A conversation between our two favorite Nicholas B.'s, Succession composer Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) and star Nicholas Braun (Zola).
Topics covered include: performance anxiety, living in the body of a character, the Gathering of the Juggalos, how Cousin Greg got his rich vocabulary, Britell’s early gigs writing telephone hold music, getting out of your own head, and why you should keep going when it feels good.
Speaker: Hey, and welcome back to the A24 podcast. Our guests today met on HBO's Emmy-winning hit series Succession. While A24 has nothing to do with Succession, aside from being massive fans, we do know and love composer Nicholas Britell and actor Nicholas Braun. Britell composed the Oscar-nominated score for Moonlight, and Braun stars in our upcoming film Zola. We recently set them up on Zoom, where they caught up and talked about getting out of their own heads, finding a creative rhythm, and, of course, Succession.
Nicholas Britell: I guess we'll just start.
Nicholas Braun: My name is Nicholas Braun.
Britell: And I'm Nicholas Britell.
Braun: We are here with the A24 podcast, via Zoom, during pandemic.
Britell: I can't believe this is actually happening. There have been… the technical setup has been extraordinary to make this possible. This is some hi-fi kind of apparatus that we've put together for this. And it’s feeling good.
Braun: Yeah I'm surrounded by wires. Tons of wires.
Britell: You are literally surrounded by wires right now.
Braun: Just like telephone wires and ethernets and—
Britell: There’s so much. I like what you did before where you opened the door.
Braun: Yeah it was feeling a little choppy, the Wi-Fi airflow, and I think it just wanted to get in here, and I want to let it in—
Britell: You did, and now the Wi-Fi is flourishing. It feels flourishing. Where are you? Just so everyone knows but actually I don't know where you are.
Braun: I'm in New York. I live in the Lower East Side. I'm at my place. I was staying in LA for most of quarantine. I was at a couple of different friend's houses and living in guest bedrooms and back houses and things. It feels good to finally be back in my bed in my home. I missed the worst of it here, it feels like. But in the last three weeks, since I got back, New York is kind of like re-burgeoning and starting to get a pulse again. People are sitting somewhat near each other at outdoor restaurants and stuff. I feel good to be a New Yorker, in a way, still and get some of this crazy time.
Britell: Absolutely. Actually, it's interesting because I'm the mirror image of that because Caitlin and I were in Manhattan for the whole period from basically early March until a week ago. You know me, I like being inside. I'm really a very indoors creature. I don't go outside almost ever, but this whole period of time has made me appreciate the outdoors in a whole new dimension. Basically, because we were so inside, I would say, I probably went out of the building like five times over the four months. I was really inside that much. We rented a place on Long Island just to get some air and walk around some trees, et cetera. I'm out on Long Island right now.
Braun: How does it feel to be away from the city and be not in your main dwelling? Because you said you built a home studio there. Is the process different? Is it—
Britell: Yes, it's interesting because I've gotten used to over the past 10 years… over the past 10 years, I've been making the regular pilgrimage out to Los Angeles. We've talked about it a bit, but whenever I'm working with people, I love working in really close proximity. I feel it's so important to work with collaborations in the same room and to be there together. So I've gotten used to moving equipment. I always carry this huge backpack and gear and stuff all the time.
During this period of time, it's so hard to just logistically do a lot of stuff. So, I basically had to set up this whole studio, drive all the equipment out. It took a little while. I'm not going to lie, it took a little while to get everything together. But I'm pretty set up now. I have a big screen because I always feel like whenever you're working on film or TV, I always feel like you actually need a big screen to work with.
That's a whole other conversation, but I've found over the years that when you work with a smaller screen, you actually do different stuff in a bizarre psychological way, which is strange.
Braun: Like you're not surrounded by the image in the same way as a bigger screen?
Braun: It's not as impactful?
Britell: Yes, exactly. I remember years ago, I would work—I have a lot of different monitors that I use when I'm writing stuff. Usually, I have a main 32-inch computer screen in front of me. And then I used to just have a 20-something inch screen to my right. I used to put the picture over there, so I have my session in front of me and then I have the movie on the right.
And there was something about it where I was like, I don't know, I just had an inkling that that wasn't optimal. I remember getting a much bigger screen, like a 50-inch screen, and putting it up in front of me above the other screen. Immediately, I felt like a new door opened up. It's exactly like you said, it's like you need an immersion in whatever you're doing. Whatever does that for you, you need to do that, basically.
Braun: Yeah it shouldn't be in your peripheral vision, sort of.
