Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis are Serious Actors. They’ve played heroes and villains, presidents, soldiers and spies, and have been justly acclaimed for doing so. (Both have an Emmy to prove it: Lewis for “Homeland,” Giamatti for “John Adams.”)
But right now, in a hotel suite in Pasadena, the Serious Actors, who likely have stories to trade about appearing in “Hamlet,” are giggling. The lanky Brit and the bearded New Englander are a textbook example of getting on like a house on fire. Unfortunately, this camaraderie actually presents a problem for their work together on the Showtime drama “Billions,” in which they play tremendously powerful and spectacularly damaged men locked in combat.
Lewis is Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, a charismatic, brilliant and, naturally, ruthless hedge fund king. Giamatti is the dogged, brilliant and, naturally, ruthless U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades. In the first season, Rhoades pursued the crooked Axelrod, bending more than a few rules himself. In a second 12-episode season of tense tête-à-têtes, which kicked off Sunday, it appears that the tables have turned.
“We get on far too well,” says Lewis, seated next to Giamatti. “It’s a miracle the scenes work at all.”
“The fact that anything gets done — that looks even remotely usable or serious — is actually astonishing,” agrees Giamatti with a laugh. “We [fool] around a lot.”
But between laughs, Lewis and Giamatti get down to the complicated business of their characters. “The power these two want, it comes from a deep-seated place of competition,” says Lewis. “It’s about status and power and the game, the game is everything. It’s fun and they just want to win the game.”
In a recent chat, the voluble, inquisitive and jovial pair discussed power, acting — including a lengthy tangent on the Robert De Niro-Al Pacino restaurant scene in “Heat” — and potential projects to work on together in the future (Enterprising theater producers take note, they may have a proposal for you).
When you signed on to this, part of you must of have been thinking, “I’m going to get to work with Paul Giamatti!” “I’m going to get to work with Damian Lewis!” Were you a little bummed that you only ended up having a handful of scenes together?
Lewis: I have felt a bit like that, I have felt a bit bereft, actually! [Laughs.]
Giamatti: That’s very touching. [Laughs.]
Giamatti: I figured we wouldn’t have a ton, but that it would be good. But I always feel like I am working with you, because you’re omnipresent in everything that’s going on.
Lewis: They are the bait and the hook for one another, so everything they do is informed by the other person. Although, having said that, I think they did quite artfully develop stories independently of each other [this season]. Because I think the [writers] probably feel like to just have us cracking skulls for five years …
Giamatti: … can’t really sustain.
Bobby is on the attack this season.
Lewis: If attack is the best form of defense, then certainly that’s one of Bobby’s go-to places. [Laughs.] Initially, that’s right, but there’s a really good thriller engine to this season. There was last season as well, but this season from the get-go, would you agree that the backbone is a thriller? It’s set up to expect twists and turns.
Giamatti: Yes, somebody characterized Chuck this way but I think it applies to the whole show: It’s less Mussolini and more Machiavelli. It’s less slugging mayhem and more sleek gamesmanship.
Because the show kept you physically apart so much of the time, did you feel like there were high expectations? It’s a little like Pacino and De Niro in “Heat.”
Giamatti: I just watched that movie again recently.
Lewis: Has it held up?
Giamatti: That movie really holds up.
(Long discussion about who “wins” in the famous scene. Lewis thinks De Niro but Giamatti persuades him neither man does. Both agree Pacino is fantastic.)
Lewis: Who’s who? [Laughs.]
Giamatti: I know, that’s the really interesting question.
Isn’t it clear?
Giamatti: I think it is probably. I am Pacino.
Lewis: He’s got the right surname.
Giamatti: That’s true I do. I’m the more eruptive guy, it’s true.
De Niro is no slouch.
Lewis: That’s true, I’ve heard of him and I hear he does quite well. [Laughs.]
But did you feel pressure to deliver thespian fireworks when you got together?
Lewis: [Looking at Giamatti.] How much do you want to admit right now?
Giamatti: I’m reluctant to say.
The truth will set you free.
Giamatti: Yeah, I suppose there was a certain amount of that. But you just said it, you felt a little bit of pressure that there was an expectation that we were supposed to get pretty muscular with each other.
Lewis: Yeah, which kills it … you just need to stay honest in the moment.
Giamatti: There was awareness of it but I don’t think it affected it much.
Lewis: I would say that maybe — disagree with me if you want to — we probably think of ourselves, or are regarded as “actors’ actors,” which is a badge of pride for me.
Giamatti: Yes, I agree.
Lewis: So maybe we are considered serious actors.
Giamatti: [Starts laughing.]
Lewis: Stop me, someone please stop me.
Giamatti: You are, I don’t know if I am. I don’t know if I consider myself a serious actor.
Between you, you’ve been tortured, done period pieces in really constricting costumes, played serious heads of state. Do either one of you ever think, “Rock of Ages” notwithstanding, “I’d just like to do a light comedy”?
Giamatti: As you say, notwithstanding, I’ve done a bunch of that stuff. [Laughs.] But I have actually, a little bit lately, been thinking it would be fun to do something a little bit goofier.
Lewis: I do too. Absolutely. I’ve done a bit more of this 12-hour stuff than Paul has — he did “John Adams,” which was amazing — and I’ve started to feel that I’ve really put in a lot of hard work now. Six months on a TV show like this when it’s written in this way, it’s a very chatty show and Paul and I carry the burden of that. It’s a lot of work.
Giamatti: The level of machismo is tiring too.
Lewis: It is.
Giamatti: Actually, I suggested to Damian the last time we were together that he and I should do “The Odd Couple.”
Lewis: I would love to do that.
Giamatti: We actually talked about doing a Laurel & Hardy biopic, but that probably wouldn’t be funny. [Laughs.] I actually think it would probably be kind of grim.
Lewis: [Laughing.] Which would be problematic.
Giamatti: But “The Odd Couple,” I think, is not a bad idea. We could switch the parts off. I could be Felix and he could be Oscar.
Lewis: Let’s get onstage and do it.
You could do short runs in the West End, here in L.A., in New York …
Lewis: Financed by Showtime!
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)