On a recent afternoon at the driving range at Chelsea Piers, Nicholas Braun rises to greet me, his posture remarkably straight and confident. On the HBO series Succession, which chronicles the dramas of an exorbitantly wealthy and powerful clan of New Yorkers fighting over control of the family’s media empire, he plays Cousin Greg, a bumbling jester in ill-fitting suits, his six-foot-seven frame perpetually stooped from the effort of leaning in for everyone’s approval. If anyone’s bumbling this afternoon, it’s me. I’m half an hour late to meet him, sweaty and flustered, a victim of the latest MTA meltdown. But if Braun is annoyed, he doesn’t show it. He reveals that he’s brought his own clubs and has already secured us a spot on the range. Braun, it turns out, is an avid golfer, and he looks the part, in a salmon short-sleeved button-down and white khaki shorts, his white socks stretching from his pure white Allbirds to the tops of his calves. Have I played before, he wants to know?
“I’m a real virgin!” I blurt out nervously. “Oh, wow,” he says, widening his eyes in that familiar Cousin Greg way. “Oh, this is exciting.”
Upstairs at our stall, Braun chooses a club and demonstrates the stance, knees soft, shoulders broad, three silver bracelets glinting on his wrist. He takes a graceful swing and sends the ball soaring across the grass-covered pier toward the Hudson River. Then he turns his attention to me, placing a club in my hands and gently adjusting my fingers on the grip. He starts to explain the difference between a sand wedge and a pitching wedge and the concept of “loft,” but I have stopped listening for one simple reason. Cousin Greg might be a “motherfuckin’ egg,” as his cousin Kendall memorably put it, but Nicholas Braun is disconcertingly charming.
It is Cousin Greg’s lack of charm and grace — the captivating awkwardness of Braun’s performance — that has made him an improbable object of widespread adoration. Vanity Fair’s Laura Bradley called him a “national treasure.” TV critic Andy Greenwald tweeted about getting a Cousin Greg tattoo. A “love letter” to his character published on Uproxx gets at the root of the phenomenon: “He’s a goldfish in a piranha tank … The champion we need and deserve.” In the morally bankrupt world of the Roys, Cousin Greg seems just a little more lovable, a little more innocent than the hardened, backstabbing cynics who surround him. At least at first. When we meet him, he’s a peripheral player in the Roy universe, an outsider struggling to fit in with this family of consummate insiders, always stumbling a few steps behind. But gradually, we come to realize that Greg has more in common with the sly, selfish Roys than we were led to believe. Turns out the kid can lie and blackmail with the best of them, even as that look of befuddled innocence remains plastered on his face.
All of this makes for a deliciously complicated character whose motives are never fully clear, even to Braun. Does Greg lie just because he wants to fit in with a family of power-hungry liars, or because he’s hungry for power himself? Is he a goldfish awkwardly adapting to life among the piranhas, or a piranha disguised as an awkward goldfish? “I still don’t know exactly what Greg is,” says Braun. “Everybody in the show lives in this weird middle ground.” Take Tom, Greg’s devious mentor and tormentor: “He might be a complete dummy from Minnesota, but he also might be evil. Logan,” he continues, “might be this terrible, patriarchal, greedy man but then there are moments where you see he loves his children. Is Greg secretly cunning? Or does he think he’s cunning and he’s really not?” He cocks back the club and knocks another ball across the green, frowning into the sun as he tries to follow its path. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s maybe for other people to determine.” How about the fan theory, floated on the Ringer and elsewhere, that Greg could end up on Logan’s throne? “I have no clue,” he shrugs. “If it ends up that I get all the marbles or something, that’s great, but I just want to keep having scenes that feel full of stuff, you know? Full of dynamics and fear and taking opportunities and running with them.”