Britell: Exactly, exactly.
Braun: It should be the thing that's in front of all of it.
Britell: Exactly. I think the metaphor works for everything. That may be very specific to writing music for film but I wonder for you, I mean, thinking about ways of immersing in a performance, for example, there's always different techniques or thought. I'm actually just curious, like, for performing, do you think about that too? Before you're going to do a scene, for example, are there things that you do to immerse yourself psychologically?
Braun: Yes, I think I grow these little compulsive things for each role, almost like Nadal has tics he does before every serve, like—
Braun: Like he's touching his forearms and sweat and pulling his hair and stuff, I feel like I grow these things for the individual role that I'm like, I grow my nails out, or that I have dirt under my nails, or that I don't sleep as much or that I eat more or eat less or I—
Britell: So they're in character. Are you doing it because you think like, oh, the character would have the dirt under the nails, for example, kind of thing? Or is it more random? It's more just like a—
Braun: No, it's definitely character-based. There's no perfect way to create an energy or a frequency for your character, but I'm like, if I don't shower, or if I don't talk to people the day before, or if I'm super social, whatever the character is, or whatever I think the frequency that I should be on for the next day is, I try to cultivate that. You can't stop life from happening and certain things from happening. Or you can't, like, not talk to your family for three months because your character doesn't talk to their family. I don't go that far with it.
But I do try to find things that it's like, I would prefer to grow my hair out for something that requires it as opposed to wear a wig. Grow the real facial hair or make my body really feel the way that that character's body feels because you can't—the voice of somebody is not altered by just changing it two seconds before. It's like you have to live in the body and live in the clothes and the posture and all those things contribute to the thing that shows up on screen.
Braun: Or it's just the energy you bring into a scene with somebody, like an actor is going to feel me differently. It's fun because you get to rewire yourself for a short period of time and just be this different thing. My character smokes cigs so all of a sudden, I'm smoking some cigs. I'm like doing this thing. It helps my voice because it dries my voice out or makes me feel a little bit sick. Oh, I got a sinus infection from smoking cigarettes. Well, my character, maybe, I don't know.
Britell: It changes you, basically.
Braun: It changes you. There's not a huge method to it. I wouldn't call myself a method actor or any of that. I just like the idea of trying to figure out what is the way that this person feels all the time, and can I get as close to that as possible? While also not being an impossible person in my life to be around for shooting stuff.
Britell: Right. It's like a balancing act where you're—I'm sure for windows of time, that can be really fun. It's almost like a little bit of an escape from yourself in a sense. Other times, you have to live your life though.
Braun: It's exactly that. It's a little fun escape. Doing the research is fun too. I don't know why this just popped into my head, but I was going to play a juggalo character. Do you know what a juggalo is?
Britell: A juggalo?
Braun: Yes, have you heard of juggalos before?
Britell: Wait, tell me more.
Braun: A juggalo is a fan of this rap group called Insane Clown Posse.
Britell: Oh, okay.
Braun: They paint their face with clown make-up and stuff. My character on the page hung with a lot of juggalos. So I thought, well, maybe they're a juggalo and I should investigate this, so I properly represent the juggalo culture.
Britell: To be closer to it.
Braun: Yeah, to be closer to it, like what are those people like and what do they feel like and what is the actual juggalo hairstyle and what's their vibe and wardrobe and stuff. The movie didn't end up happening, by the way, but I got the part and then a week later was The Gathering of the Juggalos, which is a yearly music festival where all these Insane Clown Posse branch-off groups, inspired by ICP, come to perform.
Anyway, it's a crazy event, and people camp there for a week. So I could get there on the last night of the festival, and I flew to Oklahoma City, and I brought a tent. And I decided to just be in character. I got a grill for my mouth and I did my hair kind of weird.
Braun: First thing I did when I got there was I bought an ICP t-shirt.
Britell: You were just like, I'm doing this. I'm doing this.
Braun: I'm doing it. My little brother flew out from San Francisco, I flew from LA, we both met up in Oklahoma City and camped out at The Gathering of the Juggalos for a night. That kind of stuff is so fun to me. To be able to do that, have an excuse—“this is for work”—but really it's also just a fascination and to get to be around a group of people that I'm normally really not exposed to and be in a mosh pit. The big finale of their festival is Insane Clown Posse, which is a duo, this rap duo, they bring out cases and cases of two-liter Faygo, which is their soda brand that they created. They pour it all over everybody like a baptism at the end of the festival.
Britell: Oh my God. So you got poured on?
