Note: This post was originally published on March 26, 2019.
When he’s not running a show, co-creator of Billions, Brian Koppelman hosts a podcast called The Moment. Each hour-long session is a conversation about the creative process and pivotal moments in creative careers. Koppelman talks to people in various forms and stages of their creative lives about inflection points, the moments they sensed something shifted for them in their careers. Having listened to several of these conversations in his archive, its always a treat to hear how people get to live their professional dreams, be they restaurateurs, musicians, writers or actors. Back when he first publicized the podcast, I had this twee Twitter exchange with him.
On Tuesday, last week, it finally happened: Damian sat down with Kopp to talk shop. You can listen to this episode of The Moment wherever you listen to podcasts. (Links below)
It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least on these pages) that, with Damian, there is more than what meets the eye. Likewise, there’s more to be said than what you hear, especially when interviews go deep like this one did. I wrote about another longer interview on the subject of creativity: SAG-AFTRA. This podcast covered similar ground, but touched on some things we’d never heard before. So, here’s a bit of reading between the lines of some highlights from The Moment.
The environment of Billions seems to be what we’d all like from our work environments: bring on good people you trust and leave them alone to do their job. Thus, this podcast was the first time Brian and Damian had ever talked over their process.
Damian’s day on set starts with him holding his sides, a sub-section of the script providing the blueprint for the day’s shooting. We learn that most one hour episode scripts are typically 60 pages, span 3-4 story days, take two weeks to shoot, with 13-15 hours a day, and Damian is in 9-10 of the scenes per script. Damian likens it to getting a small movie to learn every two weeks. He works an additional hour each day after shooting to learn the next day’s lines.
So, he stands to the side holding his sides accessing the situation: the set they are using, who else is in the scene, a big picture view of what the day has in store. He fleshes out where, when, who, and how as described by Stanislavski’s acting method. These four constants of the scene inform the variable “what” of the scene, what the scene becomes as its played, processed and transformed. Damian says “what” is the state you must reach “transitively.” To this, Koppelman adds a nugget from Mamet: “nobody speaks unless they want something.”
Damian says that if an actor starts with the “what” before figuring out the where, when, who and how, they may as well be just parroting whatever is on the page. Not sure who said it first, but it’s commonly said that most of acting is re-acting. To act is to transform the words on the page to the three dimensions of the scene, to take written experience and make it lived experience, inject it with human breath, voice and movement. Thus, Damian needs answers to the other questions before he even starts thinking about the “what.” He needs to know what time of day it is, which day is it in the episode, where has Bobby slept the night before, has he slept. Bobby Axelrod at 6am is not Bobby Axelrod at midnight (who is?). Clearly, Damian is not one to walk on set, read some stuff, collect a check and go home none the worse for wear. He needs to know it all. That’s the only way he’s able to give it his all.
He also needs to know what his scene partners are going to be bringing that day. What they have and what they need from him. When he gets a script he outlines the elements of who, where, when and how, the building blocks for the “what” to happen in the scene. The building blocks to Bobby, his story, his arc, mapped script by script. Since the show is so “chatty”, so rich in “heightened” dialogue, Damian says most of his energy and time is spent learning and preparing.
Though Damian takes a cue from Stanislavski on the questions needed to work a scene, he doesn’t quite subscribe to the other Stanislavski idea that acting must happen “inside out”, i.e. get the character’s internal condition, then develop outwards to voice and movement. Instead he takes on the process ascribed to Olivier of “finding the shoes”, i.e. once you find the shoes of a character, you find the way they walk, you find the man and then you work into his internal machinations. To that end, Damian uses animals to help him see those shoes of a character. He says he even goes so far as to literally get on all fours in the privacy of his dressing room. Early on when he was presented with Bobby he noted his shark-like nature. Then he settled into a cheetah, “not one of the big cats…but nimble, fast, watchful.” He describes Bobby as an “alley cat”, a “brawler”, one to “never use a scalpel when a sledgehammer will do.” I certainly saw the shark in this scene of Bobby swimming through the fishes at a car show last season.
