“Pretend we’re having an argument.” —Bobby Axelrod
A good hour of television absolutely starts with good writing and I pride myself in calling Willie Reale, the writer of Billions Season 1 Episode 10 Quality of Life, a genius way before I find out that he is, in fact, one! I don’t know if you are familiar with MacArthur Fellowships also known as “Genius Grants” but Mr. Reale is a recipient of this fellowship “in recognition of his ingenuity in creating theater and theater education programs for young people.” Bravo!
Quality of Life, with Donnie’s memorial service being at its heart, has a number of moving parts; however, Mr. Reale delivers the story seamlessly with a number of timely back and forths between the memorial service and all else going on and the episode’s director Karyn Kusama perfectly translates the writing into action. And, in my humble opinion, Brian Koppelman’s tweet sharing with us that the fake argument scene between Axe and Dollar Bill was Reale’s idea alone deserves standing ovation for this brilliant writer!
So it is a true pleasure to make a heartfelt tribute to this absolute home run moment in writing, directing and acting. Let us first remember how Damian Lewis and Kelly AuCoin CRUSH it together giving us an instant TV classic and then find out about the two actors’ take on the scene. Oh yeah we were extremely lucky to ask both actors about their takes on the scene!
A surprise is waiting for Dollar Bill, now also known as Keyser at Axe Capital, when he arrives in the office as a free man. Axe wants his ass immediately in his office, well, just to get his ass kicked by Bill: The office is soundproof so outsiders see but do not hear the conversation inside. Axe tells Bill to pretend they are having an argument. He needs Bill’s help to give Carly, Channing and Hlasa a good fucking! Come bonus time Axe will show Bill enough love that he could start a third family! “Two is Plenty!” Bill shouts back.
Axe to Bill: “I love you like a brother.”
Bill to Axe: “I fuckin’ love you, too, man.”
Me to my TV : “I fuckin’ love YOU TWO!”
And I do! Everyone knows I LOVE Damian Lewis. And I LOVE Kelly AuCoin, too! And I am extremely happy that re-visiting the fake argument scene gives me a unique opportunity to talk about one of my favorite characters in Billions: Dollar Bill Stearn.
I noted Dollar Bill aka “the cheapest man in America” as the character to watch in our First Impressions of Billions blog. One episode in and you know there is something about him… you feel it in the kind of risk he is ready to take to extract critical information about Super Auto and his “I am not uncertain” suddenly becomes a household phrase for us!
Bill becomes a person of interest quickly, not just for us, the viewers, but also for the US attorney’s office thanks to his ways of collecting information. If only he did not have a soft spot for credit card reward points 😀
The trust between Bill and Axe is in the nod between them as Terri puts the cuffs on Bill at Axe Capital in Episode 5: The Good Life. The extent of it though is quite surprising. The moment Chuck and Bryan make their big discovery about Bill’s second family and use it to make Bill sing about Axe Capital, Bill just keeps calm and sends his wife the email he prepared earlier about his double life. Yes, Bill Stearn takes the risk of blowing up his family for Bobby Axelrod.
It seems Axe and his guys have a different contract, an honor code of sorts, that these guys are willing to take big risks to get the work done. Orrin Bach observes: “Axe’s guys… They are in it for life. Bill Stearn could not walk down the street if he sold out his friends… Guys, who talk in their world, may avoid a few years in a cell but they are dead forever.”
“Dollar” Bill Stearn hails from a blue collar family in Philadelphia. His dad was a shoe salesman and his mom still did laundry by hand when Bill earned his first seven-digit check. I wonder if his background being similar to Axe is the reason for the close bond between them. Bill is a devoted two-family man. A Sunday school teacher. A volunteer fireman. A true entrepreneur from sponsoring young baseball players to running a dry cleaner’s. And a true soldier for Axe Capital.
Kelly AuCoin, who brings Bill to life in Billions, is an amazing actor. I do not know if you have seen him as Pastor Tim in The Americans, a show that I would highly recommend to everyone. And if you did, you know what I am talking about. It is quite hard to believe it is the same actor that plays Dollar Bill and Pastor Tim. Kelly is incredibly versatile.
So… what are Damian’s and Kelly’s take on the fake argument scene?
I was lucky to score a little interview with Damian after his appearance at Times Talks in New York in June 2016 where he told me I could ask him anything I wanted. The only limit was, of course, time and one question out of three had to be about my new all-time favorite TV moment! You can hear my question and Damian’s answer below at 1:44 but I am also transcribing the question and answer for our non-English speaking readers who prefer written English to spoken English.