Braun: Oh, fully, fully doused in root beer and orange soda.
Britell: I always talk about how every project is a different, fascinating assignment, where it's like, oh, we need to explore this whole world. Then you get to say to yourself, okay, well, what do we do with that world? From my perspective, it's like, okay, what music works with this? Because there's always the first layer, the first idea. You see something and then you can think, okay, well, this is the direct answer to that or this is the reflection of that. Often, I feel it's not the first, or it's almost never the first, thing that's right for something. It's usually the second idea or the third idea.
Actually, it's funny, have you ever talked to McKay about this? Because he would talk about how—he put this really well a few years ago to me. He studied with Del Close in Chicago, for improv. I remember him telling me, I'm pretty sure, I don't want to mistake this, but he was saying basically how Del would always talk about how it was the third idea, was the one. Like when you're doing improv, that your first idea is not the right idea. Then your second idea is kind of, it's maybe better, but it's still related to the first idea, so it's not the idea. But the third idea, that's the idea. That's the one you go with because it's like you've learned from the first two ideas, but the third one is like the new thing.
And then I think he was telling me that the fourth idea is too far. That's like you're in your own head kind of thing. He was saying, which I found fascinating, the idea that really amazing improv is about so quickly getting to the third idea. It's like in your head, you get to the third idea almost right away, like you cycle through the ideas so quickly, and then you're already at the third idea. It seems like you're immediately having this response, but it's a trained, kind of like going through ideas very quickly. And after he said that, I think about that almost all the time now. [laughs]
Braun: It's just going to be in my head every time—
Britell: It’s like, “What's the third idea?”
Braun: I think that makes a lot of sense. The first one is basic essentially, and then the second one is you're trying to beat the basic. And so the third is an original idea in the context of what you're doing.
Britell: Exactly. It's like the new discovery, still connected, but has evolved.
Braun: Wow. That's really cool. So when you're coming up with stuff, let's talk about that. You'll get a first instinct towards something. Do you say, like, "Don't trust that.” Or sometimes is that right, and you're like, "It's actually pretty close. I just needed to tweak a thing or reorient it or something." Because so much about music, I feel like, is instinct and it just comes out so expressive, and it's what your ear hears. Like you hear melodies and you hear instrumentation and you feel it innately, so then do you have to put on the academic brain sometimes and be like, "That is good, but there is a deeper, better version."
Britell: That's a great question. I think it's all related to this stuff where part of it is, hopefully, over time, we're learning and maybe we're honing our instincts, so that maybe more quickly you start having a learned sense of, "I know I could do that, but I'm not going to do that." Maybe because you're like, “I know that'll work, but maybe that's not interesting. Or maybe I've already done that, I don't want to do that.” The crazy thing, I think, about film and TV music as an entirety is that—you can write all sorts of music. You can come up with ideas away from the picture because, in a bizarre way, writing music for a picture is both writing music and being a filmmaker.
The music on its own could be really interesting. There could be something really cool that you like, where you’re like, "I'm proud of this, I think it's beautiful." And then, when you put it up against the picture, it's totally wrong. There's this dual layer where you're writing music and you're also testing it out, is the way I would put it. I always talk about as, like, you're doing experiments, where you actually—it is maybe almost like a scientist where you have a theory, you have your best theories. But ultimately, until you do the experiment, which is putting it against the movie or the screen, you have no idea. Sometimes, you're like, "Wow, this really works." Then other times, you're like, "Wow, that is so wrong, but now that I see that it's wrong, it's telling me something about what could be right."
Braun: How much experimenting is there? Is there always a phase of, okay, here's my first instinct without picture, and this is what my gut tells me based on the script, based on this director, and what they've told me. This is the thing I think is the foundation. Is there always that phase before you see frames of your movie?
Britell: Yes, even if I just hear about a project, I just love playing around with this stuff. Even if I'm not working on a project, or I hear about a project, I think I naturally start going, "I wonder what would work with that." [laughs]
Britell: For example, on Succession, I first heard about it, I think it might have been even while we were still doing The Big Short. I remember I came to set, and Jeremy and Brian are having that—
Braun: Dining room—
Britell: "Do you want to hit me?" Yes, exactly. For me, that was incredible because I got to—like you were talking about, immersing and just feeling the tension in the room with that happening. Although it is intangible, but I really believe that all this stuff affects you subconsciously in a lot of ways, almost like a mystical way. If you're around this stuff and you feel it, it's going to affect you, and you're going to bring that into your work somehow.
