I cannot agree more with Variety critic Maureen Ryan who writes the following about Billions as she includes the show in her Best 20 New TV Shows of 2016 list:
“Too many dramas these days, even modestly ambitious ones, mistake plodding glumness and a dour tone for seriousness of intent,” but Billions doesn’t make that mistake. Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Malin Akerman, David Costabile and Maggie Siff all gave fierce, wry, committed performances as high rollers in the Manhattan financial elite, but “the most salient fact about Billions may be that it’s funny. Sarcastic asides, humorous insults and well-targeted quips are folded into it like truffles in a plate of handmade ravioli.”
Well, firstly, I approve this message as a huge truffle fan! And, secondly, believe me, it is truffle-level delicious to be in the same room with Billions cast and creators discussing the show. What an incredibly brilliant bunch! Lady Trader and I were very lucky to attend Billions Season 2 Sneak Peek and Discussion Panel at Paley Center in New York early December and we cannot thank enough for an hour full of intelligence, wit and laughter!
A little note to our readers: Hulu is the official media sponsor of Paley Center and if you are a Hulu subscriber you can now watch the panel in its entirety here and, as a bonus, see me at around 45 minutes and Lady Trader at around 48 minutes asking questions! 🙂 And if you are not a Hulu subscriber, you can now dive deep into my almost minute-by-minute account of this yummy event. ENJOY!
Billions Season 2 promo video that we micro-analyzed here and here earlier on the blog kicks off the evening. Then Cynthia Littleton of Variety, who moderates the discussion, invites the cast and the creators to stage one by one to great applause. I have to note that Damian’s little dance as he comes to stage is to die for!
Littleton asks the actors about how their characters have changed over the first season.
As Paul Giamatti talks about Chuck losing control of himself more and more towards the end of the season, Damian Lewis points out these two characters know that if they can find the Achilles heel, the emotional tipping point, in their adversary, that is when they nail them.
David Levien says the overarching concept in Billions is that these two men are the masters of their own universe. The story is built around these completely balanced, hyper-rational men who would normally walk away when the cards are stacked against them suddenly finding themselves completely unbalanced and trying to deal with it. Damian advises the people leading us are mostly settled with sociopathic tendencies that they have the ability to compartmentalize their emotional life. They push aside shame and guilt and move forward. Being able to operate like this is essential for them to succeed. Brian Koppelman adds that now that the characters have found out about who they really are at the end of Season 1, they now shift a little bit and have some “creepy self-awareness” to them in Season 2.
What about Wendy? Well, Maggie Siff feels triumphant: “I am cutting these men off.” Yes, she does! Siff says there is a lot of layers of reckoning for Wendy in store. Having seen betrayal in her “two marriages” Wendy seems to do some “existential questioning” about what went wrong at Axe Capital as well as in her marriage to Chuck.
Malin Akerman talks about Lara’s manipulating and cut-throat nature and says, being “a killing with kindness kind of person” in real life, it is sort of fun to play someone that would do whatever it takes to get to where she wants to be.
Condola Rashad shares with us that Kate is working more closely with Chuck this season and that we should get ready to see more competition in the US attorney’s office. It sounds delicious to me! Kate is obviously an ambitious young woman with some firm belief in justice. She is a perfectionist who may get ruthless. And I wonder how much the office competition impacts her relationship with Bryan who…
…according to Toby Moore, walks a fine line in the show. Moore says Bryan idealizes Chuck’s position in the beginning but over the season he sees his boss may, in fact, not be a hero. And what about Axe’s 7-digit offer over Nonna Pie? We did not hear him say no to Axe… exactly like the guy who apparently approached Moore to say: “So you’re going to Axe Capital, right?” 😀
David Costabile enjoys playing Wags so much that each step lower that Wags descends into hell only goes better for him 😀 Koppelman adds he and Costabile were in drama classes together in college and now he is taking his sweet revenge from him. Gotta love these guys!
When asked about the fans getting invested in the show, Damian points out different projects and characters play to different constituencies. It is priceless to find out about Paul Giamatti and David Costabile getting shout outs from truck drivers: “Go, get Axe!” for the former and “Hey Wags! I like your fuckin’ show!” for the latter. Malin Akerman says people are scared of Lara. Well, I would not mess with her, either 🙂
The conversation turns to the show’s strong female characters which, I am extremely happy to find out, got very positive reaction from the viewers and now gets some huge applause from the audience in the room. I LOVE the fact that Billions women, as moderator Littleton rightly points out, do not worry about being seen as nice. Brian Koppelman shares that they knew from the beginning it would be Wendy winning the first season with a new Maserati and 5 million bucks in her account! Well done, sister!
Littleton now inquires about the set dynamics and how it feels coming back to film a second season. It is quite obvious these people are having a ball. Condola Rashad wishes there was a Billions gag reel shenanigans. Siff says they are a family on set and they really like each other. They can just come in the morning and say “I didn’t sleep last night.”
Damian says they become very adroit at shortcutting as actors. They don’t always know where the story is going so there is always an improvisational quality to coming together and finding your character. Coming into second season, everybody is on more solid ground now, he says, and it starts to feel like a real ensemble that is more prepared to take risks with each other in acting.
