Made for Love's Billy Magnussen Is the Hot Bad Guy
In HBO's adaptation of Alissa Nutting's surreal, lurid novel Made For Love, actor Billy Magnussen stars as Byron Gogol, an all-powerful tech CEO who smiles with dead eyes and is so disconnected from the natural world that he cannot abide a single smell (he consumes food in "flavor ball" form, a nod to Bay Area techies and their inexplicable passion for Soylent). Byron is icey — Nutting writes that his skin feels "refrigerated" — and so controlling that he drugs his wife Hazel (Cristin Milioti) and puts a potentially lethal chip in her brain so that he can surveil her every move, hear her every thought. A standout moment of the series features Byron matter-of-factly announcing plans to kill and eat the family pet slash research subject, a squeaking dolphin. It's chilling, and very, very funny.
In contrast to the character he expertly plays, Magnussen is effusively warm and welcoming, the kind of star publicists should dream about representing. He enjoys many smells, including lavender, coconut, and wood, which reminds him of a childhood spent in his father's carpentry shop (he also likes women's perfume, but it has to be good — "some women's perfumes are beautiful, and some are just like woah," he says with a laugh). And in a recent Zoom from his home in Cumming, Georgia, the actor, clad in a mustard-yellow button-down with a quarantine goatee, was eager to jump into a conversation about how his character represents the unfortunately still-relevant concept of "toxic masculinity."
"I think Byron is weirdly the embodiment of it, the personification of it," he says. "It's like, have the nice stuff, be rich and wealthy, powerful, and all that. But what that actually creates is a smokescreen, a facade, that a young, scared little boy is hiding behind. And that's kind of what I love playing about this character, that he [represents] what society has put on men. Honestly, we're all probably just scared. And it's a fear or insecurity that we're trying to protect."
Byron is a timely twist on a type, the sort of allegedly progressive man who obscures abusive tendencies with supposed care and concern for a partner. He gives Hazel a luxurious life inside a VR-laden palace in the desert, called "the Hub" — but she's not allowed to leave. He goes down on her every morning — but she has to log and rate her orgasms, providing detailed descriptions of every physical sensation. He says he loves her desperately and just wants to know her better — so he puts a chip in her head that violates any semblance of privacy she had left (once she figures it out, she flees to stay with her father, played by Ray Romano, and his girlfriend, a synthetic sex doll named Diane).
Magnussen makes no excuses for Byron, but he needed to find some humanity in a monster for the performance, all without sacrificing the character's intractable weirdness. He says he can "lightly empathize" with Byron's desire to openly communicate with his wife, taking care to emphasize the "lightly." His way of getting inside a sociopathic person's head was to think of a problem many people face — the inherent, frustrating walls and boundaries that come up in a relationship, the inauthenticity that is part and parcel of surviving daily life alongside another person — and push it to an extreme.
"There are gross elements about this, and it's really scary," he continues. "But I think what's exciting is it brings up this conversation around connection and communication."
Everybody wants to know what their partner is thinking, but most people just aren't wealthy or cartoonishly evil enough to literally make it happen (also, uh, science). As Magnussen sees it, Byron's interpretation of his relationship is one of victimhood, the way abusers often see themselves. "How am I [Byron] the bad guy when we were not communicating and I constantly asked for it?" he asks. "No one's the villain in their own story. Everyone's the hero."
Perhaps because he is both blessed and cursed with being hunky and methodical about his characters, Magnussen is used to playing jerks with quirks — he has portrayed domineering, off-kilter alphas in shows and movies like Carey Fukunaga's Maniac, Game Night, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and the "U.S.S. Callister" episode of Black Mirror, also starring Milioti. It's a funny kind of typecasting, one based much more on physicality than personality; Magnussen kept pausing our interview to ask me considerate questions about myself, speaks of his family members and co-stars with sweet reverence (on Milioti, whom he first met filming the 2012 movie The Brass Teapot: "She is the funniest, most gracious, elegant woman I know. I absolutely adore her"), and tenderly cares for the numerous fruits, herbs, and vegetables in his Georgia garden (he grows "anything you need to make a Greek salad" and has a section of plants he enthusiastically refers to as his "peppercorner").
