His current role is as tech nerd Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti on HBO’s Silicon Valley, but Josh Brener has played many different people since becoming an actor in sixth grade. He’s guest-starred in shows like The Big Bang Theory, Maron and The Middle, and starred in movies like The Internship. And in the midst of filming a series “where we’re talking about the world in terms of billions not in terms of meal to meal or paycheck to paycheck,” he still has time for pranks on the studio lot and interviews with fans.
On May 3, HBO hosted a Google Hangout with Brener for four college newspapers to talk Silicon Valley with the star. Editors and reporters from the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, the Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech, the Stanford Daily at Stanford and The Maneater asked about his comedy career that started at age 12.
He continued acting through middle school and high school and credited his teacher Larry Dachslager with teaching him everything he knows about acting and comedy. He said Dachslager was a mentor and introduced him to Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers. The connection didn’t stop when Brener left high school; Dachslager once got to be an extra in a movie Brener was filming, B-Roll.
Brener wanted to continue with theatre while at Harvard, so he got involved with the Hasty Pudding Theatrical group. HPT is the nation’s oldest theatre organization; many notable writers, actors and even politicians like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy have been members of what started out in 1795 as a secret society. The name comes from a club mandate that hasty pudding, a cornmeal porridge sweetened with honey or molasses, be served at every meeting. Every year, the group performs a five-week run of a student-written musical. Brener served as president while in the the organization, from 2006-2007.
“The Hasty Pudding is an odd thing, but it sort of gives you a taste of what a professional-ish performance group would be like,” he said.
After college, he chose to move to Los Angeles because his brother told him not to be stupid by moving to New York. There is a group of Harvard alumni in LA, including many who have worked for the Harvard Lampoon, the campus’ humor magazine. Brener said he has many friends in the production and writing sides of the entertainment industry.
Landing some of his roles was not a type-casting of his Harvard nerdiness, Brener said, but luck and good timing.
“Apparently this whole thing doesn't scream action, CIA agent or cop or whatever else the tropes are,” he said, pointing to his face. “When I started to try to pursue a career in acting, it just so happened that what was interesting to a lot people at the time and what a lot of the roles were were tech geek and computer nerd — awkward weird guy.”
A self-proclaimed “tech-phobe,” Brener had to read up before filming Silicon Valley. Adopting the jargon of the tech world helps create a feeling of “realism,” and he said authenticity is one of the most important things to executive producers Mike Judge and Alec Berg.
Brener said Berg and Judge spend time every year in the Bay Area meeting with CEOs and coders to find story ideas, and the show employs tech consultants to make sure the math and code is “100 percent real.” Anything that feels false is cut from the show.
“I think in their opinion not only is ‘real’ as funny as things you could make up, but it’s funnier because it’s coming from real people and their real strange eccentricities,” he said.
The realness of the script does still allow for improvisation. Brener said that having comedians such as T.J. Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods should be taken advantage of, but he gives credit to the strong script.
“You have to give most of the credit to the writers because they put together unbelievably funny and well-thought out episodes, as you know, and I would say that the improv from our group is maybe a little bit of icing on a very delicious cake,” he said.
That improv and humor is also reflected in the practical jokes that get played on set. One of Brener’s favorites is the time Miller had lettermen’s jackets made for the cast. The jackets said “Rude Boys on the Lot,” a reference to the actors being the bad kids on the studio lot.
“The boys would ride around in their lettermen jackets on these electric scooters, which is not allowed on the lot,” Brener said. “[They’d] be chased down by security and yelled at and complained about, and the writers found this absurd and enjoyable so they wrote it into the show.”
The yellow and green Pied Piper jackets in Season 3 were based off this antic.
As Brener wrapped up the interview, he emphasised that the show, while a satirical comedy about the tech world, is about telling stories. Because the script is so good and the relationships so real, he said, it’s fun to play the characters.
“If shows, and particularly comedies are doing their job right, it’s making characters that are relatable and real and resonate with us,” he said. “We want characters to be the reflections of ourselves.”
Silicon Valley airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.
Edited by Libby Stanford | firstname.lastname@example.org