Last week I had the absolute privilege to conduct a Zoom interview with Kelly AuCoin and Stephen Kunken while they were holed up in New York City, on hiatus from the filming of Season 5 of Billions. In the interview we talked about how they are dealing with the COVID crisis in NYC, which has been at the center of the crisis, as well as how they got their start in Billions, what it’s like working with Damian Lewis, and a certain scene involving a minivan and a Porsche, as well as a host of other topics. While it is hard to tell from just the written word, it was abundantly clear in the interview how much they genuinely care for each other, how much they truly enjoy working with each other, and how much they appreciate working on Billions. That bromance we see between Dollar Bill and Spyros is not just a creation of the writers (we talked about them, too), but it is a real reflection of the affection and respect these two very talented actors have for each other, the show and their fans.
On being in NYC during the COVID-19 crisis
PB: First off, how are you both doing because you’re both in the middle of all of this nonsense…Stephen you’ve done so much with helping the doctors and nurses, both of you are so socially conscious, how are you holding up with everything that’s going on in New York?
KAC: It’s a rollercoaster. My wife has developed one symptom of the virus. She lost her sense of smell thirteen days ago now.
SK: Which on the one hand…living with Kelly is probably …
KAC: It’s great because of the smell that I emanate.
SK: It’s like that Darwinian Natural Selection- it’s gonna help her survive.
KAC: The virus has a sense of humor. But no, it’s been two weeks. But she hasn’t developed any other symptoms, and I’m still asymptomatic, so the good news is that, as long as that remains true for the next 24 hours, we can end our quarantine from each other tomorrow – and that’s great. The downside is I have to take a shower. But that’s ok. I’ll do that for her.
PB: She may not want to stop the quarantine.
KAC: She might not want to, yeah.
SK: She might be like *cough cough*
KAC: You know, I think she might be like… “An extra couple days might be good” But other than that – about two weeks ago you realized, all of a sudden, “I know a lot of people who have the virus. And then, all of a sudden, it was … the first person you knew (at least tangentially) that died. And then more and more people you knew were losing people, and it just started to… there were days where it just felt like I didn’t want to get up. You’re trying to reach out to people but you feel helpless. There’s really so little you can do. You hear about people who lose loved ones, and they’re in quarantine so they can’t be with them. It’s hard, it’s really hard. And also on a different level, but still really, really hard are all the friends of mine, actors and live performers who’ve lost work that’s not coming back. So many of their gigs were being presented by curating houses that already have their seasons for next year (assuming we have a season next year.) The gigs that are cancelled today can’t just be bumped to next year. They’re gone. They can’t just push everything back – it’s not just a delay. And that’s devastating. Surreal doesn’t begin to express how I feel, what this moment feels like.
SK: Knock on wood my immediate family is all holding steady, but it definitely… it’s gone through different phases. The first phase definitely had this kind of impending panic and doom, especially being here where you were watching the daily cases go up and up and up. And although I live in a kind of low density part of Brooklyn (Redhook) which is by the water – you can hear that choir of ambulances pierce the night. It’s silent in a way that New York has not been silent since maybe 9-11 honestly or Hurricane Sandy when everybody in my neighborhood had to evacuate. Cutting through the silent night is the sound of ambulances and as there are no traffic accidents – you know those sirens are related to COVID patients. It’s very eerie.
It quickly started to mount up just how Covid-life is differentiated by the lack of “community”, which by necessity of design we only have “virtually” here. During 9/11 or Sandy you know you could go and hug your friend or go out for a drink with your friends and talk about life which was so helpful. But it’s different here. The tactile, close machinations we have of taking care of ourselves are gone and that sense of being isolated and hunkered down is very unsettling. It makes you completely kind of reevaluate how advanced a society we are. I remember after Hurricane Sandy, when there was no electricity in our neighborhood and social services were falling apart…there were people across the street from my house who had lost their heat, they lost their food and it was cold and they lit fires in garbage cans like something out of that scene from “Rocky”. They’re standing in the alley singing the song “Take it Back.” We think we are… in this country… impervious to these kinds of things… but we’re not. We’re really not ever that far from the wheels falling off the car. But you know what? Amazing things come out of that. Once the engine of humanity starts kicking into gear for people you start seeing amazing heroism and acts of altruism… and for me – that has been the most helpful. The beginning of the ride down from an emotional apex. That turning of the corner started by getting linked in to people who are doing things for other people. It’s a cliche, but helping others is helping yourself.
