Rage Rooms and Mason Jars
by Lane Florsheim | Wall Street Journal | May 4, 2020
When stay-at-home orders began, the cast and crew of Billions had finished seven of season 5’s twelve episodes, the first of which aired May 3. On a Zoom call with WSJ., some of the cast and crew’s most vital members were emotional about seeing each other’s faces again. “I’ll just say—looking at all of you right now, I’m very sad that we’re not together doing this,” said showrunner Brian Koppelman. “Whenever we can go back to work, we’ll finish the five remaining episodes, which are pretty much written.”
This season begins a little less harmoniously. Almost everyone is out for blood: Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti) is back in the attorney general’s office, hellbent once again on taking down billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), all while restarting a teaching career and coping with the dissolution of his marriage to Wendy (Maggie Siff). Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), who left Axe Capital to start their own shop at the end of season 3, is back at Axe with plans to let Chuck and Axe demolish each other. New guest stars arrive this season: Corey Stoll plays woke billionaire and new Axe foe Mike Prince; Julianna Margulies stars as a sociology professor peer of Chuck’s; and comedian Eva Victor joins as Rian, a brilliant analyst with a unique market view in some of the season’s later episodes.
In a group interview, Giamatti, Dillon, Siff, Stoll, Koppelman and his co-showrunner David Levien discuss the making of season 5, how the cast’s real-life moments become parts of the show’s script and whether the characters on Billions are capable of change.
Every character on this show has such a strong personality. What’s one specific thing any of you have learned from another person on the show, while filming or otherwise?
Asia Kate Dillon: [Paul says that] Maggie has taught us all how to act.
Maggie Siff: We have such phenomenal actors on the show and people have really different styles of working and I feel like I’ve learned something from everybody on the show, just in terms of the craft and how you can be in front of a camera and how much permission you can give yourself. A lot of us are theater actors so people are pretty bold in general on our show. The style is big and stylized, we’ve all found our way into that in our own way. But everybody is so skilled there is a lot to learn from. And just a little bit from Paul.
Paul Giamatti: Learn what not to do.
MS: There’s also like 10 things that I think everybody needs to Google every time they get a script. There’s a lot of arcana and bro trivia that some of us are less up on than others.
What relationships were each of you most excited to play with this season?
PG: I was intrigued by some of these new characters coming in. Julianna’s character is interesting to see what effect that would have on my character, a sort of different relationship. I actually was also very interested to see what was going to play out with me and Corey because he’s a different animal from Axe. As much as we shot, I only had a little to do with Corey, but it was very interesting stuff I got to do with him.
Brian Koppelman: At the end of the first scene you played, I remember you came up to David and me and you were like, “Oh, this is great energy to now have on the show.”
PG: It was curious, that scene. There was a lot more weird tension and unspoken stuff going on than I anticipated there being.
AKD: I was excited to get to be around the Axe Capital gang again. Taylor having their own shop for season 4 was its own incredible fun, challenging thing. It meant that I didn’t get to see a lot of my Axe Capital friends who are my friends in real life: Kelly [AuCoin], Daniel Isaac, Keith Eric Chappelle. And then on top of that… looking forward to seeing how the Taylor-Axe dynamic would develop over the course of the season. Similar to Taylor’s relationship with Wendy, it’s gone through so much. What does trust look like moving forward in either case?
Corey, what was the process of developing Mike Prince like? In a way, he seems much more self-aware than most of his billionaire peers.
Corey Stoll: It depends on how long the hiatus is—it’s very much ongoing. I was given a basic shape of what the season was they were trying to make, I had a basic trajectory. But in terms of material, I accepted the role sight unseen. I didn’t read a word of any script ,but I had seen the show and I knew that they write great characters. Not a single actor who has more than five lines doesn’t have a really fun role to be. It’s a very actor-centric show.
