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?”