KAC: Well, if I can brag on you Stephen you’ve done that for friends, people who can’t get out of their houses. You’ve delivered sustenance to them and that’s been really admirable.
SK: Well, you, too; you’ve been shopping and doing things for people who can’t get out. I mean the irony is that you end up feeling kind of selfish because it’s one of the things that makes you feel productive and positive. You go out and you’re doing something for someone else and they’re like ‘Thank you so much!” and you’re like “No, Thank you!” — it’s kinda that adrenaline when you go to the gym. You know getting going and doing it can be hard – but the flip of it is when you release those endorphins it feels great.
On how they got started on Billions
PB: Let’s talk about our favorite show. With regards to the show itself, how you got involved. Kelly, I saw in an interview where you almost blew your chance of being in Billions. What the heck were you thinking?
KAC: Well (laughing) I originally came in to audition for another role – Danzig, I think, and it seemed like an interesting role. Auditioning for the pilot we didn’t see script, other than the scenes we were reading with. But Danzig was listed as a recurring character, and had that fun session with Wendy. So, I was like, well this is interesting. And obviously I knew who Brian (Koppelman) and David (Levien) were. I knew the people involved – Paul (Giamatti) and Damian (Lewis) and Maggie (Siff) and thought this would be something I’d like to be a part of. I went in and it went well, but I, apparently, didn’t fit what they wanted for that role, so they asked me to come back in to read for this character “Dollar” Bill Stearn – the cheapest millionaire in America – it didn’t, at first glance, seem all that promising a role, though. It wasn’t even listed as a potential recur, and there were, I think, four lines in the pilot, and, looking at it, I said “you know I’m not doing those kinds of roles, any more. Thank you, but I’m not interested.” By that time I was playing substantial characters on shows like The Americans and House of Cards and I wanted to keep building on that, not play functionaries. It felt like regression, so I said no. But, then I spent the weekend thinking about it and I had this nagging feeling… The cheapest millionaire in America? That’s kind of an interesting take… “Dollar” Bill’s kind of an fun character nickname… they put thought into it.” Maybe there’s some potential there. And, so on Monday I asked if I could change my mind. And, fortunately, they said ‘Yeah, actually. If you could be here… today.” And, I went in and I got the part. And, damn, I’m SO glad that I did because obviously the character became something more than a one-off guest star. You take a risk sometimes, and this time it worked.
PB: Stephen how about you?
SK: I had a somewhat similar thing. You know this happens with a lot of different shows. I had this happen with Wolf of Wall Street. They don’t know exactly where you fit into a company they are building but they like you. The casting director has a blank scene and they throw you in and (they) know have to have a bullpen of like 10 different people and are you a personality that they want to work with so you’re reading kind of blank lines of one character until they decipher and funnel you into the place that you fit best. So I don’t remember which trader I was – I might have gone in for Danzig originally and immediately was funneled into Spyros.
I knew Brian and David’s stuff. I was a fan. I had a strong sense… which I still think now…that If there’s two lines in an episode, they are there for a reason. To this day if a friend is like, “Should I go in for this two line part on your show?” I’m like “Do it!”. One of the things that they do better than I think anybody else is that they think “long game”. They just love to build up a base of people who exist that can come back and come in and come out and come in and come out. So you may be the guy that sold a pack of chewing gum but you’re there for a reason and you possibly will come back and filter into the story even if you only have two lines. I think they take great pride in that. In the symmetry of the returning characters. So…yeah…those two lines are not going to be incidental. There’s no – “he went that way” kind of guy – in a show written by these writers. So, back to your original question…I was really excited right from the jump to get going.
KAC: You’re right. No lines are inconsequential. And, among my four lines in the pilot, I did get to unveil Dollar Bill’s ‘I am not uncertain’ mantra. That was part of the equation when I was thinking “I may have made a mistake passing on this”
On which is stronger for the show – the writing or the acting?
PB: Which, to you, is more impressive, the acting or the writing?
