Although he’s done extensive research for his role as super-rich hedge-fund titan Bobby Axelrod for Showtime’s intriguing new drama “Billions,” Damian Lewis isn’t about to do his own investing.
“I don’t play the stock market on my laptop; that would be very foolish,” the Emmy winner says with a wry smile, adding that he uses an investment adviser.
You may have already heard the F-word heavy catchphrase from “Billions,” which premieres Sunday, “What’s the point of having (expletive) money, if you never say (expletive)?”
It’s a rhetorical question that Axelrod offers after buying a fabulous mansion — the very definition of opulence — at the east end of Long Island. Up until then, the character Axelrod was a somewhat sympathetic figure in the public’s eye, a Bronx boy in T-shirt and jeans who worked himself up from nothing and has an altruistic streak.
The move, though, only heightens the interest of ambitious and powerful U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) in Axelrod’s affairs. Rhoades, who is from a powerful family and has an Ivy League background, is already convinced there has to be something irregular involved in the billionaire’s rise.
The series was created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, the author of “Too Big to Fail.” “Billions” will again test the American public’s love-hate fascination with the extremely wealthy. Seven years after the financial crisis, many Americans are still angry at the banks and Wall Street, but that is only one-half of the show’s equation.
“On the other hand, the power of a United States attorney is pretty unfettered,” notes Levien. “They are kingly, too.”
To base a show on the premise that a U.S. attorney would go after a Wall Street tycoon might seem unlikely given that only one person went to jail after the financial shenanigans that led to the economic crisis and bank bailouts of 2008.
“So it’s interesting how these attorneys deploy their power and why their won-loss records are so important to them,” says Levien.
The creators put a couple of interesting spins on Giamatti’s character. Ironically, we meet him in a submissive role in a rather kinky S&M scene. His wife (Maggie Siff), a psychologist, turns out to work as sort of a corporate cheerleader for Axelrod’s group, creating something of a conflict of interest.
“What they do is like create a state of mind shift change, not a slow psychological one,” says Koppelman about performance coaches.
“The question is what keeps guys like Axelrod chasing wealth when they have already broken the scoreboard?” asks Koppelman. “And why would someone keep a U.S. attorney job when they could make $8 million a year as a defense attorney?”
Sorkin, who has extensively covered the rarified air of the top of the financial world, says when you get inside the room with billionaires, you find layered, complex people.
“So we sat at a lot of tables, tried to spend a lot of time really digging in and getting under who these people are and what motivates them, what drives them, what this is really all about. And that’s what this story is about,” he says.
To prepare for the role, Lewis read Sorkin’s book as well as others, such as Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short,” now a fascinating movie itself. He also would refer to Investopedia, a website that includes a dictionary of terms. So the actor says he was familiar with the jargon being thrown around at times.
But don’t think “Billions” is mired in boring financial talk.
“There’s a lot of humor in this — a lot of playfulness, which I was not expecting,” says Lewis, who won his Emmy playing a character on “Homeland” that audience were conflicted about, an American POW who is brainwashed into becoming a terrorist.
The British actor also spent time observing the financial world, observing that “you may start off as an idealist, but anybody in a position of power is compromised daily in order to retain power.”
The “Billions” creators wrote the script on spec so there wouldn’t be any interference, and they sold it to Showtime after the cable network guaranteed that it would make a pilot. Koppelman and Levien, whose screenwriting credits include “Rounders” and “Ocean’s Thirteen,” had worked with Giamatti in the film “The Illlusionist” and were always eyeing him for the role of Rhoades.
Lewis was on their list, too. Koppelman tells a story about how years ago he was sitting in an agency in New York with Levien when they saw Lewis, who was then starring in HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” walk by. “Dave turned to me and said, ‘Someday we are going to work with that guy. He’s the best actor.’ “
Despite the high-powered talent, the “Billions” stars as yet don’t have many scenes together. “It’s like Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man,’ “ says Giamatti. “We’ll just have these moments of coming together.”
Koppelman says they hope viewers will feel a pull toward both of these characters at various times.
“We are not moralizing, and that’s why I think we are so interested in the specifics.”
Lewis describes “Billions” as something of an “anthropological exploration of how the rich exist and wield their power and how they’re prepared to get more power.”
No matter how audiences come down on Bobby Axelrod, Lewis is thankful to be playing another complex and interesting character on cable.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have come of age as an actor just as all the changes in television have come along. It serves someone like me well.”
Story by Rob Lowman, firstname.lastname@example.org