Braun: Yeah, and it's been interesting and great having you at table reads.
Britell: I love to go. That's been so much fun for me. [laughs]
Braun: I think you started in second season, right? You were there at the first—
Britell: It was second season. I think, or I might have come to one in the first season, but definitely second season for sure. I went to the writers’ room too, actually. I went to the writers’ room when they were writing season two as well in London, actually.
Braun: I think it makes a lot of sense. You're trying to get—what are the rhythms and what are the colors of the season and how is it changing.
Britell: Exactly. I'm just curious, when did you first learn about Succession? What was that process? How did you hear about it?
Braun: It was sent to me like most auditions get sent to you. You get the script and you get some of the sides. I got a few Greg scenes. It said, I'm going to meet Adam McKay, and I'd never met Adam, but I'd long revered him.
Britell: He’s the best, yeah.
Braun: So I was like, this is crazy. This is great. I get to meet Adam, okay.
Braun: I understood Greg, I think. I don't know if I understood where he fit. Actually, I think I understood he is an oddball in this world. His energy is different. The stumbling nature of him and the awkwardness and the forced ambition of it all was very clear to me. I was like, okay, I'm just going to give it a shot. And Adam liked my read. He did a bunch of improv things with me in the room. There are these open-ended scenarios that he gave Greg.
Britell: What were they? I'm curious. Do you remember them? Or—
Braun: I do, yeah. There's the scene in the pilot where Greg is in this training room, and he's really high. He smokes a lot of weed in the car. Then he's sitting in the room, and he's in 80% of his dog costume. The orientation person is giving the corporate seminar and all the guidelines. And he was like, “Let's just keep the scene going. What if there's a gunman at the amusement park, what would you do in that scenario?”
As Greg, I just started answering these questions, and he gave me like 10 scenarios. For me, like I was saying earlier, it's great to get into the pathology of somebody with improv. How does your mind in this character answer a question? It's not the way I'm going to answer it. I have to redirect and go, oh yeah, Greg's fearful, he wants to say the right thing, but he has no understanding of corporate culture. So, um… “Frisk him?” “I could frisk, or escort him, or get on the ground.” I don't know what I actually said. It was really fun to understand, okay, where is he? At that point in the show, he's so squirrely and weird and unsure of who he is or what is—
Britell: And you were supposed to be high in that scene too. You're supposed to be already high.
Braun: And I'm high. Exactly. He's high and he's—
Britell: He's all of the above.
Braun: I can't even really understand the questions that well.
Braun: Just wants to get out there and put the costume on and—
Britell: Just get through the day. It’s funny when you said “frisk” or “escort” you. I feel that Greg has such a fascinating affinity for words, actually, and language. That really comes out in the congressional hearings in season two, where you're inhabiting that universe of, like, court procedure words, where you're like, “If it is to be said, so it is.”
Braun: “So it be, so it is.”
Britell: How much of that is—because it sounds you now fully know how to inhabit Greg. Was a lot of that in the writing? Had they thought that Greg would talk this way or is that something too, that you've brought into things? I'm just curious.
Braun: I'm pretty sure it was in the writing.
Britell: Wow, that's awesome.
Braun: I'm pretty sure it's there, because in the pilot, I remember, there's this scene and it did stay in the pilot, where I'm sitting with Brian, in between Brian and Hiam in the car, and I'm saying, “If there's a way for me to scratch your back and you scratch mine,” or something, and I used the word “perspicacious.”
Braun: I believe that's the word I use. It tells you a lot about the way Jesse sees Greg, is that he is scrambly in his thoughts and appears maybe dumb, but has this vocabulary weirdly? Or maybe he just thinks, around rich, smart people he's supposed to use the big words he knows.
Britell: Right. It's the code, he's trying to fit in as if—the irony being that the last thing in the world that Logan is would ever use is a word like that. Like when they're quoting Shakespeare to him, he's just like, "Fuck off."
Braun: Totally, keep it as simple as possible. Just say what you want.
Britell: Exactly. Like, why are we here? It's interesting, too, because it feels like you—obviously, I've been working on Succession, but I'm a fan of all of your work. I feel like all the characters, all the actors are inhabiting in such a deep way. Like you were saying before when you were talking about preparation and immersion, do you find yourself even, or there are certain—obviously, Greg has a physicality in his way too. Like, do you now sort of naturally—if I were to say to you, "Okay, you're Greg the Egg right now." Does your body feel different? I'm just curious. Or would it take you time? Is it like, “Give me two hours and I'll be Greg” kind of a thing?
