At this point in the pandemic, we can probably all agree that it is fairly difficult to appear animated on a Zoom call. That is, unless you are actor Billy Magnussen, who materialized on the screen in front of a Union Jack tapestry. “I was in London, either for Aladdin or Bond, and I saw it on Portobello Road and I was like, this is cute,” he told me from his home in Georgia, where he recently relocated to renovate his parents’ house.
Magnussen grew up in Queens before moving down to Georgia for high school and he says he “grew up in a wood shop house, so my hands have scars from shooting myself with nails and splinters.” But his acting career began when he ripped a hamstring in high school. He was too injured for gym class, so he was placed in an acting class instead. “Growing up in the South, there is such an expectation of what it means for a boy to be a man starting at a young age,” he said in between taking puffs of his vape. “And then this whole other world kind of opened up to me.”
Currently, he stars on HBO Max’s sci-fi romance dramedy Made for Love, which follows a tech mogul named Byron Gogol (Magnussen) who, in the spirit of searching for true love, installs a chip into the brain of Hazel (Cristin Milioti), a woman he convinces to fall in love with him and join him for life in his very own Xanadu. To take his toxic marriage vows a step further, Byron develops an unethical tool that threatens to merge himself fully with Hazel—one body, one soul, one mind. If the premise sounds nuts, that’s because it is, and if there is a thread throughout Magnussen’s career, it’s that he does tend to play the zanier type.
The eccentric roles Magnussen has recently played, from Taylor’s (Elizabeth Olsen) crazed brother Nicky in Ingrid Goes West to real-life space cadet Kato Kaelin in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, are often filled to the brim with an overzealous quality that some might characterize as unhinged. But that’s not to say the actor is afraid to branch out to different territory. “There are many roles I've pursued and have not gotten, and the only control or power I have is the pursuance of these projects,” he admitted. “My net is big, but it does seem that I constantly get cast in archetypes of either the dumb jock or the aggressive, misogynist male.”
His character on Made for Love is the latter, but Magnussen said he tapped into what makes Byron feel like an actual person in order to ensure the character wouldn’t be flattened into too much of a tech bro stereotype. “With Byron, he is the personification of toxic masculinity and the beauty of playing this character is, in reality, it's just a scared boy putting up a front,” he explained.
As he does with Byron, what Magnussen brings to most roles regardless of type is a natural humor that exposes the farce in that character’s personality. “No matter how good of an actor you are, or how any actor prepares, you’re still you. This character is living through your vessel, so you can't escape who you are, but you could highlight and minimize aspects of yourself,” he said.
Juggling that is not always easy. To release himself from being tangled up in merging his mentality with that of his characters’, the actor used to travel to a new place after every project. The pandemic has put a pin in that form of self-care (for now), but it served as a reset for the actor each time he put a role to rest. And in Magnussen’s opinion, Made For Love uses science fiction and comedy tropes to bring the audience into a story that is really all about just how hard relationships actually can be, even when you don’t install a chip into your partner’s brain to control their every move.
“Relationships and love, there’s no perfect love story,” he said. “Our show is what happens after the credits of a Disney prince movie. How many times have you fallen in love so easily, but then you slowly realize you didn't like them?”
The thing to know about Magnussen is that he likes to answer questions with more questions. In response to the query of how he began his acting career, he’d rather ask how you got your start instead. He concedes to the idea that we’re all performing, whether acting is our profession or not. But Magnussen says his first major career goal was to make it to Broadway, which he achieved very soon after finishing school when he appeared in a play called The Ritz with Rosie Perez. But what do you do once you hit your target? “I had hit that goal and I was like, what do I wake up tomorrow to do? It’s a continual hunger of finding the appetite to feed,” Magnussen said.
So where does one go from, say, appearing in a film for the James Bond franchise (No Time To Die), or being such a scene-stealer as a new character introduced in Disney’s live-action Aladdin that the House of Mouse suggests a spin-off, or starring as the complicated romantic lead of an HBO series? Magnussen doesn’t have the answer any more than you do. “I don't know what life is going to bring,” he said. “I'm going to be open to it as much as I can, but at this moment, life has been fortunate enough to give me opportunities that I can't turn my back on.”