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Damian Lewis on Why ‘Billions’ Is ‘Like a Superhero Show’

When “Billions” returns for its third season, Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod is in a very unfamiliar place: Under indictment, separated from his wife, and banished from the hedge fund company that bears his name. “It’s a fun trajectory for the character,” he says.

Ahead of the premiere, Lewis talked to Variety about what’s in store for the embattled hedge fund manager, whether Wendy (Maggie Siff) can be trusted, and how closely the season mirrors current headlines.

How does this season compare for you?

I think “Billions” has found its sweet spot. Season 1 was a look at this world and these people behaviorally. Now the cat-and-mouse game has really taken off and the stakes have become higher. It’s helpful to the drama of it. I like the fact that Axe was outmaneuvered at the end of last year by Chuck. And so he finds himself in a unusual position that he’s not used to being in — back to the wall and working out a way of getting back into the game.

It’s really an interesting place for a character who’s been so cocky and confident. He even says at one point, “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

I think the dark side of human personality is writ large in the show — the way in which people are prepared to behave to get what they want. This is a very compromised group of human beings: People who are extremely powerful, extremely wealthy and will do what they can to retain that. Shysters shystering is a lot of fun to watch, it turns out. If it’s done with bravado, and great joy and relish, it makes for a very entertaining story. But I think when there are moments with vulnerability with Axe, it tends to be with the women in his life — Wendy, who he can open to. But even that maintains a professional veneer. He goes to her to be fixed and can be open and honest with her about how he’s feeling. And for Lara — that is collateral damage at the moment, his wife and his children. He doesn’t give them enough time. He doesn’t have the time because he’s got himself caught up in this contest about survival for himself. It has evolved now into, for Axe, about survival and being able to continue a life that he has become used to and philosophically he believes in. It’s not just about beating the other guy, although that’s always important. He can be brought down and ruined and ended.

He’s much more aware of that this season. He knows he’s on thin ice.

The stakes are little bit higher. This is a show that’s a little bit of a superhero show. The bullets bounce off these guys. People go down, but they get back up quite quickly. [Executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien] want that buoyancy for the show. They want it to be funny — it’s a very funny show. It’s a dramedy, really.

This season also feels particularly timely — it feels more ripped from the headlines than ever.

Of course, there are parallels with what’s going on. Never before has it been so overt that politics and money have merged right in the White House. I think your current president comes from the world we’re exploring. A lot of his friends and his appointees come from this world. It’s fun to get into this world and see the way these guys move. Our show is authentic in that way. It’s not over the top. I think it’s good now to see the stakes heightened and they’re real. What is it like when you’ve made a billion dollars? If you might lose it all, how does that make you feel? And Axe is really presented with that drama.

How far is Axe willing to go?

Axe may lose his entire fortune, his lifetime’s achievement. At the beginning of season 3, he’s going to have to to go to court. He’s going to have to answer for what he did if the other side can put this case tougher. And he’s busy, running around, moving pieces in the background to make sure they don’t have the evidence they need. He’ll do whatever it takes. Like deporting a poor innocent Guatemalen woman. One shouldn’t judge one’s characters, but I make an appalling play where I have someone deported because I need to move the pieces around in order to keep myself alive. This poor woman was used as a pawn. That is reminiscent of some of the headlines over the last year.

Given that, how do you manage to keep him sympathetic? Is it important to you to keep the audience on his side?

These guys, it’s the sheriff and the cowboy. It’s the FBI and the gangsters. That’s where this show sits, it’s set in American mythology. They speak in heightened ways. They do outrageous things. They get away with it or they don’t, but if they get hit they get back up again. And quick. That buoyancy is very entertaining for people. There’s also humanity in the show. I think that’s why you root for Axe. You root for Chuck when he’s sitting at the kitchen table with Wendy and discussing their marriage. How do we fix this and look after the kids? Chuck himself is pulling all kinds of moves as he shimmies up the greasy political pole. No one behaves well in this show. [The producers] are saying, we believe this way to be the way the rich and powerful behave. Corruption is endemic on both sides, it’s everywhere. Now it might even be at the top. In our show, we don’t want to proselytize. We don’t want to be didactic. It doesn’t have to be worthy. We can laugh with them and at them, and enjoy the sheer chutzpah of these characters. That’s why we enjoy Bobby. That’s why we enjoy Chuck. That’s why we love Wags (David Costabile). They’re outrageous and most of us don’t behave that way. Most of us appeal to a common moral system. People who want that much wealth, that much power, they have to create their own moral system. That’s why they are masters of the universe. But it’s not without consequence.

Can Wendy be trusted? She seems to be playing both sides.

I think it’s great what they’ve done with Wendy. She seemed to be a moral arbiter and she’s shown herself to know how to cut a deal as well as anyone else. Again, I don’t wish to be heavy-handed, but the word transactional as been thrown around a lot in the last year because we seem to have a president who understand the transactional nature of life. That’s how he lives his life. This show is about transaction. If you give, I’ll give and we will make a deal. That’s the world of “Billions.” Deals can be made. Wendy understands that as well as anyone. In season 2, when she gets wind of the deal, of the short I’m making on ice juice, she decides to short it, too, unbeknownst to her husband, who is doing something on the other side. So there is a chance that she will be implicated. Things thicken for her. She’s thrown into new territory that she’s not used to. But there’s a tension there now that there never was before. Because people have become untrustworthy in this world. If you want to look for a greater message, you see what’s happened to Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon). What happens to everybody in this world of “Billions,” power and money finally corrupt. Everything and everyone. Wendy was set up as a center of calm between these two raging bulls. But we’ll see that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And what’s the state of his relationship with Lara? 

Good for her, she finally says, “Bobby, you can charm your way back only so many times. And keep lying so many times.” And it was one of the attractive things about Bobby is that he did adore his wife and his children and seemed to be a family man. But he is so in the mire now with his professional life that there has been collateral damage and that has been his personal life. He has not paid attention to his wife and kids. Bobby’s a scrapper, a pugilist, a fighter. When he’s in the corner, he just comes out hitting harder. That’s what he does. He is going to treat his wife even more appallingly. You don’t ever threaten to take my boys away from him again. Ever. “Billions” likes to stroll in that area. It loves its “Godfather” references. That’s why it’s just so entertaining to watch.

 

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