character study

How ‘Wags’ Became the Hedonistic Heart of Billions

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME and JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

The character: Mike “Wags” Wagner, Chief Operating Officer of Axe Capital, right-hand man of company founder Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, and the resident adulte terrible/bon vivant of Billions, which aired the finale of the back half of its COVID-delayed fifth season Sunday night on Showtime.

The actor: David Costabile, 54, has been a television mainstay for the better part of 15 years; his most memorable roles include the unctuous newspaper editor Thomas Klebanow in the fifth season of The Wire and the ill-fated chemist (and karaoke enthusiast) Gale Boetticher in Breaking Bad (and occasionally its prequel, Better Call Saul). He previously collaborated with Billions co-creators and showrunners David Levien and Brian Koppelman — the latter is a friend from college — on their 2009 film Solitary Man.

Essential traits: Quick-witted and foul-mouthed, Wags has an abiding (and occasionally out-of-control) enthusiasm for the finer things in life, legal and otherwise. His joie de vivre is matched only by (a) his ferocious attack-dog devotion to his friend and employer, Bobby Axelrod, and (b) the jaunty upturn of his devilish mustache.

The Origin

When Billions began, Wags did not exist. Yes, there was a character bearing that name played by David Costabile, but his personality was a far cry from the Wags we’ve come to know. “When we first talked to Dave about it, we were like, ‘This is a guy who says as little as he can to get his opinion across,’” Koppelman explains. “He roils inside, but you don’t see any evidence of it.’”

“The character was completely different,” Costabile echoes. “Upper East Side WASP, very patrician, very quiet, the Tom Hagen man behind the man.” (Billions may be the most Godfather-loving show since The Sopranos, so it’s no surprise to hear a cast member drop a reference.) “I auditioned that way, and we shot the pilot that way … and they watched the pilot and were like ‘No, we have to completely change it.’”

It wasn’t that Costabile’s original approach to Wags had gone wrong; rather, his castmate Damien Lewis’s approach to Axe had gone right. “Some of the stuff on the page was Axe being fiery and explosive,” Levien says, “but then Damien came in with this shark-like cool. We realized we needed a fiery id.”

“We also realized we were underutilizing Dave and all his abilities,” Koppelman continues. “And we knew Costy had the colors to play this guy. We took him to barbecue lunch and we were like, ‘We want to try a thing with you. We want you to think about how you’d play this guy if we flipped him 180 degrees, and if all that stuff roiling on the inside came out instead.” Such a dramatic change could be easily masked, they thought, since they were so early in production. “We can do this, like, before anybody really knows what happened,” Levien recalls.

Key to that transition was editor Marnee Meyer, who was tasked with re-editing the existing Wags footage according to the new brief. According to Meyer, Costabile’s innate talent made editing Wags easy. “He always gives a multi-layered performance,” she says. “He can swing from hilarious to serious and then to vulnerable all in one scene.” She was able to fully redefine the character using only the footage on hand, and Wags went on to be one of Meyer’s favorite characters to edit in the five seasons that followed.

“Most people had never really seen me do that,” Costabile says of the new, bombastic Wags, “and I didn’t know that I would have not just a facility for it, but also an affinity for it.”

Koppelman had faith from day one, based on his experiences with Costabile dating back to their days at Tufts University. “He and I were in an acting class at college together, and it was acting in a scene with him that I realized I wasn’t ever going to be an actor. When Costy turned around in the scene, he wasn’t the kid I knew — he was this character. I remember being blown across the little theater and feeling like, Man, that’s what a person with the gift and the craft really looks like.

Even so, Costabile remains skeptical: “I will tell you that if I had to audition playing Wags as it stands now, my guess is that I would not have gotten cast.”

The Turning Point

When filming commenced for the series’s second episode, “Naming Rights,” Costabile was thrown into the deep end of embodying the reimagined Wags, a challenge he embraced with some trepidation. “I remember vividly on the first day back, I was like, How’s this going to work? What are we going to do?

A scene in which Axe fires rogue trader Victor Mateo (Louis Cancelmi) offered the inspiration Costabile needed. “Louis is a very imposing dude,” he says, “and he steps forward and says, ‘This is fucking bullshit.’ And as he stepped forward, I stepped forward. I got excited by that idea. I was like, Oh, you want to fight? I’ll eat you. I won’t just fight you — and I may lose — but I’ll try to actually eat you right now. In that moment, I thought, Oh, that’s who this guy is.” This version of the scene didn’t make it to air, but it showed Koppelman and Levien that Costabile made a breakthrough. “They were like, ‘That’s it, that’s it, that’s it,’” Costabile says.

Watch those early episodes back and you’ll Costabile bringing the profane, balls-to-the-wall energy Wags would come to be known for everywhere, from the boardroom to the office of Axe Cap in-house performance coach Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff). To Levien, that exhibitionistic quality was another piece of the Wags puzzle. “The fact that he would take the opportunity of a semi-psychiatric coaching session and use it to indulge his deepest hedonistic thoughts — with no concern about the fact that this person is a co-worker he’d be passing by in the office all the time — was a signal to the audience: Okay, this guy will say or do anything.”

The Look

“He showed up having organized that mustache with the wax and the upturn thing, and I remember we were just like, ‘Yep, that’s the guy.” Photo: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

“As the series was coming together,” Costabile says, “[Koppelman and Levien] were reinventing an entire character, someone who was essential to the whole story.” Perhaps the single most recognizable symbol of that process was Costabile’s own contribution: Wags’s signature mustache.

“We originally said to him, ‘Maybe you shave your head,’” Koppelman recalls. “And he was like, ‘I will if you want, but let me show you another idea.’”