Braun: I think it would be in the wardrobe and putting on a Greg-style suit or outfit. Then the posture changes and I think the voice changes a little bit. Then there's just an energy that ticks up, that's a little bit more hyper-aware of the room, the key players in it.
Britell: That's a good point actually. Greg's very sensitive to the room. Also, one of the things I love about Greg too is he’s sensitive to the room, but also oddly self-centered as well. I still remember that moment where you say, "It's Gregory." In the midst of this lion's den, you're still like, "Well, actually, please call me Gregory."
Braun: Demanding something for his identity, for some respect.
Britell: Exactly, for his identity. For some respect, yes, exactly.
Braun: I know, I think that's totally the balance. He's like, "I got to do the right thing, got to do the right thing, but I also got to really do what I want to do right now and go for what I want."
Britell: Exactly. Which is remarkable because, in that environment, there's also the fact that Greg does have these ambitions, and is actually incredibly ambitious. Willing to walk in the bathroom and be like, "I'm out of here, Logan."
Braun: Yeah, he's trying to negotiate with him. Even at his big night. I love that part of him. I think that, for me, is one of the most exciting parts about Greg, is the ambition that I myself put a dampener on and I'm like, "No, don't go up to that person and say that right now."
Britell: You read the room.
Braun: I read the room. Greg reads it and he's like, "Everything is available. Where do I want to go the most right now?" There's just that kind of freedom of instinct and excitement and saying thoughts that are inside your head that most people don't say out loud. And I love that. That's a fun day to get to have. Just being that.
Britell: It's awesome watching you. Also, I think, I'm curious too. It seems to me the whole cast, you all have gotten to know each other so well, do you feel similarly to preparing yourself? How much time do you all spend together because from what I can tell, it feels like this real family to me. The way that you all interact, it feels like you have almost a second nature where you just know, you respond to each other so naturally in those roles.
Braun: I don't know how but I think it just got built really quickly. I think Adam probably set us up perfectly and just throwing us into these rooms and saying, "Say whatever you want to each other. Kieran, you try something. Nick, you start the conversation at the table." Everybody basically gets permission in that way to embody your character, see what happens. We'll use it, maybe we won't, maybe it helps, maybe it doesn't. When you're put into that initiation with a group of people—in the pilot phase, it's all a mystery. You're all buying into something that isn't a sure thing.
It's like, “Well, let's just go for this. All right, let's see. That felt good. That felt funny. What is this show? Is this a drama? Is it a comedy? Am I doing this right?" Everybody is just wondering. I think Adam neutralized that in a good way, which was just like, "Try it all. Try it. Just try it.”
Britell: I love that so much. I would say every good collaborative relationship, I feel in some sense, in the kernel of it is like that. I mean Barry Jenkins, it is so that type of thing, where there's just an openness and a trust to things. And Adam and Jesse are the same way for me too where it's like, "There's no wrong answers." If anything, they would be upset if you didn't present something, that was an idea. That's the only thing that would be bad is if you don't share an idea that you're having. Adam always says stuff to me, he'll always say, "The movie is going to win in the end. It's not about any one of us. It's about the project. If it's a good idea, it'll make the whole project better so let's all share ideas."
Braun: I think on Succession, you show an idea and usually it helps Jesse understand his scene better or the director—Mark, usually—
Braun: —but, they'll be like, "Oh, yes, no, wait, that's good. Stick with that, and then do this on top of it."
In terms of other projects, what is—has there been a crazy process that happened that was not your ideal way and it turned out okay? Or what are some sort of odd circumstances maybe that you've created music, or things you thought certainly wouldn’t work and did?
Britell: I spent a lot of time during and after college doing a lot of short films because I feel short films are—in a lot of ways, I think people don't appreciate enough how crucial short films are to the film industry, and that short films are a really tangible way that filmmakers learn how to make movies. I certainly learned a lot about how to score things just by working with friends who were making shorts and every single one, just trying different things and experimenting and really leaning into it that way. People might not know, I was a cocktail pianist at one point. In high school, actually, I used to play cocktail music for fundraisers and private parties.
Then, after my freshman year in college, I had this whole—it was a tough time. I guess, freshman year, I really wasn't sure what to do with myself, just in life. When I was growing up, I always thought I was going to be a concert pianist. Basically, late high school, I started thinking to myself, maybe I'm not going to be a concert pianist. I took a year off after my freshman year in college to give concerts and basically spend my days just playing the piano all the time. That was the year where I did a lot of cocktail piano, which was a whole other world.
