Photo credit: Ross Philips
Photo credit: Ross Philips

From Esquire

Nicholas Braun and I are trying to figure out if there’s anything fun we can do over Zoom. It’s a Thursday afternoon in mid-August, and we’re facing the same conundrum that anyone trying to maintain a social life has experienced since the Coronavirus confined human interaction to the screen. Earlier in the pandemic, Braun joined in on a big game of Codenames organized by director Jason Reitman. They had a three-hour game session with 20 people split into two teams. But right now Braun and I don’t have enough people for Codenames, so we settle for Zoom beers. We cheers to our laptop webcams and I confidently assure him that it’s okay to drink a sour that was canned in August of last year (I hope it is).

This is how most of Braun’s early quarantining went—long nights having drinks online with friends. His buddy threw him a surprise Zoom birthday party with 20 of his closest friends. “It was so moving. At that point, I really hadn’t seen many people, and so I was just… ” Braun says, savoring the memory. “I don’t know, that was just a huge endorphin hit, like all these faces that I’ve missed and I got to see.” It all feels like a huge ad for Zoom, he notes. “You can’t not say that word 10 times a day.”

For a little while, at least, he was living the socially distanced life you’d expect—if you can expect anything these days—from a successful young man in his early 30s. That is, until he jokingly released a viral song about antibodies that captured the collective anxiety of dating in quarantine—and got him a music deal with Atlantic. Oh, and then he was nominated for his first Emmy for playing the beloved Cousin Greg on HBO’s Succession.

Though COVID-19 put the filming of the show’s third season on hold, delayed the release of his Sundance-praised film Zola, and turned dating into a dystopian nightmare—Braun turned some of that early quarantine-angst into creativity.

When travel bans locked down the country in mid-March, Braun was at a bachelor party in Tahoe. He couldn’t go home to New York City, which was then in the early stages of becoming the country’s first hot spot, so he decided to stay with some friends in California for a little while. He ended up staying for a month. They made music and played Call of Duty waiting to see what would happen. Then he moved to a friend’s guest house, where he spent long hours writing a script for a movie he’s had in his head.

But, like many of us, when early summer rolled around, it was time to start figuring out how to carry on with life under the restrictions of the New Normal. This included dating. How does someone safely date during a global pandemic? No one really has the answer to that. He’d been talking to a woman who slid into his Instagram DMs (“I know that sounds kind of crazy, but it’s like you can learn a lot about a person.”). They were ready to go on a date, but he didn’t want to cause friction in his quarantine bubble.

Photo credit: Ross Philips
Photo credit: Ross Philips

They decided on a distanced walking date with bandanas over their faces.

“We met up, and I didn’t even see her face until right at the end of the day, we were like, ‘Hey, by the way, here’s what it looks like,’” Braun says.

Dating under normal circumstances is hard enough as it is. But meeting someone new in a time of face masks, airborne particles, no touching, and antibody status is an all new nightmare entirely. That gave him an idea for a song.

“It came out of the paranoia of like, ‘God, this feels really good, but also, I’ve got to do the right thing for my roommates, my friends I’m staying at, and then also just generally, what are the guidelines of human to human interaction right now?,’” He says. “That paranoia is really real, and it still is.”

On May 7 he posted a selfie video on Instagram, explaining that he had an idea for a song but no instruments and was hoping some of his followers could write the music for it. He says he’ll sing some of the lyrics. This is the point in the video where he turns from Nicholas Braun—who is, by the way, a much smarter and more personable version of Cousin Greg—to screaming in a New York Dolls-adjacent voice: “Do you have the antibodies?/Do you want to be with me?/Cus if you don’t, you’d better stay away!”

The post went nuts. He got submissions from people on piano, on guitar, on synths. People chopped up his vocals—even Mad Men star Kiernan Shipka recorded a version. So he put out more lyrics and the next day he got another DM. This time it was from an A&R guy at Atlantic Records (“A lot of good things happened in the DMs in quarantine.”) who said he’d had the verse and bridge stuck in his head and asked if Braun wanted to make the song.

