Damien Lewis Paul Giamatti Billions Variety
Guido Vitti for Variety

The wolves of Wall Street have been an elusive target for television dramatists.

Even the wave of antiheroes unleashed by Tony Soprano has yet to yield a show revolving around the megalomaniacs who rule the financial sector.

Showtime chief David Nevins has long sought a series set in the investment arena, going back more than 15 years to his days as head of development at Fox. Writer-producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien have pursued the same prize on and off for a decade. Andrew Ross Sorkin, the influential New York Times business writer, knew there was great narrative drama to be mined from the world he covers.

Photo: Guido Vitti for Variety; Grooming: Sara Glick (Lewis); Garen Tolkin at Exclusive Artists Management (Giamatti); Styling: Michael Fisher for Starworks; Location: The Algonquin Hotel, NYC

The invisible hand of the market — with a little push from CAA — brought those mutual interests together during the past three years to create “Billions.”

The series, which premieres Jan. 17, revolves around the new breed of alpha-male capitalists who thrive by working on the razor’s edge of activist investing, hostile takeovers and incredibly intricate systems of financing and risk management. But these self-made billionaires aren’t working in household-name firms like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. They’re running hedge funds that are more often than not located in tony suburbs miles from New York’s traditional financial district.

Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, the enigmatic hedge fund titan played by Damian Lewis, makes his stealthy moves from his Axe Capital headquarters in Westport, Conn., where his neighbors are just as likely to be his competitors.

Nevins has as much ambition to make noise with the series as his protagonist has to make a killing in the market. “The show is really a Trojan horse for examining our complicated feelings about class and wealth,” he says. “We have this new class of the super-wealthy in this country. People aspire to have that kind of wealth, but we also are having the discussion about inequality and what’s fair and what’s not.”

Nevins and co-creators Koppelman, Levien and Sorkin intend for the show to reflect the the 99% vs. 1% tensions that have flared in the years since the 2008-09 global financial meltdown.

“Billions” turns on the legal cat-and-mouse chase between Axelrod and New York’s powerful U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti. Rhoades is driven to bring down Axelrod by his conviction that Axe Capital is built on a foundation of insider trading and other ethical breaches, and in equal measure by his belief that bagging a big name will burnish his political career.

“These people by and large are driven by the size of their ambitions,” Le­vien says. Adds Koppelman, “Each thinks that the particular currency they’re after will give them what they ultimately want, which is access and influence.”

Some 90 years after F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that the rich “are different from you and me,” “Billions” attempts to dive into the psyche of new- and old-money players in a fast-changing world.

Despite the flood of investment in TV these days, there’s no financial instrument available to help Showtime mitigate its risk on “Billions.” Television has consistently been a hostile environment for Wall Street-centered shows, even as movies, from Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” have tackled the terrain with far greater success.

“It’s a remarkable thing to see someone so embody this character that you have birthed.”
“Billions” co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin on Damian Lewis

In the past 25 years, only two series, Fox’s “The Street” (which Nevins developed) and TNT’s “Bull,” have tried.

Both suffered from bad timing — airing in 2000, a few months after the dot-com bubble burst — and both got a quick hook.

The conventional wisdom for decades has been that nobody wants to root for rich people to find ways to get richer week after week.

Tim Brooks, TV historian and co-author with Earle Marsh of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” says there’s never been a series set in the financial world that made a substantial mark in TV.

“They don’t have the life-and-death stakes of lawyer and cop shows,” Brooks says. “Relatable human drama is the foundation of most great TV, and you don’t tend to get that from guys in suits dealing with hedge funds and IPOs every week.”

Koppelman and Levien see the stakes as having been raised irrevocably by the global financial meltdown of 2008-09. Corruption and greed by institutions deemed “too big to fail” wound up throwing millions of people out of their homes and costing taxpayers untold billions in bailout money.

Rising from this heady environment has been the growing prominence of a new generation of investors who are amassing fortunes through savvy (some say legally challenged) market maneuvering, cutting-edge computer modeling and gigantic bets on gut instinct.

Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod doesn’t wear the gray-suit/blue-tie uniform of Goldman Sachs; he’s a Metallica-loving, sneakers-and-leather jacket type.

“We’re interested in the guys who can bend Wall Street to their will by the force of their ideas,” Koppelman says. “They can actually make the huge banks service them. They’ve flipped the paradigm.”

The themes that Koppelman, Le­vien and Sorkin wanted to tackle couldn’t be confined to a movie, the trio maintain, even though the two screenwriters have more experience in film. Koppelman and Levien come to “Billions” with a string of smart and stylish movies to their credit, including “Rounders,” “Solitary Man,”
“The Illusionist” and “Runaway Jury.” Co-creator and fellow exec producer Sorkin is an influential New York Times business writer and CNBC host whose knowledge and connections enrich the whole enterprise. “Divergent” director Neil Burger makes his episodic TV debut with the first two hours of the drama’s 12-episode first season.

