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Showtime’s ‘Billions’ Is Excess at Its Best

Malin Akerman wades through big money and big drama on her new series

Almost everything on the new Showtime series Billions, premiering this week, is impressive. Whether it’s the real estate where the series is shot—like an $82 million Hamptons spread that makes an appearance in the pilot—or the toys that the show’s hedge funders play with, there isn’t much that’s within the grasp of mere mortals. And why should there be? The series follows the financial whiz Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and he tangles with the government (notably Paul Giamatti’s U.S. Attorney) and a mess of other powerful enemies, all of whom seem to reside in a world of exceptional privilege.   

As his formidable wife Lara, Malin Akerman doesn’t have it any easier. From the first episode of the series, Lara is a force to be reckoned with and is no less ferocious than her infamous husband. Here, Akerman explains the appeal of the character, why she’s like Lady Macbeth and how being on the series has made her a better actor. 

Billions follows some larger-than-life financial industry types—the sort who can seem familiar from tabloid stories or the evening news. Did you spend much time looking at real-life characters to create the ones on screen?

You know, that wasn’t part of the research. Of course, we’re all familiar with hedge-fund guys and the financial things that have been going on over recent years. But I think that ultimately it can be a bad idea to get too involved in that kind of research, because you want to create your own character and you want kind of be present to what’s happening in the moment. You can never really play those moments, other than just being true to what’s happening to your character.

It is something of a different world, though. I was hoping you’d spent some nights hanging out at Wall Street bars to get a feeling for these people. 

Here’s the thing: I have friends who are in that world and family members who are in that world, so I’ve definitely been around it—and yes, it is a very different world from where I stand. It’s definitely not where I feel most comfortable. I’ll probably be hanging out in Williamsburg instead. 

What about the show made you want to be part of it?

I was looking to get back into TV and to have a regular schedule, but I wanted to do something that wasn’t comedy, I wanted a little bit more depth and character development. So, I was looking at scripts, and this one came to me and I thought, Oh, my God, this is so well-written, this is something I would love to be doing. Around last Christmas, I put myself on tape for the show’s creators, and I sent them the tape and they loved it. I got some notes from the director and re-taped it, and he loved it but we had to wait until Showtime opened their offices after the New Year for them to say yes. So I guess it was a bit of a process, it wasn’t too bad and I had the best supporters between the show creators and the director, so it all fell into place luckily. So I got so lucky and excited and happy to be able to do a project that I really wanted to do at this point in my life. 

What did you see in that script that got you interested? 

It was the strong female characters. These weren’t pushovers or trophy-wife characters. Both my character and Maggie Siff’s character are powerhouses in their own right, and that’s not always easy to find. It just felt like this was a woman I would like to play. I’d like a strong woman who battles for her family and who is a little bit twisted. It’s fun to play something like that. 

Right, in the pilot you have this incredible scene where you reveal your character—who’s totally polished and professional seeming—to be kind of a thug.

I’m telling you, that was the scene that got me. That was the scene that made me want to do the whole show. Because I was thinking, if this is the woman and who she really is, I want to play her.

What’s in store for her over the course of the season?

You’ll see a lot of her keeping the family together, and keeping Bobby strong, but also challenging his decision making. She’s got a bit of that Lady McBeth feeling, doing puppeteering behind the scenes. She’s got her hands full with a little bit of everything, and there’s a lot of conflict within her world. You’ll see us working through a lot of that.

Having finished the first season, are your feelings about the character any different than they were going into the project?

Every episode has a surprise, and you kind of don’t know which direction you’re going to go in. For me, the actual take away has been getting the opportunity to work with Damien and Paul and Maggie, I feel like my game has gone up and they’re making me a better actor. So I hope, because I just love this show so much and every episode ends with a twist and you never know what’s going to happen, that we keep going for a few more years. I would love that.