The thing that I found the most exciting and fun to play about Mike Prince was how he’s incredibly polite and kind and outward-centric. He’s thinking about other people and how they’re feeling and that is his greatest weapon, especially in the context of this incredibly greedy, self-centered group of people. A smile and an acknowledgement of other people’s needs [are] some of the most withering things he can do. Once I figured that out—it took an episode or two to clue into that part of him—I really started to have a lot of fun with that.
Asia, your character was being pulled in all different directions this season. You have a scene in a rage room [a room full of objects that can be destroyed for stress relief purposes] at the end of the first episode.
AKD: I really busted up that room. I have my own speculations about the things that Taylor does on their own time, but I try not to conjecture too much because I don’t want those things to turn out to be wrong when Brian and Dave or any of our writers ultimately throw something at me. And so a place where Taylor gets to totally lose their stuff without anyone around seemed really appropriate. The rage room was amazing. Thank you, guys.
Of shooting the episodes so far, any highlights?
CS: I trained really hard to possibly—with some fancy editing—look like I could possibly, in some alternate universe, hold my own against [retired professional basketball player] Dominique Wilkins. It was so much fun. He was so generous, he was so excited to be there. It was a dream come true. I didn’t realize I had that dream until I got to do it.
BK: So many of the moments for me are the little moments in between when we all get to just connect. There are a lot of moments where Dave and I will, say, be with Paul, and some arcane reference will trigger Paul to talk about some arcane book, and then perhaps one of us will have read it. And we’ll end up in a very serious moment just laughing together.
David Levien: A lot of time coming out of those conversations, we’ll invariably remember a moment or a line or a reference when we’re in the writer’s room and be like, “Oh, we’ve got to get that back to them as a little gift or joke or a laugh.” That constantly happens now.
For one, the rage room thing, Samantha Mathis [who plays Taylor’s deputy Sara Harmon] gave us a rage-room gift certificate at the end of season 4. And so Brian and I looked at each other and we were like, “What kind of comment is somebody making when they give you this?” And so then we wanted to recreate that moment for Taylor and play it out.
BK: Since the pilot, we’ve been collecting words that are Chuck Rhoades words, phrases or words that Chuck might say.
PG: The more ridiculous the word, the more likely it is to come out of my mouth.
BK: Another good example, Asia would come to work and sometimes eat out of little Mason jars and then we would take that detail and give it back to Taylor. Everyone’s eating some heavy meat and Taylor is eating out of a Mason jar. That stuff’s always happening.
A consistent theme this season is the idea of growth and change. Do you think your characters are capable of the change they all talk about?
PG: Certainly my character starts out this season very determined to get back to basics of some kind. He ends that last season saying to Taylor, “I’ve let myself become horribly corrupted by my association with this man [Axe]. He corrupts everything he touches and no more for me.” I start out this season with a peculiar new set of ethics that I’m going to adopt and I go back to teaching a bit. I try to get back to my roots as a good lawyer and very quickly that seems to just go out the f—ing window.
It’s always such an agony that Chuck tries and he just can’t seem to change. It’s fatal. He really tries. I think it is the admirable thing about him that he does see he needs to change and he does try. But man, he just can’t f—ing do it.
AKD: I wonder about, not just for my character, but about anyone’s fundamental ability to change while continuing to engage in the same practices.
MS: As long as the show is the show, everybody is sort of trapped in the shortcomings of their natures, it seems. Although I feel I would do the character of Wendy a disservice if I said people couldn’t change. I think she can change and I genuinely believe people can change, but I think Asia’s right. You need to radically revise your circumstances.
PG: People can evolve. And the guy I play is engaged in something at a level that won’t allow you to change in some ways. What he’s engaged in is a game where if you change, you’re dead.
DL: I think that we see it as, the efforts can be massive but the change is incremental. That might just be a worldview or something, but it’s as fascinating to watch the efforts as much as—or more than—the actual outcome.
CS: All of these characters are remarkably successful. They’ve reached the top of their game and have been rewarded richly for it. Whatever got them there is giving them a lot of motivation to stay there.
Read the rest of the original article at Wall Street Journal