When Dueling Leads on ‘Billions,’ ‘The Night Manager’ Face Off

Billions Showtime Emmy Race
Courtesy of Showtime

Dueling leads always bring an extra edge to any show, be it comedy or a drama. If it’s the former, the zingers and barbs carry more weight and land with greater impact between two actors on the same footing. If it’s the latter, a protagonist and antagonist squaring off is far more interesting and entertaining when the scales could tip either way at any time. This season alone has seen heavyweights like Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston (“The Night Manager”), Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen (“The Dresser”) and Hugh Dancy and Aaron Paul (“The Path”) face off.

In Showtime’s “Billions,” Paul Giamatti’s U.S. attorney and Damian Lewis’ ruthless hedge fund billionaire lock horns and ask audiences to takes sides; should the government win, or the Wall Street oligarch? Although the two leads share little screen time, that’s fine with Giamatti. “I like the fact that we’re not together very much,” says the actor. “I didn’t really get to see him that much, so it was always really exciting when we got to do a scene together. We get really amped up in the characters. Every one of the scenes we have is always going to get volatile in some way.”

Adds Giamatti, “We’re obsessed with each other. So when we do see each other, it’s like you see this weird person that you’ve been in love with from afar, obsessed with from afar. That kind of weird obsession thing is a great thing between the characters.”

Noting the thin line between the law-abiding and lawless, the actor describes his federal prosecutor as “a tricky character. In some ways, Damian’s the criminal, but I’m kind of the bad guy in some ways too. I loved the idea of a bit of a prince of darkness guy who was the lawman.”

“I didn’t really get to see him that much, so it was always really exciting when we got to do a scene together. Every one of the scenes we have is always going to get volatile in some way.”
paul giamatti

As the brilliant but lactose intolerant Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, Johnny Galecki has played the straight man opposite co-lead Jim Parsons’ even nerdier Dr. Sheldon Cooper in CBS’ hit “The Big Bang Theory” for nine seasons. “A whole lot’s changed since the show began, and of course you all go through ups and downs, both professionally and personally,” says Galecki, who was Emmy-nominated in 2011. “But the chemistry’s always been there, and we hit it off immediately and talked for 12 hours straight the first time we met. So you do this ‘accelerated bonding,’ where you share all these very personal experiences with someone you hardly know, and that helped a lot with quickly developing and understanding our characters and their dynamic.”

In terms of that dynamic and working as co-leads, “Leonard has fewer peccadilloes and issues than Sheldon,” notes Galecki, “but I’ve always been very uncompetitive both personally and professionally, thanks to my Chicago theater background where it’s so supportive. And as ‘the straight man’ in the relationship, I’ve always felt that comedy’s like hockey — you get a lot of credit for assists. Working with Jim is so much fun, as our processes are very similar, but our comedy influences are very different — and those differences really serve what we do in the show.”

Even though he had “no idea” what the show was about, or what to expect, Steve Buscemi “didn’t hesitate” when writer-director — and self-distributor — Louis C.K. asked him to play brother Pete (to his Horace) on “Horace and Pete.” “I’d never worked with him before, but I’m a huge fan. I was thrilled to work so closely with him and see what he came up with each week.”

The comedian didn’t disappoint. “He really listens in a scene, and can just play off the moment,” notes Buscemi. “But then the director takes over from the actor, and he’ll suddenly throw you a curveball, to change things up a bit.”
The actor reports that the duo rehearsed “a lot, and we worked fast and did long takes, like filming a play, without ever worrying about where the camera was. And I was always surprised at where it ended up, which was part of the joy of working with Louis.”