His next big career moves are in the movies. He's starring as the younger Paulie Walnuts in the highly-anticipated Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, and has a big role in Fukunaga's upcoming James Bond film, No Time to Die (he got the call while backpacking in Vietnam; "I was like, if it's about Bond, I'm there, bro"). But he came up in the theater — he even earned a Tony nod in 2013 for his nuanced take on the himbo in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — and has been acting since his teens. Born in New York City, he was raised in Georgia, where his parents still live.
"There were drive-by shootings happening in our neighborhood in Queens," he says. "My parents were like, we're not going to lose a kid here. So we actually moved to Miami. My other brother was born there, but it just wasn't their spot. So we were driving back up North and we visited some friends in Cumming, Georgia. And my mom was like, I like it here. My dad was like, OK. So they just plopped down, built a house."
After years in New York and Los Angeles, Magnussen is back in Georgia, on property right next to his parents. "I was in L.A. finishing up Made for Love, and then the pandemic happened and I was quarantining there," he says. "And then just finished the show and I kind of needed a personal reset. So I moved to Georgia just to relax. And now I play in my garden, I helped renovate my mother and father's house. It's nice."
Magnussen doesn't know many people in Georgia besides his immediate family, and so at the time of our April interview, he was planning a trip to California for his 36th birthday, on 4/20 (lol). He was craving some socialization. On Made For Love, Hazel throws Byron a special birthday party for two, complete with an Instagram-ready layer cake that he does not eat. But Magnussen (who, for the record, is fully vaccinated) sees things differently, like a sane person. "No meal," he says, "is done without dessert."
Read on as Magnussen discusses his favorite villain, a supremely cheesy pickup line, and a formative erection.
Who is your celebrity crush?
Obama. And I've always loved Jack White, actually. And Charlize Theron. I'm enamored by her. Holy cow!
What is the last thing you do before you fall asleep?
I throw on a podcast and just close my eyes. [Leans head back, closes eyes]
What podcast are you into right now?
Well, here's a little drop. Unwanted, by Lamorne Morris and Billy Magnussen. We have a podcast now. It's a scripted, '80s-style action comedy.
Who is your favorite villain?
Captain Hook! Dustin Hoffman's Captain Hook. His performance was just so good!
Describe a memorable dream.
The first time I ever walked out on a Broadway stage. It was a dream I've always had and always wanted. And then I had the opportunity to do it, and there is no feeling like it. I miss theater.
What is the first album you ever owned?
What is your favorite cheesy pickup line?
"Hey, do you want a drink?"
"Great, great. That guy over there will buy you one, so could you move over?"
If you were required to spend $1,000 today, what would you buy and why?
Oh man. See, I could say I'd spend it on myself, but then it'd be like, "oooh, you spent it on yourself." So then I could say I would give it to charity. But it'd be like, "oh, you just picked an easy answer."
So I want to say that I think I would go to the nursery and buy a bunch of vegetables and grow my garden. I already have tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers. I have a thing called the "peppercorner." I have broccolini going. Strawberries. A bunch of herbs. Basil, rosemary, mint, thyme. Basically anything to make a Greek salad. That's what I plant!
Name one place you've never been, but have always wanted to go.
I want to go to Egypt. I want to see the pyramids, just like in The Alchemist, you know? He's like, "hey, at least you got to see the pyramids." What a great punchline for a book.
Describe your first kiss.
It was a game of spin the bottle. I was in middle school or something. I didn't know what I was doing or the feelings I was feeling or why my pants were tight.
When was the last time you cried?
Last weekend. It was just good to let go.
What's your favorite bagel?
Everything bagel with cream cheese, lox, lettuce, tomato, onions, and capers. And of course open-faced.
Photographs by Braylen Dion. Polaroid Photos by Billy Magnussen. Special thanks to Polaroid. Production by Kelly Chiello.