Damian says, on stage and in film, he learned and experienced being the “architect of his arc”, plotting the beats, “parsing it out”, together with the writer. He shares that in long form TV, one must “give yourself to the writer more.” There is not enough time to hash out the details of writer’s intentions in concert with actor’s perceptions of those intentions. An actor must trust that the writer will take the character organically wherever the actor also sees him going. Damian asks Koppelman and Levien for bullet points on Bobby’s trajectory, but he knows that he can’t expect details six months out. So he relies on a skill learned at Royal Shakespeare Company: using his wits. He needs to foresee Bobby’s arc even when he hasn’t been told the details of it. And he needs to remember to check in on himself, maintain a handle on the reality of Bobby.
Koppelman observes that Damian sounds like a conductor, playing in the orchestra but also leading the band. Damian adds his own observation that great sports players have a way of throwing everything into “slow motion.” Details are orchestrated in such a way that an athlete “in the pocket”, i.e. in the zone as far as performance, is able to elide their skill and movements into something so perfect that it seems to slow down all the time around it. Similarly, he aspires to transcend all the craziness of a set, create a bubble around what he is doing where everything is still, thereby sending it all into slow motion. And, to affirm Koppelman’s point, it’s orchestral in so far as it all seems like a rehearsal. Everyone in their place, working the best they can with the overwhelming time constraints leaves no time for achieving optimal flow, a flow you would get on stage, for instance, where you rehearse and work a story nightly for weeks, honing and refining, taking away slight things here, adding some there. Achieving close to a perfect performance on closing night is not the point, it’s the working towards perfection that Damian has been trained to do from his days in theater. In TV, there’s a greater reliance on spontaneity and improvisation doing the trick that the additional weeks getting to know the story and each other would provide on stage.
As a stage actor, Damian was trained to use his body and voice, and he never imagined he’d have the face for the camera, the micro expressiveness necessary for work on film. Instead of throwing it out to the 900th person in the auditorium, he had to think about “thinking it” to transmit it to camera. He only considered expanding his reach beyond the stage when he felt the excitement of the new canvas opened up by films like Trainspotting and Shakespeare in Love where his contemporaries were making it big in Hollywood.
Damian reveals that “the most therapeutic places” he can be are on a soccer field and in an art gallery. He talks about being a member of a team on a field, assessing where everyone is, where the ball is, and where they all need to go, the geometry of the situation. Koppelman offers that looking at art must be the same thing: looking at artist’s use of space, composition, where and how every piece fits to make the whole. The “mathematics” of space is there, of course, in both of these places where Damian finds his zen, but I think they may have more in common than that.
When Damian mentions his recently broken knee playing soccer and his age, Koppelman offers to edit it out for the sake of Bond, upon which Damian launches into his Judi Dench impression:
DoubleO, would you like a nice blanket for your legs?
Athletics, among other things, is about the practice and practical techniques of pushing thru the pain. Accepting that initial burning of the lungs, the feeling like you’re going to drown, pass until you’re in the zone with a body piloting thru to the goal. Your mind is aware only insofar as to judge the opponent and predict his moves and note the positions of other players within your team. The point when your body stops resisting the push to the goal and actually carries you thru to it is absolutely analogous to the point when your mind stops resisting becoming something outside yourself. And being yourself while absolutely, unequivocally, and utterly believably becoming something else, well, that’s acting.
And art galleries? Why, to see the act of creation up close. You can look at art in a book or on a screen, but it’s another thing entirely to experience a canvas that has been touched by the artist, witness the texture of the strokes, the original colors (as much as possible given ravages of time), the just-so way figures are arranged in balance or imbalance. Look at that dab of paint there, the pressure by Van Gogh’s hand in the stroke pushing the medium to make that mark, as close as he could to what his internal eye sees. Then there are all the parts that make the whole possible. Witness the Turner sky, a storm at sea mid-morning. Another Turner, a storm at twilight. Time of day is important, how far you are at sea is important, the depths distinct in myriad ways from the shore.
