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Showtime has taken us inside the world of serial killers on
Dexter, terrorists and agents in Homeland and even the real life sex researchers Masters and Johnson in Masters of Sex. And now, the network is introducing yet another new series that delves deep into a world--the world of financial manipulation--that may seem foreign and exotic to the average viewer. 

Billions follows two parallel and intersecting stories. Damian Lewis plays Bobby Axelrod, a hedge fund mogul. Paul Giamatti plays Chuck Roads, a U.S. Attorney turning his attentions to Axelrod’s practice.
Damien Lewis

Paul Giamatti

You may think you already know who the good guy is in this story, but the creators of Billions expect to spend many years telling a story that causes you to shift your allegiances, one way or another and then back again.

“I think to find any sort of general representation of an idea or a moral viewpoint in either Chuck Rhoades' character or my character is only going to end up being misleading for people,” Lewis said. “I think what's going to be interesting about this story is specifically this story. So who will Bobby Axelrod turn out to be, and what is he prepared to do to retain power? I think the same argument will apply to Chuck Rhoades, and you'll see powerful men, kings if you will, struggling to retain power within their kingdoms, or maybe to exert power over other kingdoms. It's up to the creators to decide in the end whether they will take a moral viewpoint on this world. They may never do that. They may choose not to. So you might simply see, over the course of five, six, seven, eleven seasons,  people just going at each other, powerful men and women compromised by their day to day actions in order to retain power.  And just a look into that world, financial and political worlds of great power, might be enough to sustain you, the audience member’s interest.”

The image many people have of Wall Street tycoons is that of large living cowboys in suits, throwing money around. While Axelrod fits that stereotype, at least in the premiere episode, Lewis says it is creative license. “Look, I've spoken to a lot of these guys,” he said. “They're fascinating. They tend to be, the ones I've spoken to anyway, they're risk averse. They're scientific and analytical, but of course, risk averse, scientific, and analytical might not be the best ingredients for an explosive TV series. So I think we'll see Bobby enjoying his power, his wealth at times, yes. But you don't always want to put your head above the turret,  especially if you're being hunted at that particular point by this fellow here, who has a vice-like bite.”
Lewis comes from the Showtime family, having appeared on Homeland for three seasons. Giamatti comes from the film world, having starred in three hits this year: San Andreas, Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton. His movie fans might not be as familiar with Giamatti’s theatrical work, but that is the comparison he drew to his work in television. He says he gets to play “the same character every week, but with a new script.”

“Thus far, it's been really interesting,” Giamatti said of Billions. “I mean, I'm finding that potentially, there's the best of both worlds of theater and movies, happening in TV now.  I get to constantly rework the character, but it's different material that I'm reworking in the character every time.

It’s like the theater, I'm kind of doing the same thing every night. It's fascinating, and so far, it's terrific. I keep having this funny conundrum of, do I want to know the specifics of what's going to happen, or am I enjoying learning it as it happens? The joy of that is really unique, too. I've never felt that before, so the whole thing is super interesting to me. It's really been so much fun so far.”

Early in the series, Lewis and Giamatti only intersected once. “We've only, so far, done the one scene together,” Giamatti said. “It's like Harry Lime [Orson Welles’ character] in The Third Man. We'll just have these moments of coming together.”

With both actors coming from a theater background, they were able to film their scenes together in different ways, so the producers had choices. “We covered that scene in so many different ways,” Lewis said. “The guys in the edit room have chosen the takes that they like, but there were many, many different ways that we approached that scene. I remember that day because it was a climax, of sorts, of these two kings, if you like, clashing. We spent a lot of time on it, and itt was good fun.”

Hearing Lewis speak in interviews reminds us that he’s British, since the characters he plays tend to be American. He had big ambitions for the accent of Bobby Axelrod, but ended up more subdued in the final series.

“When they said ‘blue-collar Yonkers,’ I just wanted to go all ‘Goodfellas’, pretending to be some sort of gangster from the Bronx. And the guys just repeatedly said, ‘That's awful. Can you stop doing that?’ So now, my generalized American accent is just a sort of generic Midwest sound. It shouldn't be accented from the West or the East, Homeland and that's kind of how I bluff through. It's just important with a New York accent, I think, just in the vowel sounds and with the A's, you just tighten those up a little bit. I'm trying to concentrate on that, and it's as simple as that.  Actually, having seen the pilot, I was struck by how little I thought I was doing, and how different my accent is in this show from what I did in Band of Brothers or anything else. So they are small, little shifts, but they read large.”

Axelrod may have the swagger of a gangster still, being in charge of so much money, and profiting so fruitfully from it. In fact, Axelrod acts like he owns everything and everyone. He doesn’t buy into the superficial trappings of success, because he feels it innately.

“I don't need to do too much with attitude,” Lewis said. “I think that's done for me a lot with costume. We all decided, just because this guy has got lots of money, why should he walk around in $4,000 Brioni suits? Why doesn't he just wear jeans, sneakers, T-shirts? He wears a necklace. He's got a little Celtic cross on him, which you don't see, but all of these things just help him be a guy from his neighborhood who happens to have a lot of money, and that empowers him.”

“But I think it's important to stress, I think Bobby is one of these guys who is quite empowered by a sense of himself anyway, even without the money. I think the money adds, obviously, but just by helping him to tap into that neighborhood.”

It may be Axelrod’s everyman quality that gives him an edge in business, and He built his own empire from the ground up. Lewis adds, “Bobby is a blue collar guy who is nouveau riche, is new money and, I think, lives by a code of honor, a set of street rules. A little bit more akin with blue collar communities where loyalty is fiercely protected and people are disposed, dispatched with ruthlessly, if they don't adhere to that code.”

There is a Mrs. Axelrod in the picture too. Malin Akerman plays Lara Axelrod, who appears to be the supportive wife, but proves to be a cutthroat in the boardroom herself.

“It's one of the reasons why I was attracted to this show, is the strong female characters,” Akerman said. “I think that because Bobby and I both come from blue collar families and backgrounds, I think that's what initially brings us together. Our value system is quite similar. Again, like he was talking about allegiance and loyalty, the fierce loyalty that you have to your clan, to your family, to the people that you love, they both really believe in the same things.”

billionsLara may be in it less for the money than for the power, which doesn’t necessarily come with a high price tag. “Regardless of money or no money, I think they are just this power couple, and there are certain things that I think Lara enjoys,” Akerman continued. “She eggs him on a little bit and gets him to go get the things that he wants.”

She adds, “They are both a little bit aggressive in their way of being, but in a really smart way, and it kind of turns them on. I think that it's a very interesting relationship because that, and the money that comes in, gives them this playfulness in a weird way. But, at the base of it, I think they have a great relationship because of where they come from, because they come from a great place and they both worked hard to get to where they are.”

“It was never that the money wasn't given to them, and they fight fiercely for it.”

BILLIONS premieres Sunday, January 17 at 10 ET/PT on Showtime. / Issue 176 - September 2018
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