A series like “Maniac” is like “candy for an actor,” says Billy Magnussen about the Netflix limited series, which spans various characters, tones, styles and genres in its futuristic tale of an experimental drug trial that activates odd and therapeutic dreams in a group of test subjects. “You get to explore so many different realities and depths of emotion and character, the kind of stuff I live for. That’s why we’re in the game is to tell stories.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Magnussen above.
The series stars Jonah Hill as Owen Milgrim and Emma Stone as Annie Landsberg, two of those test subjects. Magnussen co-stars in dual roles as Owen’s brother Jed, who is on trial for sexual abuse, and Grimsson, who is an imaginary manifestation of Owen’s schizophrenic mind. At times Grimsson fuels Owen’s paranoid delusions, but at other times he’s more like the brother Owen wishes he had because Jed, as Magnussen explains, “is kind of a horrible human being.”
The Milgrims are a rich, entitled clan, and Jed may be the worst of the bunch. “Society has failed these people,” Magnussen says. “Affluenza is the real issue. These kids don’t live in a reality that’s grounded, and they’re spoiled.” But while Jed is undoubtedly cruel, “no one’s a villain in their own story. They’re always the hero.” As far as Jed is concerned, “he’s doing the right thing. He’s pushing his brother because his brother is not keeping up with the herd.”
And Magnussen imagines there’s a deep-seated insecurity that fuels Jed’s villainy. “He has to force other people down so he feels more entitled and better.” If the series had given us a peak into Jed’s subconscious like it does with Owen’s, the actor suspects we’d find plenty of “mommy issues … and masculine deficiency … People like that, they boast and make themselves grandiose and bigger than they are because they’re hiding some seed of doubt.”
Magnussen earned a 2013 Tony nomination for his role in the play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” and he’s eager for an eventual return to theater. But his next project is on the big screen, where he’s reuniting with his “Maniac” director Cary Joji Fukunaga on the next James Bond film. “There are different factors that lay into it,” Magnussen says, comparing his experiences on “Maniac” and the Bond film. “But when someone knows who they are … and are honest with themselves, they don’t change much. I still have my friend, and I still have this great director I’m working with … I have to pinch myself sometimes. It blows my mind.”
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