Guido Vitti for Variety; On Lewis: Suit: Salvatore Ferragamo; Shirt: Calvin Klein; Tie: Burberry; Shoes: Hutgo Boss; Location: The Algonquin Hotel, NYC

Adding to the complexity of the world are two formidable female characters that break the stereotypes of the women behind powerful men. Rhoades’ wife, Wendy, played with verve by Maggie Siff, works for Axe Capital as a performance coach — a role that puts her in the know about all of the firm’s most intimate secrets. And Axelrod has a formidable partner and protector in his wife Lara, played by Malin Akerman.

The depictions of both relationships are notable for what they aren’t, namely, damaged or dysfunctional. “We committed to portraying these two couples as having strong, mature marriages with all the complications therein,” Levien says.

“Billions” is, appropriately enough, a pricey play for Showtime. The first season was shot on location all over New York City and on stages in Queens and Brooklyn.

The expansive set for Axe Capital sits in an office park in Orangeburg, N.Y., about an hour outside of the city. It’s the former headquarters of Olympus Surgical & Industrial America, an offshoot of the camera giant that had been sitting empty for years before location scouts found it for the “Billions” pilot shoot in 2014.

With a little dressing up, the building’s modern stylings and open-air feel made for a perfect lair for a nouveau riche billionaire and his troops. The Bloomberg financial news service donated dozens of its proprietary terminals to add authenticity to the tableau of traders and desks that Bobby Axelrod observes from his glass-walled corner office. TV sets sprinkled throughout the offices carry a reel of faux Bloomberg News reports. The production did not stint on extras milling around at Axe Capital to enhance the feel of an office humming with energy and avarice.

Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, Lewis is the master of this domain. On one of the final days of shooting in early December, the star is seemingly everywhere at once, conferring frequently with director Michael Cuesta, cheering for other cast members as they wrap their work for the season, and chatting with the crew. He’s not one to constantly escape to his dressing room between takes. His co-workers note that the Eton-educated Londoner maintains the character’s outer-borough New York accent even while chewing the fat between scenes.

Sorkin has been impressed with how deeply Lewis has immersed himself in the world of hedge fund titans to understand the essence of “Billions.” Sorkin made a few key introductions for Lewis early on (he won’t name names), but it was Lewis’ research and craft that brought Bobby Axelrod to life.

“He has really made Bobby a singular character — real in a way that I would not have imagined if you’d asked me a year ago,” Sorkin says. “It’s a remarkable thing to see someone so embody this character that you have birthed.”

“Billions” was a long-gestating idea for Koppelman and Levien, who have been friends since they met as teenagers in the 1980s on a cross-country youth bus trip. They have an easy rapport after nearly 20 years as writing partners. Koppelman is the more convivial of the two; in his spare time, he hosts and produces the well-regarded podcast “The Moment” for Slate (formerly Grantland). Levien in conversation sounds like a man who chooses every word carefully. He’s also a novelist who earlier this year published the fourth installment of his gritty Frank Behr detective series “Signature Kill.”

Nearly a decade ago, the two began to pursue the idea of doing something for television set on Wall Street. Levien, by virtue of living in Greenwich, had a feel for the personalities of the high rollers working outside traditional Wall Street firms. “I know them as people — as dads from our kids’ sports teams and moms from school,” he says.

And then the global meltdown happened. The Wall Street TV series idea went on the shelf while Koppelman and Levien focused on writing and producing movies.

A few years ago, the duo decided to revisit the setting of high finance for TV, but this time from the perspective of the powerful U.S. attorney’s office for the southern district of New York. Sorkin was independently developing a similar idea, following the success of HBO’s 2011 tele­pic adaptation of his book about the financial crisis, “Too Big to Fail.” The two projects were united at the suggestion of CAA’s Joe Cohen, who then was the agent for all three men.

For much of 2013, they collaborated on a spec script for the pilot and a roadmap for the rest of season one. Showtime was the only place they shopped it. Koppelman and Levien knew Nevins had an interest in the general idea from a previous get-to-know-you meeting. “We knew this belonged at Showtime,” Koppelman says.

“We have this new class of super-wealthy. People aspire to that wealth, but we also are having a discussion about inequality.”
David Nevins

Giamatti was the first actor cast. He was coming off the disappointment of an FX detective drama pilot, “Hoke,” that didn’t get picked up. But he’d had a good experience working with Koppelman and Levien and director Burger on the 2006 feature “The Illusionist.” Plus he’d already had a taste of power — he played former Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke in “Too Big to Fail.”

“The characters were what really got to me,” Giamatti says. “I liked the thriller aspect of it surrounding the power structures in this city.”

The lunch date Giamatti had with Bernanke at the Fed’s New York headquarters in preparation for “Too Big to Fail” has come in handy for “Billions,” he adds. “Just to see people at ease with having the kind of power those guys have was interesting,” Giamatti says. “Everybody’s vying to be the smartest guy in the room, and they all have a claim on it.”

The producers turned to Nevins to seal the deal with Lewis for a role that was tailor-made for the actor’s cool bravado. After all, Lewis solidified his standing as a leading man through his Emmy-winning work as tortured ex-Marine Nicholas Brody on Showtime’s “Homeland.”