KAC: I think it all comes down to the writing. We have a truly great group of actors, but the writing is so specific that it can make your job, in some ways, slightly easier. It really becomes a sort of chicken or the egg thing I guess. Because it takes strong actors to do this stuff well, but then those strong actors then have so much to work with. Good writing is just easier to act than bad writing. And, I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s actually quite challenging. The language is very specific, but it’s a thrilling challenge, something you really enjoy doing. It gets your energy up and you can really play ball with the other actors, because there’s just so much to play with. It’s ridiculously fun. It’s like Shakespeare, you know? It’s not easy, but it’s just so much better. And it rewards the hard work you have to put into it.
SK: And also I will say – the writing is the more unique thing in some ways. Their writing is hard actually. The lines are hard to learn. There is no “frumpf” to them, there’s no handles into language, no easy glide. It is really rugged. Really specific. Really angular. We’ve had this once or twice, not the norm at all because we have an amazing casting director Allison Estrin, who just picks cream of the crop actors to offer up to the guys… but If somebody comes in and they are not up to snuff, the language is inert. It just doesn’t fly. It’s actually complicated and when you get up to speed with it, it has the same kind of thrill it does when you have something that is metered out or that has a kind of poetry to it. It is not plain naturalism. It is heightened naturalism. So you need a level of actor that is really capable of doing that. That is why being in New York where you have access to these incredible theater actors who are used to taking language and working with it is such a boom for the show. So I would say the writing is the unique thing, but you need a baseline and a quality and a type of actor who can handle that.
PB: It seems that most of the actors there, at least of the regulars, have experience in live theater. Do you think that plays a part in this?
KAC: Absolutely. It’s just like what Stephen said. In general, the last ten years have been great for actors who came to New York, because a lot of us came here, deciding we were going to make our careers focusing more on theater than screen. Not that we didn’t want to do screen work, but our focus was going to be theater. That’s why we came to New York instead of LA. But, it’s been really nice to see the model change a bit over the past decade, because now we can do both. A lot of these New York shows, like Billions, can often more interesting than shows you see elsewhere, largely because of the staple of actors that came here originally to hone their craft and have spent years in the trenches learning how to handle crazy language, like Kunks was talking about. The difficult, but glorious, language, that is one of the things that makes New York shows unique.
SK: There is a famous thing that people from New York and LA talk about which is kinda random…but…. wardrobe people love working on a show in New York because at the end of the day the actors hang up their clothes. New York actors are used to working in the theater where at the end of the day you don’t just throw your stuff in your trailer and walk away. Things aren’t “wrapped”…they are “restarted” 8 times a week. Thusly, you are all connected in a way in telling a story and you end up relying on your support team in a way that is unique to the medium. When you meld that “attention to community” in and amongst a crew like we have on Billions, something special emerges. Whether you are in transportation or the person delivering breakfast or applying makeup… we are all equal parts of making that final product. This is a huge part of what I think you feel when you watch Billions… this sense of unity in storytelling and community. That goes up and down the food chain… between the producers, the writers, the actors, the people who work in production, the grips, the electrics. We all really, really care about each other.
KAC: Kunken makes me hang up his clothes but other than that I think what he said is true.
SK: But we are connected. We are still connected.
KAC: We’re connected in the sense that he’s telling me what to do and then I’m doing it. See, it’s a perfectly symmetrical relationship. One sided. One sided relationship is what I meant to say.
SK: I still have to teach you which end to hang the pants from.
KAC: That’s true. I always thought that’s the way weight would go…
SK: No, no. We will work on it.
On how the characters have developed since the beginning
PB: Let’s talk about your characters. A bunch of us were watching the pilot last week and it’s amazing how different everyone looked. Both Bobby and Wags are in suits. And Wags doesn’t have any facial hair. Kelly, your character was in a suit which is, of course, totally not your look.
KAC: Yeah, that’s right, no, not at all.
PB: When did the sweater vest thing start and what prompted it?
SK: And when will it end?
KAC: I guess between the pilot – I don’t remember all the looks from the pilot. I remember when we went to the basketball court I had a sweater and shirt and a jacket. I think the jacket remains. I think I still have that jacket. And then I wore a suit for the scene at Axe Cap… right? I guess the fleece vest arrived with episode two.
