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Maniac’s Billy Magnussen on Playing a ‘Colorful Douchebag’

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In Vulture’s review of Maniac, Jen Chaney refers to Billy Magnussen as playing “a douche of many different colors.” It’s an apt description — Magnussen plays Jed Milgrim, the domineering brother of Jonah Hill’s Owen, as well as the imaginary sibling that Owen hallucinates — which is why Magnussen brought up the line as soon as he sat down for an interview earlier this week, responding to it with mock outrage and asking to take an offended photo to send to Chaney herself.

Magnussen doesn’t really mind that “douche” label for his Maniac characters, though he prefers to think of Jed as more of a “master gaslighter” and he’s used to playing variations on a certain too-handsome, alpha-male type, from Game Night to Kimmy Schmidt to his breakout theater role in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Still, he says he delights in making those types swerve away from the norm — Magnussen rarely plays a straight-up bully, he doesn’t like being mean — toward something just outside of reality. That made Maniac, with its many genre-bending realities, a perfect place to play. Vulture sat down with Magnussen to talk about shaping his character(s) with director Cary Joji Fukunaga, filming a small role in Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin, and trying to figure out just how he ended up with the career he has.

So, Maniac
You’re Vulture?

Yes.
Oh my God, you guys said Jed was a colorful douchebag! Is that the review?

I think so, yes. What did you think of that?
It’s probably an accurate representation. I was just talking to [Maniac creator] Patrick [Somerville] about how we think the character of Jed is a master gaslighter. He makes people feel bad even if it’s something he did. And I was like, “That’s probably the best way I should describe it in these interviews.” It’s crazy, man. It’s a crazy show.

Aside from Jed, you also get to pop up as Owen’s imaginary dead brother in different worlds. Did you have a favorite fantasy sequence?
It was really fun to come at Owen’s character from multiple angles. It was a lot of work and a lot of dialogue between us to figure out where it lives and where it breathes. There’s not a favorite. It’s not like you show up one day and it’s like, “This is my favorite day.” Cary is painting a picture of what’s happening and as an actor you are, let’s say, the color blue. You want to be the best blue that he can use, and you want to help fill in that space for him.

Let’s talk about the most basic version of the character, Jed. He’s this terrible guy who comes from a wealthy family …
Yeah, I always get cast in roles similar to that all the time. I have none of that upbringing and whatnot, it’s funny.

Do you think it’s your look?
It’s just my face.

Something about it reads as Ivy League douche?
Definitely did not go to Ivy League, no. But it is fun to play that world.

I also love the mustache you have in a few scenes on Maniac.
You gotta watch The Oath, man! You know that one, the Ike Barinholtz [movie]? Did you see it yet?

I’ve only seen the trailer.
It was so epic. Ike is a great guy and a smart artist.

So you grew the mustache for The Oath?
No, it’s a mixture. It just parlayed into both. It reminds me of men my father used to work with, and that’s where I got that mustache guy from. It just felt very clean, by the book.

How much did you talk with Jonah about the dynamic between Owen and your characters?
I really enjoyed working with Jonah. He is very meticulous with the way he works and it was fun to play with him. It’s not improvising, but it’s listening and responding. You always hope to work with an actor like that, who didn’t go and memorize their lines in front of a mirror.

That’s a very theatrical approach.
Yeah, theater was my base.

What’s it like to come from that and do TV and movies?
A blessing, though I do miss theater so much. With film and television, there’s a lot of stop and go and you really can manicure a performance. It’s like Instagram and Twitter — you can really manipulate how you’re perceived and what not. With theater, you have two-and-a-half hours of living. You stumble, you trip, you fall, but you have to get back up, you have to keep going. Sometimes with film, you don’t get to see the hiccups.

With Maniac, I think Cary and Patrick were very specific and that’s exciting. I was 100 percent on their journey with them.

Were there any instances of them really wanting a specific thing that stood out?
I remember a day where Cary asked the cinematographer very nicely and was like, “Can I take the camera?” Because he wanted a certain movement of the camera for one shot. I think that’s a strong sign of a leader. He was not overstepping his boundaries, he was just, I really would like this specifically. It was a pleasure working with that guy. I would do anything that guy asked.

And now he’s doing James Bond.
I know, dude! I broke in while he was doing an interview and was like, “You motherfucker!”

You were so funny in Game Night with Sharon Horgan, and they announced that you’re doing a new show with her for Amazon. Did that come out of being in Game Night?
Yes. I met Sharon, who is one of the sweetest, most generous people in this whole world. [Why Him? writers] John Hamburg and Ian Helfer had this idea that they came to Sharon with, and then Sharon approached me about it, and then we all got in a room and started pitching these ideas and we were like, “This is going to be fucking funny.”

I think Catastrophe is hilarious.
That’s my type of humor. I hate mean humor, I hate nasty humor, I like humor in the sense of, I think it’s going this way, but it doesn’t. I know what’s supposed to happen, but it doesn’t.

It does feel like the characters you’ve played, in Game Night or elsewhere, live up to that. You think the character will be a douchebag or mean, but he’s a little softer or a little weirder.
I think that’s partly myself. I bring myself to a lot of the characters. Then again, it’s which ones you manicure and whatnot. The Oath is so different from me, Maniac was different from me. But again, I love playing things that are just weird. “Weird” is the wrong word, more like, Oh, let’s just tweak it up a notch. I started with soaps and worked in that world. You play whatever you get and it grows, man. It’s so crazy to be at this point. I have a publicist, I’ve never done that before.

Was there a moment where you were shocked by that change?
I didn’t notice it until literally right now. You’re working for an idea for a while then you achieve it and you’re like, “How did I get here? Who is this person that I thought I wanted to be? What do I do from here now?”

Maniac is a show about introspection, in a way. Did that prompt you to reflect on yourself more?
I think it’s more about connections than anything and how there can be bad connections and great connections. I think any project naturally does. Even in your life, when you do an interview, even this, if you don’t think about what were talking about later at all, it wasn’t a good connection.

You’re also doing this CBS All Access show Tell Me a Story, which is a collection of modern fairy tales, right?
It’s of the fairy-tale world, but not in a fairy-tale world. It is a dark version of a modern fairy-tale story. It’s based off Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Three Little Pigs. I’m in the Little Red Riding Hood story, they made me the Big Bad Wolf. It’s been a fun little treat, that show.

I love fairy tales, and Aladdin’s coming out, man. I can’t wait to see it.

You’re a new prince in Aladdin, right?
A suitor that comes in and tries to woo Jasmine.

Presumably from a country far away from Agrabah?
[With an exaggerated Scandinavian accent] Scanland. That’s where he’s from. It’s gonna be a beautiful thing. What Guy Ritchie did, walking on to the set of Agrabah you’re like, “Wow, they built it.”

Guy Ritchie tends to make movies with brawler, streetwise characters. Was Aladdin more Guy Ritchie-ish or more Disney-ish?
I haven’t seen it, but I would say it’s a mix of Guy Ritchie and Disney. I loved every moment of it. You’re telling a story about both the princess and Aladdin, that you are good enough who you are, you don’t have to be something else to find worth. To tell that story to young kids and to adults is a blessing.

Do you sing at all in Aladdin? You sang in Into the Woods.
Who knows? I don’t think there was any singing for me in the script, but I might have … You know Spinal Tap? [British accent] It goes to eleven? Subtlety was not in my performance for that movie. I don’t think there’s much subtlety in most of my fare.

You like to go to eleven.
Jed is subtle at points, he’s manipulative and very mean. But you do everything the way it deserves to be done. The best idea should always win.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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