Since the start of his career, Josh Brener has quietly been building a resume that feels like it’s going to pay off huge dividends as his acting talent grows. It’s the kind of filmography that helps a good character actor become a great one, as he becomes more visible and picks up meatier, more interesting work. At the start, that meant small parts in series like House of Lies and The Big Bang Theory. For fans of TV comedy, that includes his brilliant turns as Kyle, Marc Maron’s nebbish assistant on Maron, and as Big Head, the less-than-genius young man who stumbles his way into a fortune in the tech industry on HBO’s Silicon Valley.
Brener’s career is likely going to see some upward momentum once his work in the film Welcome To Happiness gets more widely seen. In this charming and quirky dramedy, he plays Ripley, one of a batch of confused and searching Los Angelenos, still trying to reckon with a harrowing moment from their pasts. While the film ostensibly centers on the strange life of a children’s book author who helps people come to terms with these experiences via a small magical door in his closet, Brener and co-stars Brendan Sexton III, Nick Offerman, and Keegan-Michael Key carry much of the comedic and dramatic weight of writer/director Oliver Thompson’s film. Brener especially brings such tenderness and open-heartedness to his portrayal, helping elevate what could have been a fairly one-note character.
Paste caught up with Brener recently to talk about his work on the big and small screen, collaborating with Thompson, and what the future holds for Big Head.
Paste Magazine: What attracted you to this film and this role?
Josh Brener: The script was just so very unique. I’d really never read anything quite like it. Ever since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed real stories that have this magical realism element to them. Some of those unexplainable happenings throughout, but with people who are very real, and very grounded and have real problems and real sadnesses, but there’s this little spark of magic.
Paste: Did you get a lot of direction, or was this something where you could play with it and figure out who Ripley was?
Brener: It was definitely a collaboration. I had some ideas coming in with it, and we definitely talked a lot about it. I remember halfway through the shoot, Oliver coming up with this whole additional element to the character, specifically regarding this book of Monet paintings that wasn’t really laid in there. He went, “Wait I’ve got this idea,” and together we pieced together this backstory with his brother and his parents and all of these things that tied in with this book. That made a huge difference right in the middle of this shoot. So Oliver had some ideas, but he was super open to me bringing in my own instinct on the character as well.
Paste: I think that speaks very well to Oliver’s vision for the film, because even the most minor character in this has such a deep backstory and feels so important to the plot.
Brener: He did such an amazing job of weaving this intricate web and it comes across so much in the story. Also, as an actor, it’s helpful to go in and have that much to work with, instead of sitting at home and being, like, “Okay, I was a high school dropout, then a door-to-door knife salesman, and…” Oliver gives you so much of that, which is way better than anything I could have come up with.
Paste: Were you familiar with Oliver before? I know this is his first job as a director, but is this someone you knew from the industry?
Brener: No, Oliver and I were perfect strangers. We literally met for a cup of coffee in Studio City and, I would say, immediately fell in love. I was so impressed. He’s unbelievably smart and has such a profound artistic vision. We’ve become great buddies, but before the movie we were total strangers.
Paste: In the last bunch of films that you’ve done, you’ve been working with first-time directors or directors who have just started their careers. Is that something that you are striving for, intentionally?
Brener: I’d like to think of an acting career as blind betting on a horse race. You gotta pick a director early and stick with them and hope that they’ll carry you to the finish line for the rest of your career.
Paste: The cast in Welcome to Happiness is a really deep one. What was it like working with them and playing off of them?
Brener: Intimidating and inspiring, I would say. Obviously Nick Offerman and Keegan-Michael Key are comedic geniuses, but also we got to see a different side of both of them in this film. They’re both so adroit with the drama as well and that was very cool to watch, but they’re also hilarious so you’re not trying to laugh, while doing some heavy lifting on the acting side.
Paste: Was it challenging, balancing the comedic and dramatic elements of this story?
Brener: The dramatic stuff is newer to me, so it was actually fun to get to stretch those muscles a little bit. Oliver is really good at striking a balance between the two. So you might be doing something heavy, but in between takes you’re laughing and joking about it. And he’s really good about shifting you back into it. He really commands the set.
Paste: Will we be seeing you on Maron this season?
Brener: Unfortunately not. Maron is my absolute favorite thing in the world, but due to things that are not in my control, I’m not able to work on the show any more. Which is a bummer because I love Marc, and I love everyone involved with that show.
Paste: That is too bad because you and Marc had such a great chemistry on the show. That was always one of my favorite things, watching you two interact.
Brener: Oh man, me too. It was so much fun getting to be annoying and watching Marc react. His exasperated deadpan is one of my favorite things. The scene would end and I would be unsure how he felt about me based on how he felt about the character. But he was always really cool. He’s a deceptively nice, and sweet and wonderful person. I don’t know if everyone gets that.
Paste: And how has it been to be a part of Silicon Valley?
Brener: Sort of like winning a hilarious lottery ticket, something like that. It’s unbelievable. I’m so lucky to be on a show that is hilarious, and with hilarious people on it and hilarious people writing it. It’s always fun and fulfilling and… hilarious.
Paste: How much of the tech world were you aware of before you became a part of this?
Brener: Pretty much zero. I’m pretty dumb when it comes to all things tech. For some reason, I keep getting cast as a tech nerd. I have one friend who works for a startup in Austin and he would very mind-numbingly explain to me what Python and Ruby on Rails were. But my own knowledge is limited. It’s a pretty steep learning curve.
Paste: I ask, in part, because the show does a great job of capturing the authenticity of that world. Have you heard from folks within that industry about what they think of the show?
Brener: In my experience, there are two reactions. Every once in a while, the show will premiere or screen in Palo Alto or something like that, and it’s an interesting audience response. It’s a very knowing laugh, like, people going, “Oh shit, that’s right on.” My favorite example of this is that we had this neighbor and during Season One he was, like, “I really like the show, but I can’t watch it.” And I was, like, “What do you mean?” He goes, “It’s way too close to home. We’re going through funding, and Series A and all the VCs and it’s a nightmare. I just want to leave it at home. I don’t want to come home and watch it on my TV.” Six months later, he sold his company for $175 million and moved to Panama. Maybe he’s enjoying it now?
Paste: There’s a sense throughout the show so far that Big Head is way out of his depth in this world. Do you get a sense that this is someone who has stumbled into this world, or does he really have something to offer that we haven’t seen yet?
Brener: (laughs) My only assumption is that they saw me and were, like, “Oh we’ve got an idea for a completely inept, useless character.” So I think it was probably inspired by the actor. It’s interesting, it’s been a journey because good ol’ Big Head has really come into his own as a complete and total moron. I didn’t realize at the beginning that he was quite so inept. I think stumbling into it is a great way to put it. He followed his best buddy out to California because he didn’t have anything else to do. “Hey, my smart friend is doing this. I can probably figure something out.” And he got out there and, it’s like the thing where the kid who is on his high school baseball team and thinks he’s a star, but then gets to the college baseball team and is a total scrub who can’t get on the team. That was the Big Head experience. In terms of what he has to offer, I hope something. We’ll see.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his writing here.