A sort of blond Adonis, 27-year-old actor Billy Magnussen is not only chiseled to Ken doll perfection; he’s also quite a riot. Especially in his ongoing stage engagement, assuming the role of wannabe actor Spike in playwright Christopher Durang’s latest work, the poignant and amusing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Indeed, Magnussen takes Lincoln Center Theater by storm, self-described as a “bull in a china shop,” attracting laughs with the delivery of his hilarious lines and smiles—and stares—with several instances of near nudity.
Performing shirtless is nothing new to the young actor, who in 2008 joined As The World Turns, taking over the character of Casey Hughes, who just so happened to be topless a lot of the time. Between then and now, Magnussen has appeared on the big screen (think Damsels In Distress, among others) as well as on some of TV’s biggest hits, such as Boardwalk Empire, CSI, Law & Order, and In Plain Sight. Yes, this kid’s got the chops, the mug, and the bod to command jobs any up-and-coming actor would be thrilled to land. Plus, he mans the bass guitar in a rock band called Reserved For Rondee, which regularly jams in music clubs around NYC.
Magnussen has the rare honor now to call David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver his colleagues, as they, along with a wonderfully funny and endearing Kristine Nielsen (whose impression of Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith alone is reason enough to secure tickets), make up the mass of VSMS. Directed by Nicholas Martin and produced in association with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton (where it opened in September) this touching Chekhov-esque parody has just been extended to January 20 at LTC, and I highly recommend attending. If nothing else, Magnussen’s boy toy to Weaver’s cougar presents a romantic-meets-raunchy pairing that must be seen to be believed.
Magnussen, whom I’d prefer to refer to as Billy, because we’re friends, came by for coffee last week to discuss this theatrical venture I dare say New York Magazine would deem “Highbrow” and “Brilliant.” Between sneezes (he’s allergic to my “catty-cat,” as he nicknamed the feline foster staying with me), Billy shared some fun stuff, from the story behind his wrist tattoo to the surprising ritual that sometimes takes place backstage between scenes.
Something that perhaps doesn’t adequately come across in what follows, however, is this: Billy really throws himself into this Spike guy, giving dimension to a somewhat self-congratulatory climber type. He makes despicable also attractive, redeeming even. There’s a lot of Billy in Spike, which those who know him well will agree shines through in the best possible ways. That attitude, that talent, that laugh. Billy’s bud or not, I sincerely suggest seeing this lovely little show in this intimate environment. You never know where it could be headed next.
What’s the story behind this wrist tattoo?
I was with friends out partying and they’re like, “Let’s all get tattoos!” And I was like, “Okay, let’s go.” [They said,] “Billy, you go first.” I got a tattoo and they’re like, “Eh, we’re not gonna get tattoos.”
You were the only one?!
I was the only one!
A permanent “friendship” bracelet.
I guess! At least this reminds me my friends are assholes. [Laughs]
I’d be pissed. So, onto something more relevant, how did you get involved with this play?
I auditioned. I auditioned five times. It started with just the casting director, then the director, then the writer, then producers, that kinda thing.
Were you nervous?
No, because the character isn’t nervous. He’s just chaos in the room. I remember there was a piano, and I just started playing the piano [proceeds to imitate playing piano] for no reason.
[Laughs] Was it difficult stripping down to your skivvies? I suppose not with your ample exposure, shall we say, on As The World Turns…
No. Getting into shape was the difficult part. I don’t even think about [taking off my clothes] anymore. The sooner the better. Just get over that hump. Whatever.
Do you have a specific workout routine?
It varies. I was training for a triathlon for a while and that’s really advantageous to getting in shape.
Oh, I bet. What do you eat to stay fit and trim?
Raw vegetables all the time. I usually start the morning with an apple and five strawberries. Then, like, two raw vegetables for lunch and a white meat, like fish, [with more raw vegetables] for dinner. I love broccoli, peppers. If [I] get hungry [I] eat dill pickles or Wasa Crackers.
Keep in mind, protein is readily available (and absorbable) from plant-based sources. No meat necessary. Anyway, have you been hating the diet?
No. Also, I have a pretty big vitamin regimen. I love B12!
That’s too funny. I’ve never met anyone who “loves” a particular vitamin. I applaud your enthusiasm. Is it tough to learn lines by rote?
