Somehow — maybe due to his signature 6’7 height — Nicholas Braun is immediately recognisable the moment he clambers out of a black Mercedes G-Wagon in Zola. But long limbs and intentional gawkiness are the only traits he shares with his character, a pathetic-yet-sympathetic simp named Derrek.
When we first meet him, Derrek is rapping Migos’ “Hannah Montana,” while filming himself selfie-style, wagging his head back and forth with every “Hannah” and “Montana.” He’s wearing a backwards Adidas cap and has a whisper of a chinstrap beard framing his otherwise baby face. His hair is overgrown and shaggy, and his thin frame is weighed down by too-big silver chains, a dirty oversized striped polo, and designer jeans he can’t afford. There’s an immediate temptation to compare him to Braun’s most recognisable character, Cousin Greg in HBO’s Succession, but that impulse fades the moment you hear Derrek’s “fake swagger voice,” as Braun calls it during a recent Zoom interview with Refinery29.
Despite their differences, Braun felt an immediate connection to this character. “I grew up with kids who are like this,” he said. “And it was in the script, the way he kind of spoke... I kind of sagged my pants and stuff too when I was in middle school.”
Derrek is just one fictional player in the mostly true story, written via a 148-tweet Twitter thread in 2015 by the real Zola, A'Ziah King, and which inspired the movie adaptation along with a Rolling Stone article. Even though Braun wasn’t familiar with the original story before he auditioned for Derrek, his team was, and they knew it was the unexpected part he was looking for.
Directed and co-written by the visionary producer and actress Janicza Bravo alongside the buzzy and brilliant playwright, actor, and director Jeremy O. Harris, Zola is one of the year’s most interesting and long-awaited movies. It follows the eponymous dancer (Taylour Paige) who quickly befriends another dancer named Stefani (Riley Keough) — and accidentally ends up on the most fucked up Florida road trip ever. The head-spinning tale (now simply called “The Story”) unraveled in a thread so epic that many now recognize the saga by its first tweet alone: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Thus the epic poem begins, full of monsters and marvel. And there are a lot of monsters.
I thought it'd be fun to get into the psychology of a guy who's really, really lost in a relationship.
Derek isn’t one of the monsters though. Braun’s character is a fool in love, or, to put it simply, a simp. He’s only 21 and doesn’t know what he wants out of life, love, or even the rest of the day. He’s a follower and a pushover, but he’s still a dreamer. He wants to make movies — well, Vine prank videos (it is 2015, after all). He’s also Stefani’s plus-one in the most pathetic and, as Braun deemed it, “poisonous” way possible.
For his audition, Braun read a scene where he’s calling Stefani and Zola nonstop, asking “Were you lying to me?” It’s a question that his character asks a lot, and the answer almost 100 percent of the time is yes. When Stefani invites her new friend Zola to come to Florida to dance, she fails to disclose that they’re both there to make money off an ad put up by her roommate, X (Colman Domingo), who is also a pimp. Derrek knows this, but the two don’t really talk about it. Instead, Stefani lies about where she is, who she is with, and what she is doing — and then expects Derrek to immediately get over it. Stefani and Derrek’s relationship is built on a never-ending loop of fight, make up, fight, make up. It’s exhausting to witness as an audience, but if your first impulse is to judge, Braun would urge you to reconsider.
“I really just love this character,” he said. “I thought this is good stuff for me to go into, you know, sort of like this desperate feeling about how can I get her to care about me, pay attention to me, love me, and she doesn't give him much, but she gives him little crumbs. I thought it'd be fun to get into the psychology of a guy who's really, really lost in a relationship.”
Like many of the characters in the movie, Derrek is based on a real guy: Jarrett Scott, described by Rolling Stone as “a scrappy 22-year-old white guy with diamond stud earrings and a broken front tooth." Braun didn’t seek him out before taking on the role, not wanting his performance to be informed by what wasn’t in the script.
But as fate would have it, Braun happened to meet another real-life “Derrek” right before filming started.
“There was a guy I met earlier that summer that I felt was kind of him, too. He had similar facial hair and got really obsessed with girls,” he said. “I won't say exactly where I met him, but there was something about his obsession with girls and no end in a relationship that felt not good for him. And yet he stayed in it and then it went further and further down the line. They [had] these big fights, you know, like Derrek and Stefani have. I see couples on the street here in New York and they have these big fights on the street, and the people that are enjoying it the most are them.”
The fights between Stefani and Derrek, which we experience through the eyes of a completely over it Zola, are miserably uncomfortable. Derrek’s always slumped over and has a permanent look of utter desperation. The physicality of Braun’s transformation into Derrek is one of the character’s biggest triumphs and was born out of close collaboration with Bravo. Braun said Bravo would often suggest he make his posture worse throughout the course of the movie, a physical representation of his character being “kind of slowly beaten down” as things continue to escalate.
“The first time I spoke to her, we met up in L.A. and got breakfast together and I just felt all the stuff that I'm talking about here, just kind of like I just sort of blurted it out to her,” he said. “And she saw the character similarly. I could talk about the minutia with her thoroughly.”
Derrek’s most natural state is that of an immature kid. There’s one scene that epitomizes this where we see Derrek getting out of the car when the crew gets to their first stop in Florida, a grimy motel. He opens the car door and throws his sneakers on the ground before hopping out and stuffing half of each foot in them and shuffling towards the door.
“He's a stunted kid,” Braun said. “He happens to be 21, but he is still like a 12-year-old. He takes his shoes off and eats candy, drinks Red Bull, and isn't thinking about his health or his diet at all. I just thought it'd be funny to throw the shoes out of the car, you know, and kind of walk with them half on like a kid destroying their shoes. [Derrek] doesn’t know any better.”
Braun does, though, which is why he spared himself the agony of a vice that seems like a natural fit for Derek: a vape. Watching the movie two times through, I was shocked that we didn’t first meet Derrek through a cloud of smoke.
“That is so funny that you mention that because I thought the same,” Braun said. “I tried different vapes out, and I just felt like Derek would rip these pretty hard. So I was trying to rip vapes and see if I could get ... clouds and big plumes that he is proud of, like the Os that come out of his mouth. I just thought, ‘I'm going to get sinus infections for a month and I'm going to be so sick and miserable in like a week from now.’ They gave me a small amount of vape juice — even just one rip I was like, ‘Oh, man, I feel awful. This is not good for a body.’”
By the end of Zola, everyone’s exhausted, but Derrek is the only one physically in need of repair. Still, Braun thinks that the weekend from hell may have saved the character he’s grown strangely protective of through their shared journey. “I think that's a moment of awakening,” he said. “I hope he meets a nice girl who loves him.”