Nevins made the pitch by phone, starting the conversation by telling Lewis that he really shouldn’t do the show. At the time, the actor wasn’t even a year removed from “Homeland,” where Brody made a memorable exit at the close of season three. So he shouldn’t do another series so soon, Nevins told him, and he shouldn’t jump right back in with Showtime. Yet the air of mystery that the role called for was so right for Lewis that Nevins just had to send it to him.

But Lewis liked “Billions” instantly, because like “Homeland,” it addresses urgent social issues in a compelling way.

“It has opportunities to dovetail with hard news and truly reflect the headlines,” Lewis says. “There’s a direct correlation between what we’re doing and what is going on in the financial markets. This show is about the kinds of personalities that populate this world, and what drives them. Like it or not, what they do directly affects our lives.”

“Billions” gives viewers the treat of watching two accomplished actors in meaty roles. Giamatti and Lewis have relatively few scenes together, particularly in the first half of the season. Watching how each prepares to joust with the other builds up the tension for when the first big face-off finally occurs.

“Each character has an overblown fantasy of the other guy in his head,” Giamatti says. “They’re so obsessed with each other. He’s this monstrous thing in my head and then when we finally meet, he’s not that. It’s a cool thing to play.”

The character who pivots most between Axelrod and Rhoades is Siff’s Wendy Rhoades. She winds up doing some shuttle diplomacy for her husband and her boss — and she’s defiantly unapologetic to both men, who pressure her to step back from her corporate role so as not to get caught in the crossfire.

Guido Vitti for Variety; On Giamatti: Suit: Calvin Klein; Shirt: Perry Ellis; Tie: Billy Reid; Shoes: Ermenegildo Zegna; Location: The Algonquin Hotel, NYC

Siff loves the challenge of working with two very different, very intense leading men.

“Both are deeply perfectionistic in their own way,” Siff says. “Paul is big and visceral and just constantly trying new things. He won’t rest until he’s explored all his options.” Lewis likes to be very “precise,” she notes. “He’s always thinking about the story in the macro level, and how it’s being told. He’s careful about how he approaches a scene and thinking through everything that’s come before for the characters.”

Wendy Rhoades is based on real-life therapist/performance coaches who some investment firms employ to help traders with focus and concentration. Siff spoke with noted life coach Tony Robbins to prepare for the role — he’s a friend of Koppelman’s — and met with others who do similar work.

Siff had turned down numerous TV overtures after she ended her six seasons on “Sons of Anarchy” in 2013. She had a baby, and was enjoying her break for motherhood until Wendy Rhoades came crashing in. Koppelman and Levien read Siff for the role in her living room in Los Angeles. She couldn’t say no.

Wendy “is someone who has a lot of power in different realms,” Siff says. “That’s unusual for women characters. You often see them confined to one side
of things. … I love doing the dance between (Rhoades and Axelrod), and the way it reveals different parts of my character’s nature.”

Another aspect of Wendy that greatly appealed to her was the “deeply platonic” nature of her relationship with Axelrod. She doesn’t have to sleep with him to exert power.

Akerman’s Lara Axelrod is a more conventional spouse on the surface, but she proves herself a co-CEO of the family empire. A woman of blue-collar roots, Lara wages an aggressive campaign for upward mobility by getting the couple’s names emblazoned on public buildings such as concert halls. She’s the muscle
for her jet-setting husband, derailing potential problems before he’s even aware they exist.

“She is a powerhouse of a woman,” Akerman says. “She has a voice and an opinion. She’s not standing behind her man; she’s standing side by side as his partner.”

If “Billions” has the good fortune to be renewed, the biggest challenge for Koppelman and Levien will be to maintain the tension. The hunter-and-hunted dynamic — which recalls the construct of “Homeland’s” first season — is a high wire act for all concerned.

New york state of mind “Billions,” which co-stars Malin Akerman, right, as Lara Axelrod, wife of the Axe Capital founder, was shot on location in and around New York City.
Courtesy of Showtime

But in contrast to their characters, Lewis and Giamatti clearly enjoy each other’s company. A natural cut-up, Lewis brings out a quieter sense of goofiness in his co-star. The two met while working on the 2013 Euro production “Romeo & Juliet,” which wasn’t a great experience for either of them. “Billions” is a different story.

“Paul is such a protean actor,” Lewis says, echoing Siff’s praise.

Giamatti admits to being worn out by the work but energized by the wider contours of his first episodic series gig. “It’s like the best of movies and theater,” he says. “I get to rework the character all the time. The story does not have the smaller dimensions of a movie.”

Yet with all the care and detail that has gone into creating the world of “Billions,” the creators insist the Axelrod and Rhoades characters are amalgams of various personality types they’ve observed, and not patterned after specific people. But Nevins reports that Wall Street’s interest in the project has been piqued, given the volume of calls that came into his office late last year requesting screeners of the pilot.

“It’s been interesting to see how word about the show has seeped out into (the financial) world,” he says. “This is one pilot that has been much passed around in the corridors of power.”

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