From Wags to Gale, David Costabile is TV’s Most Efficient Player
by Miles Surrey | The Ringer | March 14, 2019
You may know him better as the eccentric financial consigliere in ‘Billions,’ or as the editor in Season 5 of ‘The Wire,’ or as the meek chemist in ‘Breaking Bad,’ but after years of efficiently impressive work, the actor is beginning to transcend his That Guy status.
seen David Costabile, but you may not have known that his name is David Costabile. To you, he’s probably Gale, the quirky scientist from the third and fourth seasons of Breaking Bad. Or perhaps more likely, he’s Mike “Wags” Wagner, the eccentric financial consigliere to hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod on Showtime’s finance drama Billions; he’s the man full of bravado and creative obscenities, the guy with the pointy facial hair that evokes Satan. When traveling in Europe, he mostly meets fans of Breaking Bad. Oddly enough, a disproportionately large number of New York City doormen, as well as TSA agents, are most familiar with his work in Suits. Venture to guess where the largest ratio of Wags fans are found? “If I go down to the Financial District, if I go to Midtown, my bros are there,” Costabile says. “My financial bros.”
Costabile has become one of our most treasured That Guys, an actor who consistently lurks just behind the main characters, whose performance always seems to outshine the spotlight he’s been afforded. In theory, he’s meant to be a lesser character, but his grip on you is so strong because he always delivers much more than expected. And that’s how you end up thinking of him only as one of his characters.
It’s OK, Costabile assures—you’re not the only one like this. “I remember the very first time it happened,” he tells me over a cup of coffee. “The second season just started airing and the garbage man, he saw me, he slowed down, stopped the truck, and shouted, ‘Fucking Wags! You’re the fucking man!’”
“Do people tend to quote the stuff your character says on the show?” I ask.
“No. They’re usually just like, ‘Fucking Wags!’”
enough of Costabile’s prominent television roles and something will click. Newspaper editor Thomas Klebanow on Season 5 of The Wire; the cuckolded husband of a folk music superfan on Flight of the Conchords; sociopathic detective Rick Messer on Damages; the villainous attorney Daniel Hardman on Suits; the meek and ultimately tragic chemist Gale Boetticher on Breaking Bad (a role Costabile has since reprised in the fourth season of AMC’s prequel series, Better Call Saul); and currently, a walking manifestation of id on Billions.
It’s a heck of a small-screen résumé—to say nothing of secondary roles in two Steven Spielberg historical films (Lincoln, The Post) and a Michael Bay movie (13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi). Yet Costabile is in the midst of transcending his That Guy status, thanks in large part to his breakout performance on Billions. The Showtime series has built a foundation on over-the-top characters, and Costabile’s character is, rather delightfully, far more over-the-top than the rest. If the “Fucking Wags!” proclamations from ebullient fans weren’t enough of a hint that the performance has become a bit of a phenomenon, headlines like “Billions Is Back and It’s Finally Wags Season Again” ought to be.
This ascension may seem like the product of one actor’s grand design, but Costabile assures me it’s anything but. In a low-key bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn—pretty much the last place you’d expect to find Wags—the actor listens to me recite his résumé, sips his coffee, and ponders for a moment. “You start looking at [my career], you see this staircase, but it doesn’t really work like that,” Costabile explains. “There is no staircase.”
Costabile can’t recall a specific moment, film, or performance that made him want to become an actor—it was just something he was drawn to. “I had a thing for musicals,” he says. After graduating from Tufts University in the late ’80s, he traveled around the country performing on stage, and briefly ran a Shakespearean theater company in Albany. “I knew that acting was what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. He rattles off some of the stuff he did in the intervening years: stints with Shakespeare in the Park, appearances on Broadway, more musicals.
“The whole job you just live with a constant sense of fear,” Costabile says, looking back on his lean times. “It makes you get what you want, it makes you strive toward what you want. And, you know, having kids, getting married just kind of pushes you to the high end of the casino—like, I need much bigger chips. But it never feels like it’s a short battle.”
