually. You do a bunch of movies and TV shows and every single time, you hope it turns out great, and people find it. But it’s getting harder because of that onslaught, so the thought that this is recognized, and people keep finding it …
Was there a sense when making the first season that, hey, this show about mostly awful people doing awful things this might catch on?
It's so hard to tell. I thought, this was a drama but it had so many scenes that felt too funny and quirky, which I thought were going to get cut. Is this the tone of the show? But it ended up aligning.
Another theory I’ve been toying with, sorry for all these theories, is that one of the reasons Succession is so popular is because it’s a show about the media. The Roys run a Fox News facsimile, they run newspapers. And the media chattering class, we have a microphone to amplify our love for it. It cuts through the noise of that onslaught.
I’m sure people in the media feel that they’re like Greg, that they’re stuck, they have to push an agenda. But I don’t think a lot about the way the show is messaging or critiquing too much. Jesse is good about not hitting that stuff over the head. But I do love the scenes about, like the Nazi news anchor scene with Tom. The line they walk there, it’s brilliant.
On the question of Tom, the dynamic you have with [actor Matthew Macfayden] has developed on its own sort of level. What’s the relationship between you two?
When we get the scenes where we're together, we'll text each other lines and get very excited. We both understand the dynamic. That sounds too simplistic. But we just know how to get into that dynamic, and the writers have written Tom and Greg in a way that's fun and awful and uncomfortable at the same time.
Are you comfortable now playing an extraordinarily uncomfortable person?
I like to take on the energy of my characters, and Greg is filled with anxieties and fears and a lot of ambition – he's battling those things against each other. And I have those parts in me, too. It's fun for my brain, operating socially like Greg.
It’s not hard to shake off?
Oh, it is. Between takes, I’m still in that thing, and I don’t know how to get rid of it. Sometimes I feel it helps to be Greg in certain situations, though. He doesn’t shut down his instincts, things just happen to him. And I allow that to happen to me, too. I feel weird and Greg-y right now, and I’m just going to let it fly. It usually turns out pretty amusing.
Talking about how audiences were able to imprint someone like Gandolfini onto that character of Tony Soprano, is there a concern on your part of having to carry this Greg energy for the rest of your career? Of being typecast?
Definitely. I mean, I would love to play Greg for as long as they'll have me. But I also don't want to do Greg for other things. I'm looking for different parts of myself that I can explore – different energies and types of stories. I want Greg to be Greg, and not much else to bleed into the Greg zone.
Which is why you’re in the midst of developing your own script, which I’ve read is a cross between Bachelor in Paradise and Midsommar …
It's about a girl who goes on one of these romance reality shows and it turns into something awful, an assault on who she is. I want to direct badly, so I figured I should write it, too, and this movie came into my head one day. I got obsessed by it.
Succession is sort of a horror show in one way. But this sounds more genre-heavy …
I want to see stuff that’s awful, but this is more in the vein of a social thriller. Like Good Time or Fight Club. The movie is slowly churning and stirring up something weird in you. I want the movie to have a lot of discomfort about the mating process, because in life, it’s manufactured. All the dating apps and Instagram is just displaying your feathers. They’re creating appetites in ourselves for more attention. All of a sudden we’re all media channels.
Do you find that your personal life is now being complicated by your sudden fame? Is that another level of having to market yourself out there?
Maybe that’s why I’m thinking about it. It’s coming into my periphery more. People now know you not for being a person on the street, but a person from a show. But I’m not sure. I feel okay. It’s not like I have a million Twitter followers [author’s note: only 66,700, at press time] or people following me down the street, which I’m grateful for.
Are you concerned about losing that anonymity as the series progresses?
I can't tell. I guess I'll accept whatever happens. I'm not sure how to answer that question. It's not something you can plan for. Right now it feels good to be on something that people like, and want to talk with me about. That was a sort of vague answer, but it's a weird career.
Succession, seasons 1 and 2, is now available to stream on Crave
This interview has been condensed and edited
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