InDepth InterView: Billy Magnussen Talks Reserved For Rondee UK Gigs, INTO THE WOODS Movie, VANYA, 50 SHADES & More
Today we are talking to one of Broadway's biggest recent breakout stars all about his wide range of recent roles, from Broadway comedies to TV dramas to big screen movie musicals and beyond - the amiable, dashing and versatile Billy Magnussen. Discussing the finer points of his recent Broadway run in Christopher Durang's Tony Award-winning Best Play VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, Magnussen imparts recollections of sharing the stage with stalwarts Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce and expresses his infatic enthusiasm for the piece. Furthermore, Magnussen offers up the exclusive 411 on his newest venture, the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fairy tale-themed musical INTO THE WOODS and reveals fascinating new details about the production, as well as recounts co-starring with Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and more. Most importantly, Magnussen gives us a preview of what we can expect from his upcoming UK rock shows with band Reserved For Rondee, opening up about the roots of the band, the types of shows they put on and specifics about their slew of new original songs and the two shows coming up later this month. Plus, Magnussen comments on some of his most notable recent film and TV appearances - ranging from his stupendous character arc of HBO's Boardwalk Empire to his brief but memorable role in the cult hit indie THE EAST - and also looks ahead to his role on the new David Milch-penned HBO series THE MONEY as well as a proposed upcoming Mary Pickford biopic, THE FIRST. All of that, details on his recent audition for the big screen 50 SHADES OF GREY feature film and much, much more awaits in this engrossing conversation with a major Broadway and Hollywood talent on the rise.
More information on Billy Magnussen and Reserved For Rondee at Dublin Castle on November 22 and The Macbeth on November 23 is available at the band's official site here and Facebook page here.
Reserved For A Prince
PC: VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE - what is your memory of reading it for the first time? Were you floored?
BM: Of course! I loved it. I remember I was in my bathtub reading it, actually, just throwing the pages as I read them.
PC: Were you familiar with his other work or were you new to the world of Christopher Durang?
BM: No, no - I didn't really know his other stuff. They basically came to me with the job and asked me to do it, so I didn't go out for it really or anything, but once I read the script I was in. Obviously, it worked out really great.
PC: Were you excited to be in such an illustrious cast?
BM: Oh, of course! Of course! When I found out who was in it, I was like, "Ah, man!" I mean, just to be on Broadway - that's pretty cool in itself! [Laughs.]
PC: You can say that again!
BM: But, yeah, to answer your question, they are wonderful, wonderful actors - Sigourney [Weaver] and David [Hyde Pierce] and everyone - to learn from them and get to be around them was so great. And, I mean, there is only a small pool of people lucky enough to get the opportunity to perform on Broadway, so that is an honor in itself.
PC: Were you thrilled with the play receiving 2013 Best Play Tony Award, as well?
BM: It's really wonderful - my entire experience was just amazing working on that show, especially now, looking back on it. [Pause. Sighs.] It was a beautiful, beautiful chapter in my life and I will never forget it.
PC: Would you be open to reprising your role in a film version someday?
BM: [Big Laugh.] Sure! Why not?!
PC: Did you film THE EAST prior to your involvement with VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE?
BM: Oh, yeah - I shot that years ago! Way before.
PC: Did you enjoy working with Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij?
BM: Oh, they're great - Zal is really cool. They are both really, really nice people. And, it was a cool script and the movie turned out great, too.
PC: How did you get involved with THE EAST in the first place?
BM: Oh, the same way I get involved with most things - I just audition, man! You just get your headshot and resume and do the best audition you can - and that's what I did for that.
PC: Speaking of auditions, you recently auditioned for the big screen 50 SHADES OF GREY, did you not? It was down to the wire.
BM: Yeah, I did. I met with the casting director and cinematographer for it - I went out to LA and did it and it was cool. I'm glad I did it.
PC: How do you prepare physically for roles that require nudity such as that and your costume for VANYA?
BM: Well, for VANYA, I think it was something that was fun and performing it was just easier if I was healthier and in better shape - especially with an eight-show week. But, you know, the character has to inform it more than anything...
PC: Of course.
BM: For instance, I just played this heroin/crack addict in this TV pilot for HBO, THE MONEY, and I can't be all big and muscular for something like that, so I tried to be withered and worn down a little when I was shooting that.
PC: In your last HBO appearance - on Boardwalk Empire - you were administered a lethal heroin dose, ironically, needless to say!
BM: [Big Laugh.] That's true! That's true! It's becoming a theme in my career.