PB: (to Stephen) I find it funny that Spyros is a big cortado lover and so are you.
KAC: What did you just call him?
SK: Well you know in the pilot, I remember the wardrobe when they were talking with Neil (Berger) who directed the pilot, when they sat down to figure out the pilot they were initially like “Get him a suit that doesn’t fit well and he shouldn’t be shaved real close, he should look slightly sweaty all the time” and that was the direction we all went. He was the albatross. He was ungainly. It blossomed over time- he suddenly had cologne and he was suddenly becoming slightly more particular. The albatross began to evolve more from “affect and bad choices” than “neglect and mistake”…which I love. Was it you who had written on twitter that can you believe how far he’s gone?
SK: It’s interesting. I think there is an actual dot to dot that you can do with a guy who suddenly got plugged into money and got to become the thing that he wanted to become. Sure, he didn’t exist as the final product from the start but that doesn’t mean the DNA to become that wasn’t part of who he “wanted to be”. Certainly that whole first season he’s fighting with Chuck to be considered an equal for some respect. I think this drives his insanity.
PB: (to Stephen) Your character is one of the few who has major scenes with both Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. What is it like acting against Damian or Paul and which one of them is tougher [to act with]?
SK: They’re both awesome. They are obviously both such incredibly great people to work with. My stuff with Chuck was very pumped and confrontational and my stuff with Axe is very reverential and prostrate with the eventual slamming which comes from being Ari. Both are very fun to do. It’s a different energy, it’s a completely different energy working on the Chuck side versus the Axe side. Just the “workday”..there’s a different feel. There is honestly more of a party going on when you arrive at Axe Cap and that’s maybe because that’s not just the AXE CAP energy…but it’s the biggest set and that’s where the most people hang out and we spend the majority of our time. But it does feel buoyant in a way.
On staying connected with other cast members
PB: It seems like in the first couple seasons there were team Chuck scenes and the team Axe scenes and never the twain should meet. And then in season four there was the Team Taylor group. There was no cross over except for maybe the leads. Kelly, you would probably never see Connerty or Sacker or those people. How do you stay connected with the other cast members when you aren’t ever filming with them?
KAC: Well, Toby and I drink a lot together whenever we get together outside of set, so there’s that… but, we mainly connect with other actors, the ones with whom we rarely work, at table reads. Every two weeks we have a table read and we’ll often go out afterwards if we aren’t shooting that day. You get to say hi to people. It does take a little longer to get to know someone if you never shoot with them. Stephen and I have known each other for years, just through being working actors in NYC, but not all that well, really. Then two years ago when he came over to play on the Axe Cap set, and it was like ‘oh, this is my brother from another mother’. You go through a bonding session like smashing someone’s car.
PB: Oh, we’re getting to that.
KAC: It’ll solidify a friendship. Over the years of working together much we’ve all become close.
SK: It does make watching the show, for us, way more fun than you could possibly imagine. I think everyone thinks we know everything. We don’t know ANYTHING..We know what we filmed and we know what the story is but we have zero idea how it looks or which versions made the edit. Maybe we’ve seen some parts in ADR, but that’s about it. We also get to see the other half’s work and we are like, ‘oh my god, I had no idea what that was going to look like or what that was going to be.’ We do some viewing parties with each other where we all get together and watch an episode and thusly you have the ability to become a fan of the other work just like somebody watching the show. Because, in a way… you are.
On the development of the Bromance
PB: The first two seasons your characters wouldn’t have interacted but once Spyros came over in season 3 is when the Bromance started to blossom. When you saw that developing in the scripts what was that like?
KAC: Well, when you learn that you’re going to have to work with Stephen Kunken… it gives you a little bit of pause.
SK: Careful what you say.
KAC: When they first put us together – the things it became obvious we were going to get to do, were so wonderfully strange and funny…. I was thrilled. I can remember coming into the table read with you, Stephen – we just looked at each other and started laughing because the possibilities were just ridiculously exciting. It struck me as funny that in all the years Stephen and I had been in New York we hadn’t done so much as a reading together – which is unusual when you’ve been around for this long. It’s unusual that we wouldn’t have worked together in some capacity – so this was really fun on a bunch of levels. And then it turned out great. Stephen’s a wonderful scene partner because he plays ball. He’ll, of course, come in with strong choices, but he’s also great at playing with people, responding to unexpected stuff on different takes. Whatever you give to them he’s going to whack it back and it can go places you didn’t expect. That’s the really fun stuff. It’s delightful. I particularly love when Spyros and Dollar Bill are annoyed with each other.
