Arts television review

Making the world a better place, one startup at a time

College editors speak with Big Head actor Josh Brener as HBO’s Silicon Valley comes back for season four

8160 josh brener big head photo
Josh Brener as Nelson "Big Head" Bighetti in HBO's Silicon Valley.
John P. Johnson/HBO

Silicon Valley
Created by Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky

Hooli CEO Gavin Belson puts it best, “I don't know about you people, but I don't wanna live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.” Thus exists the irony of Silicon Valley. Set in a idealistic startup culture, Silicon Valley is a satirical romp trying to get at the roots of what makes the Valley tick, and it does so with uncanny accuracy. The show is so well-researched by its writers and informed by Mike Judge’s previous startup experience that the viewers from the real-life Valley have been enthusiastic; some have even commented that they cannot stand watching it because it so closely resembles their reality.

Its cast is led by Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), the former CEO of fictional startup Pied Piper, a compression company founded in Erlich Bachman’s (TJ Miller) incubator. Facing all the tribulations of a young company, Hendricks and his team struggle to stay afloat, barely managing it at the end of each season. Season four offers different take on the show, as the company just barely manages to survive, having just been purchased by Bachmanity, a joint incubator formed by Erlich and Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti (Josh Brener).

Oh, Big Head. He just happens to be in the right place at the right time, going from unemployed coder to multimillionaire and then back. Five college newspapers, including The Tech, had the pleasure of speaking with actor Josh Brener last Wednesday in a Google Hangouts session.

The following is a transcript of the group interview:

Columbia Chronicle: Were you aware of the culture of Silicon Valley before starting the show, and how did you adapt to that?

Josh Brener: Great question. I am really not a tech person at all; I'm a kind of a dummy when it comes that stuff, but by virtue of looking like someone who does know about tech, I had gotten exposed to it a fair bit just through acting. I worked on a movie called The Internship which was about Google, and that definitely gave me a crash course in what the world was like up there. But in terms of the inner workings of what it is as a business with VC firms and funding and acquisitions and all the complex stuff, that was all new to me. And getting into the personalities has definitely been the most fun part — because it is some very interesting types of there — and getting to meet some of them up there. One of my favorite moments, I think in season one, we went to a premiere up there and a guy came up and said hello and said he enjoyed the show and we chatted for a few minutes. He said, "What was your name?" and I said, “Josh,” and said, "And you are?" and he said, "Craig" and then he handed me a business card, and it was, and it was Craig. [laughs] And I was like, okay, that was fun. And I don't know, it's interesting. You expect people that are like Craig from Craigslist or any of these big names that you would recognize from tech industry, the sort of big CEO personalities and very polished — they're not that. They're people in odd clothing choices, and they're amazing and also really nice and wonderful people.

The Tech: My question is also about Big Head's character. Back in season one, I took some advice from him: whenever you don't understand something, you would just nod and smile and it works out every time. I'm wondering how much of you do you put into your character and how much of it is improvised when it comes to your performance?

Brener: [laughs] I try to convince myself that Big Head and I aren't that similar, but I think maybe we are. I definitely don't have a shortage of this imposter's syndrome when it comes all the entertainment Hollywood stuff, so I definitely do my fair share of pretending I've seen movies that I haven't and pretending that I know names that I definitely don't because I'm embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to this world out here. I'm sure if I tried taking any of the classes that you're currently taking at MIT, it would be a true disaster. [laughs]. But like I said, I do have to give most of the credit for the Big Head character to the writers, to Mike Judge and Alec Berg and their staff because when we started the show, it wasn't really clear what the Big Head character was. When the show was casting, a bunch of us, Kumail and Martin and me and maybe even Zach. We all auditioned for TJ's role, for Erlich, and obviously TJ got it, but then the creators of the show had us come back as these other roles based on our auditions for the Erlich character and filled out the cast with us. So I never auditioned for the Big Head character. I didn't know what it was or where it was going when we shot the pilot. I didn't know a ton about what it was going to be and then once they started writing season two, they sort of honed this character to figure out what exactly it was going to be. I think they came up with something unbelievably funny and I've just been lucky to get to be this wide-eyed, confused dumb-dumb.

The Depaulia: Since we're on the topic of Big Head, Big Head always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time. That resonates with a lot of people. Has there ever been a circumstance in your career where it just seems like the stars aligned so it was Big Head-esque? I know this is sillier, but have you ever had a Big Head moment in your career?

Brener: That's great. [laughs] This was a weird one. I went to college at Harvard, and I was in this weird theatre group there called The Hasty Pudding, which is this really bizarre theatre group where guys are dressed in tights and high heels and do big dumb sh— it's really silly and crazy. But after I was out here for a few years, I ended up auditioning for a role on this show, House of Lies, which is on Showtime, so I shouldn't be talking about it, but the role was to play a recent Harvard graduate talking about The Hasty Pudding. It just blew my mind; I couldn't believe it. I went in wearing my goofy Harvard tie and made up a bunch of stuff about Hasty Pudding, which I knew a lot about because I had done it for four years and ended up getting the part and got to do this role, which was one of my first jobs just because I don't think there's anyone else who's going to get a job about Hasty Pudding who was out here at this particular time and place, so that one did feel like a lucky, stars-aligning kind of thing.

Daily Michigan: The show has so many subtleties, especially with the set, [with] all the Burning Man posters in Erlich's incubator. What's it like being on that set with all the small details? Do you find that it helps build energy between the cast?

Brener: It's honestly so distracting because we have so many toys to play with, and they're fun, nerdy things. Like in season one, we were all playing with the Perplexus — it's that three dimensional sphere, maze thing — so that became a huge thing. [laughs] They've learned slowly to not give us things that are that distracting because we'll just disappear as a group. There was a computer game, like a screensaver type game on one of the computers in season one, and we just all disappeared into it for hours at a time. It was terrible; it wasn't a good game. It was just a demo that they created but yeah, that stuff definitely helps. When you're on the set, it definitely feel like you're in that world. The fake smells of fake pot and stale beer and stale pizza make it feel legit. It helps a lot.

Daily Californian: One of the most amazing things about Silicon Valley is just the weird connection between the actual Bay area and the show. This definitely gets the sense of when you look into the valley, the valley looks back at you, and I was just wondering if you could talk about your experiences with that.

Brener: Yeah, that's definitely been one of the most fun things about doing the show — this feedback loop from people in the real Silicon Valley watching the fake Silicon Valley, and people from the show Silicon Valley going up and doing research in the real Silicon Valley and meeting the people they've been making fun of, and the people they've been making fun of loving the show and not necessarily realizing that the show is making fun of them. It's definitely an odd ouroboros of satire. But getting to meet luminaries that are really people that, as much as we make fun of it, they are changing the world with the things they are doing. And the technological revolution that has gone on in the last 10 to 15 years or 20 years I guess. Getting to interact with those people by virtue of our silly show is a really cool and fun and unique thing and the fact that they really seem to like it is the best part about it. Our writers do such a good job researching the show and so I think the authenticity they bring to the scripts makes people really like it. Like police officers watch a cop show or lawyers watch a legal show or doctors watch a medical drama, and they're always like, well, that's sort of dumb, like that's not really true, but I think with our show, a lot of it is pretty accurate and I think it's because it's so well researched, and I think the real-deal people of Silicon Valley appreciate that and enjoy watching themselves. I mean, we're all egomaniacs, right? We just want to watch ourselves.

The interview has been edited and cut for clarity and length.