Damian then points out they need to guard against familiarity, too; for example, he and Lara in their Uggs and hair coming out of their ears — he immediately corrects hair would come out of his ears only and not hers! — would not be good and Giamatti advises the material would come bite them should they not guard against familiarity. “You have to rise to it” Damian says.
We find out that these actors always rise. The show creators express genuine appreciation for their actors coming to set knowing all their lines as well as all the underpinnings all the time.
My favorite answer to the question about how it feels to come back to set for Season 2 comes from David Levien: He says they were like women with multiple children who forget about it and have another pregnancy 🙂 Koppelman and Levien also reveal they knew what would happen at the end of Season 2 before they even filmed the pilot, and it turns out Damian recently told them “you said you were going to do this.”
Damian argues we are living in this fantastic world “where despicable people are marvelous and marvelous people are despicable” which is no more true than in Billions and so the show has to have a world view, a judgment, at some point. He says some themes such as the seducing and corrupting nature of political and financial power come to fruition in this season in ways that they did not in Season 1. Brian Koppelman adds that “you pick a billionaire, idolize him, there are consequences.” Damian nails it: “Thanks. I think Donald Trump just got me killed in Season 3.”
The audience Q&A starts now.
First question is about whether Damian got inspired from real life characters as he put together his character for the show. Damian says he met several hedge-fund billionaires both in the UK and the US. Bobby Axelrod, he says, is a fictional character that “moves in a Rock’n’Roll, sort of cowboy-esque way” and he did not find that in hedge-fund billionaires. He found vanity, big ego, great intelligence and a willingness to listen. But it was the game and the fun of the game — much more so than the money — that was most important for all of them
Next Damian is asked about whether he knew he would be Bobby Axelrod when Brody died. Oh yeah it was his call. He just called Homeland people and told them he upgraded to a billionaire and so he had to die! 😀 No, he did not know he would do Billions. He, in fact, was not intending to come back to TV soon after he left Homeland but the scripts and the compelling pitch by Koppelman and Levien seduced him, and as far as Bobby’s fate goes, no hedge-fund manager has been executed for insider trading 🙂
The next question is, in fact, not a question but a text message by brilliant Kelly AuCoin, aka Dollar Bill, read by an audience member. He is saying he will not be at the event tonight, but if there is a Q&A she should tell the cast and creators how much she loves Dollar Bill and he should have more scenes 😀 Damian asking “Did you make it up or is that real?” is hilarious and Brian Koppelman saying Dollar Bill has a lot to do this season makes everyone HAPPY!
And here is yours truly asking the next question!
I just say Billions is my dream show. It has my favorite actor, Damian Lewis, it is filmed in my favorite city in the world, New York, and it has a lot to do with what I do for a living: Game Theory. I am just curious about how they integrate it into writing. I was lucky enough to chat with Mr Koppelman before and he already knows my fascination with their use of game theory in the show. It turns out they talk about game theory a bunch on the set and they certainly talk about it in the writers’ room. Well, I am already using examples from Billions in my classes so I am looking forward to more in Season 2! And I cannot agree more with Cynthia Littleton who is guessing that the PhD and MA portion of Billions TV demographics should be off the charts.
A young guy who apparently was an extra on Season 2 asks Paul Giamatti his advice for young actors. Now, hearing a giant like Giamatti saying “I am the last person to give anybody advice. I am just lucky” is humbling. I love it that David Levien says what Giamatti is too modest to say is how he works his ass off: “He understands everything about the character, everything about the the rest of the world that he is playing in, he knows the text.” And Damian shares with us that his co-star can convey his lines at 6:30 in the morning like he has been 6 months into a long theater run. Malin Akerman thinks they should film Giamatti at table read. Wow.
Lady Trader is next!
She says she has been in the asset management world for over 28 years and she knows the terminology they use on the show spot on. What has been the reaction from the hedge-fund world?
Brian Koppelman says Matthew Blank and David Nevins, the Chairman and the CEO of Showtime, respectively; and who are, in fact, sitting just in front of us, get calls from the hedge-fund people and that it is super rewarding to know people living in that world appreciate the show. He adds they are still spending time with hedge-funders and that Jim Chanos will make a cameo in Season 2. Mr Koppelman does not give any details about Chanos’ cameo but Lady Trader believes it should be about a short sell 🙂
The final question comes from a die-hard Paul Giamatti FAN who has seen every movie he made! Damian cracks up the room pretending to call the security as the fan goes on about how Giamatti becomes his characters 😀
The question is about the challenge of playing one character for several years compared to one role in a movie. Giamatti says he never did a TV show before so he is finding out about it as he goes along. He enjoys playing different material every time, for instance, in contrast to stage, where he does say the same things every night. He does not want to know much early on, he loves to be surprised and finds the experience exciting and energizing. And Damian adds that it also feels like theater close-up with muscularity needed for constant learning and long speeches adding a different quality to it. Well, it makes perfect sense when you think of the final showdown between Axe and Chuck, doesn’t it?
In closing, I cannot thank enough Mr Koppelman and Mr Levien — I am honored to have met them both — as well as to my two favorite Billions boys Damian and David for these wonderful memories. These people are not just smart and funny but they are very down-to-earth that makes you love them even more. Long live Billions!