There’s no how-to guide on the ways experiencing art can inform whatever creative aspects there are of your work. You simply watch, listen and absorb. What you see on the wall is art, but what you witness in an art gallery is creation. For an actor, the writing is the paint and the setting is the canvas. The actor takes the specific combination of words and actions given him for that moment and creates meaning out of it, a communication that reaches the other side, to the viewer who is entertained or some other way touched by what he’s made.
They turn to talk of directors. Unlike feature length film where the directorial “eye” is very much what you see in the final product, TV shows often have a stable of directors working individual episodes. Damian speaks of directors as “carpetbaggers” floating from job to job, show to show. He waxes sympathetic for a bit, “it must be so lonely.” He shares that on Billions, he’s worked with directors who know the show, watch it regularly, respect the boundaries of the world created by it, know the characters and just want to come in and give direction to bring that one hour to life. There are directors who can add to characters and situations as written in a way that flows with the style of the show and add insights that even the show-runners may find useful, but Damian concedes that’s rare in TV and can’t really be expected when a director comes on to an established team for only one or two episodes. Damian says he’s also experienced directors who “overstep” and call themselves fans but don’t really know the show. They think they know what direction the characters “should” take. If the insights they bring are interesting, Damian will play along. But, if they are getting it wrong, chances are nil that they will get their way, given the show already has a history, a style, and a mood that must be maintained for the sake of continuity. Can imagine that’s not a very fun situation when it happens.
They address the idea of disappearing into the work. Koppelman shares that in writing, most of the time it’s just hard work, a difficult grind, but there are moments when you take flight, when you’re simply “present and floating”, “tethered” to the ground far below. Damian says that actors never disappear. He says that instead one must imagine a new reality and “place yourself in that parallel reality.”
I may be fully Bobby, but am I ever ‘not Damian’? No.
No matter how immersed an actor is in the character, part of his work is to know the other reality: the crew, the camera, where the eyes are in the room. Koppelman clarifies that by disappearing he means the sense that he has when he’s writing a speech for Bobby and suddenly it’s already being read and acted, and that he as a writer is gone, no longer pushing it forward. He looks at the words only afterwards and sees “there it is.” Damian affirms that those are the points in the script that he finds easiest to learn, those moments when the writing is fully flowing. The scenes that are harder to learn are the ones that feel like the writers had to “bump and grind” a bit.
Damian notes that before Homeland he never felt the need for a publicist or attorneys. Once the world, including the critics, started heaping praise on the pilot right out of the gate, Damian knew something big was afoot. He finally did the “single most ambitious thing” he’d ever done: got the publicist and vocalized the desire to get Homeland and his name out there for the Golden Globes. Of course, once all was said and done, he landed with an Emmy and Golden Globe to boot. (not to mention a blog devoted to him :))
We learn that Band of Brothers wasn’t Damian’s first foray into Los Angeles. He had a clerical job in the early 90’s for In Living Color at Fox. In case they miss that part of the podcast or somehow have their heads in the sand about what became of the oddball Brit kid with whom they shared a joint or two while waiting to park cars: Mike and Sean! If you were valets in Los Angeles in 1991, that guy Damian with the Ford Pinto, who looked like the boy pictured on the right dressed like the guy on the left, would love to hear from you.
Damian also briefly alluded to busking this way along the south of France as a kid. Stories! We want more!
By the time the podcast got to the subject of Homeland, arguably the biggest inflection point of Damian’s career, the hour was already nearly over. Until Koppelman can do a Part II, we can imagine that after Homeland, Damian went thru another period of grounding, a need to go back home, follow the writing, and work with good people as he took on projects like Silent Storm, Our Kind of Traitor, and Queen of the Desert. That is, until the time came to answer the call from Showtime to come back across the pond and give the Yanks more of him.
The podcast didn’t go into this, but on a trip to LA a while ago, Damian shared that he’d had a lot of meetings there but all he heard about were franchises, the big super hero blockbusters that are easy wins for studios. Some of his Brit contemporaries have taken the bait of donning capes for big screens. At that time, Damian said he couldn’t really see himself doing those kinds of roles. (Not all heroes wear capes :)) Who knows, that may change too. It is, after all, all about “following the writing.”