BILLY MAGNUSSEN: Suddenly Everywhere, All at Once
Billy Magnussen looks like the handsome version of someone you know but can’t quite place. Did your cousin bring him to the family BBQ? Was he your TA in comp sci? Or that flirty lifeguard from your summers in Cape Cod? More likely, it’s because you have seen Magnussen before, even if you didn’t know it. That won’t be the case for long. Magnussen is blowing up. He’s everywhere.
Name a genre, and in the past two years, Magnussen has taken it on. Comedy: he recently played Ryan in Game Night, where chemistry with co-star Sharon Hogan was so strong they now have an Amazon project in the works. Political satire: you can find Magnussen alongside Tiffany Haddish in The Oath, the Ike Berkowitz-directed film about a family torn apart by politics at Thanksgiving dinner. Horror: yep, in the CBS All Access show Tell Me A Story. He’s even in Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac on Netflix, with Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. Disney? He’ll be in the 2019 live-action Aladdin. Needless to say, Magnussen’s been busy. He insists though, that this year’s schedule isn’t abnormal for him. “I’ve been hustling for years,” he tells me. “It’s just that now, people are noticing.”
Magnussen and I meet at An Choi, a small Vietnamese restaurant on the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. With a recorder ready and a notebook full of questions, I set up shop in a two-person booth as the stylists and photographer prepare for the shoot. When Magnussen shows up, he looks a little tired, smiles, introduces himself, and says, “Let’s get a coffee and go for a walk.” I oblige, and we go to a coffee shop across the street where we both order a small coffee with oat milk. I put my bag down at a table, trying to hint that maybe we should just sit down.
“C’mon,” he smiles, and I’ll admit I’m a little charmed. “I haven’t walked the Lower East Side in the longest time.”
Magnussen was born in Queens, where he lived until he was ten, when his family moved to Georgia. He was an athlete who found acting by accident—literally. A sports injury benched him so he gave theatre a go. Since then, it’s been his life. “The past 11 years have gone by in a flash,” he says of his acting career. A 2013 breakout theatre role in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike snagged him a Tony nomination, and from there, things have been moving pretty fast. He sang in Into The Woods, he was in the criminally underappreciated Ingrid Goes West alongside Aubrey Plaza, and now, he’s pretty much everywhere.
Recently, the common denominator in a lot of Magnussen’s performances is that he hasn’t been playing the greatest guys. Jen Chaney in Vulture described his character in Maniac as “a douchebag of many colors.” In Game Night—one of the few Jason Bateman comedies that will actually make you laugh—Magnussen’s character Ryan is, to put it nicely, dumb as dirt, his charm only accessible through Sharon Horan. And in The Oath, Magnussen plays an officer in a made-up, fascistic force called the “Citizens Protections Unit.” He swears to me, up and down, that he doesn’t seek these roles. “Do I go out and pursue them? No!” He laughs. But the roles keep showing up. I conjecture it’s 1: because he’s good at them, and 2: because of his look. “I have that all-American, elitist, WASP-y look,” he says. This amuses Magnussen, because, as he assures me, it’s “the opposite” of who he is.
Spending a morning walking around the Lower East Side with Magnussen, I don’t disagree. He wears black jeans and a beige Carhartt shirt. He notices I am struggling to take notes, hold a coffee, and walk all at the same time, and finds a bench for us to sit on, acting like he wanted to sit. I ask him about himself, and he in turn asks about me, not to divert from the questions—he answered all of them—but because he says he “just loves meeting people.” When I bring up a character he would want to play that he hasn’t had a chance to yet, he looks prepared for the answer. “I want to be the hero,” he tells me. “Or the love interest.”
Magnussen “loves love.” He says this multiple times. And he wants to show that part of himself on screen, and to the world. “You don’t feel good playing monsters all the time,” he admits. And if you spend some time with Magnussen, you can tell he’s someone who likes to feel good. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He laughs about stupid stuff that happened onset. He praises just about every person he’s ever worked with. Jason Bateman: “amazing.” Tiffany Haddish: “the best.” Cary Fukunaga: “a genius.” Magnussen remarks repeatedly “how crazy it all is,” whether the “it” he’s referring to is being interviewed for a magazine, acting in what will surely be one of the highest- grossing films of 2019, living in the same building as Laura Linney, or being recognized on the street. Now, he’s ready to play someone likeable, someone charming, someone who looks on the bright side of things—someone not too different from Magnussen himself.
On a bench crammed in the middle of a hectic boulevard, we chat as I scribble notes. Magnussen interrupts me to make sure I’m appreciating the beautiful day we’re sharing. “Look up, dude,” he exclaims, with a smile too pure to be anything but genuine. “We are sitting in a park.”