“Voters don’t want William Safire,” an aide told Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades a few weeks ago on Billions. “They want an attorney general who talks like he’s actually from New York.” That may be true of the fictional residents of the Empire State who marked ballots for Rhoades hours after he called a press conference to announce his BDSM kink to the world, but the same cannot be said for the Showtime drama’s devoted viewers. For us, the key to Billions’ appeal is that the characters do not talk like they are actually from New York. Because the characters on Billions do not talk like they are from anywhere other than Billions.
How to summarize the way everyone speaks in this universe? The short version is that Billions is a financial drama about people who think they’re in a Quentin Tarantino movie. The long version is that, when a character on Billions says “Thank you,” the person being thanked does not respond with “You’re welcome.” Instead, they say, “You’re paying me, you don’t have to thank me,” or “Don’t thank me, just don’t come back.”
When they are irate, Billions characters ask underlings, “Why are you two in sync like incestuous ice dancers?” When they are dejected, they say things like, “Save your fine sable for someone whose fortunes warrant it.” When they want to intimidate a millennial, they grumble, “Say ‘literally’ again, and I will light you on fire like a dragon of yore.” They do not give up; they capitulate. They do not keep doing what they’re doing; they stay the course or forge on. They don’t have a specialty, or even a forte; they have a metier.
The path towards these billion-dollar boys with million-dollar vocabularies runs directly from Rounders, the debut screenplay by Billions co-creators Brian Koppleman and David Levien, which gave the world the adage, “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.” As Koppelman puts it, “This is the voice we’ve been aiming at for our whole career.” It’s the voice of a person who is not just better and smarter than you, but of someone who knows they’re better and smarter, and who knows that you know, so why not rub it in? It’s the voice, in other words, of someone who is emphatically not a sucker.
Billions has a writing staff, but much of the actual dialogue comes from Koppelman and Levien. The pair have been best friends since high school, and they remain each other’s most reliable barometer for that essential Billions atmosphere. They encourage new writers to go as hard at the keyboard as Giancarlo Stanton does at the plate, with the knowledge that they can always pull back later. “We want them to swing for the fences,” says Koppelman.
While Koppelman and Levien will happily accept any and all compliments about their writing, the showrunners say much of the show’s distinctive dialogue is inspired by their research into the real machers of Gotham. “We listen really closely,” says Koppelman. “A lot of what might seem heightened actually comes from the world we’re writing about. These characters are people who self-mythologize. They’re aware that the narrative they use to describe their situations is part of how they’re going to succeed.”
“One of the things we’ve learned is these billionaire hedge fund guys are never wrong,” Levien adds. “They don’t allow themselves to be perceived as being ‘wrong.’ That impenetrable armor of always being right is what gets them all this money.”
Still, when it comes to the dialogue, the showrunners admit there is at least one small element of fantasy. Despite the pair self-identifying as “people who read Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage for fun,” they have a very specific rule for themselves. “These people are smarter than we are,” says Koppelman. “They are incredibly well-read. They’ve seen all the important movies. They can talk about paintings. They have an incredible felicity of interests and knowledge.”
Accordingly, each episode of Billions functions as a whirlwind tour of the pop-culture canon. An attorney gives a client a lengthy exegesis on Al Green’s The Belle Album to dissuade him from seeking a concealed-carry permit. A finance professional spontaneously breaks out Melle Mel’s rap from Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You” in a meeting regarding the sovereign wealth fund of a fictional Middle-Eastern country. A few episodes later, this man’s colleague sings the entire first verse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” to explain a development in the chicken futures market. And that’s just the music. Elsewhere, a young CEO recounts the plot of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in service of a metaphor about a rival’s toxic workplace culture. In this world, the highest compliment is a nod to Pulp Fiction: “I still look at you like Vincent Vega did Jules Winnfield.”
While we are savoring the intricacies of the collective Billions voice, let us take a moment to examine its component parts. Chief among them is the hifalutin language of Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades, a bully continually in search of a pulpit, who doles out each syllable like it’s a gulp of communion wine. Opposite Rhoades is Damien Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, his tiny mouth a lair for vicious Gen-X references that emerge briefly to slaughter their prey, then retreat back into darkness. Between the men, Maggie Siff’s Wendy has the innate ability to deliver her lines as if every word was in italics. Rounding out the core is Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason, a newer addition whose diction is as trim and precise as a push notification.
But you can’t talk about the way people talk in Billions without talking about Michael “Wags” Wagner, who, as played by David Costabile, has turned into the throbbing id of the series. The character was originally conceived as an old-school Wasp, but Costabile and the showrunners quickly retooled him into a gleeful hedonist whose perpetually arched eyebrows embody all the joys of speaking like you’re on Billions.
How should an actor play this dialogue? “So much of the underbelly of the show is about appetite,” Costabile says. “The appetite that the writers demand that you have for words, language, vocabulary, metaphor, simile, expression. You want to consume the words, eat the words, really experience the words on every level. If you are using your whole body to communicate, then you’re making a scene from Billions.”
Working with a new director on season three, Costabile created a culinary shorthand. “I get such great language that I really want to make a meal of it,” he says. But it’s tempting to over-relish a dish of that quality, and in this case, the director was trying to give Costabile a specific note they were having trouble putting it into words. “I eventually said to them, ‘Do you want that without sauce? Do you want the sauce on the side? Fully sauced? Lightly sauced?’ They said, ‘Can you do one without the sauce?’” Metaphor fully established, he says, “There’s a couple of times [a season] you’ll see the full sauce, but sometimes the sauce is on the side.”
Perhaps the most important rule for talking like you’re on Billions? Absolutely no improvising. “Not one word of that television show is improvised,” Costabile says. “I asked the writers the other day, “Can we put in an adverb?” and they were like, “No, no. Don’t add that adverb.” It makes sense. Like the great locomotive Snowpiercer, a Billions script is a closed ecosystem: perfectly contained, and perfectly balanced.
So, those are a few helpful tips for talking like you’re on Billions. I hope you use them, as Charles Rhoades Sr. might say, the way a bathhouse piano player used poppers — to give you that electric shock of power just when you need it most.