INTERVIEW: Georgia’s Billy Magnussen stars in HBO Max dark comedy ‘Made For Love’

Cristin Milioti and Billy Magnussen star in HBO Max's new dark comedy "Made For Love." John P. Johnson / HBO Max
Cristin Milioti and Billy Magnussen star in HBO Max's new dark comedy "Made For Love." John P. Johnson / HBO Max

Credit: JOHN P JOHNSON

Credit: JOHN P JOHNSON

Magnussen recently bought a house overlooking Lake Lanier

Billy Magnussen has gamely played his share of secondary hunks and dopes over the years, but now at age 35, he gets one of his biggest leading roles in the dark comedy series “Made for Love” on HBO Max, out Thursday.

His Byron Gogol is a quirky Elon Musk-like tech titan who implants a tracking chip in his wife’s brain. Magnussen, a 2003 South Forsyth High School graduate, provides the character an intriguing blend of pathos, neediness and innocence.

In the second episode, Byron tells his wife Hazel (Cristin Milioti) why he wanted both of them to have chips in their brains, which would allow them to read each other’s minds. His quixotic goal: the ultimate in marital intimacy.

“Together, we will become a singular living God!” he proclaims. “You agreed to this!”

With perfect comic timing, Hazel retorts: “I thought those were metaphors!”

Hazel, who Milioti plays with impetuous bewilderment, said her character is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by her husband.

“Byron is so desperate to be loved,” she said. “So is she. That’s what makes their union so toxic and fascinating.”

But Milioti’s personal feelings for Magnussen himself are not complicated at all.

Milioti, known as the mother in the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” and Andy Samberg’s delightful love interest in the 2019 award-winning Hulu comedy “Palm Springs,” said, “He’s game for anything. He’s uninhibited. He’s egoless. It’s such a joy to create with him.”

In the four episodes screened by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Byron’s background remains a mystery. He had built his own “Hub,” a sequestered virtual world he refuses to leave, and when a journalist compares him to Willy Wonka, he draws a blank. He is also confused by doughnut holes.

“This boy has some issues,” Magnussen said in a recent interview with the AJC. “That’s the fun part of it. I wanted to dive into the weird construct of reality and mess with it. He is so out of touch with reality. He made his castle in the sky separate from the real world. But he has this human quality. He comes from a world of code and structure, but love is not that way. He can’t control it, and he’s confounded.”

“Made For Love” showrunner Christina Lee said they did not want Byron’s character to be a pure control-freak villain. What they liked about Magnussen is his fundamental likability “both in real life and on-screen. You feel empathy for him even as he’s giving this chilling, scary performance that leaves you with a lump in your throat,” she said.

Magnussen feels the story is more than techno gimmickry: “At the base level of our show, it’s a story about love and forgetting love and what’s important. It’s based in such a beautiful human experience.”

When Hollywood shut down last year due to the pandemic, Magnussen decided to hang out with his parents and help them close on a property off Lake Lanier. When a house next door became available, Magnussen on a whim decided to sell his Los Angeles home and move back to Georgia permanently.

“I need some space, the open air,” he said. “I’m loving it. Every morning, I have a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise off the lake.”

Magnussen was born and raised in Queens, New York, until the age of 11 when he moved to Cumming. A wrestler, he injured himself senior year at South Forsyth High School and took an acting class instead. He quickly fell in love. “It felt so authentic to me,” he said. “There is this thrilling excitement of facing your fears.”

He said he was inspired by the school theater director Renee Denney’s passion. “She was so dedicated, so invested, so involved in her students. It was infectious.”

Denney said even as a teen, Magnussen displayed a “try anything” characteristic that makes him a successful actor today: “I tell my kids to come in like Play-Doh. I shape you into different shapes. Billy came into the process with a thousand different shapes, a thousand different pieces of clay. So many kids are just lumps.”

She recommended he attend a fine arts school and was impressed when he got into the well-respected North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I was placed in an environment where I ate, slept and breathed the arts,” he said. “I was surrounded by it. There was this snowball effect and little opportunities arose.”

After college, he returned to New York City and set his sights on acting professionally.

One of his first TV credits was a staple for any NYC actor: a bit part in “Law & Order.” But he quickly landed his first regular paying gig on the soap “As The World Turns” as hottie Casey Hughes. His big Broadway break came n 2013 in the comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” He got to work alongside acting vets David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver playing the often topless boy toy of Weaver’s character. The result: a Tony nomination.

“Working with such elegant people opened my eyes to the type of artist I wanted to be,” he said.

Soon after, he got to play Rapunzel’s prince in the film adaptation of “Into the Woods” starring Meryl Streep as the witch. “That was a whirlwind,” he said. “I remember showing up at the table read with Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick and wondering, ‘How did I end up here?’” But he said he realized quickly that even the seasoned actors were nervous, that they made mistakes and that he belonged.

Billy Magnussen plays a tech titan in HBO Max's "Made For Love" also starring Cristin Miliati as his wife. HBO MAX
Billy Magnussen plays a tech titan in HBO Max's "Made For Love" also starring Cristin Miliati as his wife. HBO MAX

Credit: HBO Max

Credit: HBO Max

In 2018, he got to return to Atlanta to shoot the hit comedy “Game Night” starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. “It was just so exciting,” he said. “To be home was crazy. My 18-year-old self wanted to run away as far as he could from my own life. When I came back, it felt like a new chapter. I got to share this with my family and the people I grew up with. I realized how much I loved growing up here.”

Magnussen also played a role in an Emmy-winning episode of the heralded sci-fi series “Black Mirror” called “USS Callister,” where Jesse Plemons (also in “Game Night”) portrays a tech whiz, Robert Daly, who takes the DNA of his work colleagues he dislikes and places versions of them in a virtual version of a “Star Trek”-like game he grew up with. Daly is a despot in the game, and the woman who saves the day happens to be played by Milioti herself.

Magnussen’s character is forced to play Daly’s nemesis, Valdack. “He is comic relief for most of this episode,” Milioti said. “But when he begs Jesse’s character to just kill him, there’s this complete 180. You feel so gutted. I remember watching him shoot that scene, and it blew me away how he could go from comedy to heart-wrenching so amazingly well.”

Billy Magnussen plays the bad guy in the 'USS Callister" episode of "Black Mirror" on Netflix. NETFLIX
Billy Magnussen plays the bad guy in the 'USS Callister" episode of "Black Mirror" on Netflix. NETFLIX

Credit: NETFLIX

Credit: NETFLIX

Magnussen’s next big role is in the upcoming “No Time to Die,” Daniel Craig’s final appearance as James Bond that was meant to come out a year ago but was pushed due to the virus. It’s now set to come out stateside Oct. 8. His role in the film is a guarded secret but Magnussen understands the enduring appeal of Bond as a franchise the past five decades.

“He’s a fantasy action here,” he said. “Be braver than you think you are. It’s an enduring fairy tale.”

ON TELEVISION

Made to Love”

Thursday on HBO Max

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