It is a pleasure to see, in this golden age of television, new TV-focused festivals are popping up around us every year. IFC Center in New York recently launched its Split Screens Festival celebrating the art of television with a program curated by Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor-in-chief at rogerebert.com as well as critic for New York Magazine and vulture.com. The long-week festival had appearances by stars, producers, directors and show runners of several popular TV shows, including Billions!
Lewisto and I attended Close-Up: Asia Kate Dillon in Billions panel to see the brilliant Asia Kate Dillon, who brings Taylor Mason to life in our favorite show, and show creators and show runners Brian Koppelman and David Levien discuss the first gender non-binary character on TV and much more.
The evening started with the most pleasant surprise for us: we ran into wonderful Kelly AuCoin aka Dollar Bill who was in the audience. Well, Kelly and I had “met” online and we have been Facebook friends for over a year, and he also very graciously gave us an interview, but I did not meet him until that evening. And, yes, he is a great actor but he is also a sweet, sweet guy!
The panel has been designed to focus on Asia as an actor and Taylor as a character; however, one could feel the presence of Damian in spirit thanks to the panelists burning his ears given that their relationship with Axe is central to Taylor’s journey in Billions.
Matt Zoller Seitz kicks off the panel showing us two “Taylor” scenes.
Taylor: “Hello. My name is Taylor. My pronouns are they, theirs and them.”
Axe does not care who uses what pronoun. He only cares about who brings what to the table. And Taylor uses their two minutes effectively to prove their value. Besides, they find out Axe lives up to his reputation: he is just as smart, if not smarter than Taylor.
Taylor: “You don’t have a king. You’d have re-raised preflop. And you’re never moving in on a queen here in case I have the king. I think you’re on a gut shot, a four-five or five-six. I think you’re trying to bully me and a bully’s devastated when you stand up to him.”
Axe examines Taylor’s CV earlier in the episode and notices some game theory strengths. These strengths help Taylor to “read” Krakow’s hand and decide their optimal play. Taylor destroys the bully at the poker table. Oh, yes he is devastated.
Seitz sees Taylor as a character that keeps building and accumulating power and skills over the season. He wants to know what the writers’ intentions were as they started writing the character.
Brian Koppelman points out people tend to make assumptions about an individual based on their extrinsic characteristics but then this individual may turn out to be a bunch of other things. And they wanted Taylor to be someone that would not easily fit in extrinsically but Axe would see something in that character.
Well, Koppelman is right that it is easy to find the answer when you watch the show! He adds that he and David Levien were at the same wavelength with Asia within minutes of meeting them and Levien praises the actor for their intelligence and ability to make quick adjustments. It turns out Asia came to their first audition with a particular set of ideas, and then made some new choices for the second audition based on the feedback they got from the casting director about where the character may go.
Seitz seems a bit surprised Asia is not carrying themselves like Taylor does. Besides, the way they speak and the kind of eye contact they have are completely different from the character. So how did Asia make these choices for Taylor?
It turns out Asia’s choices regarding Taylor’s physicality are mostly instinctual. The way Taylor speaks comes from the fact that the character is super quick to understand and make their point. And because Taylor is sure about what they are laying out, they have the confidence to keep constant eye-contact. Asia talks about Taylor’s wardrobe — shoes, pants, belts and ties buttoned all the way — limiting their movement and certainly informing the character.
Seitz rightly points out that Taylor being gender non-binary would probably be part of everything on any other show while it is tangential in Billions. Besides, the main conflict with the character has nothing to do with gender identity but is all about about getting rid of their guilty conscience. Seitz puts the blame on Bobby Axelrod that he is like the devil constantly urging Taylor to let go off their conscience.
“Become antifragile, or die.”
Koppelman says the show has always been interested in why intellect, charisma and charm stand in for qualities of character, and it has got amplified in Season 2. Levien adds Axe is trying to strip away things that would interfere with success in Taylor. As much as this may seem devilish but what Axe is really trying to do is to “optimize” Taylor… “Are they utilitarian?” asks Koppelman. It is not that they have an answer to this philosophical question but it is certainly one they are very interested in examining from day one.
Asia seems to be very intrigued by Axe and Wendy’s conversation at 9/11 Memorial in the season finale.
“What if I told you that pretty much every decision I’ve made since we worked down here together has been the wrong one? Would you help me find my way back?”
Asia finds it heartbreaking that Taylor has grown to feel what they were doing is justifiable because Axe has repeatedly told them “it’s okay.” They argue that this is how Axe has been justifying things to himself for a long time. He believes he is a good person because he donates to charities while he does morally questionable things in business. And Taylor seems to follow suit and feels quite comfortable as the CIO at Axe Capital thinking they have maintained their moral integrity. Asia cannot wait to find out about how Axe now going “I was wrong” would play out for Taylor in Season 3.
Seitz wants to keep talking more about Axe since he sees Taylor’s relationship with him psychologically deep. One scene he particularly mentions is from Episode 3 Optimal Play where Taylor talks to Axe about “that bicycle movie.” Asia interprets the scene as Taylor wanting to be, for once in their life, someone that is not in control, but someone that allows life to happen to them…
…to which Axe’s response is:
“You and I do not get to glide. We churn.”
