Nicholas Braun underwent a complete transformation for Zola. Though most people know the 33-year-old actor for playing the quirky Cousin Greg on Succession, his latest role as Derrek in the Twitter thread turned movie is a complete 180. Even when the trailer first dropped in March, it didn’t take fans long to become completely engrossed with his baggy-jeans-wearing and chinstrap-beard-sporting character. And we can confirm the actual film is just as wild as the trailer makes it out to be.
Based on the famous 2015 Twitter thread from Aziah “Zola” Wells, the film follows a waitress named Zola (Taylour Paige) who embarks on a cross-country road trip with a sex worker named Stefani (Riley Keough). Braun plays Stefani’s boyfriend, whom the actor described to POPSUGAR as “really vulnerable” but at the same time “really desperate to be in a romantic” relationship. After reading through the initial Twitter thread, Braun said he was especially interested in how Derrek was written in the script. “I loved the way that Derrek fit into this foursome,” he said. “I thought the relationship with Stefani was really layered and awful. She gives him just enough to keep him in, just to keep him hooked into her. I love the way he talked, and I just found him really vulnerable, but trying so hard not to be, really emotional, really desperate to be in a romantic good thing, but he doesn’t know himself well enough.”
To get into the chaotic headspace of the character, Braun said he ate a lot of candy and drank a lot of coffee and Red Bull during filming. “I tried to eat as little as I could without being hangry, but also liking that, too, because it brought up some good things and put me in certain moods that I think are helpful to try and fight against, as Derrek. He’s doing all the wrong things for himself, he’s in a relationship that’s not good. He’s so unhealthy, but he’s just fighting through it every day and trying to still be a good dude for her.”
As he got into character, Braun reflected on his own previous relationships to understand how things might have been different if he had less self-awareness, similar to Derrek. “I thought about times that I’ve felt helpless in relationships, where I just want it so bad and I want it more than the other person. Even if I’m doing that for two weeks or a month, I’m like, ‘This is all I think about all the time, I can’t live like this,’ but if I didn’t have my self-awareness, what would that be like? There’s a lot of sadness to [Derrek] and loneliness, and he doesn’t know how to make people love him. For me, it was just like, ‘Do I want to go towards that?’ With all the roles I do, I’m trying to check things out in myself, learn about something going on through the character. So I thought, ‘Alright, well, I’m going to learn some sh*t here,’ but it was fun.”
Though there are some really intense moments throughout the movie — Braun noted that the scene with Derrek in the motel where he calls Stefani was really “tough” and left him crying after the take — it seems like there were just as many lighthearted moments off camera. “It’s such a good group of people,” he said about the cast. “So, we had a lot of fun. We were singing ‘Hannah Montana’ [by Migos] every day. We really memorized that song. Taylour and Riley were such a fun duo, so they’d be playing music, blasting music every morning, and it was a party.”
While Succession obviously holds a special place in Braun’s heart, Zola is definitely one of his most meaningful roles to date. “I’d done one season of Succession, and I was looking for what’s the next thing that I want to do, and this just felt like it had all these things that were very meaningful to me,” he said. “It’s such an important story. It’s obviously fun as hell and funny and crazy and beautifully shot. There’s so many things I love about the movie. Zola is probably [my] most meaningful [role] after Succession, which I’ve put a lot of years in and I’ve learned so much working on that show and I care so much about those actors and the people I work with every day on that.”
As Braun takes on new roles in the future, one thing he is always looking for is a character that will help him learn something more about himself. “I try to make sure that every character I take on, there’s something I personally can bring that’s totally unique to me and a perspective that is only mine. I mean, you’re playing a human for months at a time, or with Succession, it’s many years at a time. The only reason [for me] to do it is if there’s a lot to unravel, and that includes putting my own experiences into it. I’ve read scripts [before] and then the movie doesn’t get made for few years, and then the script comes back around three years later, it doesn’t resonate anymore because I’ve changed, so I don’t want to deal with those themes anymore. So that’s the main thing: the character meets you at a certain time of life, and luckily, Zola met me when it was the right time.”
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