Billy Magnussen is a Broadway veteran and a Tony Award nominee. He’s played historical figures such as Kato Kaelin and not one, but two “Disney” princes (“Aladdin” and “Into the Woods”). He’s played a gangster (“The Many Saints of Newark”) and a CIA agent (“No TIme To Die”). He can sing. He can dance. He can play drama and he can play it for laughs. Billy Magnussen has the range. What he will never do, however, is play method.
The 37-year-old reprises his role in “Made For Love”‘s second season as Byron Gogol, a morally compromised tech billionaire who placed a computer chip with a tracking device in the brain of his wife, Hazel (Cristin Milioti). Magnussen gets to portray Byron with a tad more sympathy this time around, but it’s not his only HBO Max project to debut on the streaming service over the past few weeks. He also stars in Barry Levinson‘s “The Survivor,” a historical drama centered on Harry Haft (Ben Foster), a professional boxer who was forced to fight other inmates at the Auschwitz concentration camp. As Dietrich Schneider, Magnussen is the Nazi officer who forces Haft to fight or, if he wishes, die.
Foster lost a tremendous amount of weight to play Haft at Auschwitz. The Playlist wondered if Foster might have used the method acting technique in playing the role. Needless to say, Magnussen is not a fan of any actor proclaiming to use said technique.
“Neither of us worked method. We didn’t have to. Also, I’m not a method person,” Magnussen says. “Listen, we’re not in World World II, we’re not in a concentration camp. Let’s be honest. I think it’s such a weird…whoever’s a method actor can go f**k themselves. Because that’s just crazy. We’re telling a story and you’re doing it… You’re more disservice to the story if you make it about yourself than the story.”
Over the course of our interview, Magnussen teases a potential cliffhanger for “Made for Love”‘s current season, why he wanted to work with Levinson and much, much more.
The Playlist: Tell me if I’m wrong, is your character Byron nicer this season or is it some sort of game he’s playing?
Billy Magnussen: No. Again, the beautiful thing about “Made for Love” is it uses dark comedy and sci-fi to talk about relationships and love and the development of relationships. And I think that’s what [series creators] Christina Lee and Alissa Nutting did so well with it. So, I see Byron as a character that’s trying to grow in his relationship and actually save it and make changes which you would hope anyone in a loving relationship would try to do.
Do you think he realizes in this season, because he hasn’t specifically expressed it in episodes I’ve seen, that putting a chip in his wife against her will might not have been the best idea?
I think he admits it. I think he admits it. Again, I don’t think his intention was to control her or do any of that stuff. I think it was just in his DNA to do that and it’s him waking up to it. Like most men, we’re like, “Oh, I wasn’t aware that was happening.”
Do you think it’s inevitable that they will come together at the end, whether it’s this season or another season? Or have the creators told you, “Listen, this is his potential journey and that’s what the show’s about”?
I don’t know. I just heard a quote the other day, “You never go back to an already lit fuse.” That’s how I believe it. If it didn’t go off, once you go back and try to light it again, it’s just going to explode on you. I don’t know what the show runners’ intentions are with it. I think as a character, yeah, you addressed it like there is hope. I think Byron hits it with having the hope of actually mending their relationship and then growing together.
There is also this subplot centered on the essences of both your and Cristin’s characters living in this virtual world. And very quickly they want to find some real bodies to live in. Can you talk about what that experience was like playing those characters? Plus, you also have a fantastic dance number that you guys get to do in that.
Playing in that fantasy world, dude, it’s just fun. Again, the world of playing a downloaded unaffected personality, come on, that’s candy to dream up and play with. I think it’s so fortunate to have opportunities to mess around and tell stories in that way. I think the weirder, the better.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you guys shot the first season before the pandemic, correct? And then finished some of it during one of the first days to come back.
Yeah, we started it before and then it definitely got put on hiatus and we didn’t come back for seven months. And to finish the first season. It’s weird. It’s been through the whole pandemic. But it’s actually been a lifesaver as in having a community outside of your house. It was actually really, really helpful.
For the second season, even though you guys were shooting it in pandemic conditions, was it a better experience having it all be at one time? Did you feel like you were more connected to the character?
With many projects, I’ve shot the last scene of the film first and then shot the beginning of the film at the end of the shoot. I think your job is to show up and do the work whenever it’s time. I don’t know. I guess my answer is no to that. Because your job is to show up and do what is necessary for the day.