PB: Those are the most hilarious scenes. Kelly, your reactions to his lines are just uproariously funny
KAC: Two of my favorite moments in all of the previous seasons or when we go to shake hands the way he shakes my hand after I have to apologize to him, and when Spyros tries to “Pound it out” with Bill. I love that they created a gif out of that. That to me perfectly sums up their relationship.
SK: It’s one of my favorite things about Spyros by far. His complete lack of self-knowledge and not being able to take the temperature of where other people are. I love it. I’m just fascinated by it. In “The Office”, the original British version starring Ricky Gervais, he is the master of that kind of “don’t do it, don’t do it…He’s doing it, it’s happening”. Those moments of uncomfortableness have all of life in them. At the same time infuriating and endearing about Spyros are all the ways he continually tries to fit in. Just like we all do. And so Spyros gives us the opportunity to watch the person we work so hard to avoid being in our real lives try the same and fail. Am I trying to do that to my cast members? Am I doing it as an actor trying to have fun with my cast members? Absolutely. But that objective is one and the same, it becomes an easy thing because that’s what he’s trying to do also to a certain extent. He’s looking for love from all these people and he’ll hold waiting for it as long as possible and when people don’t give it to him he’ll still go for it and it’s kind of the experience of shooting it as well. “Are you going to go with me on this Kelly?” and I’ll just do something else until you go. That’s the whole “Pound it out” energy.
KAC: And that’s an example of what I was just talking about playing ball. He’s fully in character but but he’s also having fun watching your cast mates play. Because they’re so good! It’s like 75% of you is thinking with the character’s brain, but, you’re not, you know, insane. You know you’re an actor and you’re playing a role and you’re enjoying getting a reaction out of someone. If you’re making them laugh or if you’re horrifying them, or they give a little tweak to their response to you, that will then, in turn, spur an idea in you, and it just has this wonderful snowball effect and the scene becomes so alive. And, in the case of Billions, the brilliant scripts give you so many opportunities to create a little magic. It’s really fun. Stephen is a very very inventive comedic actor by the way. It’s really fun to watch him perform.
SK: As well as Kelly. One of my favorite things that we ever shot together never made it which is all the stuff in your garage. We had these two scenes which I just absolutely loved in the episode where we’re coming back together when I get fired and then in the elevator, Dollar Bill’s like “talk me through this idea that you have” – so we end up going to his garage and we start working on a plan to bilk the SEC companies that I had marked. We were going to short the companies that the SEC had flagged and we just had this great connecting scene about Dollar Bill’s family and his wife. I loved that scene.
KAC: There are scenes that just aren’t going to make it in the final cut because the show’s only an hour long. There was other scene from that same episode – after scene we brought our plan to Axe and I save your job… we end up in Spyros’ office, and you give me some coffee and I give you some whiskey. It was like sharing with each other the thing that we love. Was really fun to shoot, but probably not essential to telling the story.
SK: You put your peanut butter in my chocolate. You put your chocolate in my peanut butter.
KAC: It was a great little moment. And, even then, I suppose we knew this might not make it. But they let the camera run for a little while, and we’re just toasting each other, and, and the characters are so surprised that they’re enjoying each other.
SK: In retrospect I think it was a smart decision because what they don’t let happen on the show and I think one of the reasons why the show is so successful is they don’t resolve the chord a lot of the time. That would have resolved that chord between the two of us in a way that would have felt finished or simple. And so it stayed dissonant. And as much as it felt great to do because I love Kelly and it was this great moment to feel as friends and actors, it would have resolved the chord. I do think that they are really conscious of how they push this thing to make it rugged for season on season.
KAC: And they’re masters at this. Whenever they do make these decisions, the episode’s always better because of it. But it’s like you said, If there’s something fun that you do of course there’s a tiny part of you that’s like – “I want to see that .”
