The Billions star talks power and money in New York and Los Angeles, avoiding the pitfalls of fame, and the surprising way she developed her kickass character for the hit Showtime series.
Thanks to the buzzy series Billions, Malin Akerman, who first earned her stripes in comedies (The Proposal, The Heartbreak Kid), is seeing her star glow ever brighter in Hollywood. As the tough-talking Lara Axelrod, wife of billionaire Bobby Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis), she is reinventing the role of rich spouse, depicting a character who is neither traditional trophy wife nor power babe. Akerman talks about how she drew on her own background to create a new archetype for Lara—a modern, high-low take on the working-class gal who made good. Here, she reveals how she and Lara are alike (and not) and how she keeps grounded while enjoy- ing new levels of fame.
How are you and the character you play, Lara Axelrod, similar—or different?
We are defnitely different in the way we go about things! I don’t threaten people. She’s unapologetic, and there are times when I wish I could be more like her. But it is so much fun to live vicariously through her. Where we are similar is that we both come from humble beginnings—Lara finds herself in this new world of hedge funds and billionaires. For me, it was the new world of Hollywood; I can relate to that, how she brought her street smarts and survival skills to get through it. We are connected in how we share the same core values, especially about family. If anyone threatened my family, I feel I could get as feisty as Lara. I could kill for my family. That is where we are very similar.
You were raised in a neighborhood that wasn’t affluent, just as your character Lara was. What from that experience did you bring to the role?
When you grow up in a place that forces you into survival mode, where you have to tap into your EQ and animal instincts instead of just your IQ, it creates the type of person who knows how to tune in to people, to shape-shift, and to adapt to different worlds. I think there’s an appreciation of coming from one place and then being in someplace very different. I love how Lara (shares that awareness) with her kids. Although they are growing up differently from the way she grew up, she wants to make sure they keep their feet on the ground. I say to my son, “You are growing up in a house with a pool in the backyard; I used the local public pool.” I want him to understand how lucky he is, how the world functions, and how you have to work really hard to get to where you want to go. I feel telling him this is impactful and important when raising kids, to keep them grounded. I think Lara and I share that attitude because of where we came from.
Do you think Lara’s working-class background, having to climb her way to the top, gave her a mental toughness? Or is it her own hunger for power?
I think it’s a combination. She grew up in a big family and had to (struggle) to be heard. She always wanted to get out of where she came from. She is fighting for her own life but is unafraid. Lara and Bobby are intrigued and excited by power and addicted to it. For them, I look at it as a form of foreplay. But no matter who you are or what career choices you make, having power is much better than being the underdog. Lara has experienced both. She likes and wants power. I think her upbringing gave her the edge to get there.
Who is more ruthless—Bobby or Lara?
I don’t know. Many episodes have characters flip-flop between who is good and who is not. We all sway in the show, but she is the most rooted in her core values and what she stands for. With Lara, I can (work) that female “sixth sense,” where substance comes in to play, more so than with Bobby’s character.
How do you see your character evolving?
In the first season, we see Lara and Bobby as this impenetrable, super- hero power couple, who seem as if they can get through everything. In season two, we see a bit more of their humanity and feel closer to them as they come up against various obstacles that test their relationship. We watch how they work through them. It’s exciting for the audience, and for me as an actor, to go along with them on their journey.
Prior to the first season, you said you didn’t model yourself a er any particular person when developing the role of Lara. You’re out and about in New York when filming here. Are there snippets of people you see or interact with in the city’s power circles whom you’ve now absorbed into your character?
Not really. I wanted to make a point of having Lara be an average girl, from a regular background, so I could bring a freshness to her. It’s not that I haven’t been around women who live in a way similar to the Axelrods. I’ve seen what it’s like. What I wanted to portray about Lara is that she is a no-bullshit kind of girl in a world of air kisses. That’s what I love about her. She’s not to be messed with and wants to prove a point with the spoiled brats in her circle that you can come from nothing and make it. I didn’t feel the need for research to become someone from that world. Her background is more of an influence on who she is as a character.
Lara isn’t a trophy wife, but it’s hard even for an accomplished person not to be overshadowed by someone who has amassed as much money as Bobby Axelrod has. Lara is Bobby’s partner in everything, but will we see her break out more? Will there be more of a sense of jealousy over her husband’s success as she tries to establish her own turf?
Yes—slowly but surely. She can’t sit around, and needs to regain an identity a er she loses the restaurant (in season one). She will be establishing herself and putting her foot down more.
What does having the amount of money the Axelrods have do to people? What are the pitfalls of a big life? Speak to your own experiences too.
Where people can go wrong is when they don’t check in with themselves or look at their lives from a meta point of view. You have to ask yourself big questions on a regular basis, or you can get lost and wrapped up in power or money or in Hollywood fame. I’ve been lucky that I’ve kept a tight group of friends, whom I’ve known since I was 12. If you have close friends, they can keep you in check. When moving into a new world, if you are only surrounded by people from that world, (you may find) that there are no naysayers, that you have people rubbing up against you, wanting to be your friend. It can go to people’s heads. You have to strike a balance when dealing with money, fame, (the desire) to be seen. I shy away from public events if I don’t have to go to them. I would rather be at home with my family and friends.
One of Lara’s lines is: “Never give anyone your playbook.” Words to live by?
Not really. I’m happy to share my playbook with people. I might have a different answer if I were in the financial industry, but I would rather be sharing to help other people succeed.
Bobby Axelrod asks, “Since when is being successful a crime?” Does Lara see the irony of that remark, or is she so caught up in her position she won’t allow herself to?
I think she is in it completely with him. They have to believe in what they are doing. The attitude is, “If we don’t do it, someone else will. Better be the ones to hop on the train first.”