Well, again, noting the fact that I have not seen the whole season, is there another…
I haven’t seen it. I don’t get HBO Max out here in Ireland. We got to get that territory. It’s not out here.
Does this season also end on another cliffhanger or does or is it more resolved in some way?
Look, if you are a show creator, what do you want to give someone?
I mean, in theory, yes, but some show creators don’t want to take that chance. So, you never know.
No, not with these girls. They’re wonderful.
All right. I will take it that there’s another cliffhanger. I also wanted to ask you about “The Survivor.” Because I spoke to Barry Levinson last week…
Oh wonderful. What do you think of him?
He’s fantastic. I hope when I’m 80 I’m shooting three things a year and running around the world doing stuff. I was going to ask, what about the project appealed to you when it came your way?
I think working with Barry Levinson is one of the most amazing things. To have that opportunity alone would be amazing, completely amazing. But also telling this story and the history of people that were part of a mass genocide. You got to keep telling that story over and over and over again because people forget, man. People forget. And we look at the situation we’re in now with Russia and Ukraine, it just continues to keep going and going and if we don’t keep telling stories like this, history will repeat itself. It’s kind of our responsibility as a human race to remind ourselves or inform each other about what’s important.
When I spoke to Barry, he reminded me that your character was made up for the purposes of the film. There wasn’t actually an individual like him in that life story. What was your inspiration in playing him?
I don’t know. There wasn’t one anchor I grabbed onto. Because I think it’s humanity. Again, talking about a character like Officer Dietrich Schneider, it’s a man trying to survive. He knows his side’s going to lose, but he’s still privileged in this moment to survive. And how do you survive? This guy was an intellect, he knew he was high ranking and there was this seediness to him, but also a charm that I thought brought him up the ranks. It was a lot of picking from places in life. But can I pinpoint it? No. I think doing the accent work and the language work informs a lot, to tell you the truth of the character and how it feels in your body as you breathe life into the words. I just took all the information I could and then let it evolve and become what it did. I’m proud of that work. I feel special about it. I loved working on a film like that. It’s so… I was about say gregarious. It was so aggressive and monstrous, but at the same time so proud as an artist to bring it to life. It’s really hard to talk about it in such a positive way knowing the type of character. It’s tough, but I’m proud.
What was your reaction when you saw Ben for the first time after he lost all this weight for the role? It’s remarkable to me what his physical transformation was for this film. I would be concerned even if I knew he was doing it for a part.
Funny enough, I didn’t really meet Ben until we were there and he was that in that character. He was already there. So the first guy I ever met was Harry Haft from the concentration camps. And so, I just kind of received Harry Haft as we moved through it as he received Dietrich Schneider. So we shot all the flashback stuff first, because again, he was in that physical [condition] and all that stuff. We did that for a month and then I remember once we wrapped that last day, we went out, got dinner and he ate and we had drinks. He was a different man and we both were introducing ourselves for the first time. It was cool.
Was he working method or did Barry not want you guys to communicate on set?
No. Neither of us worked method. We didn’t have to. Also, I’m not a method person. Listen, we’re not in World World II, we’re not in a concentration camp. Let’s be honest. I think it’s such a weird…whoever’s a method actor can go f**k themselves. Because that’s just crazy. We’re telling a story and you’re doing it… You’re more disservice to the story if you make it about yourself than the story. Sorry, that’s my…
No, it’s all good.
There is an energy and a dance you have. Anyone you work with, you know the power struggle and you know the social construct of it. And so we had created the social construct while shooting the film. So it wasn’t until afterwards that we got to really know each other. We didn’t hang out once we got done. We were exhausted every time we shot. It was amazing. And I really like Ben. I worked with him for a month and I didn’t know him. It was funny. It’s really funny. But then, Ben’s a great guy. Again, I think he was two artists really coming at it full theme. It was a weird experience. We weren’t method, dude. Yeah, I walked around keeping the accent on my tongue just so I didn’t have to think about it. And same for him. We weren’t method though. We would talk about shots and whatever, but yeah, it was just fun to feel you’re in the ring with such a wonderful, wonderful partner.
“Made for Love” season two and “The Survivor” are both available on HBO Max.