A slice of pizza here, a perfectly coiffed pompadour there, and badda bing badda boom Damian Lewis has transformed himself into a born and bred New Yorker. Let’s visit the ways and means by which he’s achieved the transformation, with our two most recently released promos for Billions, shall we?
The promo I dubbed “Spa tubs, Bodice Ripping and Paper Fights” is just that: a collection of outbursts of one sort or another, with most characters behaving in somewhat extreme ways. It’s an exhilirating couple of minutes, serving well the function of whetting our appetites for this series. But, it also begs the questions: Does a guy at his desk at work in the full light of day lay comments like “a woman with eyes like yours” on a work colleague? Do people really chuck wadded up paper at each other when a meeting isn’t going their way?
Now for the scene in the spa tub, once you’re able to see past the guns, the delts and pecs and, sigh, the horseshoe triceps (not for nothing, but our Englishman seems to have managed nicely within our Yank gym culture), you’ll see that Bobby seems a bit surprised to see a woman disrobing in front of him, and not in a good way. Is that woman his wife Lara, and does his lack of surprise simply speak to the fact that slipping into giant spa tubs naked is just a normal Saturday night activity in the lives of Manhattan elite? Or is that some other woman who Bobby is not exactly happy to see?
I’m all for Bobby having a wandering eye, but if a couple of seconds of clip is to believed, the Axelrods seem to be doing okay without disrobing strangers in the mix. (Can someone have Damian Lewis do an online course on how a man should look at a woman? Please and thank you.)
The second promo, while mostly about the bad-assedness of the women in Billions, is notable to me because there’s White Castle on Bobby’s desk. A little NY/LI hood trivia: White Castle is what we ate when it was late at night and nothing else was open and we were too drunk to care. The nastiest little sliders in the world, but, boy, they sure hit the spot at 2am on a reeling empty stomach. But, really, are we supposed to believe that a man who looks like Bobby Axelrod is still eating White Castle past the age of 40?
More likely the point of the set decor is the juxtaposition of pictures of Bobby with Bill Gates, President Obama and Warren Buffet in the back ground, White Castle wrappers in the foreground and smack dab in the center, Bobby Axelrod sporting the casual Friday look (I guess) rocking on his heels doing a dead-on impression of a New York guy on the defensive whose feelings have been hurt but damned if he’s going to let you see it. Sure, Damian has played plenty of characters moving in and out of various stages of emotional exposure, but this one shot of him rocking on his heels, chin up, sort of faux preening, looking down at this woman who seems to have hit a sore spot: it’s an expression we haven’t seen from Damian before. And it’s an absolutely New York expression.
We’ve already heard, in prior trailers, the subtle sing-song of the New Yorker’s vocal rhythm Damian is bringing to this character: “As soon as someone in a government AWffice starts telling me what to do, I may as well close up shop, and I’m not closing up shop.” You all heard that, right? It’s not straight up Goodfellas “Do I amYOOse you?” or Taxi Driver “You tawkin to me?”, both of which were lines delivered by actual born and bred NJ/NYers (Pesci and DeNiro, in case you live in a cave). No, there’s nothing overboard or apish here. Damian knows that trying to channel Tony Soprano (“It wasn’t a myocardial infarc-whatever-the-fuck”) would sound ridiculous at best. He’s scaled the New Yorker of the natural-born New Yorkers back, and with a perfectly understated lilt of phrase, somehow managed to make Bobby Axelrod sound like a natural-born New Yorker. Damian is talking the talk and he’s walking the walk (my bit on the walk here: “Swagger of a Kingpin“), both aspects of HIM, and not simply a good script and direction. These are choices he’s made as an actor. Rocking on his heels, perfecting that “you just hurt my feelings but I ain’t gonna let you see that” New York look.
Just as Brody was salt of the earth Marine, “like his father and his father before him”, Bobby is a salt of the earth New Yorker, most likely, like his father and his father before him. These are men inextricably bound to their roots, defined by their heritage in a deeper way than any of us who have used education or immigration or some other way to break free from whatever our parents or skin color or language or culture prescribed we would be. Brody never broke free of anything, he lived a Marine and died a Marine, a perverted version of one at the end, but still worthy of a star on a wall. Will Bobby’s identity be as bound? Will that identity be one of the things tested in this series? (My vote, for what it’s worth, is a resounding: Yes, please.)
(Also, I can’t help but think with Damian gravitating towards these roles of men bound in some way to their own past, how bound Damian Lewis is to his past, his upbringing, and, though he’s said he’s made every effort to move away from his boarding school affiliations, has he really? And does he really want to or think he can? It’s neither here nor there as far as his skill and talent as an actor is concerned. Just something personal that maybe it’ll take a biographer to truly flesh out one day.)
No, Damian’s ability to pull off the transformation into Bobby Axelrod doesn’t make him a DeNiro or an Al Pacino. Both DeNiro and Pacino are actors that demand your eyes on them every second they are on the screen. They are both beautifully expressive actors, both capable of portraying the full range of human emotion in the richest ways imaginable, and, as such, they are both riveting to watch. Damian Lewis likewise demands your attention whenever he’s on screen. But his appeal is quite different. His versatility as an actor is on another level entirely. A versatility so deep-seated that Damian Lewis leaves the building when the characters he’s embodying come on screen. And every character Damian has played before leaves the building. Yet, simultaneously, everything he’s done before as an actor informs his every moment in the present…he rejects nothing…he contains multitudes, in perpetuity. When Damian is in character, all you see is that character.
If there’s any actor Damian can be compared to as far as sheer range and versatility, it has to be Laurence Olivier. Heretofore there’s been only one actor (in my mind) that could pull off at once the smoldering virility of Heathcliff, the maniacal ugliness of Richard III, and the little boy lost of Hamlet, do a comic turn with Marilyn Monroe and then more drama and thrillers well into his later years.
And now, we have Damian Lewis, with the same, if not superior, quality of “heroic bones.” We already know he’s a nicer guy in real life than Olivier was. So, here’s to Damian Lewis having the opportunity to do all Olivier did and more. And here’s to Billions and Bobby Axelrod on our screen in less than two months! No looking back now!