PB: So the scene where you have to make the public apology to Spyros and you give this look of complete and utter contempt to him. What was the stage direction there?
KAC: I don’t remember exactly what that was. It was a really fun scene and the way we executed obviously is a combination of the clues you get in the script, our imagination, and the imagination of the director because we shot it a number of different ways all of which were fun but that was the one they ended up choosing. I don’t remember the actual stage direction. Certainly we were in the spirit of what they were asking for. I know that.
SK: There’s the apology scene which is the handshake and the pound it out is when we sell the idea to Axe. I do remember there was one thing in the handshake after you make the public apology. There was some great stage direction where is like Spyros gives him the “royal” something …
KAC: Did it say something like “Spyros holds out his hand in the most annoying way possible?” Yes, I think that was the stage direction. And you did it my friend!
SK: I still love, believe it or not, a great sitcom. A great sitcom to me is like one of the high points of drama. When you know a character or set of characters well enough that you know in the space between when the inciting incident happens and when the reaction comes what the line might be…and then are surprised that its something even better. To me that is the indication of great writing and world building. Working with Kelly that’s the beauty of these two characters. (At this point, I want to make it clear that Stephen does NOT throw his dog Mabel out the window.)
PB: Stephen, your character has these moments which are really uncomfortable. Do you play those up, do you try and get a reaction out of your fellow cast members there? I’m thinking of that point where you put on the (doctor’s) jacket and you just see the eyes rolling ‘good grief.’ And especially in the past couple seasons, your character has really developed this ability to make himself a pariah from within the company. It seems like you’re almost coating them like let me see how far I can play this to get you to break character.
SK: I just remember feeling. I was like “Is this right?” And when I took it, it felt so soft. His hands are so soft and it made a slight cupping sound. I was thinking we are so on the money.
On the minivan scene
PB: Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite scene with you two which of course is the minivan and the car. Kelly, in the script read, what were you thinking? Was it like “I get to take this Minivan and destroy it and destroy a sports car?”
KAC: This happens periodically. I’ll be reading the script and something cool happens and I Yelp and my wife, Carolyn, from the other room says ‘Are you ok?’ And I run to the other room and tell her what I get to do. That definitely happened here. I couldn’t believe it. I also didn’t believe that they were going to let me drive the car itself, which they did! The very first crash was the stunt person, establishing (the hit) but the rest of them were me. I got to actually smash the car. Stephen had an interesting perspective on my first smash, he was on the other side of the car, I didn’t do exactly what I was told. You’re supposed to hit the brake as soon as you feel yourself hit the car. It looks even better, actually, because your car jolts even more. And it has the benefit of being, you know, safer for everybody on the other side; Actors and camera crew and director. And the first time I forgot to hit the brake. And the car travelled a little… far.
SK: It did. And as I saw it coming toward me I was like ‘Kelly is not a stunt driver.’
KAC: But it was fine. Everyone was safe. I got to smash the car about 20 times and it was perhaps the most cathartic moment of this pacifist’s life… doing something so aggressively, childishly violent.
SK: It’s funny because when they drove the Boxster off of the flatbed I started talking to the car supplier and I was sure they had just gotten a motorless car. We’re not going to actually destroy a Porsche Boxster. And he’s – no it’s real. It’s totally fine – and he said ‘you should get used to it.’ Meanwhile we were shooting in Newark and the police had blocked off all these streets. And he was like ‘you can just drive it around, drive around get used to it.’ So the police were like ‘yeah go ahead drive it.’ So I’m in a closed course, sponsored by the police, driving this Porsche Boxster. So I was thinking this is the greatest day of my life. But everybody was feeling the same thing. I think they bought the car for something like $26,000 and I think everybody thought if we do this correctly we’re going to destroy one panel – the door panel – and we’ll take that off and put a new door panel on and we’ll probably sell it again for $15-$16,000. And everybody on the crew had the same idea, including myself. At $15,000, I know what happened to this car. I’ll buy the car. And over the course of the day you see more and more people drop out. ‘No way man I’m not taking that car.’ And Kelly just kept missing and oil started pouring out. And each guy said I’m out, I’m out. In the end you couldn’t give that thing away it was just toast.
KAC: Although I heard that actually, even more damage was actually done to the minivan, weirdly.