The conversation now turns to Damian. How does it feel like working with Damian Lewis? It turns out Seitz met Damian once only for 5 minutes and he came across very intense, in fact, to an extent that he seemed like someone that could rattle you. Wow! I am all ears for Asia’s take!
“I was not rattled. He is so generous and considerate and kind and compassionate and down to earth.”
Asia says Damian has the ability to totally engage with you but then when they say “roll” he just snaps into it, feeling and reacting truthfully to the moment in the imaginary circumstances of the world. Having a partner as generous as Damian makes the experience extraordinary, they say, because they can only be as good as their screen partner allows them to be.
“Because Damian has such an ability to listen and react truthfully in the moment, I’m able to be totally absorbed in that world and that is a great joy.”
And I would say it is a great joy to see Damian reciprocate the compliment on Twitter!
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) June 8, 2017
Koppelman and Levien feel very lucky to work with these actors because they all love what they are doing even under atypical situations. Their intellect and sense of humor create a warm and welcoming set. No one is trying to win a scene and everyone is trying to lift everyone else up. They are a group of people who are not just funny but also love to laugh at each other’s jokes which seems to be rare. And may I just say I LOVE what Koppelman adds:
“Damian LOVES to laugh.”
Seitz asks whether, given that the financial world is not particularly known for its diversity, they had someone to model Taylor after. The answer is no. They have never seen the exact combination: gender non-binary, smart, and ambitious. However, they got great reactions from hedge-fund world regarding Taylor. Levien says he does not want to generalize but hedge-funds are different from the white-bred, waspy, traditional places on Wall Street: Hedge-fund guys may be supporting Republican tax policies because they benefit them; however, they may be more into Democratic ideals in their private lives. And that is why they seem to identify with Axe reacting to pure value in Taylor. Koppelman shares that they met hedge-fund billionaires who started thinking about the world like Taylor does at the beginning of the season. They were interested in complex questions, had theories that wanted to prove and found themselves along this path.
The next question is about the moments that stood out for Taylor as a character. Koppelman mentions the “I’m a Vegan” scene in Episode 1 Risk Management where we meet Taylor for the first time. They thought the line sounded funny on paper but did not know how it would play out on screen and Asia NAILED it!
And then there is the “Axe and Taylor on the dock” scene in season finale. Koppelman points out that, until that moment, Bobby always tells Taylor what is in their best interest and now Taylor flips it and tells Axe what is in his best interest and he goes with it. Koppelman adds this is the kind of scene you write and pray for it to work. The actors stepped up and made it work perfectly.
Seitz now asks how much playing Taylor has changed Asia’s life and what they do look forward to in future.
Asia is grateful that the show has given them a platform to share who they have always been. They have been invited and accepted to speak at Pride Weekend in DC (you can see a glimpse here). They and their partner co-founded Mirror/Fire Productions to support historically marginalized and underrepresented minorities. And they want to go on playing the parts for which they are the best actor.
Time for audience questions! One question is about Taylor’s transition from being quite rigid to more and more open over the season and if the writing was set from the beginning or adjusted over time.
It turns out they had finished writing the first 4 episodes and written most of episodes 5 and 6 before they started shooting Season 2. And writing “become antifragile” scene had a lot to do with knowing Asia could pull it off. Koppelman says they do not intellectualize the characters with actors. And while they are always there to answer any questions actors might have, it is still about an actor taking it and running with it and sometimes asking a question. He illustrates this with a “behind the scenes” moment: Asia, as they shoot “bicycle movie” scene with Damian upstairs in Edison Ballroom, comes downstairs to ask if Taylor would open their arms this much, given that they are still stiff, when they talked about the movie. The answer is YES.
The next question is about comparing Axe and Taylor with respect to their intelligence and purity. Asia refers to the “balcony scene” here: they do not think Axe finds the exact same genius he has in Taylor. But he recognizes the genius they both possess could isolate them in the same way from the rest of the world and bring them closer. And seeing Axe is just as smart, if not smarter than them, Taylor understands they can learn from him and take Axe over Fama at University of Chicago 😀
David Levien talks about the scene we get introduced to Axe in his work environment in The Pilot where he gives a 2 minute breakdown of how market works and “blows up Ben Kim’s mind” 😀
Axe makes a lot of money thanks to his complete understanding of the market and being good at trading stocks. But, yeah, he occasionally does dirty stuff and they understand Axe doing something over the line seems to have “a juicier and a lingering impact” on the audience.
The final few questions go to Asia regarding the awards categories and how they see themselves as a gender non-binary actor in the industry.
Asia tells us that Showtime graciously asked them whether they wanted to be submitted for an Emmy nomination either in supporting actor or actress category. Speaking with the Academy, they found out there is no constraint in choosing your category and so decided to go with “actor” since it has been a gender-neutral term for a long time. They find having conversations about assigned sex and gender identity being two different things very important ands add everyone, not only the marginalized, should have this conversation. And I cannot agree with them more.
I already knew Asia Kate Dillon was a ridiculously talented actor and I left the panel impressed by how smart and articulate they are. I cannot wait to see more of Taylor’s journey in Season 3.