Damianista’s note: One of the many qualities Damian Lewis brought to the character of Bobby Axelrod in Billions is his incredible physicality. And while I originally shared this post a couple of years ago, Damian’s tweet the other day about “feeling Axey” made me re-share this post and celebrate Damian for creating one of the most iconic TV characters in the golden age of TV.
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) April 23, 2023
This post is long overdue. I blogged about “American” Damian Lewis more than a year ago talking about Damian’s freaking good American accent that could, in fact, fool people about his nationality. As I was writing that post in July 2015, the first pictures from Billions set popped up online. I shared them inviting everyone to meet the new “American” Damian: Bobby Axelrod!
What do you see in these pictures? I see a good looking American guy! As soon as we saw the pictures, JaniaJania and I speculated about what makes Damian look American: She said it might be the haircut. I said it might be his relaxed posture with legs apart and hands in pockets.
Then I left Bobby’s physicality and dive deep into his psychology for more than a year while the question kept haunting me: What is the creative process behind a character’s physicality? How do all different components, varying from accent to posture to costume, come together and make Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, a man who comes from humble beginnings and builds an empire?
Lauren Collins wonderfully observes in her profile of Damian Lewis in The New Yorker:
“His Americans are original compositions, reflecting, in the manner of David Hockney’s Los Angeles paintings, a view of ourselves that we cannot see.”
Dick Winters. Charlie Crews. Nicholas Brody. Bobby Axelrod. All come from blue collar backgrounds; however, other than that, they have little in common except for the actor who is bringing them to life. And this certainly attests to Damian’s ability to avoid typecasting as well as to his incredible range as an actor.
Damian tells Emmy Magazine:
“I’ve always had variable casting. I’m very lucky that way. I suppose that might be because of an American career, which started with Band of Brothers. Had I not done that, perhaps I would always have played people only of my background. As you get older, that sort of naturally leads to playing people in authority, and I would’ve missed playing these more rebellious, individual characters, which I have been able to play in American TV.”
When asked at Times Talks about how he, an Eton-educated Brit, plays blue collar American men seamlessly, Damian’s immediate response is:
Then he says he is lucky to have a face that appears American. His red hair seems to speak to the Irish American tradition. He thinks he got lucky with his first American role, Dick Winters, because Winters was “from a different era and had an upright quality about him” that would better resonate with a young British actor who’s been through the sort of education Damian had than with a “hyper, naturalistic, hip, contemporary American actor.” And once he was convincing in his first American role, he was asked to play different kind of Americans but he never got to play a wasp-y American that would be more suited to his background.
Damian shares with Emmy Magazine that David Nevins saying to him “…despite your privately educated, English background, you actually come across more blue collar” and adds: “Then you’ve just got to hold your hands up and say, ‘Well, I got lucky.’”
I REALLY need to jump in and say Damian is being way too humble saying “I got lucky.” This is not about luck. This is about brilliance. Damian is a TRUE chameleon.
Let us start with the accent that is quite essential for a character to speak right. How did Damian find the right one for Bobby?
He shares on Charlie Rose:
“There were sounds for the New York accent which I needed to work on and find. I showed up early on, you know, sounding like Joe Pesci and sort of quite excited about doing a lot of hem-haws. I became very Bronx here. It’s going to be fantastic. I’m going to have a great time. And then I was told quite promptly: “Wrong show.”
He talks about vowel sounds for Bobby at TCA 2015:
“You just tighten it up a bit and I’m trying to just concentrate on that. Having seen the pilot, I was struck by how little I thought I was doing and different my accent is in this show than Band Of Brothers or Homeland or anything else. So they’re small little shifts, but they read large.”
Damian shares his greatest nemesis with Lauren Collins: “phrases with two “r”s such as there are.” And he tells Charlie Rose “whenever I’m working on American accents, it’s about cadence, about rhythms, and it’s about emphasis more so than simply vowel sounds.” He expands on rhythms at the recent SAG-AFTRA interview: “You find rhythms that is New York… Sudden increase in pace through the sentence. They speak very quickly.”
He says he is not very good at slipping in and out of accents during the day so he wakes up as an American, goes to work and and stays as an American until he takes his make-up off at the end of the day. He shares in an interview with Cigar Aficianado that there are people on Billions who have never heard his British accent 😀 It turns out the Brit in Damian comes out during the day only when…
Make your guess and find the answer here 🙂
Damian points out at New Yorker Festival that accent is as much about musicality and physicality as it is about how you pronounce words. And he seems to find THAT in his characters’ class, their upbringing and their outlook on life.
“The one compliment, that I hold on to most and cherish most, and someone will disagree with me now, that I appear American when I’m playing Americans and that has to do with physicality. And it’s also to do with, even if in my belief that the accent can be absolutely accurate and I believe that it should be, there are rhythms in language that are more important and that reveal more actually, cadence and rhythms as you say… but the physicality of some of these characters… Brody, a blue collar guy, a sergeant, not officer class in the army and the guy I am playing now, even though he is a billionaire, has blue collar Yonkers roots… The truth is that I try to latch on to an American-ness, for these particular guys…
“I still believe… gym culture here, even though of course gyms are all over the world now, there is still this sort of gym culture, gym body, that a particular type of American guy has… I don’t have it, so I have to go and I get myself… and that informs the physicality as well.”
