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Billy Magnussen is a strange Hollywood hybrid. The 36-year-old’s résumé, with supporting parts in such features as Game Night, Aladdin and Ingrid Goes West, reads like that of a thriving character actor, but his headshot not-so-subtly suggests 21st century matinee idol.
This incongruity has made him difficult to peg for both the industry and his growing audience, and few are more familiar with that fact than Magnussen himself. Speaking over Zoom during a May visit to New York, he admits that, like many at that juncture in an acting career where one seems perennially on the verge of a bigger profile, the work he’s often recognized for isn’t even his own. “Today, it’s Charlie Hunnam,” he says, his sharp jawline blurred by an untidy blond beard. “I was literally just grabbing a cup of coffee and got an ‘Oh, you’re the guy from Sons of Anarchy, right?’ Yep, that’s me. Thanks!”
More than any other year in his career to date, 2021 stands to clear up any lingering confusion about who Magnussen is and what he’s capable of doing. Before the pandemic, he banked work in James Bond flick No Time to Die, Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark and Barry Levinson’s The Survivor — each slated to finally see a release before the calendar rolls over. April brought the first sprinkles before the deluge, when HBO Max dropped the darkly comic series Made for Love. Magnussen stars as an obsessive billionaire tech bro who essentially traps his wife (Cristin Milioti) in a luxe office complex for a decade. On paper, it could easily read like a caricature of the toxic masculinity that’s been a throughline in many of his smaller roles. But in execution, Magnussen’s charm proved so irrepressible that the would-be villain was reimagined in a more sympathetic light.
“He brought so much vulnerability to the character that we ended up having to rewrite the role,” says showrunner Christina Lee, who helped adapt the project with Alissa Nutting, based on the latter’s novel of the same name. “It became so clear that the audience was going to be ambivalent to him and even root for him at times.”
People who work with Magnussen seem to root for him, too. Taking the role at the suggestion of writer-producer Patrick Somerville, whom he previously worked with on the offbeat Netflix limited series Maniac, Magnussen says he didn’t expect to go as deep with the job as he ultimately did. “Being an actor, you’re often like a hired gun,” he says. “But Christina and Alissa really brought me into the creative process of building Made for Love. That’s the way I want to operate now.”
The oldest son of an aerobics instructor and a bodybuilder, Magnussen was born and raised in the Woodhaven neighborhood of Queens, New York, and then moved with his family to the suburbs of Atlanta before he started high school. As soon as he graduated from college (University of North Carolina School of the Arts), Magnussen bounced back to New York, where he aggressively pursued a career in acting.
There were small roles in independent films, the requisite New York actor appearance on Law & Order and a dozen other East Coast procedurals, and even a three-year stint on the since-canceled CBS soap opera As the World Turns, but it was theater where Magnussen really elevated his profile. He originated the role of Spike in the Christopher Durang comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, taking it from off-Broadway in 2012 to the John Golden Theatre in 2013 with co-stars Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce. It won best play at the Tonys that year and earned Magnussen a nomination for best featured actor.
“In my 20s, it was very much ‘Please, I need to eat, give me a job,’ but it all took off with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” says Magnussen, whose performance caught the eye of at least one influential A-lister who then campaigned to get him his first major film role. “Then Meryl Streep got me that job in Into the Woods, and it just kind of changed the game.”
In the six years since Rob Marshall’s blockbuster adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical, in which Magnussen plays Rapunzel’s Prince, the work has been steady, if not always near the top of the call sheet. That was him as Kato Kaelin in Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and as a smarmy mortgage broker in Adam McKay’s The Big Short. “I’m in a tier where I’m offered stuff and I’m still auditioning, but ultimately they’re always going to give it to a Chris,” says Magnussen, referring to Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine and Chris Pratt — the four fair-skinned, chiseled actors often characterized as a monolith, albeit one that always earns eight figures on a project. “If I ever win an award, I’m going to thank all of the Chrises and Skarsgards for passing on roles. Because that’s my career.”
One project Magnussen auditioned for was The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase’s prologue to the landmark HBO series. After he didn’t get the part he initially sought, producers came back to him with an alternative: Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. The skunk-haired mafioso, one of the most unhinged characters even by The Sopranos‘ very high standards for hotheadedness, was played by Tony Sirico for six seasons. And for anyone with even the most basic familiarity with Sirico’s performance, the line to Magnussen is not easily drawn.
“I loved him like a brother, and he fucked me in the ass,” Magnussen says, pivoting into character with a disarming New Jersey accent at the first sign of my skepticism. “What Tony did, you can’t re-create. You can’t do it. But you want the zeitgeist, the spirit of the character more than anything. I didn’t try to do an exact re-creation, because I think authenticity is what people are looking for.”
Magnussen talks a lot about authenticity. He cites the apparent absence of it in his Made for Love character as what drew him to the series. On the outside, Byron Gogol — yes, the resemblance to Google is almost too close — has everything: a beautiful home, a tech company with Apple-esque ubiquity, a fleet of dolphins. But it’s a facade that starts to peel back when his wife flees their plush setting for her fleabag hometown, unraveling Byron and the controlled environment he’s spent years building.
“While this is such a disturbing premise for a show, we really wanted to keep it fun and light-hearted at times,” says Lee, who added flashbacks to the episodes to make Byron less of a villain. “Billy is a very strong actor, but he’s also just incredibly funny. Working with him on this show peeled so many layers on the character.”
Those layers were aided in part by time. Filming began before the pandemic, stalled for seven months and resumed in the fall, giving Magnussen more than a year to spend with the character. Leaving his current home base of Georgia for a Laurel Canyon rental, he thought about the character and his backstory on long drives to the shoot north of Los Angeles. “This whole show, the smokescreen of the technology, it’s actually a conversation about connection,” says Magnussen. “Yes, he’s an egomaniac and a sociopath, but what’s under that? A scared little son of a bitch.”
Oscillating between villain and victim also affords him the opportunity to show off. The THR review of Made for Love says Magnussen plays the character with a “scary, but still possibly well-meaning, intensity.” And, in a Hitchcockian spin on When Harry Met Sally, Magnussen summons a fake orgasm while crying in the booth of a roadside diner. So even with his aggressive film slate about to roll out — one that should help to distinguish him from the Chrises and the guy from Sons of Anarchy — it’s understandable that Magnussen wants to sit with his series for a little longer.
“It wasn’t, ‘Show up and do your job’; this was hard work,” he says. “It’s hard in this industry to feel proud about your work, because everyone says you have to be humble. And I agree! But, God damn it, I’m proud of this.”
This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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