[My] job is to memorize the lines. After [I] memorize the lines, [I] have the freedom to play and do anything [I] want.
Speaking of playing, did you have to overcome some sort of professional hurdle to get intimate with Sigourney Weaver?
She was wonderful to work with. Unbelievable. I can’t be more thankful for how open, free, and fun she [is]. Everyone in the show [is]: Kristine and David. They’re all so awesome. It’s an honor to be working with them. Just learning from them. These are veterans.
What kinds of things have you taken away from them thus far?
Little things, from how to work with a line or throw a line out, to keep[ing] composure through the run. It’s a long run. Holding it together…it’s a lot. It’s eight shows a week. It really is draining.
But you love it.
I love it. It’s a wonderful project to be on. But, you get a little [exasperated] after a while. But, every show’s a new show. David and I share a dressing room, so we pep talk before and hang out, bullshit and talk about the show as it’s going on. My favorite thing is switching things up.
Sometimes throwing Sigourney on the floor. It’s up to her. There’s a moment in the play where I’m alone with David and I get closer and closer. There was one night I started playing with his beard. The nipple thing just came out of being like, You ready? [Laughs]
That wasn’t written into the script?
No. The motorboat-ing wasn’t in the script either. I popped my shirt open in the audition, too.
Gotta love the cheek. What was the most difficult scene to master?
I would say my audition for Entourage 2. I have to be Spike doing his best audition—it’s really bad—but still be funny. There’s so many layers. That was the most challenging thing, finding that audition. It’s ridiculous. I mean, I’m talking about Entourage 2!
I know, which actually isn’t the most implausible program to exist…
Yeah, I know. [Laughs]
What’s been your favorite aspect of this experience so far?
Giving a bow at the end of a show to give thanks for the audience’s time. That’s my favorite. Just to say thank you. They went on a journey with us. They play with us. The uncertainty is what’s exciting. The audience, through [us], gets to play. You get older and you forget. You forget how to imagine. And, doing a play, the audience is the energy. They really are. They create the world.
Given this, what’s your opinion of the art of theater versus the art of film and TV? You’ve been fortunate enough to do all three.
With film [and television], it’s not a do-or-die kind of moment. You get takes. The stamina in theater—you have to be in character for two-and-a-half hours! In film, you shoot a scene and walk away.
I’ve always wondered, when you leave the stage and go backstage, what do you do?
Sundays, I’m doing the show and I go back and watch football. Then I hear my cue. Then I go back and watch the Jets lose. I play Words With Friends. I think it’s insane.
[Laughs] Wow. Does David watch football with you?
[Laughs] No! I try to get David to watch football. He’ll be like, “Oh shit, the Yankees are losing.” He has no clue. I had fantasy football and I’d tell him about my team and he’d be like, “Yes! Who?” He’s such a nice guy. I really have a friend there. All of them.
I’ve interviewed David at various events and he’s just a lovely individual to talk to.
He’s a soft, sweet guy. And he’s amazing to watch during the show. He’s always there, but he’s a stealth missile the whole play. He’s so specific all the time. It’s kind of wonderful to watch.
Absolutely. You’re all wonderful to watch. It’s a great play. So, is there something you love most about what you do?
I like playing the bad guy. Even in this I’m the “bad guy.”
Indeed! Well, you and Sigourney Weaver. Speaking of being bad, what kind of name is Hootie Pie [the name of Weaver’s unseen assistant in the play]?
When [Christopher Durang] was writing that day, Pootie Tang was on TV!
Hilarity. Ah, the wily ways of writers. That’s some interesting trivia. What’s some fun trivia about your life in NYC?
I live[ed] with Hugo Becker? He was Prince Louis on Gossip Girl. We did Damsels in Distress together. He’s back in Paris now. I miss him, man. He was so cool.
Oh la la! Small entertainment world…
He’s so funny, because that’s not him on Gossip Girl at all. He’s goofy. He’s a goof-French-ball!
[Laughs] Were you ever invited to appear on the show?
Yeah, but I was on the soap opera at the time, so I couldn’t ever get off.
Bummer. The series came to an end this week. Did you tune in at all during its six-season run?
No. Absolutely not. [Laughs]
Photos by T. Charles Erikson