Damian Lewis Talks Billions at New Yorker Festival

It’s quite fun playing a billionaire! I have been on more yachts, private jets, and helicopters than in my entire life in the space of the last two months.” – Damian Lewis

source: Getty Images
source: Getty Images

I know… I know! It’s already been a week but we just can’t stop talking about the weekend with Damian Lewis at New Yorker Festival! In case you missed it,  we already covered both Damian Lewis in Conversation with Lauren Collins as well as Damian Lewis reading Lawrence Wright’s new play Cleo on the blog; however, there is still too much to talk about… And since we cannot wait for Damian’s new Showtime drama Billions hit our TV screens in a couple of months now, it’s appropriate to start with what Damian talks about when he talks about Billions!

Well, Lauren Collins starts the conversation on Billions by kindly asking Damian to give us a background about the show, or in his words: “the quick Hollywood pitch…”

Damian says Billions is a show about a hedge fund billionaire played by himself who is being pursued by the US attorney who is being played by Paul Giamatti. It’s a story about power, a story about kings, and what these kings will do to attain and retain power… And the billionaire and the US attorney quickly “become two steaming trains coming down from the opposite sides of the track and due for a collision.”

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

It turns out these two guys don’t get to see each other that often mostly because they are pretty much set in their own worlds… And the show, within the worlds of each man, explores different themes with class being one important theme with Bobby Axelrod being a blue-collar guy who made money where as Chuck Rhoades being a “WASPy, Ivy league kind of guy born into privilege.” And the show also addresses “libertarianism versus regulation, high finance versus politics, public office versus private sector….” But, essentially, Damian says, “it’s a cat and mouse thriller as you wonder who will come out on top as they seek to maneuver one another.”

OMG I still can’t believe I am rooting for the hedge-fund guy but here I am, just so tempted to shout at the TOP of my lungs: “GO Team Axelrod!” But, of course, I contain myself and just smile 🙂

Lauren Collins shares with us the First Series Teaser which we blogged about earlier here! Well, let’s watch!

HUGE APPLAUSE from the audience is followed by Collins’ first question about Bobby Axelrod:

“Is he a Trump voter?”

“He’s close. He’s close.”

Then she asks about how Damian has immersed himself in the role of a New York hedge-fund billionaire.

Well, we know Damian Lewis researches his roles and JaniaJania already blogged about some of the books Damian read to prepare for Billions. And, Damian talks about yet another book Too Big to Fail written by Andrew Ross-Sorkin, who is New York Times’ leading financial journalist and also one of the co-creators of Billions.

Well… Collins’ reaction to this gives me the giggles… and I will tell you why in a minute…

“Too big to read.”

And, Damian cracks up the room: “There’s one coming out that’s got pictures in it, that’ll help!”

Confession time: I’ve got this book in my library for some time now and do you know what I am thinking about it? Well… Too big to read 😀 But I promise I am reading the other two books Damian was spotted reading: The Big Short by Michael Lewis as well as Fooling Some of the People All of the Time: A Long, Short Story by David Einhorn, founder of the New York hedge fund Greenlight Capital.


Anyhow… It turns out, thanks to Andrew Ross Sorkin having access to some of the most powerful hedge-fund guys in New York, Damian had the wonderful opportunity to meet Bill Ackman, Dan Loeb, Larry Robbins, and do some serious character study: He says these hedge-fund guys more or less conform to a certain profile that they all believe they are the underdog, always, because they do set themselves against the house — against Wall Street that sets the odds. “These guys are resolutely not part of Wall Street, and they are very keen to stress that.” They are more like “snipers on the edge” that they sit, snipe, pick off companies and short stock.

Well… do you know what “shorting stock” or “short selling” means? It’s very fundamental to Bobby Axelrod’s day job so that the professor in me is just so tempted to talk about it briefly here using information from Wikipedia and Investopedia.

Well, “shorting stock” (also known as “shorting” or “short selling”) is the practice of selling stocks that are not currently owned, and subsequently repurchasing them (“covering”). A short seller, anticipating that a stock’s price will drop, first sells high, and then buys low. To do this, the seller actually borrows shares of stock and sells them in the open market, without ever owning the shares. Then he must buy identical shares back at a later date to return to the owner. His goal as a short seller is to purchase the shares back for less cost in the future and make a profit. However, if the market value of the shares increases during the period when the seller is borrowing them, then he can suffer serious losses.

Just to give a simple example: For example, if Bobby Axelrod thinks some certain stock is overvalued at $25 and is going to drop in price, he may borrow the stock and sell it for $25. If the stock goes down to $20, Bobby, after buying it back and returning it, would make $5 per share. However, if the stock goes up to $30, he would lose $5 per share.