Me: “The fake argument scene Axe and Dollar Bill have in Episode 10 Quality of Life is the most genius and most hilarious TV scene I have ever seen. How did you keep your face straight?”
Damian: “Well, actually, Kelly AuCoin, he’s fantastic, he’s a brilliant actor, he lost his voice, and we nearly didn’t shoot that day. So he had to do everything way down in his chest because every time he went too high, he lost his voice. His upper resonance had gone. So we just went at it. And a lot of the outtakes afterwards as soon as they yell “cut” we fell out laughing. But it was just too much fun to play for real. It was a great scene, really great scene. I enjoyed it a lot.”
I am extremely happy to report I was also able to ask Kelly about his take on the scene as well as his thoughts on Dollar Bill and the set life.
Me: “The fake fight scene between Axe and Dollar Bill is one of the BEST scenes I have ever seen on TV. It is original. It is hilarious. It is genius. How did the shoot go and how did you keep a straight face during the shoot?”
Kelly: “Haha, well, it certainly wasn’t easy. If they ever show outtakes from that scene, I’d guess that it’d be full of cuts of us laughing. But on certain acting level, we had the benefit of being able to tap into that trying-not-to-laugh energy, because the characters were trying not to show something as well. It’s always fun to play a scene where you have something to hide. It electrifies things. I love watching scenes like that, too. There can be energy in keeping a secret.
I had actually lost my voice a couple of days before, and it was still really fried on the day we shot. There was some discussion of postponing but that’s a huge pain in the ass for a production, because schedules and timing are always so tight. It was ultimately decided that my voice, luckily enough, sounded ok when I was yelling, and when I kept it a little lower and sort of in my chest. I can hear the difference, and, of course, I wish I had my full range of voice, but I think it sounded fine. You can actually hear how bad it was in my first line of the scene, when I’m in the distance, entering, and saying “thank you!” I always joke that I sound like a malevolent frog.
Totally agree that it was a great scene. The writing was just delicious. Willie Reale, and Brian and David are pretty amazing writers. And Karyn Kusama, who directed the episode, is so freaking good. So fun to work with. To go on that ride with those words, with that director, letting us tear it up, and to do it with such a great and generous actor as Damian, was a gift. Still feel pretty lucky.”
Me: “What’s your take on your character Dollar Bill? For one, Bill’s loyalty to Axe is beyond remarkable given that he chooses to send an email to his wife about his double life rather than giving Axe away. What is it do you think that accounts for this loyalty?
Kelly: “That’s a good question. My conception of Bill evolves as the show progresses. Bill is all about loyalty, but not across the board. His two families could attest to that. I really think Bill feels he is above the law. When he told Rhoades, through his lawyer, that he did not recognize his authority, yes some of it was bravado and meant to f*** with him, but I think he fundamentally believes that he gets to choose who is worthy of his… submission. Or who is worthy of ceding power to. There’s a certain… purity to Bill. There’s a part of him that thinks if you have the means to do something, you DO it. “Lesser people” are constrained by arbitrary rules. Find your code and follow it.”
Me: “Most of you in Billions cast are stage actors. And as much as stage acting and screen acting have their obvious differences, how much of everyone’s theater training comes out in filming and how? Do you guys ever talk about theater on the set?
Kelly: “All the time. A couple members of the cast came to the play I did that first summer we were shooting. Daniel Isaac (Ben Kim) did a show recently and a bunch of the cast went. Ali Ahn (Carly) was on Broadway just before we started shooting season one. Damian did American Buffalo in the West End around the same time. Dan Soder (Mafee) is a brilliant stand up and a group of us made the trip down to Philly to see the taping of his first hour long Comedy Central special. Most of us do a lot of live performance. And I think that somewhat explains the down to earth nature of the cast, and the willingness of everyone to play off each other. A lot of the writers are playwrights as well. It’s fun to have people like that on set. It’s nice to have that shared sensibility.
In terms of how a theatre background contributes to how the actors attack their roles, I think, perhaps, there’s an ease with language, and a sense of fun and play during filming.. A comfort with following where your imagination takes you… if that doesn’t sound too hokey 🙂
Oh, and just paranthetically, the fight scene was about as close to theatre as I’ve ever come in TV. Axe and Bill are definitely putting on a show for an audience :)”
Absolutely. Kelly’s last sentence makes me remember Damian saying at Billions PaleyLIVE that Billions is a bit like theater close-up with muscularity, constant learning and long speeches adding a different quality to it.
We can’t thank Damian and Kelly enough for making time to answer our questions. May the brotherly love between Axe and Bill last forever…