Billy Magnussen Is “Flexing Nonstop” as a Tyrannical Tech Bro in Made for Love
Billy Magnussen is no stranger to toxic men. The actor, who burst onto the scene in 2013 with his Tony-nominated performance in the Christopher Durang play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, has carved out a niche for himself playing oafish blowhards, from his celebrated turns as Jed in Netflix’s Maniac to Rapunzel’s Prince in the Into the Woods movie and Prince Anders in Aladdin. Now Magnussen is adding a whole new dimension to the archetype, taking on the role of tech oligarch Byron Gogol (not to be confused with “Google”) on HBO Max’s new dark sci-fi comedy Made for Love.
An eccentric billionaire inventor in the vein of Elon Musk, Magnussen’s Byron is both intimidating and pathetic, suffering from serious control issues as he tries to reconnect with his wife, Hazel (played by Magnussen’s longtime friend Cristin Milioti). Hazel wants out of their marriage and the state-of-the-art high-tech compound, called the Hub, where she’s been trapped with Byron for the past decade. Once Hazel finally escapes, she learns that Byron has implanted a chip into her skull (without her consent, obviously), giving him access into everything Hazel sees, hears, and experiences. And he’s not willing to let her go without a fight.
“I think Byron is the personification of toxic masculinity,” Magnussen said, Zooming in from his new home in Georgia. “But who is that guy, in reality? It’s a scared person that’s putting up a huge front.” Magnussen mines Byron’s fear for comedy as he hilariously struggles to pour a beer, sit in the sand, and simply exist in the real world, all in a quest to win back Hazel’s heart. Earlier this week, the actor chatted with Vanity Fair about control issues, adjusting to life after the pandemic, the utter seriousness of comedy, and surfing with dolphins.
Vanity Fair: You’re a guy who came up in the theater, and your costar Cristin Milioti is also an accomplished theater actor. Is it different to work with someone who has that same background?
Billy Magnussen: I met Cristin Milioti a decade ago. We played husband and wife in a movie called The Brass Teapot. I fell in love with her, and I gained such a friend. We had one of the best experiences on this little movie. We, yes, both grew up in a theater background. We’re so obsessed about it…. I miss theater so much during this pandemic. Oh, my gosh, do I miss live performance!
When I was doing Vanya finally on Broadway, she was doing Once on Broadway, and our theaters were right next to each other. So I would, in my like, prince-tight outfit, walk over backstage, and the stage door person would be there. I would walk in and peer in the window on the stage as if I were a patron outside the bar.
I didn’t know you both went so far back. Ten years.
And any time I’ve gotten to work with her—I did a Black Mirror episode with her—she is one of the most talented actors out there. I adore that girl. Yes, we have theater backgrounds and stuff like that, and I think there is this beautiful, common language we share, but also I have the fortunate opportunity to work with someone I love and care about.
Because of the pandemic, we’ve all been confined to our little boxes for almost a year. That’s kind of Byron’s entire life.
Yeah, but by choice.
Exactly. Do you think we’ll get a lot of Byron-esque people coming out of the pandemic, reentering society and unable to cope with the world around them?
I find myself socially being awkward, but I’ve always been awkward [laughs]. I can only speak for myself, but I notice in social experiences now there is this undermining or this little anxious thing happening, which is like, Oh, I forgot how to hang with people in public. There is this safety blanket you have at your home—but again life is meant to be shared, to experience with others. I think we’ll come back faster than we think.
I really hope so. Byron is such a hilarious tech giant. Did you draw from any of the real-life tech oligarchs—the Elons, the Bezoses—when creating Byron?
Sure, sure, I looked at Elon. [But] my performance isn’t Elon Musk. It isn’t Jeff Bezos. It’s not. The truth is, I think Byron is the personification of toxic masculinity. This idea of what a man’s supposed to be like. He’s supposed to be well dressed, groomed, have everything, be rich, be confident, be big, bold.
But who is that guy, in reality? It’s a scared person that’s putting up a huge front. I mean, you grew up in this world and the pressures of—I don’t want to assume your gender—but I’ve grown up as a man and it’s just force-fed into you, you know? It’s just beat and beat into you. I really play a character who is scared. That’s what I love about playing Byron, is that it is this layered guy who’s actually just trying to find a connection—that actually wants to love someone and be loved.
Byron in many ways is sort of an overgrown kid. Did you think about what happened to him in his childhood—what made him into this brilliant open wound of a person?
Yeah, of course I thought about that. I don’t want to talk about it because Christina Lee, Alissa Nutting, [and I], we’re trying to figure something out for hopefully season two.
You get funnier as the season progresses, without ever devolving into a caricature of a toxic masculine tech CEO. How did you calibrate your performance, and walk the line between caricature and reality?
With comedy, I think you play it as a drama. I think everything’s dead serious. I did that film Game Night a few years back, and the way it works is if you’re dead serious and you don’t wink at it. You don’t make a comment that you’re making a joke or anything like that. And I think the beauty of playing this character is that upfront, at the beginning of the series, he is this dominant, scary, vicious presence. And then you slowly pull back and you see this guy’s scared…. I just kind of played it authentically. We’re all humans! We have these emotions.
Byron is obsessed with control—he wants to measure every aspect of Hazel’s existence. Do you find yourself wrestling with any similar issues?
Yeah, I would say I have a trait in me that if I feel in control I feel secure. And I think that’s a fault of mine, actually. The work I’m doing for myself is to let go more and just be open, vulnerable, and accepting…. Usually after every project I do, I go on a trip out of the country to a place I have no connection to, where I don’t speak the language. And I like to get lost. Because then you can reconnect with yourself. You’re like, “This is me just dealing with the world.”
Where have you gone?
Amazon and Machu Picchu. I went to Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Japan, all of Europe. I’m dying to go to Morocco and Egypt and all those places. Africa and Australia are the only places I haven’t been yet.
Byron could ostensibly have anyone he wanted. Why Hazel?
Exactly. Why do you pine after people who don’t want you? I mean, that’s life’s question right? The thing you can’t have. Don’t touch the big red button, you know—and then you want to.
Where do you think Byron falls on the scale of great inventors, and where does Byron think he falls on the scale of great inventors?
Noma [Dumezweni’s character] is really the inventor, and he hired her to create the chip and stuff like that. I think he’s more of a businessman and an adventurer. I think Steve Jobs was kind of like that. He was all about elevating other people’s ideas, and he understood how to market it and package it and put it out there. I’m not sure he was like, “the coder.”
Is there any piece of technology Byron has that you wish you could have?
I don’t know if he [has this], but I wish we had a solar-powered plane or something. Something that traveled you around, without polluting. What about you?
I mean, Zelda the dolphin is cute. I know that’s probably bad to say from an animal rights perspective, and it’s not good to trap a dolphin.
Yeah, I’ve surfed with dolphins and stuff. They’re always hanging out. Just hanging.
So smart. Kind of like humans.
Eh, are humans smart? [laughs]
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Published at Thu, 08 Apr 2021 21:51:16 +0000