As far as other stuff too, I even wrote telephone hold music, which was really interesting. I just love writing music. Before I knew how to get gigs, I had a friend who worked at a restaurant who reached out to me and was like, “So, I got a gig for you.” I was like, “Oh, what is it?” He's like, "The restaurant needs hold music. Do you think you would do something?" I was like, “This is incredible, I'm so excited.” He's like, “There's no pay, but they'll buy you a drink.” And I was like, “Let's do this.” I wrote this spa music that I thought would be relaxing when you get put on hold. My friends were so nice, they would call the restaurant and they'd be like, “Could you please put me on hold?” so they could hear the music. Those might be some unexpected gigs. We all have expected gigs.
Braun: That's such a cool way to release music. Like, “Here's my new track. Call this number.”
Britell: Exactly, “Call this number.” It also makes you appreciate too, the many places that music does exist. Every place you hear music, somebody worked. The lesson to me was just, if you're this excited about writing music for literally any possible context, it must mean that you really like writing music.
Those were the lessons, I think, I was having to myself, like, everyone's trying to figure out what to do and you don't know enough because you haven't lived enough. The thing that I started realizing was just, how did I want to spend my day? If I could structure my day in any way, what would I do? I was in a band in college and I was scoring friends' movies, and I realized that if I was just writing music all day, I'd be pretty happy. You just start figuring out, well, maybe that's what I should be doing.
Braun: Were you able to make enough money doing stuff in college, or you had to have a side job and this was the passion?
Britell: Not at all. Yes, in college the cocktail gigs were great, but I mean, there were only so many opportunities for that.
Braun: So many cocktails that can be drank.
Britell: Not that many opportunities for that. I was also an organist. I was a church organist in the summers. In Colorado, I was the Jewish organist in an Episcopal Church which was fascinating. Those were some of the musical ways in college that I would try to make some money.
I think for film and TV, and the arts in general, I think it is a long term investment process. It takes a long time. It takes so much work and so many projects until you start hopefully getting the opportunity to get really paid for it.
Braun: Totally. Have you had moments where you're on the trajectory, but you're like, "I don't know how to get to the next rung of this. I'm scoring for friends’ shorts, but how do I actually score a feature?”
Britell: What do you do?
Braun: “How do I score somebody that doesn't even know me?”
Braun: You had some moments where you're—
Britell: Yes. It's interesting too, because I think it speaks to the whole industry, as well, where certain industries are structured in ways where there's a more obvious on-ramp, in a way. I've been talking to some friends about this, just in the context of the world today, where if you think about being a lawyer, being a doctor, let's just say as an example, there are certain schools you go to and you get an approved degree of a certain sort, and then it leads—there's a bit of a track. I think arts and entertainment is much more amorphous. It's much more unclear what that on-ramp is.
One thing I've been spending time thinking about is creating more ways to demystify the process or do mentorships. I've been trying to teach a bit and talk about that because I think that way, we will get more—there’s just so many incredibly talented people who either don't have an opportunity to do this or who aren't even exposed to the opportunity to know that they could be amazing at it.
In a way, I think Hollywood is a freelance industry. Almost everybody is freelancing. For example, freelance musicians, it's like we're all gig to gig, which has opportunities because you're flexible and you can take on new projects, and you go from one cool thing to another, but also, there's a sense of, what is the structure? What's the stability of the structure over long periods of time?
Braun: I know. I wanted to talk to you about that because you have a really good work schedule, work structure. You are very busy. Obviously, you have your studio at your home, so you can just do it whenever, but how do you continue to churn and work and always stay inspired?
For me, I've done a little bit of music, but when I do it, it's because there's something in me that's like, "Okay, I got to write a song." It comes out of some urge that's in that moment or something happened that inspired words or whatever. You do this every day, and you're able to—I don't know. I’d just love to hear how that works, and if some days you wake up, and you're like, "I don't know how to make music today," but then somehow you do. Or if it's a process of, you're making a lot, and you're like, "I know I'm going to make X amount of music, and some of it will just be unusable."
Britell: I think it's a combination of things. I think in college when I was in my band, I would make a lot of beats, I was hugely into making and producing hip-hop beats. I was making so many tracks every day. I just loved it. One of the things my friend Jake and I would do, is we had this rule for ourselves, which was, it sounds really basic, but we felt it was the most profound realization. All it was, was that we said, "If it feels good, keep going, and if it doesn't, stop." And that was the rule.
