There is a scene that didn’t make it into Zola, Janicza Bravo’s film based on the tweet thread widely known as the “greatest stripper saga ever told.” It went something like this: A sallow young man, maybe in a stained polo and a backward baseball cap, is playing a computer game at home. Nearby, his girlfriend plays with her baby. The child isn’t his, but that detail doesn’t matter much; here, they’re just a couple living together and raising a kid.
The young man is Derrek, played by Nicholas Braun, and the woman is Stefani (Riley Keough), the conniving dancer and sex worker at the film’s center. It is she who lures the unwitting Zola (Taylour Paige) to a dusty Florida strip club, promising her thousands in tips. Instead, Zola is dragged into a feverish two-day odyssey that involves a number of firearms, many penises, and a kidnapping.
Derrek clings to Stefani throughout the ordeal, sweating through his True Religions and whining for some morsel of affection (she needs a little love from him, too, but mostly she finds him ridiculous). Such behavior has led to poor Derrek being labeled a cuckold, a description that causes Braun to bristle. It’s here that he brings up the cut scene — while not critical to the story, to him it suggests a kind of partnership between Stefani and Derrek that is absent from the rest of the film. Braun even imagines a backstory for them — they’ve been together for several years and were maybe high-school sweethearts. “Any spare money he gets, he gives it to her,” he says. “He’s kind of a protector in a way.”
Braun has a tendency to see the best in his characters — it’s not helpful to “put negative connotations” on any of them, he explains. He calls from New York, where he’s filming the third season of Succession, and is gently indignant over my description of Cousin Greg as a dummy, another character he saw as having potential from the jump. (“I thought he was ambitious,” Braun muses, “and a good bullshitter.” Not an idiot? “Maybe a pothead but not stupid.”) He’s wearing clear-frame glasses with a silver chain glinting on his neck, and blueish stubble shades his chin. His home office is very Zen, paneled in light wood and furnished with an electric piano, some cameras, and a framed photo of his parents.
Derrek, described by Braun, is tragic. Stefani “made some mistakes and slept with guys for money.” It pains him, and he hopes she doesn’t do it again. “That’s not a cuckold,” Braun says firmly. Blinded by love? “Yeah, and obsessed. Just obsessed with her.”
Braun has had experiences like this. Quite a few, it seems. Not to the degree of Derrek, he notes, but versions “where you’re like, God, what can I do to make this girl care more about me? What can I do to feel better in this relationship? I don’t feel like I have power or leverage at all. I’m the one trying to get something, get a text back or get a call back or anything.”
I wonder if this is bullshit. He’s a well-known actor who famously dates normies. Plus, he’s six-foot-seven. Is he really out here waiting for a text back? He shakes his head, eyes growing wide and, impossibly, even more earnest. After swallowing a few times, he begins to speak, haltingly, about a bad date in his 20s. The story is familiar: The date went great, you really like the person and think they really like you, but you never hear from them again. As a chronic overthinker in all parts of his life, he absolutely hates that feeling.
“I don’t know how to cope with it, so I just kind of walk away from it. After a week of being obsessed and checking, Has anything come into the phone? Is there any sign? I can’t do it anymore.” He tries to play it cool for a bit but usually ends things around then, he explains, “to maintain any self-confidence.”
Derrek, however, doesn’t have that warning bell, and so his pallid skin was a “fun and scary” thing for Braun to try on. And try it on he did, dropping a ton of weight and sometimes subsisting on candy and Red Bull. “I saw Derrek as this kind of sick guy — that this relationship was eating him up,” Braun says. So he made Derrek look and feel unhealthy.
It absolutely works: Derrek looks like shit and, in particular, looks like he smells like shit. “He’s all b.o. It’s a 30-hour road trip, and he doesn’t change his outfit once.”
When he can, Braun takes jobs that might help him work through some of his own problems. (Though he says he hasn’t noticed, it’s worth mentioning that he has played a lot of boyfriends. A few weeks after we speak, it was announced that he’ll be playing the much-maligned love interest in an adaptation of the viral New Yorker story “Cat Person.”) Now in his 30s, Braun saw Derrek as a chance to sort through some things his 22-year-old self had to deal with, “like pretending to be something you’re not and trying to act like it’s all good,” and other diseases of confidence that plague those years. He also thinks that playing someone whose relationship drives them to the brink of insanity may have helped him with his own tendency to overanalyze the early stages of his romances.
He’s still bad at those stages, he says, but he’s deeply fascinated with what he calls “the courting process.” So fascinated that he’s written two scripts around the idea. The first is one he’s been working on for a while and hopes to direct — a “social horror movie” about a woman who goes on a competitive dating show. And, over a ten-day stint during the pandemic, he wrote another he hopes to star in. It is, notably, about a long-term relationship.
“These things become a net for all of my little fascinations,” he says of the projects, both of which are in extremely early stages. “Like, Oh, that was a weird wedding, or hearing people on a first date and watching their body language.”
He makes music, and that too is mostly about love. He landed a record deal after his pandemic pop hit “Antibodies (Do You Have Them)” went deservedly viral but doesn’t have anything concrete to report on that front.
When I ask him to sing something for me, I’m rewarded with a full-fledged blush. “I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” he says, a bit panicky (I may have been skeptical at first, but now I’m left with no doubt that everything he’s said up until this point is true). What he does do is assure me that his sound of choice isn’t the emo punk rock of his debut. “It’s like R&B or kind of James Blake–y,” he says, then pauses. “I mean, I’m a big Phoebe Bridgers fan.”