Swagger of a Kingpin: Bobby Axelrod

So much to think about, so much waiting in the wings. Seems a good time to step back and take stock. The recently released Billions trailer showed us a tantalizing taste of Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod, an outspoken arrogant hedge-fund king who seems to think himself above the law. The trailer got me reeling with anticipation, and it also got me thinking…about the ways in which Damian has played his roles and about the differences between stage actors and those focused on working on film. Of how stage actors who get to be on film, so OFTEN, take an audience by surprise, making us say “Whoa, who was THAT?” And of how exactly they do that.

We know, from Damian’s TimesTalk interview2013 Guardian interview, as well as other interviews, that his schooling was focused on a career on stage. Stage work is what he trained for at Guildhall and what he spent six years doing after graduating. Eventually the strangeness of the working hours got to him and he yearned for a more conventional life. He shared his fears about his career in a regrettable quip: “The idea that I would be one of these slightly over-the-top, fruity actors who would have an illustrious career on stage, but wouldn’t start getting any kind of film work until I was 50 and then start playing wizards.” This off the cuff soundbite somehow came around to him referring to Ian McKellen to whom Damian later apologized. The truth is, as much as stage actors are respected and revered, logistically speaking, they just aren’t seen by as many eyes. So no one can fault any stage actor for taking up offers in film when they come. But, and this is my point, Damian Lewis shows in every film role he’s had, on screens big and small: once a stage actor, always a stage actor. The training never goes away. So, what is it about the training that so clearly identifies Damian as a stage actor?

Lots of actors have beautiful faces and copiously expressive eyes. Faces like Ewan McGregor and James McAvoy, both of whom have eyes that can readily change temperature with emotion, go from full to dull, from love to anger, expertly. Ewan McGregor, even though he’s played spectacular physical roles, Trainspotting and The Pillow Book come to mind, is most memorable for his face. His role in The Impossible, a film about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, was just as physical as anything he’s played, but the one scene that drove his entire performance home is what he did with his eyes when his character is reunited with Naomi Watts’ character. Just lovely full emotion brimming out of lush clear blue. Similarly, James McAvoy, though he’s had stage roles, has been principally a film actor. He hasn’t shied away from physicality either…a fawn in Narnia! But, for him too, its all in the eyes, the way he’s able to change them from hard to soft, cold to warm. Just saw his turn as an acolyte of Tolstoy’s in The Last Station, a film that ended up inexplicably on my netflix queue until I determined that I must have added it to see Helen Mirren’s award-winning performance. Needless to say, Helen Mirren did not disappoint and James McAvoy came up as the surprise added bonus. He’s very pretty, and very watchable.

We’ve seen Damian do great face work too. Just in Homeland alone, who can forget the flirty smile in the rain, the abject terror in “Marine One”, and the cold confrontation on the porch in “The Weekend”? But, what distinguishes Damian from his colleagues focused on film is that he thrusts his entire body into every single role he’s had. I believe that skill comes from the time and focus Damian has spent on stage, where, instead of letting a close-up camera shot do all the work,  an actor truly hones his full body to the task of delivering a performance that can be seen and felt all the way to the back of the theater.

We saw Damian’s physicality in Wolf Hall in the wide imperial stance, jutted elbows and inflated chest of Henry VIII. In Band of Brothers: Dick Winters’ militarily precise movements. In Homeland: Brody’s rigidly focused and furtive movements when he was in Marine or terrorist mode, and shoulders relaxed and hands at the ready to hold and comfort when he was in lover mode.

Now, again, we see Damian’s expert use of his entire body to paint a fresh new character in Billions. In Bobby Axelrod, the rigidity of the Marine and the bloat of a king has been tranformed into the swagger of a New York kingpin. The voice has similarly been transformed. Brody and Dick Winters spoke like Middle Americans. Charlie Crews spoke like a Californian. Bobby Axelrod, in the arrogant sing-song of a rich and powerful man in love with the sound of his own voice and fully believing everything he says, speaks like a New Yorker. Of course, these are just bits, just hints of the transformation we’re about to see when Billions finally airs next year.

What else does Bobby have in store to show us? I cannot wait to find out!

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