Paul Giamatti, Andrew Ross Sorkin Talk Finance and Power at N.Y. 'Billions' Premiere

The series cast and creators discuss the empathy behind their Wall Street characters.
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Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis

The high-stakes worlds of politics and finance make up the setting for Showtime’s latest series Billions. While powerful men of this sort might not generate a lot of sympathy, star Paul Giamatti, who plays the U.S. Attorney on a mission to prosecute a billionaire hedge fund manager (Damian Lewis), thinks his character’s calculating nature is what makes him interesting.

“He’s got a lot of self-awareness, which is a nice thing, and I don’t know that necessarily a lot of powerful men in any walks of life have quite the level of self-awareness that they’ve given him,” Giamatti tells The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s premiere on Thursday night at the Museum of Modern Art. “But he’s aware that he’s willing to violate his own codes and things like that, or he’s willing to violate other people’s codes in pursuit of his own codes. He’s complicated. They’ve let him be complicated. He’s funny, hopefully. But he’s self aware, I think that’s the main thing.”

The series premieres on Friday, Jan. 17, and Showtime president David Nevins was attracted to the show (created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin) because of the powerful personalities involved and the “Shakespearean” drama. “The first time I read this script, it had this incredible clash of clans between these two warring tribes, both of whom are incredibly convinced of their rightness, and I think when you have two characters who have incredible power going at each other, that makes for good drama,” Nevins says.

And for Neil Burger, who directed the show’s pilot, the powerful acting styles of Lewis and Giamatti only enhanced this relationship onscreen. “They’re both incredibly seasoned pros,” says Burger, who last worked with Giamatti on The Illusionist in 2006. “They come at it in different ways, but just like their characters are, they’re powerful strong guys who come at it from very different angles so it was interesting, as a director, to kind of harness that and marshal it and point it in the right direction.”

Although the series is fictional, the story of a high-profile prosecution of a hedge fund manager seems like it could be ripped from today’s headlines, and Sorkin used his experience as a reporter for The New York Times covering the financial markets to capture both the reality of the situation as well as the personal elements.

“The story that I loved was the human drama,” Sorkin says. “I would go cover a white-collar case, and I was usually more fascinated with the family behind the executive, who is the defendant, and the dynamic between them at this great moment of stress than I was in the case itself… I think because we read about these people in the papers and they have billions of dollars, we often have a very sort of two-dimensional view of them, but what I hope this show does is actually round it out. We all have these preconceived notions of black and white, and I think this show really plays with that. There’s a lot of gray.”

One of those gray areas is Giamatti’s character’s relationship to his wife (Maggie Siff). Siff plays a psychotherapist at the hedge fund managed by Lewis’s character, and her position, which is more lucrative than her husband’s, could potentially create both a professional and a personal conflict of interest. In the pilot, she has a discussion with her husband, where he suggests that she might leave her job, and she fires back suggesting he should be the one to step down instead. “She’s like, ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m really effing good at it. Who’s to say that your job is more important than my job’” Siff says of her character’s reaction. “And I think that’s something that a lot of women, when they hear it, they quote it back to me. It has impact.”

And Malin Akerman, who stars as the wife of Lewis’s character, balks at the idea that her character would just sit on the sidelines while her husband calls all the shots. “Definitely not a trophy wife!” Akerman says, at the suggestion of the term. “They work as a team; they’re a power couple. They respect and value each other’s opinions. They egg each other on. One wouldn’t be the same without the other. And the reason I liked it is because they stand beside each other and she’s not the woman behind the man.”

And while the mention of politics, money, and power in New York tends to call to mind a particular presidential hopeful, Sorkin assures viewers that that story does not exist in this world. “This story is not about Donald Trump, but it does have to do with politics and money to some degree,” he says. “What does it mean to have money? What does it mean to have a billion dollars? If you have $100 million, is that not enough? And why do you keep going for more? And that’s what the show really tries to unearth.”