To get by, Costabile even briefly became an acting teacher, but never stopped taking auditions, hoping for a break. “My wife was saying the other day that she had a manager who once said, ‘Luck is necessary, but you also have to be ready to walk through that door when luck presents itself,’” he says. One of Costabile’s doors was a recurring role on the fifth and final season of The Wire as the hard-nosed managing editor for the show’s fictional equivalent of The Baltimore Sun, which aired in 2008. By that point, even though The Wire never drew massive ratings for HBO, David Simon’s series had cemented itself as one of the greatest television shows of all time.
That pressure cooker of a situation didn’t initially bother Costabile—because he didn’t even know it was supposed to. “When I walked in I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” he tells me. “Then I got hired. Then I started watching and getting progressively more anxious [because] I realized what unbelievable talent and incredible writing there was. I’m very lucky [I didn’t know because] I would not have made it through those first five episodes. I totally would have fucked up.”
Breaking Bad was a different story. Costabile was already watching the show by the time Gale Boetticher was set to debut midway through the third season in 2010. And though Breaking Bad hadn’t yet become a phenomenon, Costabile fought like hell to get on the show. “They tried hard not to cast me, tried for a long time to find somebody else,” he says. “But I was like, ‘I am that character.’ And that was the truth. … I dare you to find somebody who’s going to do that [role] better than me.” While Gale’s stint on Breaking Bad is short, the character serves a vital function as the wholesome antithesis to Walter White. Just as Walt reached a point of no return in the second season when he watched Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) choke to death on her own bile, Gale would serve as Jesse’s inflection point. Gale met his end at the hands of a reluctant Jesse in the third-season finale: a heartbreaking, game-changing moment with reverberative effects throughout the rest of the series.
While Costabile’s journey has been paved by the opportunities he seized on two of the most acclaimed shows of the 21st century—as well as roles in Damages, Flight of the Conchords, and Suits, which have all been buzzy in their own right—he maintains that he’s never had a master plan. Instead, he learned to be more self-selective, and eventually gained enough traction in his career to have that luxury. “The decision-making process for me is much more about what actually interests me,” he tells me. “That question was always important, especially after a lot of experience doing a lot of bullshit.”
Still, it’s not lost on Costabile that, in addition to determination, perseverance, and a propensity to be attracted to good projects, his career has been aided by a bit of luck. “There have been many times in my life when I’ve been able to identify something, like, ‘I want that,’ and get it. And most people will be like, ‘You’re so fucking lucky,’ and the answer to that is, I am.”
Koppelman—cocreator and co-showrunner of Billions—was, as Costabile recalls, the “big man on campus” when they both attended Tufts in the ’80s. It’s easy to see why: When he was still in school, Koppelman discovered singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman and helped produce her first album. (“It was a no. 1 album,” Costabile says, “back when you actually bought albums.”)
While both men admit they didn’t know one another that well during their college days, Koppelman remembers taking an acting class with Costabile. “It wasn’t a calling to me,” Koppelman tells me over the phone. “I just thought it was fun to do.” One day in class, the two were called to perform a scene together. “There was this light in his eyes,” Koppelman recalls. “There was this power. There was this intelligence. I tell you, I knew in that instant I was never gonna be an actor, and I knew this guy was going to be a successful actor.”
Years later, Koppelman devised a theory, unbeknownst to Costabile at the time: If someone like David Costabile can “make it” as an actor, there might be some justice in this world. “I wondered what happened to that guy from college,” he says. “This is pre-internet where it was harder [to know]: When is that guy going to surface?” Finally, Koppelman saw Costabile popping up on acclaimed shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad. “When it started to happen for Costabile, it really reaffirmed for me if you’re very talented and you work incredibly hard, the world might find you.”
The two Tufts alums—along with Koppelman’s frequent collaborator David Levien, who serves as Billions’ other showrunner and cocreator—first worked together on Solitary Man in 2009, in which Costabile played Jenna Fischer’s on-screen husband, Gary. They reunited for 2013’s Runner Runner, in which Costabile portrayed a university professor. Costabile believes it was that existing relationship that opened the door for him to play Wags—even though the original conception of the character wasn’t nearly as flashy or worthy of cult status.
