If Billy Magnussen is ever typecast, it is as a romancer of older women. There was his brief, but memorable guest-arc on Boardwalk Empire as one of Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol)’s more unfortunate lovers. (A great moment for Magnussen was when the singer Seal recognized him as “the motherfucker who died in a bathtub in Boardwalk Empire.”) Last year, he received a Tony nomination for his performance as Spike, Sigourney Weaver‘s shirt-averse boy-candy in Christopher Durang‘s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Next week, you can watch him flirt shamelessly with Carrie Coon in The Leftovers. This week, Sex with Strangers, his new two-hander play co-starring Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn, officially opens at the 2econd Stage Theatre Off-Broadway. “All of the stuff I’ve done on Broadway, I’ve basically just been in my underwear,” the 29-year-old jokes.
Written by Laura Eason and directed by David Schwimmer, Sex with Strangers focuses on two writers: Ethan, who pays his rent by writing about his sexcapades for an audience of frat bros, and Olivia, who never got over the mediocre performance of her first book. They are opposites in temperament—he is confrontational, she is reserved—and the show plays up the generation gap—he’s all about blogs, apps, and ebooks; she is not. They share a passion for literature and a desire for greatness, and each one is slightly intimidated by the other. As Ethan, Magnussen is puerile, myopic, and obnoxious, and earnest, admiring, and endearing. You like him just enough to be disappointed in him when he falls short, but you also expect him to.
The play was first performed at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2009, but Magnussen assures us that it has changed a great deal since then. “I met with David and I met with Laura and we actually discussed creating a project—they weren’t trying to fit a mold,” he explains. “It was the four of us getting together to make a piece of art.” Eason was heavily involved throughout the rehearsal process, accepting and initiating changes because, as Magnussen states, “an artist is never done.”
Magnussen, who was born in Queens and raised in Georgia, began acting over a decade ago. He has only taken one role purely for the money (“there’s no fun in it”) and doesn’t believe in lying (“It’s not worth it; the truth is more interesting.”) He’s grateful for the roles he’s had so far—”Every role is the best role you’ve ever got. It’s the only role you have”—and extremely enthusiastic about his co-stars. He recently finished filming The Great Gilly Hopkins with Kathy Bates (“the shit”), Glenn Close (also “the shit”), Julia Stiles (“very cool”), and The Book Thief‘s Sophie Nélisse (“She’s tight; I was an asshole at 14, 15.”) Next year, he’ll appear as Rapunzel’s Prince in the feature adaptation of Into the Woods, which co-stars Meryl Streep (“not too shabby”), Chris Pine (“great”), and Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman (both “awesome”). He’ll also star with Sarah Silverman (“a really cool cat”) in I Smile Back. When not acting, Magnussen plays in his band Reserved for Rondee.
We spoke with Magnussen when Sex with Strangers was still in the rehearsal process.
EMMA BROWN: Do you have a favorite exchange in Sex with Strangers?
BILLY MAGNUSSEN: I can’t have it yet. I’m not done. It has to, I don’t know, live more. It has to breathe. It’s like wine—we’re poppin’ the top and you’ve just got to let it run and get some air in there. I have to say, working with David, Anna, and Laura—awesome. You should hang out with them if you get a chance.
BROWN: Do you think a play gets better towards the end of the run?
MAGNUSSEN: Yeah. I think anything gets better with time. I’m not saying it’s weak in the beginning, I just think things get sharper, more clear. That’s the difference between working on film and working in a play. In a play, you work on it and you live in it and develop it and make it happen.
BROWN: Obviously David Schwimmer is pretty famous. Did you have an impression of him before you met him?
MAGNUSSEN: No. I heard Friends was awesome. I’m not a big TV watcher guy; I like being outside. I caught maybe half of one [episode] when I was going to bed. I told David once, “Dude, I used to watch your show and fall asleep.” And David was like, “I can’t take that as a compliment… You watch my show to fall asleep?” [But] you know what I mean, right? You’ve done that. You put stuff on and you’re like, “This is perfect” and you just enjoy it enough and then pass out.
BROWN: Do you find yourself reciting your lines in your head as you go to sleep?
MAGNUSSEN: Yeah! I find I say some of the lines to people in real life in conversation. It’s just rattling off so fast, and I’ve been working on them—it comes out. [I like] to see if I can justify it in real life. Is that silly? That’s silly.
