Genius mathematician Taylor Mason didn’t mince words when first ushered into the office of wealthy hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod.
“Hello, I’m Taylor,” Mason said. “My pronouns are ‘they,’ ‘theirs’ and ‘them.’”
That blunt declaration marked the memorable introduction of Mason, a numbers superwhiz played by Asia Kate Dillon in Showtime’s “Billions,” about the New York financial world and the high-stakes clash between federal government watchdog Charles Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and cocky billionaire Axelrod (Damien Lewis).
Entering the series’ second season in 2017, Mason came across as a genius who also possessed a sense of ethics and morals in the cutthroat finance arena. But Mason in the current fourth season has started their own rival hedge fund company, evolving into an adversary to former mentor Axe and mirroring his ruthless ambitions. With the lethal battle between Axe and Rhoades now at a shaky truce, it’s the winner-take-all contest between Taylor and Axe that is at the show’s center.
The role has proven to be a breakthrough for Dillon, who like Mason is nonbinary. The New York-based performer-writer-director is both educating and breaking down perceptions about those who do not identify as exclusively male or female. Their “Billions” performance so impressed producers of the new hit “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” that Dillon was cast in the featured role of the Adjudicator, a high-level enforcer.
“Of course, I’m incredibly proud,” Dillon says of their groundbreaking role during a recent chat in Showtime’s corporate offices in Hollywood. “It’s very gratifying, and it’s also a silver lining that ‘Billions’ has become sort of a teaching tool en masse about nonbinary gender identity as well as finance and corruption.”
“Billions” executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien say Dillon’s portrayal has thrilled both of them.
“We wanted to bring in someone who would be this incredible force, reminiscent of Axe,” Koppleman says. “Asia’s power, intelligence and incredible nuance made us want to write them into every episode. We’re also seeing the arc of someone with a moral center who is tested by incredible temptations.”
Adds Levien: “Asia is just amazing, always prepared, and they are standing there going toe-to-toe with these legendary actors like Paul Giamatti, Damien Lewis and John Malkovich.”
Unlike the no-nonsense Mason, Dillon, who also had a featured role as a white supremacist in “Orange Is the New Black,” is decidedly more animated and warmer, frequently smiling as they discuss “Billions” and their “John Wick” role.
Prominent on their neck is a tattoo of the word “Empathie,” German for “empathy.” Dillon liked the look of the word and felt the world needed more empathy. Inquiries about the tattoo inevitably spark an exchange about empathy.
In addition to their film and TV work, Dillon is co-founder of MIRROR/FIRE Productions, whose projects explore racism, and is preparing to release their first EP.
You made such an instant impression in “Billions,” especially your intro to Axe. What was your understanding on what Taylor’s story would be?
When I was first cast, I didn’t even know how many episodes I would be in. Brian and David did say they had big plans for Taylor. But I didn’t know what that meant. I could not have envisioned the journey that Taylor has gotten to go on these past few seasons.
You play a nonbinary character, but what other details were provided to you about Taylor?
Nonbinary, yes, but also a mathematical genius who trusts numbers because numbers don’t lie. Taylor has a lot of emotion. They are multidimensional, but they live in a world of numbers and facts. That gives them comfort. I think of Taylor as a very still person. This is a person who walks into a room, has a lot of confidence, has had to think about who they are and their place in the world. They have come to realize that they have great power in their calmness.
How does that connect with your personal experience?
I’m a fairly expressive person. I use my hands a lot, I tend to smile a lot and Taylor is more still than I am. It was a fun challenge to play a character who is very different from me in that way. There is another connection We’ve had to go on a very particular journey of discovering who we are and how we fit into this world. When I walk into a room, I’m scanning everything. I’m a bit of an emotional sponge, absorbing. Taylor is the same because Taylor is 25 steps ahead of everyone else at all times.
Have you found challenges being in this profession?
I haven’t encountered things being harder for me.
Does that surprise you?
I was assigned female at birth. I have light skin, which I think I benefit from. I’m thin, I’m fairly androgynous looking. I feel those things make it easier to absorb my identity. Had I been assigned male at birth and I were a person of color, and wore stereotypical feminine clothing…well, I know from the experience of my friends who are like that that they are not as readily accepted. It is trans women and femmes of color, nonconforming trans people of color who started the queer revolution long before I was born. Those are the people who are still the most marginalized and the most disenfranchised from the movement that they started.
You’ve broken through barriers with your portrayal of Taylor. What is it like to hear you’re making TV history?
Mostly I just feel proud joining a movement. Taylor could not have existed without all the work by [Latina American gay liberation and transgender rights advocate] Sylvia Rivera and [gay liberation activist] Marsha P. Johnson, these trans femmes and women of color who started the queer revolution by being visible. I feel like I’m in a lineage with those people, and it’s important to give them credit.
People reach out to me on social media or come up to me and take my hand and their eyes well up with tears and they’ll say, “You saved my kid’s life.” Which of course is hyperbolic. But they go on to say, “My kid is nonbinary and felt totally alone and didn’t know that they could be this thing. Then they saw you on ‘Billions’ or social media and they’ve come into their identity.” That’s s an extraordinary silver lining.
I’ve had people reach out to me on social media, saying, “I’m a right-wing conservative, I used to be transphobic or homophobic. But I love you, I love your character and I wish you all the best.” That is art changing hearts and minds, which is art’s job and the type of art I want to be engaging in. I had no idea that was going to happen. It’s a incredible experience. What I hope they understand is that they make me feel less alone, too. They’re my community, too.
How do you feel about Taylor’s moral and ethical center eroding?
Taylor works in the world of finance. Inherently, if you work in that world, you have already shifted your moral and ethical center in one direction or another. You’re not centered. From the get, it’s even a bit of misdirection that we’re introduced to Taylor as someone with this moral and ethical center. I mean, they’re still working at a hedge fund, they are engaging with trading in people’s lives. Taylor idolizes Axe from when they first see him. When the betrayals happen from Axe and the loyalty is broken and the trust is broken, it throws Taylor for a loop.
And they wind up in a war with Axe.
Yes, they want to make more money than Axe. Taylor has been inundated with money and status. I suppose they could leave it all behind and go sit on a beach somewhere. But their mind would know that if they went back into the game, they could win. That’s what keeps them in the game.
And now everyone going to see you in the John Wick movie.
When filming on “Billions” ended last year, I said to one of the transportation drivers, “I know the John Wick movie is filming here in New York, and that’s a movie I need to be in.” I was such a fan of the first two. The John Wick world is a world that I love. It’s got everything. At the heart of it is this man who has undergone tremendous loss. Then there’s this incredible action. I said yes before I read the script.
So are these the best of times for you?
It’s the best of times, and there’s more. I’ve worked really hard for a long time and I’ve been very lucky. My artistic aspirations were nurtured from a very young age. Any sort of differences I had, whether it was my sexual orientation or my identity, were welcomed with open arms. Whether any project I’m working on is self-generated or a job, I want that work to be uplifting and supporting historically marginalized or disenfranchised people. That’s been my self-imposed mission. I feel there’s more to come.