With his wavy locks and twinkling eyes, Billy Magnussen looks born to portray fairy-tale royalty. So it’s no wonder that, at 32, he’s already done so twice — once in the 2014 musical Into the Woods, and again in director Guy Ritchie’s 2019 live-action adaptation of Aladdin.
Yet to hear Magnussen tell it, it’s not just his royal looks that make him well-suited to these cartoonish worlds — it’s also his playful personality. “For me, I’m just being normal,” he says of his days spent on sets that rocket him into magical realms.
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Sure enough, it seems the real world is just not enough to accommodate the actor’s off-the-charts energy level. In conversation, he delivers a monologue a minute, jumping straight from a Spinal Tap quote — “These go to ’urleven” — into a philosophical discussion about a line he thinks was said by Galileo, but someone should probably check that. (In fact, Socrates.) “He felt it was a shame not to use the human body to its full potential. So I like to push things. I find out where out-of-play is in rehearsals and early takes, and then I push it as far as I can within that,” he says. No wonder he needs the excitement of enchanted forests and flying carpets just to feel at home.
This fall, he’s at it again in Tell Me A Story, a new CBS All Access show that re-imagines fairy tales as dark modern-day thrillers. He also joins Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in a pseudo-wonderland that explores the side effects of a pharmaceutical trial gone wrong in Maniac, the new Netflix mini-series from True Detective mastermind Cary Fukunaga. The show’s trailers have been tantalizingly trippy and, even after filming his part, Magnussen admits to not fully understanding how it will unfold. “As an actor, you’re only a colour, not the whole painting,” he says. “In that one, I’m blue.”
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Even when Magnussen does take on the rare role that confines him to a more conventional setting, he chooses ones that still come with their fair share of exaggerated material. His most recent turn on the big screen, this spring’s Game Night, was about a murder mystery party that escalated into a comedic kidnapping. This month’s The Oath, an exploration of the political divide around a Thanksgiving dinner table that co-stars Tiffany Haddish and John Cho, goes similarly off the rails.
Magnussen admits his own family dinners have followed a similar trajectory on a couple of occasions. “There’s always someone trying to be at odds. But all religions call for peace, and everyone in politics has a family. So why all the struggle?” he asks. A question posed with the diplomacy of a true prince.
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