Billy Magnussen dives headfirst into his multiples roles in the bonkers and emotionally charged limited series, Maniac.
Billy Magnussen’s smile is dangerous. Over the last few years, Magnussen has solidified himself as a go-to talent for playing confident jerks–it’s his good looks and swagger that allow him to exude a charming cockiness that edges on douchebaggery.
In Cary Joji Fukanaga’s limited series Maniac, Magnussen plays Jed, the lively son of the Milgrim family who is on trial for harassment. When I spoke with him about his role, Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh had recently given their testimony in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing (“Who do you believe?” Magnussen bluntly asked me when we spoke about it). A rewatch of the courtroom scene is even more unnerving.
I was taken aback by Magnussen’s eagerness to depict such an awful person. One of the first times we see his Jed, he is mocking Jonah Hill’s Owen at dinner in front of other family members, and you immediately hate him. We all know people like Jed Milgrim, and Magnussen truly thinks people like him need called out. Magnussen emotionally expressed that bullying remains a serious problem, and it needs to be stopped.
What was your first reaction to the script? Because when I started watching it, I kept thinking, ‘This is batshit crazy!’ Did it read like that?
You actually took the words out of my mouth. I felt the same way. When I read [it] I thought, ‘What is this…there’s a poop bot? I’m how many people in this?’ Fortunately, I got to sit down with Cary Fukanaga and Patrick Somerville and we talked about this character and how his influence has traumatized Owen. He’s really a foil to Jonah’s character. The hero is only as good as the villain. I was striving to be that wall and be that disgusting character. Then there’s this other layer of Grimsson also there as this made-up brother that Owen kind of wished he always had. He’s kind of the better version –the 4.0 or the 10s.
With a character as awful as Jed…how do you burrow into that? Is there anything redeeming about him?
We all had guys like that growing up. I never went to a prep school or anything fancy. I never came across a Jed unless my school was playing football. I may have played against this guy. It’s sad. At the end, you see a moment of Jed actually smiling at the trial.
That’s one of my favorite moments of the entire show! I really wanted to ask you about that.
This whole show is about connection with people. It was the first time that someone really called him out for being a lying piece of shit. He’s a trash fire. That is a true moment of being seen. That’s what the show is about—connection. Jed’s wife doesn’t love him. His family is full of fop-ish people. Did I like playing this guy? Someone asked me recently about how what Jed is on trial for relates socially and how people are treated. If I didn’t play it as disgusting as I can, it would be doing a disservice to actually having it in the project. If you joke around about situations like that or don’t present it in the awful light…what are we even doing?
I love the Icelandic spy episode. What was it like to speak in a completely different language for that?
That was so exciting! It really is Icelandic. I do have an affinity for languages and I love the different ways we communicate. I taught myself French before. We have different words for emotions and you just have to think of it as that. I can be sad but I can be miserable. I can be devastated. It’s sort of all the same thing, but how you articulate it is key. When you have to add another language to it and play in that world, it’s very much an adrenaline rush. When you show up on set and they say, ‘You know that scene we’re shooting today? Can you do it all in Icelandic?’
Wow, really? So, how did you approach that? Did you just have to learn it phonetically?
They really told me they were going to do it the night before, and I called an Icelandic woman. I spelled out how it sounds, and I learned it kind of how you learn a song. You try to memorize it in that sense where you try to hear the notes and replicate it. It’s a beautiful language. The head hair woman was, luckily, Icelandic. So when I was in the chair, I would be asking, ‘Does this sound right? How about this?’
That was the experience of being on Maniac. You’d show up on set, and they’d throw you this massive curveball, saying, ‘Can you do this instead?’ Absolutely, yes—I loved that. I loved the challenge. There would be days when you’d be playing three different characters. You’d have to really think of aligning your head space. It was so challenging, but also the most exciting thing about being on a project like Maniac. It was a roller coaster ride of production. And we’d get to change it. I got to build this character with Cary and Patrick and help them in this world.
You also get to die in a spectacular fashion in one episode. I was watching it with my husband while he was doing work, and he freaked out. He yelled, ‘They killed Billy Magnussen!’
That’s awesome! He said the full name?
Yeah, he definitely did.
What was it like working with Cary? Do you think the series benefited from having one director at the helm? I know not all series are lucky to have that singular vision.
Fortunately, we also really liked him! He’s a great guy. I also think that I gained a friend during this crazy experience. With that, you really gain a respect and a trust and a sense of communication that drives the work. I hope to always work with directors that choose to shoot the scene the way it deserves to be shot. Work how it deserves to be made. The best ideas should always win, and I love working with people like that. Everyone knows you’re there to make the best project.
I was very fortunate work with Spielberg on Bridge of Spies. He had his ideas, but if someone came in with a better idea, he’d be excited to do it. It keeps the piece alive and the process fun. This is a collaborative art form, and you have to speak up. On the other side of that, you have to recognize when someone has a better idea than you. It’s those people who are stoic and stuck in their ways and not malleable who get locked in and shoot themselves in the foot. But Cary is a monster—I hate that guy! No, seriously, I truly care for that man.
Is the awfulness of Jed something you want the audience to take away from Maniac?
Jed is a master gaslighter. He goes into people, not just his brother, but he finds out how to manipulate people, put something on them, and make them feel guilty about it. And he wins. There are people that do that to other people and it’s nauseating. There’s no empathy anymore.
He’s kind of like a sociopath with a great haircut and a nice suit.
Those are the real psychopaths in this world. They’re entitled and they bully people. Bullying is a seriously freaking thing, man—you can break people that way. It’s so scary. This whole process has been a great journey for me, but the awareness of people like that has to be seen. They suck. How do you stand up to people like that? You call them out. You put them on trial and say ‘They wronged me.’ Hopefully, there are enough people that will stand behind them. Jed is a piece of shit. I play a lot of bad guys, but you have to show these people for who they are. They can’t get away with things like this.
Maniac is streaming now on Netflix.