Britell: When we figured that out, it was like a revelation to us because I think there are these times where something's not quite working, but you're like, "No, I'm going to push it through." It's like, "Don't. Just stop. Just go away, just pause, do something else and come back tomorrow.” The weirdest thing is time tells you everything. Also, it takes the pressure off those moments, where a lot of it is, yes, you want to just experiment with things, and you just try something. There's no way to know beforehand if anything's ever going to work. I literally never have any idea if something's going to work, I just do it. Then I don't judge it, and then 24 or 48 hours later, you come back to it and you're like, "Oh, that was kind of interesting." Then the other one, you're like, "Oh, wow, never play that ever again."
Braun: Sometimes when I'm making music, it comes out in this flurry and then I think back and I'm like, "Whoa, those four hours, I don't know how I came up with that, I don't know how any of this happened, but it just happened." Do you have that? Is that a part of the process that you're just like—
Britell: I think whenever music or art is intellectual in its execution, I don't think it works. I think it has to be kind of visceral. In a way you study things, you learn about technique, you practice, so that in the moment, you don't do any of that and you just go from your gut. In a way, I think it's like what you were talking about with performance. I think the moment that you're writing something, let's say, is kind of like a performance that you just freeze, and then you work on it. You know what I mean? Every idea that ends up being finished, at one point was just like—it emerged as almost improvisation. Then you edit it, and you choose, and you say, "No, I don't like this." That first moment of something, in a way for everything is always a performance. I'm sure if you're on stage or in front of a camera, that moment is that special thing, right?
Braun: Totally. That's why when you do ADR, which is the re-doing of your lines in a studio six months later, it's so weird because there's so many factors that just happen out of thin air in a room with somebody, with cameras happening to be there, but you just can't recreate that later.
Britell: That speaks to what you were saying earlier. For example, for ADR, do you do even more of a kind of immersion?
Braun: I try to wear something that was similar, maybe. If my body's moving, I’ve got to move while I'm saying the line, or I don't know. You do a lot of face imagining, like imagining that person there and—
Britell: Literally like mental visualization.
Braun: Or I guess, sometimes you're looking at a face on the screen, the screens in front of you. You're looking at them and you're trying to basically talk to a screen version of a human that you used to be actually with.
Britell: Yeah, that you were talking to. The performance stuff is fascinating though. I think that could be a whole other hour of conversation because I feel like thinking about preparing for things is such a big thing.
Braun: I struggle with that too, because sometimes when you're on set and something’s a super important moment for you, sometimes you've been thinking about this one scene for months, or a year or something. You've been preparing for this moment and then somebody is there, and they want to have a conversation about, like, basketball, like the NBA, I don't know, whatever, craft services, “It's so weird how the coffee tastes today,” or something. And that's a part of on-set culture too, but sometimes you just have these distractions, and it's hard to separate. Then sometimes you want to use them. For instance, in that Succession Congress scene, there's a room full of background actors there and photographers and fake Senators and all this stuff. And I want to look at them and use them beforehand and get some of that energy maybe. You can get thrown, but then sometimes you also want to use it.
Britell: That's really smart. That's where you're so in it already, actually. You've already spun it in your favor.
Braun: But it's different when you're playing piano in front of a group of people, this piece that's extremely specific. I saw you play in that pre-college Juilliard Night. It's a symphony hall full of people, and there's 100 people on stage with you that have all rehearsed, and you're there. How do you alleviate the pressure of the—I'd be interested to know, and, granted, you wrote that piece. It's coming straight out of you, but what is that like, and how do you—
Britell: I think every time it's different. It's like, in a way, I was reading something about this where basically it was the idea that if you're ever not nervous before a performance, it means something's wrong. In a way, I think part of it is realizing that sometimes what we interpret as anxiety is actually excitement, because it's your body. Before a performance, you have energy, your body is energized. I think if you say to yourself, “No, I'm just excited about this,” that's one positive thing. I think the part of our brains that does performance—for example, the part of my brain that helps play the piano is not the rational part of my brain. I learned that maybe the hard way. The part of your brain which thinks about everything, which knows normal things, that's not what's playing the piano. The part that's playing the piano is some other part of your brain that's deeper, and more subconscious.
I actually think in a weird way, it's about getting out of your own way. You get out of your head, and you don't think about it, actually. You just get out there and you're just like, “I'm just going to do.” I think any time that I am thinking about my playing, it's never a good thing. If I'm not thinking, the irony is like, it seems almost irresponsible. You're like, “I'm not thinking about what I'm doing.” It's actually, that's how you do it, which is a whole weird complex that we have. I've obviously thought way too much about it.