“I was like, ‘Well, thank you so much. I don’t know if that’s pushing this comedy bit a little bit too far. But if we were to make it, I would want it to be a really well produced, really good song. If it doesn’t turn out to be a great song, then we just shouldn’t put it out,’” Braun recalls. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I think that makes sense. I have these types of producers who are willing to work on it. I’ve already sent it to them. They really like it.’”

Braun worked on a scratch track with his brother, then took it to an old-school pop punk producer in LA that Atlantic had set him up with. Together, they turned “Antibodies (Do You Have The)” into an actual song with a music video that dropped on YouTube on July 29. Less than a month later it has half a million views—with all proceeds from the song and merch (yes! There’s merch!) going to support those most at-risk during the pandemic through Partners In Health and The COPE Program.

Both the song and the video are strangely hilarious and poignant products of the quarantine era. They’re socially distanced creations inspired by an isolated existence. In the video, Braun is flashing his most turn-of-the-century emo looks, inspired by the “cringeworthy punk rock metal rap videos” he grew up on from Blink-182, POD, and Papa Roach. When this whole quarantine thing is a thing of the past, hopefully sometime soon, “Antibodies (Do You Have The)” might be the most perfectly homegrown, isolated product of the time.

Literally one day after Braun’s video went viral, The Cut posted an article about singles boasting about having “The Antibodies” on their dating profiles. I thought Braun deserved some of the credit, when I mention it to him, but he just maintains that he’s glad that people are dating safely. Regardless, Braun’s song, as funny as it is, tapped into a very real anxiety—one that is a direct result of a time of loneliness his generation has never seen in a lifetime of digital existence.

“People miss each other,” he tells me. “I don’t know if people miss bad dates, but they miss the good ones, and I think people are craving that. They’re always craving that. It’s just a human need, to try and meet new people.”

It’s at this point when I ask Braun a question that feels weirdly personal. Does he have the antibodies?

Photo credit: Ross Philips
Photo credit: Ross Philips

Reader, he does not. But he was pretty certain that he had COVID at one point; he got really sick in the winter, after Sundance. But that’s also part of his uncertainty that made him write this thing to begin with. “How do we certify somebody as being okay?” he asks. “We hold as the sacred thing like, ‘If you have the antibodies, you’re good,’ but not really. Is there any real solution, and will there ever be?”

There’s no telling when that question will be answered. But Braun has at least figured out a way to make things work for now. It went pretty well between him and the woman he went on the distanced walking date with.

“One of the most exciting moments was, I think it was date three, fully bandanas still, or she had a bandana, I was wearing a mask,” he says. “At the end of day three, I think I said, ‘Should we hug?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, I think we should hug.’ We were both like, ‘Okay, we’re going to hug,’ and had this momentous embrace. That was like, ‘Wow, this is a crazy world and time we’re living in where a hug can feel so substantial.’”

“I felt like I was back in seventh grade or something, where you’re just desperate just to hold a hand or put your arm around a girl at the movies or something,” he says.

Oh, and the woman from those dates? She’s the one Braun hugs in the end of his video.

One of the things that struck me the most about Braun’s surprising musical transformation wasn’t the fact that he was making music (Braun has always been making music and his dad helped design the Rolling Stones tongue logo, and worked with Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, The Who), it was his performance. Braun is best known for his role of Cousin Greg on Succession—the sheep trying to make his way in a forest of wolves. People know him as Cousin Greg, they call him Cousin Greg on the street. But, even though in person Braun does have that unassuming earnestness, the nuances that make Cousin Greg Cousin Greg and Nicholas Braun Nicholas Braun are clear.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

“I think the most potent stuff about Greg that I wanted to put in was, this sort of ambition meets naivete, meets nervousness, and feeling like diminutive to the rest of the family,” he says. “I think I try to look at those things in myself. I try to look at what makes me nervous and how do I access that, and how do I push through it, and how do I give Greg little victories while also making him aware that it should be a struggle for him too.”

Cousin Greg probably couldn’t articulate what makes him such a lovable character, but Braun’s clear understanding of this outcast is part of what makes him so incredible on the show. Succession is a masterclass in acting—there’s not a single bad performance in its two seasons. And Braun’s charm as Greg helped him stand out among his co-stars to earn an Emmy nomination. Whereas the other fine performances are inhabiting the personas of the untouchable elite, Greg is the audience’s on-screen avatar. He’s acting out not only what Greg would be doing in this situation, but the regular people watching on the screen. So I wonder, does he think Greg is a moral character?