On Spyros switching from Team Chuck to Team Axe
PB: Stephen, after season 2 Spyros had been working for the SEC and of course when you come back in Season 3 you’re now a compliance officer for Axe Cap. Did they tell you, were you worried with the SEC job being over in terms of getting Axelrod, were you worried about what they were going to do with Spyros or did they tell you we’re going to bring you back? At what point did they tell you you’re now going to be on Team Axe?
SK: Season 1 was so much fun for me because I had all this great stuff and in season 2… I was actually filming a movie and I remember thinking well it’s starting to feel like this part of the story is starting to fade. I wasn’t around as much. And it was over that summer when I was hoping and praying that somehow I would be as lucky as some of the other people to filter back through. And Brian called me over the summer and said “you’re going to love this”. And I remember reading it on the beach… back then when we were shooting we would start the first episode, we’d have the table read at the end of August. And I remember we had rented a beach house in Connecticut. And you get so excited. All of us we don’t know what these scripts are going to be and suddenly you have an email that says here’s a script. And you’ve been waiting all this time. And here I am sitting on the beach and just burst into a giant laugh. Spyros walks through Axe Cap to whatever that music was that was so hilarious and I had that same kind of moment as Kelly where I just yelped and said this is awesome.
I guess you just knew that throwing this guy into that pool that there was just such a great chance for great friction with literally everybody there. Nobody was going to enjoy this guy and that just made me so happy, so very very happy. So I had a little bit of a heads up. They have a plan but they’re also watching the way things move and develop organically. So as things start to resonate they either write in that direction or put it into the next season.
On working with Damian
PB: Because this is the FanFunWithDamianLewis blog, I have to ask this – what’s it like working with Damian?
KAC: It’s a nightmare. It’s a living hell. I’m telling you – send help! He’s great and he’s hilarious. He’s an amazing actor but he’s also a great leader. He can be the funniest guy in the room, but also very serious. He sets the tone on set and everyone follows. Except maybe Costabile. They raz each other a lot. Hilariously, I might add. But, really, Damian is as much of a leader, in a different way, as Axe is.
SK: He can be perfectly mercurial as well. Which frankly, I love. Damian isn’t always “open for business” in the same predictable way every single day and I love that. It’s the same thing that makes him a great actor. You have to figure him out day to day. It makes him authentic. Like the best kinds of people. He can wear his life on his sleeve that way and some days you have to go to him in a slightly different way because he’s working with some other color or life is affecting him some way. And so he brings all that reality to his work as well. It’s actually one of my favorite things about him. What you’re seeing is not just this conscious effort on his part to give you what you want from him. You’re getting the actual dude. You’re getting all the colors.
PB: So off camera is he talking like Bobby Axelrod or is he talking like Damian Lewis?
KAC: It’s funny I’ve been asked this question before and it always surprises me that I have to think about it. But, I think he stays with the American during shoot day, and then drops it. But, his accent is so seamless.
SK: If you get him talking about something English like football and suddenly he falls directly into Damian.
On their favorite sports teams
PB: Tell me about your fandoms on with your respective teams – Kelly with the Portland Trailblazers of the NBA and Steven with the Tottenham Hotspurs of the English Premier League.
KAC: I’m a Portland Trail Blazers fanatic and I have been since I was a child. And I like down the street from Barclay’s Center where the Brooklyn Nets play. They’re sort of my adopted east coast team. I just love the NBA. So the fact that I have forged relationships with some of these players know blows the mind of my inner 10 year old. That little kid is in absolute bliss.
SK: Damian and I watch games together. Unfortunately we’re in a period where no matter how good my Spurs are, somehow Liverpool is still better. It’s soooo Damian. So Axe. No matter how good my team is Damian’s team is still better than my team. It’s very Bobby Axelrod, its really annoying. But we had this thing where I’ll cook an English breakfast and he’ll come over and we’ll watch the game together.