PC: Was Boardwalk Empire an exceptional experience for you? Your scenes with Gretchen Mol were superb.
BM: Oh, thanks for saying that, man. Yeah, that show was so much fun to work on.
PC: Were you always scheduled for only a few episodes or did your commitment to VANYA preclude a longer character arc?
BM: No, I think it was pretty much the original story from the get-go - just a few episodes.
PC: Was it nerve-wracking at all to film that harrowing final scene of the bathtub OD with Gretchen?
BM: Well, how would you deal with that situation?! [Big Laugh.] I was just thinking about working with Gretchen Mol - she's so lovely and so gorgeous - and that's all I had to do, basically.
PC: Is it true that that show has a particularly great onset atmosphere? Other cast-members who have done this column have said as much.
BM: Oh, yeah; oh, yeah - it was. It really, really was. I loved doing it.
PC: Was it a relatively smooth shoot, then, all in all?
BM: Yeah, it was pretty smooth - the whole thing. I mean, you always want to work with people like that, especially on a set that relaxed.
PC: On the topic of your new HBO project, THE MONEY, how has it been working with creator David Milch?
BM: I liked him a lot. He was pretty quiet - I tend to be a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, but he was pretty quiet and liked to focus on the work. He really is with you when you talk to him about characters and where it is going to go and I felt honored to work with him - he's done a lot; he's seen a lot; and, the way he can capture his experiences and write them down is beautiful, in particular, I think.
PC: Do you share any scenes with Nathan Lane in the pilot?
BM: No, no, no - unfortunately not! Our stories did not cross. I didn't know he was in the pilot, actually! That's great to know.
PC: Who do you appear with in the pilot?
BM: Brendan Gleeson, who plays my father - I do most of my scenes with him. There were a few other actors in there, too - Santino Fontana, from CINDERELLA, was in a scene or two with me, too.
PC: Have you filmed additional episodes yet or only the pilot?
BM: It was just the pilot we did. I really, really enjoyed working on that though - working with the director, Justin [Chadwick]. Brendan Gleeson is just... I couldn't say more wonderful things about him if I tried!
PC: How wonderful to hear. What can you tell me about another upcoming project of yours, THE FIRST - Lily Rabe as Mary Pickford?
BM: Well, I don't really know anything about where that is at right now and when we are shooting, so I don't really have a comment, unfortunately! I met Lily Rabe, though, and she is just lovely and has some done some great things in her career already - MERCHANT OF VENICE and everything.
PC: Is Shakespeare something you would like to pursue someday, as well?
BM: Yeah, I think so. I actually did Shakespeare when I was at North Carolina School of the Arts. I studied with Gerald Freedman and Mary Irwin - it was fun; I enjoyed it.
PC: Is there one role in particular you would like to do?
BM: Iago in OTHELLO! Definitely Iago. I'd love to do that someday.
PC: Shakespeare to Sondheim: how did you get involved with the big screen version of INTO THE WOODS?
BM: I just auditioned! Like I said, man - you just go in and do it! [Laughs.]
PC: That's what you say!
BM: But, seriously, I would say that Meryl Streep was a big influence on me getting the job, though. [Sighs.] She is just lovely. I've just been doing my scenes with her, and, oh God, she is just awesome! Unfortunately, as you know, I can't really talk about it, though! [Laughs.]
PC: It's all being kept pretty hush-hush at this early stage! What can you tell me about Mackenzie Mauzy as your Rapunzel?
BM: She is just lovely, too - a really lovely girl. I loved working with her - it was really great.
PC: Did you sing "Agony" at your audition? I'd assume so.
BM: Yeah, I just sang "Agony" and did a scene and that was it.
PC: Are you filming any of the movie in 3D?
BM: Well, I haven't had any 3D glasses on, so I don't think so. [Laughs.]
PC: Have you gotten to share any time with Johnny Depp onset yet?
BM: Yes. He was a very nice guy - I met him and I could not have been more impressed with how wonderful he was. A really nice guy.
PC: How do you see the place of social media in modern movie publicity and a means to leak information and express ideas? INTO THE WOODS has had pretty extensive social media coverage, clearly.
BM: Well, for me, I don't do it so much for publicity reasons as I just do it for my friends, you know? I'm not that good with that kind of stuff, really - it's hard for me because I'm not witty or anything like that. I try.
PC: Do you see a more mixed media entertainment age approaching in the future, incorporating social media and the internet more?
BM: I do - I think naturally it is going to change no matter what, but I think where we are headed is probably for the better. I don't know - when I think of acting as an art form or whatever, it is the separation of person from character. So, you are that character when you perform - when you do this, you are that. And, with social media, you see that actual person for who they are - not that play; not that character, you know? It can be confusing.