“I really pushed Brian and David to have the twisty mustache,” Costabile says. “I was like, ‘This should be who this person is. He knows what he’s doing. He knows that on some level, if you looked at him, you’d be like, Who is this guy with the twisty mustache? The guy who’s either pretending to be the devil or is the devil? What the fuck is going on? It seemed like such a fun chess move. He’s not somebody who pushes you off balance, he pulls you off balance, pulling you in in order for you to fall.”

“He showed up having organized that mustache,” Koppelman says, “with the wax and the upturn thing, and I remember we were just like, ‘Yep, that’s the guy. That’s Wags.’”

The mustache gave the creators a new window into the character they’d written, from his backstory to his wardrobe. “He came back with the goatee with the devilishly upturned mustache, and we realized he was a character who’d probably blown up multiple marriages because of his unrestrained character,” Levien says. “Somebody — I think it was [Costabile] — said he should wear jewelry too, so we got him going with bracelets.”

Those extra accessories became integral to Wags’s look and vibe. “I specifically asked how he felt about all the jewelry, as I tend to lean a little more minimalist,” says Jacki Roach, the costume designer who joined production for the upcoming sixth season. “David’s response was ‘Wags is a maximalist.’ And that told me everything I needed to know about Wags.” (For season six, Roach secured updated versions of the character’s signature Sisco Berluti bracelets and David Yurman pinkie rings.)

With each character trait that was added, the image of Wags as a dandy of the Wall Street underworld came into focus. “Aside from all that wildness, this was a guy who was vital for taking big clients or investors out on expense-account dinners, or Vegas junkets, or the inappropriate gentlemen’s clubs—all the things our society [is] phasing out and changing,” Levien says. “When it comes down to it, he has to know what he’s doing around the trading desk or else it would all be for naught. He’s a savvy, experienced guy who’s survived it all, knows how to link up with a great trader as his leader, and support him as the best number two on Wall Street.”

The Existentialist

In season five, Wags is obsessed with getting fatherhood right — and getting revenge on an old enemy. Photo: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

With the look and psyche both firmly established, Costabile embraced Wags’s intense energy. Frequently the show’s most quotable character, he embodies Billions’ Scorsesean approach to the double-edged glamour of criminality. Wags is a guy who can respond to a protest outside Axe Cap headquarters by urging his boss to “Call in the strikebreakers” with near-erotic zeal — “I think one could write that off as [Wags] having no moral center … but perhaps he only feels truly alive when he’s in a kind of battle,” says Koppelman — or wheedle some hapless brokerage dorks courting the firm’s business into a night of forbidden pleasures by cooing “Fire walk with me” at them like a David Lynch demon.

But as Meyer noted of Costabile’s performance, there are layers to almost everything Wags does. That “Fire walk with me” moment? It came in the midst of the season two arc in which his high-rolling (emphasis on high) lifestyle finally takes a toll on his body and mind. He pulls himself up before hitting rock bottom — or, worse for him, rehab. (Costabile says the concurrent sleep deprivation from parenting a newborn helped him portray a character running on fumes: “I look like I’m a guy who has nothing left in the tank and is still going.”) The following season, Wags fights tooth and nail to secure a highly sought-after grave plot (no, seriously) and ends the episode in question lying face-up in a cemetery, contemplating his legacy.

For all his own vulgarity, he bristles when confronted with what he considers barbarity. In season two, he furiously confronts some finance bros over-seasoning sushi prepared by his favorite chef by hollering, “Your expense accounts don’t entitle you to fuck his art up the ass!” Says Costabile: “The real answer for him is, ‘I’m not a fucking animal,’ right? He recognizes and respects passion and artistry and art and beauty. The money is actually in service of something much bigger. Like, there is beauty in the world, and there are many forms of love. Certainly Eros is preferred, but erotic love, not just of another person, but of the world, of food, of eroticism itself. You see it in everything he is: the way he moves, the clothes he wears. He wants to engage with that part of the world.”

“The scene in the graveyard is a real direct path to what we’re talking about here,” Koppelman adds. “The idea that in Wags’s mind, if you’re alive, you might as well live turned up to 11.” Koppelman continues: ”You could think of him as somebody who’s highly aware of his mortality. Wags lives for those moments of extremis; his dimmers are only fully on in those most heightened moments. Maybe that’s the heart of it: It’s not a moral question as much as it’s an existential one.”

The fifth season finds him attempting to make amends for his estranged relationships with his (apparently many) adult children by attempting to father a brand-new baby and get it all right from the get-go. This being Wags, however, there’s more to this scheme than just getting back in the fatherhood game: Chelsea (Caroline Day), the woman he selects as his mother-to-be, is also the daughter of an old enemy — the guy he outfoxed for that grave plot, no less — whom he can taunt with the relationship.

“Wags decides the way he is as a father hasn’t been a great success,” Koppelman says. “It ties into the way he processes the drinking too much thing, or the partying too hard thing. It’s this faith that as long as he’s here, he can get it right, and he can keep engaging with his whole being.” The Wags hoping to hit reset on his life as a father and the Wags looking to settle an old score? That’s his whole being, all right.

As much as he loves playing a character who always has another trick up his sleeve, Costabile casts the difference between himself and Wags as stark: “People meet me and they’re just like, ‘Oh, you’re just a middle-aged dad,’ which is true.” Koppelman, however, sees traces of the real man within the fictional character. “Knowing [Costabile], he has a great appetite for mischief. This is a man who led a mime/clown troupe when he was just out of college — he’d just walk them into comedy clubs and perform. If that’s not a Wags move, I don’t know what is.”

How ‘Wags’ Became the Hedonistic Heart of Billions