This might come as a bit of a shock to Billions-heads, so brace yourself: When Koppelman and Levien first began working on the show, Wags was intended to be a much more subdued character. He was still going to be Axe’s right-hand man at Axe Capital, but Wags was meant to be, as Levien describes the character to me, “an old-line Wall Street, WASP-y kind of guy” who kept his boss in check. Blessedly, that idea was quickly retooled—so much so that, if you rewatch the series pilot, you’ll find Wags’s actual screentime is uncharacteristically thin.
The creation of the Wags we’ve come to love—crass yet intelligent, the kind of guy who is the chief operating officer of a multibillion-dollar hedge fund and also, for some reason, is banned from attending Little League games—was a collaborative process, ushered in primarily by Koppelman and Levien, with some gentle nudges by Costabile along the way. (It was Costabile who suggested, for instance, that Wags ought to live in the Pierre hotel, as he felt the character was perfectly suited for an older, embellished staple of Manhattan.) The notion of completely revamping Wags on the fly with Costabile didn’t concern the showrunners: They believed they still had the right man for the job. “There was never a thought that we would recast him or anything like that,” Levien tells me. “We knew that we had an actor who could go anywhere. He’s just got a million gears. … We just realized that with this actor, and with this character, we had a chance to show the unbridled side.”
The gambit worked. Costabile admits it’s been the most entertaining character he’s played in his career—a man with a penchant for snorting Adderall, throwing out lurid insults, and extolling the virtues of perfectly sauced nigiri at upscale sushi establishments.
But what elevates Wags beyond mere caricature are the subtleties Costabile imbues into the role. Wags is cartoonish, sure, but he’s got an undercurrent of empathy for the people within his inner circle. He’s awful to people who get in his way, but he’d also take a bullet for Axe and defend gender-nonbinary coworker Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) from anti-LGBTQ slander at a Turkish bath house. “He is a respectful person, unless you have shown to not be worth something,” Costabile explains. “That’s when [he’s] going to fuck with you. Unmercifully.
“He likes to make the person who resents him uncomfortable—it balances him. That’s fucking weird. It’d be strange if I came in here and the more awkward I made you feel, the better I felt.”
Billions can be dense, plotty, and full of confusing financial-speak, but Wags is the essential comic relief. With his twisted, much-needed levity and occasional pathos, Wags, more than anyone else, is the fabric that holds the whole enterprise together. Sometimes, the levity and pathos come hand in hand, as seen in Wags’s existential crisis during the second season that, among many things, produced the character’s infamous Yosemite Sam ass tattoo. (Behold at your own risk.) “For the record, we never say that that tattoo was actually Yosemite Sam,” Koppelman tells me, after I prod for specifics. “The dialogue actually gets cut off before they say the word Sam. They just say ‘Yosemite.’” “That was something,” Costabile recalls with a light chuckle. I couldn’t agree more.
Still, it’s important to remember that all the characters orbiting Damian Lewis’s Axe and Paul Giamatti’s U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades are abhorrent people. Like HBO’s Succession, Billions demonstrates not just the glorious excess of living among the 1 percent, but also the misery inherent to the relentless pursuit of more. “It’s kind of open to, you know, the depravity that [being rich] brings,” Costabile says. “It’s on some level based on fact.”
That means, of course, that as much as we’re entertained by the on-screen antics of Wags, meeting a real-life version of the man would be a miserable affair. If you saw him creating a scene or showing off his wealth—or both—you’d probably hate the guy. “There’s no fucking way I could be near that,” Costabile says, a smirk growing on his face. “But what could be more fun than playing an unapologetic asshole?”
is a resident of sleepy Park Slope, which itself seems like a betrayal of the essence of Wags. But because the hold the character can have on you is so strong, it’s important to note: Even though he looks just like Wags, has Wags’s pointy facial hair, and maybe even sips coffee the way you imagine Wags would sip coffee, David Costabile is not Wags. When I ask Costabile what he likes to do to relax, he laughs: “Relax? You must not have children.” He has two daughters under the age of 4, and one of them spilled milk on him right before we met up. He tells me—half-joking, half-serious—that the walk back to his apartment after our interview will be a nice reprieve, one he’s looking forward to. “A nap this afternoon would be extraordinary,” he adds.
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