Damian tells at Times Talks that he believes masculinity has more to do with geography and the circumstances one is born into and that he has found a particular kind of American masculinity in the last 15 years:
“…which is still very can do, it’s very black and white, it’s very direct, and it’s found in these blue collar men often who, you know, have pick up trucks, live out in the back and beyond and can build houses for Christ’s sake. I work with people on crews who just… I go ‘Hey Georgie, how are you?’ And he goes: ‘Oh I’ve finished my house’ and I say: ‘Great. Contractors always stay around too long, don’t they?’ ‘No, I built it.’ I am just meeting people like that all the time and that is kind of incredible. And I think that frontier spirit is still much more alive here, and there is much more space here than in the UK and people are still doing that. And I find an uncomplaining commitment to work.”
THIS GUY is whom Damian tries to identify with in Brody, Winters, Crews and equally in Bobby Axelrod. Even though, he stresses, Bobby is operating in a whole different way and has not built anything in his life, he has that “can do, direct” attitude.
Brian Koppelman says it is fun to watch the precision with which Damian approaches each part of his character and he particularly highlights the way Axe moves:
“…the way you move for this character differently from the other characters you have played, the way he moves his body, the way he acts, there is a precision and a coiled nature to how Axe moves.”
I cannot agree more.
Bobby Axelrod is a self-made man. He loves what he does, believes in what he does and that he does it better than everyone else. He is proud. He is confident. He is arrogant. I don’t know how Damian does his magic but Axe puts his confidence, his pride and his arrogance all on display when he moves. His ego leads the way. The smug little smile accompanied with the way Axe moves his body is so precise that I can pick him out from a distance despite my nearsighted eyes! Axe arriving at Axe Capital after his telecom game plays out is a living proof. With a sly look, arrogant eyes, and overconfident pride in his swagger, Damian is making hubris look like a greek god. PERFECT.
Damian shared on Billions co-creator Brian Koppelman’s podcast The Moment that he typically starts with “finding the shoes” of a character, in other words, once he finds the shoes of a character, the way the character walks, he finds the man. And, to that end, Damian uses animals to help him find the shoes of a character – to the point that it turns out he can get on all fours in his dressing room. This reminds me of a picture I saw when Damian taught a Master Class at Royal Theatre Haymarket back in 2017. Do you think he is teaching young actors about how animals inspire him to “find the shoes” here? 🙂
And while he first acknowledged the shark-like nature of Bobby Axelrod, it seems he ultimately went with the cheetah:
“Not one of the big cats…but nimble, fast, watchful.”
Finally, clothing is an effective tool in conveying the character. Damian tells at Times Talks that Billions uses costume to show that hedge-fund guys are a separate breed. Axe seems to borrow a little from the West Coast dot-commers: “dressed down, a bit more hip, fashionable, and casual.”And Brian Koppelman revealed on Mike Lupica Podcast which you can hear in its entirety here that he and David Levien presented Damian, in one of their first conversations, this idea that the modern billionaire did not need to dress up for anyone. And, having a great sense of style, Damian is “completely involved in picking out which hoodie he’s gonna wear or what sneakers it is gonna be.”
What Eric Daman, the absolutely brilliant costume designer for Billions, explained the creative process behind finding the right wardrobe for Axe is quite revealing as well. Daman told wheretowatch.com:
“I first had more slick suit idea going in. He would be more a super hot, well-to-do, dandy and billionaire. The more I talk to the guys they were like, ‘No, we really want to keep it like the Americana, blue collar guy that’s done his time with suits, who kind of does his own thing. Then it just kind of hit me.”
“I feel like you know in his history that he’s worked for other companies and that he had to do the suit and tie thing, kind of suck it up and do that. He’s most comfortable in how he grew up which is this blue collar Yonkers, all American family. I think especially with Damian Lewis, that he is such a very handsome, almost like a runway model type. As soon as you start dressing him up, you get something very different, from this kind of all American bad boy. As soon as we put him in these really cool jeans and sneakers and t-shirts things, I think there was just this really great characterization that happened.”
Eric Daman shared a few calculated choices they made in an interview with Indiewire.
Axe wears a Metallica t-shirt when he meets Eads family for the symphony hall’s naming rights: a clever use of costume contrasting old money and new money. We find a bit more about the t-shirt, too:
“The Metallica T-shirt was bought as fan gear but the team worked on it for several hours treating it and dressing it down so it looked like it was purchased at a concert.”
Axe prefers an $8,000 Cifonelli suit when he meets Chuck at the deal table:
“It has a chalk stripe with a pin stripe with extra shoulder pad and a beautiful lapel. It has old world weight in a very new silhouette.”
The most fun part is what Daman told Elle about Damian complicating as well as facilitating costume designer’s work 😀
“Axe’s go-to style is an elevated version of T-shirt and jeans, but we’re also dancing a fine line because Damian is kind of the perfect runway model, so it can get a little fashionista on him. It’s about trying to find things that feel raw and rugged and Americana without landing in super-high fashion, Barneys, overly-distressed, T-shirt land.”
“I’m very meticulous about my fittings and, you know, having a quarter of an inch taken out of a T-shirt, or the legs slimmed on a pant. Damian looks like he just walked off a men’s catwalk in Italy. He’s long and lean and cut for clothes, which, you know, doesn’t hurt.”
Oh, it does not hurt at all! Or “Oh, it hurts. Trust me” as JaniaJania said to me. “But in a totally acceptable and welcome way.” 😀