Billy Magnussen is the guy to call if you need someone to play, for lack of a better term, an elaborate douchebag in your movie or TV show — though the fact that type has become his niche bums him out a bit. “It starts affecting you,” Magnussen said over the phone while watering plants in his garden at his new home in Georgia, “because you’re like, I don’t think I’m that person?” On its face, his role as the turtleneck-fond tech genius Byron Gogol in HBO Max’s dark comedy Made for Love is a similar kind of Magnussen-brand male narcissist, a man so powerful that he lives in his own futuristic tech “hub” and implants a chip into his wife Hazel, played by Cristin Milioti, so that he can know everything she feels, hears, and sees. She runs away as soon as she finds out about it. He can’t understand why.
As the series continues, Magnussen also gets to tease out a lot of the character’s often hilarious insecurities, including his fear of crowded beaches, his aversion toward smells, and his confusion over the concept of a donut hole. He sees Byron as a guy who’s taken all the societal programming fed to boys about how to be a man to the not-so-logical extreme, and plays him with an eye toward deconstructing toxic masculinity, cribbing a few gestures (and style choices) from men he’s seen exhibit it in person. With the next set of Made for Love episodes out today, Magnussen talked with Vulture about confronting his internalized messages about masculinity, his decade-long friendship with Milioti, and his upcoming roles in The Many Saints of Newark and the long-delayed No Time to Die.
Were you looking at any actual tech bros as inspiration for playing Byron?
I did look into Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs and that did help build a foundation. Then I also realized that Byron is almost the personification of toxic masculinity. The guy has all the stuff — the woman, the car, the house — but he’s actually a scared boy. Every man that puts up a front like that is trying to fend off everything they fear. Alissa Nutting and Christina Lee [Made for Love’s writers] use sci-fi and dark comedy to get around to what our story is about, which is relationships. He hears, “I want smells,” or, “I want donut holes,” but he doesn’t actually hear Hazel or connect with her. Have you ever been in a relationship where your partner says something and you do that thing but it’s not actually what they’re asking for?
I think that’s the basis for what our show is. These people are trying their damndest to connect but not actually listening to each other.
You and Cristin Milioti both came up through New York Theater. She was in Once on Broadway around the same time you were in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. How long have you known each other?
We actually met when we got cast as husband and wife in this movie The Brass Teapot. She was basically cut out of it, but I had so much fun with this girl in upstate New York. I would make her go on jogs with me. I instantly knew I had a friend in her. Her show was right next to my show, and I would always go over at intermission in my prince outfit and tights. There was a bar window onstage and I would always sneak on and look through it as if I was a patron walking past. I would go over and bother her all the time! But yeah, she’s talented as hell. I remember actually seeing her in Once and bawling my eyes out.
In terms of exploring Byron’s toxic masculinity, you’ve played a good number of similar characters in the past. In Maniac, for instance, our critic Jen Chaney described your part as “a douche of many different colors.” Do you have a way you think about how to approach playing that type of guy?
I mean, we grow up in a world where it was naturally bred into us. There’s parts of me that I don’t like and there are parts of all of us that society has placed on us. Highlighting them and putting them out there is vulnerable, but it’s also the society we live in. How do we address it if we don’t talk about it? We are all full of deep emotions and feelings and we hide a lot of them. There are a lot of things where I look at people and I’m like, I don’t like that! But, for this character, it might work.
Does it feel therapeutic to work through some toxic impulse by putting it into a character like that?
Yes and no. I’m not gonna lie, it sucks constantly [hearing], “Billy Magnussen plays douchebags so well.” It starts affecting you, because you’re like, I don’t think I’m that person? I kinda get scared of it more and more, because the perception people have of me is that I’m an aggressive guy.
Have you tried to look for roles that frame you in a different way?
I feel as though I’ve definitely portrayed those other roles! But it seems like Maniac and then this happened … I wouldn’t say Kato Kaelin [in The People v. O.J. Simpson] was toxic masculinity in his own right. But to answer your question, when I get excited about working on a project, it’s usually about the project as a whole. I hate people who make it all about them, that’s not my jam. I can’t choose what I get hired for, but I can choose what I can audition for. I wish I was in a different … No, I don’t wish, actually! I really am happy, to tell you the truth. There’s so many people out there who are so much better than me and not working.
How much did you think through Byron’s backstory, or whatever it was that made him want to fully retreat from society and build his own little fortress?
Again, what does that boil down to? Our society teaching men how to be. You’ve gotta put up those walls and you’ve gotta fight because you’re fighting against the world all the time. That’s how I was raised. I’m trying to avoid that more and more. I don’t want to say anything about his backstory, because there might be more coming out or there might not, but it’s all based in what society teaches us.
Has there been anything specific you feel like you’ve had to un-teach yourself recently?
I think the biggest lesson is to just take a second and listen. Empathy and chivalry is not dead, and it doesn’t need to be. Don’t throw in your opinion until it’s asked for. I think as men we’re taught to act on something and move forward really fast. It’s the pause that I’m working on.
Well, it’s the middle of a pandemic with so much stopped. You were even in the James Bond film No Time to Die, which has been delayed through all this. Has that forced you to confront what it means to pause, in a career sense?
I’ve definitely had to pause. More than anything, that’s kind of why I came to Georgia, just to pause and take a break. When I was 28 I was like, “Once my career starts …” Then I just had a moment and I looked back and was like, wait, I’m in my career. That was just before Vanya.
Did you move to Georgia recently?
In the past four months. I’d finished Made for Love, some personal things in my life happened, and I was just like, I need rest. You’ve got to see my garden! I’ve got tomatoes, cucumber, basil, rosemary, broccolini, peppers out the wazoo! I’m basically growing everything I need to make a Greek salad.
In terms of other projects you have coming out, you played a young Paulie Walnuts in the Sopranos prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark. Did you get to talk to Tony Sirico, who played him on the show, about the character?
I did get to sit down and talk to him for a day. He’s a wonderful gentleman. I think the goal with the project was finding the spirit of the character more than anything. It was a wonderful project to be in. It’s a New York gangster staple!
On Made for Love, Byron wears all these very intense tech-guy outfits. Lots of turtlenecks and giant glasses and all-black everything. Did you have much input on that?
Gosh, some of those outfits were banging! Our costume designer Jennifer Eve was wonderful, and she created all the outfits. Everything’s sleek and smooth and proper and together. The glasses were my idea because I think of it as a protective layer. You can always hide behind it. I want to know what that separation is that keeps him isolated from people. I knew a guy once that had glasses like that and I was like, I don’t like you! So I was like, I’m gonna use that. Again, toxic masculinity. It’s a weird peacock flex mixed with a defense mechanism.