PC: It's an important separation to be made - especially in an age of celebrity obsession. What do you think of star casting? Would VANYA have even made it to Broadway without big names like it had?
BM: I agree with you - it is the way it is. But, then: are David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver on Twitter? Are they in that social media realm? No. They have their lives and they have their show. I think that is more powerful than being constantly on Twitter or whatever - but that's me; I don't know. It's different for everyone - I am not saying anything bad about the people who do it, but I think they should be kept separate.
PC: Being in the UK right now, you are probably acutely aware of the British approach to acting which looks down upon drawing attention to oneself like social media tends to exacerbate.
BM: I am. That's true, though - they don't want to bring attention to themselves. And, I can completely relate, actually - for me, I feel like my life is my life and anything I do when I am acting is what I am sharing with the world. Isn't that enough?
PC: You want to be known for your performances not as your online social media personality.
BM: Exactly. Like, with you: people read your articles because they know that Pat is a good writer. Would you want to be known for something else besides doing your job well? I want to be known for my performances and doing my craft well, not for funny stuff I post on Twitter or whatever. I don't mean ill to anyone who does it, but it's just not how I want to express myself and share myself with the world - but, I'm probably digging myself a hole here... [Laughs.]
PC: Between theatre, film and TV, I would have assumed you were busy enough, but how did you come to start a band?!
BM: I really don't know - I guess I needed something just for me! You see, when I act, I feel like I am a color in someone else's painting - I can be the best blue that there is, but I'm still only part of their entire picture - but, with music, when I am performing with Reserved For Rondee, I am the painter, you know?
PC: What a illuminating way to put it!
BM: That's really how I feel.
PC: How exactly did the band start?
BM: Well, what happened was that I was in another band at the time - I started this band with three girls and three guys and the lead singer was 17 and she had to go to college, so the band kind of broke up, but I kept wanting to play. It's just the best high out there - I think live performing is the best drug, honestly. It's just so good. So, anyway, the guy who plays bass and I had done a soap opera together, and, so, we just started collaborating and bringing people on and then we started playing around New York and since then we have been slowly, slowly growing.
PC: What was the impetus? Did you start out doing covers mostly?
BM: We do all originals. I mean, we don't really have a budget for doing music videos and stuff like that, though - we just like playing live and making noise that we hope people enjoy - we're just five degenerates making noise. [Laughs.]
PC: A great band name! So, is there a set-list in place for your upcoming UK gigs?
BM: Oh, yeah. We always rehearse with a set-list. Recently, we've been writing, writing, writing, because we just came out with an album, so we have a live set that know we are going to play - the same as Live Theatre, in a sense, actually - and it changes a little bit all the time. You know, "Oh, maybe we'll play this now or throw this in here tonight," kind of thing.
PC: How exactly do you write music together? What is the songwriting process?
BM: We create it all together - someone will come in with a riff or something and then someone will say, "Oh, I'll do this," and then they join in and then someone says, "I'll do this," and "I'll do that" and it all comes together. It really stems out of what we are all going through in life, I think - it's a release, I guess, would be the best way to put it. So, that's how we work up the songs usually.
PC: What was the first song that you remember writing together for the album?
BM: It's actually one of the first tracks on the album, "Circa 68", and it's about the time of great rock n roll and the whole hook of the song is, you know, "They don't make 'em like they used to." You know, I'm not dissing pop music today or anything, but I was a rock kid and I grew up listening to rock music and I miss it. Led Zeppelin. The Who. The Stones. We love that kind of stuff.
PC: Have you ever considered playing the title role in The Who's TOMMY someday? Talk about a perfect fit!
BM: [Sings.] "See me / Feel me / Touch me," right? [Laughs.] Yeah, I love "Pinball Wizard".
PC: Does Reserved For Rondee predominantly explore rock, then, or do you also try your hand at other musical genres?
BM: I'd say that we honestly don't really have a specific genre - I mean, we're inspired by bands like the White Stripes and stuff - but, it's really just about the songs. Sometimes we come up with songs that aren't rock, really - I mean, you can't go in with the intention of writing a specific-sounding song, you have to be open to just going down the avenue with it and letting it find its own soul, you know? I guess that's how I would describe it.
PC: Do you have songs that started out differently than how you play them in your live shows now?
BM: Oh yeah, we do - every single one, pretty much! [Laughs.]
PC: In translating the very live sound of your shows to an album, did you find that in re-purposing and then producing and mixing that a much different song would sometimes result in the end?