Braun: No, no, I love that. I think that's right. You have to tap out of yourself as an ordinary human. It's like, "I'm about to do this thing that is extremely different from the rest of my day, the rest of my life, which is enter this instrument in front of a room full of people.” That is a different aspect of myself, and I’ve got to breathe into that.
Britell: Exactly, and I have to allow that to do its own thing.
Britell: In a weird way, that's the bizarre thing I've—have you felt over the years that there are performances that you've given, times you've been on stage or what have you, in front of a camera, and you didn't even know seemingly what you were doing or you weren't prepared in the way that you thought you should be and yet, it was the best thing you've done? I've had that happen where I remember giving a concert where I really, for whatever the reason, did not think I was prepared for it and without question it was one of the best performances I ever gave. In some sense, I think that made it even more complicated for me because I was like, “Wait, now I don't even know. If by not preparing I gave the best concert, now I'm just confused.”
Braun: Well, I think the best moments as a performer are the ones where you're just okay with the mystery of how it's going. “I don't know how this is going and I'm not judging it actually, I'm just in it, and there are no boundaries. I weirdly just feel like I can do anything right now. It's just me, it's my expression just coming out.” I think that's the place you want to get to, so you're not strong-arming something into what you thought the night before it was supposed to be, or what you think people are going to expect of you to do today.
You have to shed all of that stuff and you're like, "I actually don't know what it's going to be, but I know I really want to play this song. I know I really want to do this scene. I know there's something, there's some engine here for me, so I'm just going to do that." As an actor, specifically, when I feel like, okay, this scene is overwhelming. There was a scene this season that just, I was like, “I don't know what I'm doing here. I feel like I'm acting a lot. I'm trying to achieve this thing that the scene feels like it requires, and that feels bad. I feel like a bad actor today. I just don't feel—”
Britell: You feel like you're doing as opposed to being.
Braun: Yes, or I'm like, “I know there's an expectation for this scene, so I should make sure at a certain moment I have a lot of excitement on my face,” and that's not ever where I want to be. I don't want to think about what I have to achieve. Am I making sense?
Britell: You're totally making sense. It's like what I was saying about the piano too. You're thinking about it in almost a success-failure or cause-effect kind of a way. In a bizarre way, in order for a performance of any sort to be in it properly, it can't be about success or failure or cause-effect.
Braun: Exactly, because then it pressurizes it and it makes it like there's a result you need to get to for the scene in order for everybody to walk away and go to the next thing and feel like, “Oh, we got that scene.” This scene probably didn't even require that but for whatever reason, I built this in. In those moments, I usually just go, “Okay, I have an actor.” I had Jeremy in the room. “I'm just going to rely on what Jeremy gives me, and I'm going to back off the result I think I need to get to in here.” That, to me, always grounds me. I don't know how it is in music, if you're just like, “It's just me and a wooden bunch of ivory and metal here.”
There’s something nice about, if I'm with Matthew or on any set with any actor, I'm just like, “I'm with a person here. Okay, let me just be with the person,” and that’s usually grounding.
Britell: Just respond. Well, I think, for me, that's why I love collaboration actually. That's the answer to it in a way. That's why, I think, I'm so drawn to working with others. That's why I love working with directors, because they have a vision. I get to receive that vision from them. No matter what I'm focused on or doing, there's always something to resonate with, in a way. You're kind of free. It's that liberating constraint thing. Ultimately, you know that there is this vision that you will be a part of, that you can learn from, that you can discuss. I think, for sure, it takes me out of my own head.
Braun: It's a conversation.
Britell: Totally, it's a conversation. That feels exactly right. Look, I could just keep talking to you for another hour. Maybe we will just keep—
Braun: I love it, man. I love talking to you.
Britell: It’s great to talk.
Braun: It’s fascinating. Yes, really cool, dude. It's great to see you via computer screen man.
Britell: Same here, man.
Braun: Great talking to you. I hope I see you in real life very soon.
Britell: Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, maybe we can do a socially-distanced, you know, hello or distanced coffee at some point in New York.
Braun: Yeah, just drink drinks close to each other.
Britell: Yes, but like fully protected in gear of some—visors and masks.
Braun: Saran wrap and stuff.
Britell: Exactly. Safety, but we will see each other. Thank you, A24, for bringing us together.
Braun: Thank you, A24, yes.
Britell: And there we have it.