Photo credit: Ross Philips
Photo credit: Ross Philips

“I think he has higher morality than most of the family. He doesn’t come from a life where you grew up under Logan, where you have to hide your morality or trick yourself out of that morality in order to be seen as successful by your dad. Greg doesn’t come from that. So, I think he’s more pure when he enters this world,” Braun says. “There’s so much allure to an elite lifestyle and to be in an elite group like that. It’s like, how will your morality be tested when you’re given the opportunity to fly around the world and get driven in an escalade everywhere, and make a six figure salary? At this point, he’s probably making a few hundred thousand a year. You’re in the center of something really important to the world, whether they’re good or not.”

Aside from the Zoom reading with Snook, Braun has mostly just been checking in with his co-stars via text. They all texted back and forth to congratulate each other on the Emmy nominations. Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox are both nominated for lead actor. Sarah Snook is nominated for lead actress. And Matthew McFayden and Kieran Culkin are all duking it out with Braun for Best Supporting Actor.

Last year, they had finished filming Season Two in August shortly before it premiered on HBO. And in March, they’d just gotten the conversation going about filming Season Three when the pandemic hit.

“We were definitely talking about it and getting close,” Braun says. “But then, it became more vague and then it just continued to drift. But, it feels like we’re getting closer. I think there’s a lot of positivity. I think we’re seeing a lot of shows go back or movies will start shooting again. They’re able to do it and it doesn’t sound like a catastrophe. So, I think everybody’s feeling really optimistic. Hopefully, we’ll figure out a way to do it, and we’ll do it safely.”

Photo credit: Ross Philips
Photo credit: Ross Philips

I note that I’d been hoping that they’d somehow pull through with a social distanced Succession season over Zoom, and wonder what Greg would be doing during quarantine.

“I think the family would leave civilization, they’d leave New York City for sure. They’d probably go to the yacht,” Braun says. “Greg would follow the family, follow the family to whatever sick isolation they find. Greg would get [COVID-19], and then he would mistakenly give it to Logan and be like, (turning on his Greg voice, which is more bashful) ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Oh God, I really… I’ve been really careful. What can I do for you?’ It depends on if the pandemic happens after episode 10 of season 2.”

What Braun’s referring to is the game-changing ending to Season Two. Kendall Roy is chosen to take the fall for the many crimes committed by the corporation’s cruise division. But, instead of taking the fall at the press conference, Kendall announces that his father is ultimately responsible, that he has the documents to prove it. “This is the day his reign ends,” Kendall says of his father.

Photo credit: Ross Philips
Photo credit: Ross Philips

While it’s implied through visual language in the scene that Greg supplied Kendall with the documents needed to prove Logan’s involvement with the cruise division, it’s never explicitly confirmed in the show.

“I believe that he still has a little ambiguity about which side he can play,” Braun says. “I think in the moment of the news conference, Greg is supporting Kendall, which he’s done before. Greg is this down to give him some weapons, give him Greg’s best weapon really, which is those documents. So, I don’t know how it goes once they walk out that door, but they walk out together.”

Before Kendall’s press conference, he and Greg share a moment on the plane. Greg expresses concern for Kendall, and whatever happens between that scene and the press conference remains a mystery for now.

“I think something happened on the plane, and the importance of what Kendall was about to do was relayed. I don’t actually know how much Kendall had decided,” Braun says.

And it’s with this explosive cliffhanger upon which Succession left fans dangling. It’s precisely why fans have been so rabid for any answers about Season Three. For now, Braun assures me there is no word from anyone and he can’t even speculate. “Whenever they give us a date, it’ll be a glorious day,” he says.

Until then, Braun is doing a little bit of traveling through the Northeast. Then he’ll be back home to watch the virtual Emmys with his family in New York. He’s open to making more music, he just needs to figure out where he wants to take it. The music he made before was downtempo R&B and this track is big chorus pop-punk, so he needs to find something in between. And it’s looking like he’ll have some time for the foreseeable future to figure it out.

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