BM: Absolutely. In this band, we are actors and performers, but it's really hard to capture the live sound of our shows - I mean, our live shows are wild! We are rockin' up there. So, to try to capture all of that with a microphone? It's tough.
PC: How has your theatre training helped in maintaining your voice?
BM: Well, I don't sing lead - I am not the lead singer - but I do sing some stuff sometimes. For me, it's really about the music and playing the guitar, though - not the singing. And, our front-guy is so good that you couldn't teach what he does - I honestly couldn't compare.
PC: Did you grow up playing the guitar or are you new to it?
BM: Basically, I graduated college, I came to New York and one day I was bored, so I picked up a guitar and just kind of self-taught myself.
PC: Do you play any other instruments?
BM: Clarinet - I studied that a little bit growing up, but... [Laughs.]
PC: That probably wouldn't come in handy for Reserved For Rondee! Where did you guys get that fiercely idiosyncratic name?
BM: Well, at the time, we were called The Happiness and we went to play this gig and we just all sort of hated the name, and, at the same time, our friend from PEOPLE Magazine had reserved a seat for us and when we got there she had reserved the table and it said "Reserved For Rondee" and we thought "Wow! What a cool name for the band that would be!" And, so, now it is.
PC: So, what about an "Agony" encore at one of these upcoming UK gigs? Will it ever happen?
BM: [Big Laugh.] No, I don't think that is going to ever happen. Someone else in the band might do it, though!
PC: Have you invited Stephen Sondheim to any of the shows?
BM: I don't think he's in town, but we should when we are back in New York.
PC: Have you gotten some one-on-one time with him working on INTO THE WOODS?
BM: Yeah, he was there when we recorded with the orchestra and all the stuff like that.
PC: Did he give you any particular insights?
BM: Well, you know, I think what he wrote is so beautiful and the music informs the story so much - that's what makes a great writer, I think - and it is all right there in the music and lyrics. But, yeah, he would say things like, "Here - when you are doing this line, just remember: it's a love song." But, yeah, he was really cool.
PC: So, filming wraps at the end of this month?
BM: Yep. The end of the month is the end. I'm so glad, too - it's going to be really cool.
PC: It's going to be torture waiting 13 months for it to come out!
BM: Yeah, but that's the fun part! That's the best thing - to wait for something for a long time and then it happens. I've seen it and I think people are going to be impressed. Rob Marshall really knows how to make a beautiful movie...
PC: People have been waiting for 25 years - the time has come! It's the most anticipated movie musical since LES MISERABLES.
BM: I know! I am very, very, very excited to be a part of it.
PC: What are your thoughts on at least four major movie musicals coming out in 2014 - INTO THE WOODS, JERSEY BOYS, ANNIE and THE LAST FIVE YEARS?
BM: Oh, I didn't know that! I guess all I can say is that I hope they are all good films.
PC: What is your personal favorite movie musical?
BM: My favorite movie musical? Hmm, BEDKNOBS & BROOMSTICKS, probably - does that count?
PC: Of course! Last question: who was your favorite celebrity that came backstage at VANYA?
BM: Oh, well, of course David and Sigourney know everyone, so a lot of amazing people came backstage, but I have to say that the only time I was actually ever star-struck was Dr. Ruth.
PC: You're a big fan?
BM: Well, I wouldn't necessarily say that, but she is so recognizable that it is like, "Holy sh*t! It's you!" Like, I never expected to meet her in my life.
PC: A "Wow! What has my life become?!" moment.
BM: Yeah, man, I think that daily - I can't tell you what it's become; it's insane. I couldn't be more astonished - but, it's great and I am really happy.
PC: If THE MONEY is picked up and you have the time, would you try to fit in a Broadway show sometime next year, too?
BM: No - I would be miserable doing both! [Big Laugh.] But, yeah, I do - I love Broadway and I would love to do another theatre piece soon. I really, really loved doing VANYA. I did do that two-at-once thing before, though - I was doing THE RITZ on Broadway and at the same time I was doing a movie and I don't want to do that again, I don't think.
PC: Speaking of which, did you enjoy working with Joe Mantello on THE RITZ?
BM: He's a very, very talented man. He's an alumni from my school, actually. It was so great to watch him work and learn. Listening to people and watching them work is probably what I can credit most of my career to - just paying attention to people.
PC: Thank you so much for this today, Billy! This was spectacular and we all can't wait to see what's next!
BM: Thank you, too, Pat - I really, really appreciate it, man. This was a lot of fun. Cheers.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro