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Malin Akerman on Learning from Damian Lewis, Diving into Drama in 'Billions' & Taking Chances

By Jill Sieracki | April 14, 2016 | People Feature

In her record-breaking new drama series, Billions, actress Malin Akerman proves you can never be too rich—or too ruthless.

Varlese bodysuit ($1,435) and Vera skirt ($1,005), Preen by Thornton Bregazzi. Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave., 212-753-7300

Malin Akerman’s 2-year-old son, Sebastian, is napping, and the multi-tasking actress is using the quiet time to talk about her hit Showtime series Billions. It’s a perfect parallel—and total contrast—to the character she plays on the show, Lara Axelrod, a polished mom who is also a cutthroat in Chanel clothing. “Living vicariously through Lara Axelrod is fantastic; she’s one hard cookie,” says Akerman, 37, of her character, who kicks off the first episode by threatening a 9/11 widow who only considers writing slanderous things about Lara’s hedge fund husband, Billy “Axe” Axelrod, played by Homeland’s Damian Lewis.

Rounding out the acclaimed cast is Paul Giamatti as US attorney Chuck Rhoades, who is determined to bring down Lewis’s Axelrod, and Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy) as Rhoades’s wife as well as the in-office shrink at Axelrod’s hedge fund. The show’s debut attracted a record-breaking 2.99 million viewers—the cable network’s best original-series premiere, topping the previous titleholder, Ray Donovan. “Billions has been the biggest learning experience,” says Akerman, who previously had worked primarily in comedies, like Couples Retreat, The Comeback, and the short-lived series Trophy Wife. “I’m so inspired by working with Damian Lewis. I’m so inspired by his preparation and the way he approaches his role and how he shows up at work. It really makes me want to work harder and do better. I think he’s, to date, the one person who’s really making me grow as an actor and a human being.”

Here the actress opens up about the similarities between Wall Street and Hollywood and what it’s like to play around in Billions’ world of big money.

What attracted you to Billions?
It’s the type of show that I like to watch; I’m a big fan of Breaking Bad and House of Cards. I’ve done so much comedy in my life, so I was actively seeking something a little different from what I normally do. The main reason for me really was the female characters—they’re strong, powerful women. They’re no pushovers, and I really wanted to play that.

From the show’s creators to its cast, there are some big power players involved with Billions. What was that experience like?
I remember sitting at the first table read with Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, who are the show’s creators, and they’re extremely intelligent people. They know a lot about a world that I have no idea about. I’m looking around the room, and it’s all these fabulous New York theater actors and everyone’s just really good, so it’s definitely an intimidating thing, but also it just felt right. I went, “It’s time to grow up, here I am, and this is my opportunity.” And I really loved it.

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Did you follow the news during the economic crisis?
It’s so in your face, so you read bits and pieces about it, you have discussions, but never in depth like this. It’s a subject matter that I’m not 100 percent familiar with, and it’s been a learning experience. Having said that, reading it, you appreciate so much what’s happening. You understand the power. It was like the first time watching House of Cards, because there’s so much political jargon and it moves fast, but by episode three you’re in it, and you don’t necessarily need to understand every reason or every beat. I think [with Billions] people will find the rhythm of the show and will appreciate it in that way.

You grew up outside this lifestyle in Toronto, as the daughter of a model and an insurance broker. So how did you connect with your character?
I’m definitely not as rough around the edges [as Lara]; she’s a fighter, she’s very driven, and she does whatever it takes to make things happen. The parallel for me was she will fight to the death for her family, and I feel the same way. You become a momma bear when you become a mother. I grew up sort of the same way [as Lara], where I come from very humble beginnings and I’ve really worked hard to get to where I’m at today.

Being in Hollywood, you’re obviously living a more affluent lifestyle than many people, but what was it like to get to play around in, as the show tactfully puts it, “f--k you, money” territory?
It’s crazy! It’s beautiful and amazing, but to me it feels overwhelming. Yes, I probably live better than some people, and less than others, but [my home is] a very quaint house. [The Axelrods’ Hamptons mansion] feels so far-fetched from who I actually am and the things I appreciate. I definitely don’t need that kind of a lifestyle, and at the same time, it’s so exciting and interesting and intriguing to be there.

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After so many comedies, did it feel strange to approach a drama script?
I wouldn’t say it was strange; it was very amazing, and I think it’s also the reality of how we speak sometimes. I would never actually threaten someone in real life—I don’t have the balls to do that—but it’s nice to sometimes say what we want to say to certain people. Here I am [working] with really amazing theater-trained actors who I respect and really look up to, and so it’s scary and intimidating and challenging and exciting all at once. But I really felt like I was up for the challenge. I feel like in our lives, as well as in our careers, there’s a certain point where you need a bit of growth and you go, “Okay, what’s the next step?”—and this felt like the right next step to go into a different genre and new challenge.

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You recently divorced your son’s father, drummer Roberto Zincone. How has that changed the way you’re living your life and evaluating projects?
Becoming a mother, there’s a lot of things that shift inside of you. [I’ve been] reevaluating my life, and figuring out who I am as a mother and what my position is in this world. Becoming a mother there’s so many emotions that we feel at any given moment, because there’s so much more vulnerability I feel as a parent. It was like, “Wow, I have all of this stuff that I can use now, in my career as well. Why not try new things…”

Tulle embroidered gown, Valentino ($38,900). 693 Fifth Ave., 212-355-5811. Bodysuit, La Perla ($498). 803 Madison Ave., 212-570-0050

Now your career pendulum is swinging the other way. Your next two projects, The Ticket and Misconduct, are thrillers.
I’ve been actively looking to do things that have a little bit more depth, where I can test out my muscles and being crazy—you know, whatever the character requires. But luckily the smaller independent projects are a little easier to get my toes into because you don’t have a big studio behind it worried about the money that they’re going to lose if it doesn’t work out. People take a chance on the actors themselves, on their talent, instead of box-office openings. So that’s been nice that I’ve had some people who’ve believed in my work and I’ve been able to try it out.

Road silk blouse ($795), March skirt ($695), and Carmine Mary Jane heels ($775), Max Mara. 813 Madison Ave., 212-879-6100

What was the moment when you knew acting was “it” for you?
When I got my first big job with Lisa Kudrow for HBO, The Comeback—that was the moment where I went, “OK, so this is what it’s like on a real set, with really smart, intelligent people.” Growing up, I had a lot of different things that I wanted to be and do. I was a figure skater for 12 years, and I thought I was going to go to the Olympics, and then I wanted to be an astronaut. I studied in school to become a child psychologist. So I’ve had a lot of different career choices, but luckily [acting] had always been a part of my life. I’ve been doing TV commercials since I was a little kid, and modeling, but it was always just a side thing to make a little money here and there. But then it really started to shift when I came out [to LA]; I was burnt out on school, I needed a break, and when I did my first job, I fell in love, and that was it.

What was your first big splurge with your first substantial acting paycheck?
I was on The Comeback, and I didn’t have a car. I was telling my castmates, “I’m going to buy a car today!” And they were like, “Oh cool, great!” So I go and splurged—it was $1,500. It was an old Chevy truck, falling apart, but I was so proud and so excited. It was my own car! I bring it to set, and one of the actors that I was working with, he was like, “Let me see the car.” And he comes out, and I could just see the expression on his face… I didn’t care, I was super excited. I was like, I got wheels, baby! It was awesome.

Photography by: Photography by Tony Duran. Beauté: Dior Gel Coat ($27). Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave., 212-753-4000. Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk Foundation ($62), Eye Tint in Senso ($39), Eyes to Kill Waterproof Eyeliner Pencil in Shades 1 and 2 ($30 each), Lip Maestro in Orient ($38). 717 Fifth Ave., 212-339-5950. Rene Furterer Vegetal Styling Modeling Paste ($26), Vegetal Styling Texture Spray ($32). Salon Ishi, 70 E. 55th St., 212-888-4744. Styling by Lawren Sample at Crosby Carter Management. Hair by Christian Marc at Forward Artists using Rene Furterer. Makeup by Kathy Jeung at Forward Artists using Giorgio Armani Beauty. Nails by Sarah Chue using Dior Vernis