The Billions Star Tells Playboy About Wealth, Mixed Morals and Playing Steve McQueen For Tarantino
by Daniel Barna | Playboy | April 16, 2019
Damian Lewis is not American, but he plays one on TV. In fact, he’s played many. Since breaking out as the gutsy U.S. soldier Dick Winters in Steven Spielberg’s sprawling World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, the London native has almost exclusively built his career on exploring this country’s rich history of heroes and villains. After the singularly heroic Winters, Lewis muddied the moral waters with Homeland’s Nicholas Brody, another Army man whose allegiances were tested after returning home from an extended stint as a prisoner of al-Qaeda.
Showtime had originally planned to kill Sgt. Brody off in season one, but Lewis’ role as the POW-turned-terrorist became so integral to the show’s DNA that the network decided to keep him around until season three, no matter how many rules of logic they needed to bend along the way. The performance earned Lewis an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and made him one of television’s biggest stars. It also showcased Lewis’ preternatural ability to play men steeped in moral ambiguity.
So when it came time to cast the lead for its glossy new prestige drama set in the high-stakes world of hedge funds, the network didn’t flinch. Now in its fourth season, Billions stars Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, a self-made Wall St. billionaire with the hubris of Kanye West and the ruthlessness of Vladimir Putin. The show, which pits Axelrod against Paul Giamatti’s U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, has become an obsession for Wall Streeters and wealthy athletes like Kevin Durant (who made a cameo in season three), who identify with its depiction of the luxurious kind of lifestyle that comes with being obscenely rich.
But as Lewis tells Playboy, Billions is about more than very fast cars and really big boats. Lewis believes that at its core, Billions is a story about the intersection of money and power, which is especially timely given that the wealth gap in America is wider than it’s ever been before. “There’s no question that some of these billionaires operate like nation states. They have the ears of prime ministers and presidents around the world, and they influence policy,” he says. “It’s a problem that the gap between the wealthy and the poor has increased, when the political project for the last 20 to 30 years has been to reduce that gap. I’ve got no problem with individuals amassing enormous amounts of wealth. The critical questions are, How did they make it, and how do they use it?”
Playing a billionaire for a half-decade has given Lewis unusual insight into the world of the one percent. He’s had dinner with them. He’s played tennis with them. He’s seen them up close and has come to understand how they operate. “I would say a common denominator is the fact that they’re all incredibly good listeners,” he says of men like Steve Cohen, the hedge-fund titan whose legal tussle with former DA Preet Bharara helped inspire the show. “I think they want to listen because they want to learn for when they make big bets. They intuit what’s the right thing to do. The risk is in the bet, and the money they put down is huge, so they do everything they can to eliminate the risk.”
After Billions premiered in 2016, Lewis became something of an honorary member of the hedge-fund world, and remembers more than one occasion in which Axe’s real life counterparts tried to claim him as their own. “In fact, some people’s wives wanted to claim that he’s based on their husbands,” he says. But as the seasons went on, and Bobby’s deeds darkened, so did people’s attitudes towards him. ”It doesn’t happen as much anymore,” the actor clarifies. “But in season one, it was like, ‘Oh, my God—he’s based on me!’ And I’d say, ‘Do you actually know what he does?’ Bobby is a full-blown white-collar gangster, and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get what he wants.” And while Lewis admits to never meeting a billionaire quite like Axe, whom he says has “the swagger of a cowboy and a rock star,” he does notice one striking similarity between fact and fiction. “They’re ruthless, all of them. They want to be on top.”
It’s notable that Lewis, who first ascended as a classically trained Shakespearean stage actor, cemented his stardom by playing a string of archetypal characters who are so deeply embedded in the American imagination, something that’s not lost on the 48-year-old actor. “All three characters are very different,” he explains. “One was an outright hero, one was a borderline terrorist and the other guy is a sort of American gangster. I would say Nicholas Brody was the most surprising and the most atypical, but certainly Richard Winters and Bobby Axelrod are deep in the mythology of heroes and gangsters.” Lewis then launches into one of the most articulate soliloquies I’ve ever heard, in which he outlines the political and religious differences between his native country and his adopted one. He says that America has a different “moral outlook” than the U.K., which he illustrated with the help of the following anecdote: “Sometime in season two or season three, I was in London, and an English lady came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my God—you’re Bobby Axelrod, you’re such an asshole!’ And when I was in New York, people were inclined to come up to me and say, ‘Dude! You’re Bobby Axelrod! You’re the man!’”
Lewis put his intimate grasp of the American experience to good use last summer, when he traveled to Los Angeles to shoot his scenes for Quentin Tarantino’s hugely anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In what might be his most indelibly American role yet, Lewis plays real-life movie star Steve McQueen in the film, which is set in 1960s Hollywood against the backdrop of the Charles Manson murders. For his ninth movie, Tarantino assembled a staggering star-stacked cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino and Dakota Fanning. “There was always a new press release each week, wasn’t there?” Lewis says of the casting announcements in the lead-up to production. “Like, ‘Oh, wow—now he’s in it, now she’s in it.’ And it kind of went on and on.”
He is predictably tight-lipped about his experience on-set, especially when I prod him about any potential scene partners. “A big movie like that, with big stars like that, people tend to come in and do their little piece for a few weeks at a time—and the film shot for four or five months, and I was only there for a brief period of time. I’m not going to tell you who I spent time with, but you know, there were a couple of Oscar winners and Oscar nominees thrown in there. Just take your pick.” And while Lewis has yet to see the finished product, he did promise this: “I think this movie’s going to be great fun. It’s going to be a Tarantino movie—thrilling and shocking and probably a little controversial. I’m in the same boat as you are. I can’t wait.”
He was far more forthcoming when it came to dissecting how he went about embodying McQueen, whose stoic demeanor and singular style helped earn him the nickname “The King of Cool” in his heyday. “The thing about McQueen was that he did nothing, so you projected onto him,” he explains. “He was so effortlessly himself. I watched a whole bunch of his movies when I was researching, just going over all the old classics. He does so little at moments of high drama or high tension, you find yourself leaning in. You find yourself thinking, Come on, Steve—give me a little something here.”
When I ask Lewis if he tried to mimic McQueen’s unmistakable demeanor, his years of training kick in. “Sure, you find physical tics, especially for the more well-known ones. For Steve McQueen, I have the same creases around my mouth that he does anyway, so I didn’t have to put those on,” he says. Instead, Lewis—who also plays late Toronto mayor Rob Ford in the new film Run This Town—zeroed in on McQueen’s peculiar vocal mannerisms, which he describes as a “slightly old-fashioned” way of speaking. “You hang your hat on these little character hooks. You need to bring something else. You need to give him something more rounded and deeper than that.” Lewis uses words like “rhythm” and “cadence” to describe how he arrives at a deeper understanding of whomever it is he’s playing.
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