So, as Damian rightly points out, the hedge-fund guys stand to lose millions and millions of dollars if the market value of the stock they short goes up in the meantime. Yet, if they hold in for long enough, they make billions and billions of dollars!

Damian stresses that he’s not giving us a defense of one thing or another here because he is still learning about it: “Probably, instinctively, if you talk about a hedge-fund billionaire, the majority of any audience would say ‘bastards’… but…” and he talks about an article from The Economist arguing hedge-fund guys are “necessary and healthy for a functioning economy because they regulate markets and are in fact there to fight on the shareholders’ behalf… ” Thus, the picture may not be as black and white as the majority of any audience, but may be gray.

source: Getty Images
source: Getty Images

So much for serious conversation, huh? Collins asks a great question and Damian’s first answer cracks up the room once again!

“When you go into their offices… what’s the first thing you ask?

“Where do you buy your suit? And, they say ‘Tom Ford.’ And I say “Ok. Because you can afford it.”


Now… I imagine these hedge-fund billionaires having multiple Tom Ford suites in their huge walk-in closets , but hey, do you think any of them looks as good as or even close to, this guy looks in a Tom Ford? NO WAY! 😀

source: whosay.com
Damian Lewis in Tom Ford at 2012 Prime Time Emmy Awards Ceremony, source: whosay.com

So what does Damian ask the hedge-fund guys other than where they buy their suits from? 🙂

The conversation gets serious again. Well… This is one thing I feel very strongly about Damian Lewis. He takes his work very seriously and gives his 100% to have a good understanding of the story so that he could tell it well. And he stresses this in another part of the conversation: “I feel responsible that the story should be represented well and truthfully and honestly, and otherwise what’s the point?”


In this regard, Damian always asks the hedge-fund guys for an intellectual defense of being a hedge-fund guy and shorting companies. And he says the one thing that he could not get out of any of the guys is a good answer to: “if you knew the whole thing was so crooked, didn’t you feel some sort of a moral obligation to wave the flag?”

source: Getty Images
source: Getty Images

Lauren Collins now shifts the conversation from Billions to… money: “Because everybody wants to talk about it on stage in front of a bunch of people” 😀

What does Damian buy with a large pay check?

“For me, it’s buying probably a new pair of jeans. It’s not very exciting. But if I like those jeans, I’ll buy seven.” 😀

And what does he think about money?

“Money is…. I think you’ve got to know how much you want. And I think I know how much I want, I know how much I need.” And he points out the cultural difference between Europe and America that “you continue to succeed and do well the more money you earn here…” And he adds, money is, of course, desirable to pursue the things you want to pursue in life but it should not be the driving force that one should pursue other things that would give her satisfaction — personally, spiritually and creatively. And, ultimately he’s a moderate when it comes to money.

Then adds with a laugh: “Having said that, it’s quite fun playing a billionaire! I have been on more yachts, private jets, and helicopters than in my entire life in the space of the last two months.” 🙂

source: Getty Images
source: Getty Images

Lauren Collins makes an interesting point likening Henry VIII to Bobby Axelrod in the sense that both men are somehow placed at the intersection of money and politics and asks Damian what he makes of this… The answer is so spot on, and  and makes me think of my favorite lines from Wolf Hall, too!

“Well… Look at TTIP… Look at the trade initiative between Europe and America that’s going on at the moment behind close doors… That’s all about increasing corporate power to the point where governments could be sued for constraining trade in certain territories by corporations… …For how long really have corporations run the world instead of governments? Probably considerable time now…”

Damian’s answer makes me remember Thomas Cromwell’s timeless advise to Harry Percy in Wolf Hall:

“The world is not run from where you think it is, from border fortresses, even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon, from wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the West. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, from the pens that scrape out your promissory notes. So, believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart…”

So… The world changes… The players change… The game stays the same!

Let’s close with a FUN note! JaniaJania and I had a conversation about Damian Lewis looking very American when the first pics from Billions set appeared in the media, but could not really put our finger on what it was… We said it might be the hair, or it might be jeans paired with sneakers… Or the relaxed posture with hands in pockets…  And now Damian gives an extra hint in the Q&A: “”There is still this sort of gym culture here, gym body that the particular kind of American guy has… I don’t have it… so I have to go and get myself, and it informs the physicality as well.”


Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

2 thoughts on “Damian Lewis Talks Billions at New Yorker Festival”

  1. I love the attitude of Damian, legs spread apart, hands in pockets, his smile, the casual air, so he is very American, although very often some photos, he’s very English!
    It’s Damian Lewis ,, he can change his character, the way he walks, to become someone else !! The class !!

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