Braun’s own path to opportunity began among the popped collars and Top-Siders of Fairfield County, Connecticut. (Hence the passion for whacking small white balls with a stick.) His father designed iconic record albums (the Velvet Underground banana, the Rolling Stone tongue) before becoming a professional actor at the age of 55. Nick broke into the business as a teenager, playing small roles in movies or shows you’ve probably never seen (Disney Channel’s Princess Protection Program, ABC Family’s 10 Things I Hate About You). He thinks his height may have held him back. “I like my body,” he says. “I think it’s okay. It’s just, I wish that before I go into an audition room they would go like, ‘Hey, this guy’s tall, do you want that or not?’ ‘Cause I used to come into auditions in my 20s and people would go, ‘Oh my God, you’re tall!’ And I knew then I wasn’t getting the part.”
On Succession, he plays his height to his advantage, craning his lanky neck around doorways before entering rooms as if he’s afraid of blundering into social land mines, anxiously towering over his cousins as they insult him to his face. As much as Braun exceeds his television counterpart in outward confidence, he says he deeply relates to Greg’s awkwardness. “On set, I basically feel completely socially anxious like all the time,” he says. “And, I’ve kind of been inviting it because it helps me feel the right way in all these scenes.”
At 31, with his career just starting to take off, Braun is single-mindedly focused on work at the moment. “I want to not dilute my attention to the projects that I care about,” he says. He’s working on his first screenplay, True Love Beach, about a girl on a reality dating show, but with a creepy ending à la Rosemary’s Baby. It was partly inspired by his own romantic troubles. “I guess I feel for people who are, like, really trying to find a mate,” he says. “I haven’t had the best time dating. I was seeing somebody for a while, and we broke up in May. I wished it worked out, but it just wasn’t.” He pauses. “It doesn’t come naturally to me, planning dates and stuff like that.”
We leave the driving range and walk over to a restaurant in Chelsea, where Braun considers the drink options. He orders a Strawbiscus Ricky without the gin. In a few hours, he explains, he’ll be flying to Croatia to film the second season’s finale. (What takes the Roys to Europe, he won’t say.) “I feel like when I drink before flights it makes me prone to a sinus infection,” he says. A plate arrives piled with grains and greens. “I need this right now,” he says, “before I go off to Croatia and show off the beach bod.”
Fortified by quinoa, I present him with an awkward challenge: a round of fuck, marry, kill, between the prodigal son Kendall Roy, his irascible brother Roman, and their cutthroat sister Shiv.
“Wow,” he says, wrapping his long fingers around his chin, thumb running along his jawline.
“Um, okay, marry,” he continues. “Well, you can’t fuck Roman. He’s unfuckable. He doesn’t fuck. So maybe marry Roman. I know Kieran [Culkin]. I’m like, there’s a sweet side there. He’s a caretaker. And then I guess fuck Shiv and kill Kendall.” Braun reconsiders for a moment. “Although it could go both ways. Shiv’s a hot, powerful woman. There’s fuckability there. How do I talk about a co-star like this?” he wonders aloud. “But it’s a character; we’re talking characters, so … I would never want to kill Kendall because he’s my boy. I don’t know, maybe I’d fuck him and kill Shiv. Maybe that’s what I have to do. We have a good chemistry, me and Kendall. There’s fuckability there. And he’s gone through so much. He’d be really grateful, I bet.”
Questions about Greg’s love life inevitably arise. Braun’s not sure Greg has one. “The first season, I felt like Greg was asexual, in a way,” he says. “Like he was all about being good, doing the right things. And honestly, the second season’s not much different.” At least as far as dating goes. There’s no question that as the season progresses, Greg levels up in his abilities to lie, cheat, and blackmail. You can see an early hint of this in the season-one finale, when he runs into Kendall and reveals that he’s made photocopies of a “few key documents.” Bending to meet Kendall’s gaze, he says, softly, “Anyone would be wise to keep me around.” In the second season, he’s not content to merely keep his job; he attempts to leverage his knowledge to rise within the company.
As we wait for the check, I pose a question that Greg once put to Willa, the paid companion of the eldest Roy son, Connor. Desperate to make small talk, he asked whether she’d rather be trapped in a cage with a shark or a tiger. This time, Braun doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Shark,” he says. “We’d look each other in the eye and be able to recognize, ‘This is not an aggressive situation. We can exist here as friends.’ He can look in my eyes; I can look in his. I can neutralize him.”