BROWN: Is that alarming? Is your identity slipping away from you?
MAGNUSSEN: No. Well, I don’t know. I have just gained a deeper and deeper respect for acting and the whole art of it because you’re really trying to live a life and to do the best justification for it.
BROWN: Do you have aspirations to write?
MAGNUSSEN: Yes, just ADD gets in the way. I don’t know if I have ADD, but I know if I sit down and start writing, I’m like, ‘”Oh look” and my eyes just avert to the tissue box, and from the tissue box to the… I don’t know. I just said tissue box, that’s silly.
BROWN: What did you want to be when you were five years old?
MAGNUSSEN: Astronaut, probably. My brother [wanted to be] a cowboy. We were like, “Yes, absolutely. You can be a cowboy.” I think he is a cowboy, honestly.
BROWN: Is he younger?
MAGNUSSEN: Yes, he’s 24. Then I have another one. He’s 20.
BROWN: So you’re the oldest.
MAGNUSSEN: I know! They have to look up to me. I’ve got to step up my game. We were wrestlers growing up. My brother was, like, state champion of Georgia—heavyweight state champion. He was massive. It doesn’t matter how old we get, we get home to our parents house and we move all the furniture out of the way and we have to have wrestling matches. He kicks my ass every time, but I have to at least try to beat him up.
BROWN: How old was he when he started winning?
MAGNUSSEN: It was probably when he was 14 or 15 and I was already 20 or 21.
BROWN: Do you come from an artistic family?
MAGNUSSEN: I would say so. My mother is very, very into painting and art and drawing. My father is a carpenter so he knows how to shape wood and work with wood.
BROWN: Are you a good carpenter as well?
MAGNUSSEN: I’m not saying I’m a good carpenter, but I’ve been a carpenter since I was four or three. That was my summer job every year.
BROWN: What was the first thing you made that didn’t feel like a child had made it?
MAGNUSSEN: Cabinets. I wish I had a better answer. I wanted to say “my mom’s smile.” That’s what I made.
BROWN: A spice rack?
MAGNUSSEN: No, that’s little dinky stuff. We would make 20-feet wide, nine-feet tall cabinets. Massive, massive stuff.
MAGNUSSEN: Yeah, Damsels! I met some really wonderful people from it. Hugo [Becker] became my roommate for a while after that. Such a cool dude. I actually just saw him in France not too long ago. He lives in Paris. I crashed on his…what do you call those things, couches, for a few nights. Everyone was really cool for that movie.
BROWN: How was working with Whit Stillman? I hear he’s very particular.
MAGNUSSEN: Yeah, he’s very specific on his dialogue and his delivery. I liked him. Every time I see him I give him a big hug. He’s a great guy. He just has his way of doing things, which makes you an artist I guess—your uniqueness.
BROWN: You were on a short-lived teen drama produced by Ashton Kutcher, The Beautiful Life (2009).
MAGNUSSEN: The Beautiful Life. I choose not to talk about that one. Is that cool?
MAGNUSSEN: That’s my answer.
MAGNUSSEN: That was great, man. That was the first time I felt like an artist. I remember seeing an advertisement for it on top of a New York taxi. It had the wrong release date. But it was really cool to get involved in a character like that. It was a fun character.
BROWN: Your character was a bit of a psycho. Did you interact much with 50 Cent?
MAGNUSSEN: Yeah, I killed him in the film. Curtis is a really nice guy—very smart guy.
BROWN: Was there one job in particular that felt like your big break?
MAGNUSSEN: My big break was probably my first job ever here, which was at the Eugene O’Neill Playwright Festival. I got fired from it.
BROWN: Oh no, why?
MAGNUSSEN: Because it was a playwright festival and I was adlibbing. I understand; I was just out of college. Actually, no, my big break was probably getting to work with [University of North Carolina School of the Arts professors] Robert Francesconi and Robert Beseda. They believed in me, this 18-year-old stoner. They gave this kid a chance to do something with his life and shit, I have to thank them. That was my big break. It’s one thing believing in yourself, it’s another thing having other people believe in you, and that is the greatest gift, honestly.
SEX WITH STRANGERS OFFICIALLY OPENS TOMORROW, JULY 30. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE 2ECOND STAGE WEBSITE.