Chuck Rhoades, Paul Giamatti’s character in Billions, commented that there’s nothing more dangerous in the world than a person with unlimited resources. Do you agree?
It can go either way. Thank god someone like Bill Gates is doing so much good. I think a man with nothing to lose is more dangerous.
Compare power in New York with power in L.A.
The two cities are (dominated by) different businesses. Power in L.A. is Steven Spielberg or a head of a network or studio. In New York, it has more to do with Wall Street or politics. I think there’s a more casual approach to power in L.A., because power here centers on a creative business, the entertainment world. Sure, there is a financial aspect to it, but there seems to be more pressure in New York, a faster pace. But I don’t operate in that world, so it’s hard to say.
Did the election impact the story arc for season two?
The writing was completed before the election. Going forward, that will be a question for the show’s creators and writers. It will be an interesting climate to have this show in now that a very rich person is president.
How is working with Damian Lewis?
Oh, man, I love that guy. He’s a wonderful friend, a fantastic actor, and is inspiring to me. I came from a world of comedy and hadn’t had the opportunity to work with an amazingly trained actor like Damian. It’s a great learning experience, just watching him and seeing the choices he makes and the nuances he brings to a character. I feel so lucky. If you are a runner and want to improve, you run with someone who can run faster. It’s like that with Damian; he makes me want to do better. And he’s a lovely person to work with, a charming Brit.
Who is the person you admire most in show business?
Sir Anthony Hopkins. I’m so impressed by him, by his want and his drive. He is still such a student of acting. When you do a scene with him, he is so collaborative; he is all yours. After they call cut, he can’t wait until the director comes over and gives him notes on how to do it better, even though he does every take perfectly. I never saw him look- ing at his watch. For him, it is all about the work. I imagine he’s the same person now as when he began.
You said you arrived in L.A. with $40 in your pocket.
Yes, and that $40 had to last for two weeks before my next residual check came in from Canada. I was with my best friend, and we got really creative to make that $40 last. We went to Washington Mutual in the morning because they gave out free mini muffins and coffee, and that would be breakfast. You can get four boxes of Ramen noodles and have four dinners. We’d pick up change in the seat of the car so we could get to $1.30 and buy gas. It was tough, but we made it fun.
What made you persevere during tough times? Did you ever think of throwing in the towel?
I did throw in the towel! I wasn’t making it. I had been auditioning for a while and not getting anything. Then I met some boys in a band who were looking for a lead singer. I had never sung before, but thought, Well, acting is not working out, so I’ll give it a shot, and if this doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to Canada and finish my university degree. I was in my early 20s, which is a great time to experiment and go for it. It’s the beginning of your life, and I didn’t have much to lose. I did music for a year and a half. Then I decided I would give acting one more try, and that’s when I got my first job.
What’s your life like when you are in New York?
For the first year (of filming), I lived in Brooklyn. I loved it because it was so laid-back, with great restaurants and little museums. But I found it a bit daunting and overwhelming being on my own with my son, who was only two years old. For the second season, I wanted to be outside the city, to have more space for my son to run around, so we moved to Westchester. It was great for him, but I was bored out of my mind. I’m a single mom and like to get out every now and then. The next time I’d like to try Manhattan—my son is older, so there’s no more diaper bags or strollers. It will be easier.
Favorite ways to chill out in New York?
Going to the New Museum and then to Santina, which is my favorite restaurant ever. Or walking the High Line or through the West Village or Chelsea and checking out the pop-up exhibits. For me, it is a way of winding down. I’m a definitely a foodie and love to discover new restaurants and go out with one of my friends for a nice, lazy dinner. There are great restaurants like Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, La Esquina in Soho, and Palma in the West Village, which has a beautiful garden. I also like to bring a picnic to Central Park.
Your go-to stores for clothes?
Anywhere that sells jeans and T-shirts—I’m a mom! Most of what I buy these days is for my son and from Amazon. I like the website therealreal.com. The clothes are on consignment at amazing prices for such high-priced labels. If I’m giving myself a gift, maybe something from Yves St. Laurent, cool stuff with fringes. I’m obsessed with shoes. I like boots with buckles to funk up an out t. I’m not married to labels—I like Free People. It’s more about finding the right style and something with an edge to it.
And the red carpet?
If I borrow for an event, then a dress from Alexander McQueen, because the pieces are structured, artistic, and beautiful. What I love about Molly Fishkin (Akerman’s frequent stylist) is how she brings in designers like The Row or Cushnie et Ochs. She’s creative, has a fresh outlook, is willing to try up-and-coming designers, and knows that if it has the right t and right vibe, it will work for me.
What are you reading now?
How to Raise an Adult. The book compares raising kids 30 years ago with today, and talks about the positive and negative effects of helicopter parenting. It shows how kids are not becoming adults, but rather staying in teenage versions of themselves. (The book interested me) because I studied child psychology—that is what I thought I would pursue. I want to raise my son in a conscientious and independent way.
Is finding a school in L.A. as competitive as it is in New York?
I am feeling overwhelmed by the process of getting my son into the right school, and I am just beginning that process. When I was young, I just went to the local public school and it worked. My main concern is finding a school where the kids are treated as individuals and are helped to develop as independent thinkers.
What charities are you involved with?
I’ve been working with Opportunity International for the past decade. It’s a microfinancing organization that focuses on women. I’ve visited Africa and Nicaragua to see how they have empowered women to help build schools, pave roads, provide running water to their homes, and help end cycles of poverty. It’s a group making waves around the world.
Besides Billions, what other projects are in the works for 2017?
I have an indie film, The Ticket, coming out in April, which also stars Dan Stevens, and just signed for the movie Rampage with The Rock and Naomie Harris. And I am looking at a few other projects before I start Billions again.