To dub HBO’s Succession a critical hit is a “fuck off”-worthy understatement. Jesse Armstrong’s show about the belligerently wealthy Roys, which blends insult comedy, dysfunctional family drama, and a dark look at media corruption, has become an awards magnet over its three-season run. The series is also, of course, a smorgasbord of riveting performers, perhaps none more so than breakout star Nicholas Braun.
When he first strolls through the series premiere as demure Cousin Gregory Hirsch, puking through a silly dog costume in an amusement park, who would’ve imagined he’d end up saying a line as convincingly chilling as “souls are boring” in Succession’s season-three finale? Braun’s potent performance has taken Cousin Greg from a bumbling mess to someone far more scheming and chaotic. So what if he’s suing Greenpeace for his lost inheritance? Cousin Greg is going to be damn confident while doing it.
Braun, who is up for his second Emmy nomination this year for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a drama series, spoke with The A.V. Club about his collaboration with Armstrong to depict Greg’s shifting allegiances in season three, the importance he puts on physical acting, and where his character might go in the fourth season.
The A.V. Club: What was your reaction to Greg’s storyline in season three?
Nicholas Braun: I don’t think I was told much going into season three. Sometimes I ask Jesse for a few episodes in advance to get a general sense, but I don’t recall doing a full rundown this time. It was a surprise to me as it was unveiled and I read the scripts in terms of seeing the situations Greg was getting stuck in. It was fun to kick off as part of Kendall’s [Jeremy Strong] entourage; it was sort of like being in the O.J. Simpson car. It was a thrilling way to start the season for Greg. There’s a nice familial thing, a weird unspoken bond between both of them.
AVC: How did you work with Jesse Armstrong and the show’s writers to figure out Greg’s evolution? I think he becomes more sure of himself in season three.
NB: I think he does too. That was one of our goals for this season, to figure out how Greg confidently takes shape within this world. I think the scene with Logan [Brian Cox] in episode four when he gives him the rum and coke is quite an initiation. To be valued by Logan enough to be brought in gave him a vote of confidence. It was also exciting to do a one-on-one scene with Brian. I was looking forward to it for weeks. Greg is trying to get something real out of Logan, and Brian just presents a strong wall while I just keep letting it all out. Even in episode six, a.k.a. the “pick your president” episode, Logan keeps him in a tight circle. Greg is brought into the small room of deciders. It’s adding stuff like this that Jesse and I felt helped bolster Greg’s currency. I think he was put through a lot of shit this year: the threat of a jail sentence, the loss of his inheritance, and sacrificing his friendship with Kendall. It wasn’t hazing but he got kind of dragged through shit and we decided he comes out stronger.
AVC: How do you approach that change from episode to episode?
NB: From my end, I like to be intentional about all the physical aspects along with the writing in how he becomes more confident. It’s about the hair, the quality of the suits. For the Italy episodes, we got quite a sharp haircut. The cost of his outfits there is more than the cost of the suit he’s wearing in episode one coming out of that press conference with Kendall. I think of Greg’s budget now too. He’s negotiated more money for himself now. If the suit is baggier, it’s a sloppier guy. It’s literally down to the length and knot of the tie, the quality of the shoes, or where you part your hair. I don’t want to get into my obsession with all this. But even if your shirt is super starched, like Kendall’s, his tie is a double Windsor knot. It’s not how Greg wears his. Those details matter. If Greg wore his tie like that, he feels like a different guy. I think he’s asking himself how he fits in, so I tried to show it in little ways. His posture and voice evolve, he’s not stuttering so much. Vocally, I can’t be in the lower register like the rest of the room. I have to be higher, kind of like a “look over here” vibe.
AVC: That bumbling-while-talking is kind of a Cousin Greg trademark, which reduces slightly by the end.
NB: Yeah, exactly. It’s a little bit of that change without doing anything quickly or drastically in progressing your character.
AVC: Greg’s arcs usually have a strong comedic value. Even the stories that could pass as ridiculous (for instance, him suing Greenpeace) are actually quite dark when you think about it. What’s it been like to toy with that?
NB: Jesse and the writers write such funny stuff. It kills me and Matthew Macfayden when we are doing table reads. It’s hard not to laugh. They also do a real job grounding it, like the Greenpeace story you mentioned. On the one hand, it feels like they’re setting us up for great comedic opportunities. But as long as you justify with a real need for Greg—he wants to impress someone, he needs to make Tom happy—then I can justify it for myself that way. Tonally, the show includes it without feeling over-the-top. Kendall can be dead serious about something and it’ll be hilarious to watch. It’s part of the tone of the show.
AVC: It’s almost time for Emmy nominations, and you’re a top contender along with several castmates. What’s it like when you’re all stacked together? Do you guys ever talk about it?
NB: Oh, there’s lots of animosities. [Laughs]
AVC: It is Succession we’re talking about, after all.
NB: Yeah, it’s like how do we undercut each other and get super competitive. I’m kidding. It’s so incredible. It’s really cool because you see how hard everyone works on the show. I don’t mean just actors, I mean everyone. It’s a big job. I often do scenes with people who are recognized and my mind just goes like, “damn right.” It’s great to celebrate with the family, like when we won the SAG award. It’s something I’ll never forget.
AVC: You were nominated for an Emmy in 2020 as well. Do you feel any pressure after that recognition when you go back to playing Greg?
NB: I did more in the sense that I want to do the show justice and play my part well. But I think everyone just comes to set with that pressure.
AVC: Greg Hirsch is the longest-running character you’ve played so far. What do you think you’ve learned about your craft in the process?
NB: I’ve learned so much from the other actors. I’ve also learned a lot from seeing and performing great writing; I’ve actually now learned how to think like a writer and make choices that will help the show. It’s about fulfilling my obligation to play Greg. I’ve grown a lot. We’ve found a special style for our show. I did a film in the fall and I felt like I was taking my Succession way of working into that. It was very helpful. So much about our show is “let’s not over-rehearse it, let’s just do it.” The camera department doesn’t need us to hit every piece of tape, we don’t need to take the exact route down the hallway, we just see what happens in front of the camera. If we get the scene exactly as it is in the first couple of takes, we do the next few and try something else. We follow our gut with a line that comes to our head or try talking to somebody else we’re not supposed to. The freedom helps me understand my character better; it’s something I’ll always take with me.
AVC: Do you get to improvise? Does any of that stay in a scene?
NB: A lot that’s improvised stays in the scene. I always want to get their writing in first because their lines nail it. And then stuff happens mainly with Matthew MacFayden or Kieran Culkin. Actually, if you’re seeing anything with Kieran and me, a good part of it has not been planned. We just take the risk. Kieran is very willing to do that. It’s exciting to work opposite that. At this point, we also know our characters and are in the wiring so we can let it go and try any ideas.
AVC: Greg ends season three with this line to Tom: “What am I going to do with a soul anyway? Souls are boring.” It’s a scary turn for him. What do you think comes next? Or do you already have some idea?
NB: I can’t say. I don’t know everything but Jesse has given me a sense of it. I just shouldn’t say anything but I’m excited to see where Greg’s willingness to forfeit his morals can take him. It’s going to be exciting to see him let down some of his guards and say, “fuck it, let’s go for it,” whatever that is.
AVC: Are you excited to play that scheming version of Greg?
NB: I’m not sure how scheming he’ll be. I’ve always thought of him as someone who does have that side to him. When I’m in his head, it feels like he collects information about how everyone operates and how can he use that against them. He does have his own little playbook, so I’m excited to see how he uses it next.