This sometimes happens during the weekend of filming Episode 402 when @SpursOfficial plays @LFC and Axe and Spyros meet in Brooklyn for a derby that of course Spyros loses. Never bet against Axe, Liverpool, or @lewis_damian @SHO_Billions pic.twitter.com/qzn7ls8HEZ
— Stephen Kunken (@stephenkunken) March 25, 2019
I’m so bummed I have not been able to be a connector between Spurs and Billions yet. The basketball community has definitely circled around the show in a way that’s been great. Kelly and I have become friends with the guys on the Brooklyn Nets. We got to sit court side for a Nets game that was one of the more geeked out fan moments.
Kelly on fellow Axe trader Bonnie (Sarah Stiles)
KAC (talking about Sarah Stiles): She was a terrific addition. It’s hard to remember that she didn’t join the cast until late season 3. She feels so ingrained. It was brilliant casting. She’s perfect for the show. Her character is so well written and she plays the crap out of it. Just integral to the show now, it’s surprising when you remember how late she arrived. Sara’s awesome.
On what we can look forward to in Season 5
PB: You’ve had so many great moments with the two of you. Do you have any of those coming up that we can look forward to?
SK: Without giving anything away I think we have maybe my favorite arc of the two of these guys in this season.
SK: We’ll talk again after this comes out. We’re closer after this season.
I will say that all the additions that you see on the bumpers and everything with Julianna Margulies and Corey Stoll and Daniel Breaker and right across the board they brought in all of these amazing people and they’re all great. And I will say, really sadly, we lost one of the guys who was new, to this horrible COVID. One of our cast members lost his life, Mark Blum, who was just an unbelievably fantastic actor. So that’s just a reminder that this whole thing is going on at same time that we’re putting all this together.
On being on social media
PB: One of the great things that we as fans love about you all is how much you interact with us on social media. How much do you enjoy doing that? Why do you do it? It has to take a lot of your time and energy every Sunday to be on there interaction with us when the show is airing. What is that for you?
KAC: I’m not sure how it got started but I love it. We have a really fun, hilarious fan base. They make me laugh and I enjoy trying to make them laugh. And we have a cast and crew that enjoys interacting as well. There’s an energy that continues after the show. We’ve left the show. We’ve wrapped. And we get to relive the connections via Twitter and we have some really fun social media people. I’m an over-tweeter. I just can’t shut up.
SK: Just to speak to your question, I think it’s part of being in New York. It’s another example of when you have theater actors. When you’re a theater actor you live for the interaction and the energy of the audience. You’re used to coming to the theater at 8 and you get there and you don’t know what it’s going to be like tonight. And the audience tells you to a certain extent how the evening is going to go and since so many of us are creatures of the theater, it’s been this great nexus of having energy in response to what we do, to hear the audience.When you’re making a TV show in New York and you can feel the response and tweet about it as they’re watching it, it’s like a new live experience in a weird way and I think it rings a lot of our bells to be able to connect with the audience.
KAC: What he said.
On learning about the financial sector
PB: In your time on Billions how much have you learned about the financial sector?
KAC: Not a thing. I always know what I’m saying in the moment of filming. They give us plenty of resources so that we know what we’re saying. But I’d say within 36 hours of shooting any given scene it’s completely left my brain.
SK: At one point they gave me a line like ‘my friends at the Security Exchange Commission’ and I so didn’t know that I kept saying they’re ‘my friends of the Security and Exchange Commission.’ I was saying the thing wrong that I was supposed to know. I still don’t know what it was. But we know enough to be fluent and they have experts who help us. But does anybody really know this stuff is about?
On the writing process and the roles of Brian and David
PB: How does the writing work?
KAC: Brian and David are the creators and show runners, executive producers and head writers. They have a writer’s room and different writers get assigned to different episodes but Brian and David are deeply involved in all them. They are the head writers and they make all the decisions. They don’t direct episodes but they certainly are on set a lot and if they don’t like the way an episode is being directed they will weigh in in real time.
SK: They are the general contractors and they will sub out to other people for particular parts of the story. Adam Perlman is the third leg of that unique table and an amazing cipher for Spyros. But the truth is they assemble an incredible writers room every year. But honestly Brian and David are there for every rehearsal. The first rehearsal of every scene on set pretty much.
KAC: They are very hands-on. They write on every episode, even when it’s technically assigned to someone else. We get the scripts and they continue tweak up until we shoot it. They might do some small shifts while we’re filming too. It’s their baby .
PB: Thank you so much.