Billions Season 3 premieres Sunday night with new characters and new story lines — but the same old Axe and Wags. Series cocreator Brian Koppelman joined The Bill Simmons Podcast to discuss the upcoming season, his experience writing the film Rounders, and how he and cocreator David Levien dictated the overall tone of Billions.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
On John Malkovich Playing a Russian Billionaire
Brian Koppelman: It’s been announced that [John] Malkovich is in this season of Billions.
Bill Simmons: Yeah, I want to talk about that.
Koppelman: Playing a Russian billionaire.
Simmons: I think you know your audience at this point. You know your audience loves Malkovich and [the film] Rounders — you’re basically bringing that character back; you’re bringing Teddy KGB back, but not really.
Koppelman: It’s not set in [the] KGB, [he’s] a Russian billionaire!
Simmons: That’s what I mean.
Koppelman: It’s just John Malkovich with a Russian accent playing a powerful person that the people in the world of the show have to respect and grapple with. Might he say the word “satisfied” over the course of the season? Might he say the word “aggressive”? It’s possible. It’s possible.
Simmons: Might he have an Oreo in one of the 12 episodes?
Koppelman: No, that’d be pushing it. An Oreo would be pushing it.
Koppelman: No, he’s really playing a totally different character. …
But I will say, I texted him — we had this idea for this character and people were giving us lists of people who could play the character. The way we researched the show is that we spent a lot of time with these hedge-fund billionaires and they tell us everything as long as we don’t reveal who said what. … So we had this idea for the character, and then [series cocreator] Dave [Levien] and I were talking and we were like, “You know, if John would do it, it would have all the extra resonance that you’re alluding to.” It was like if John were playing this character, this very wealthy man from Russia, it would just elevate the thing because he’s one of the greatest living actors, [and] he’s a brilliant person. And I wrote him and described the character and said, “If you’d be game …” and he instantly wrote back like, “I’m a hundred percent game. Let’s figure out how to do it.” And he came.
And it’s possible that he will say the word “aggressive” during the course of the season.
Simmons: OK, great. I know you’ll take care of me. I know you’ll take care of my Rounders needs.
Koppelman: We’d heard from some of these hedge fund people about dealings they had with a couple of Russian billionaires and the way they talked about it made us realize the story arc possibility. And then it was like, how you build it. You do all this research … and we’re talking to people who used to be in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and you’re asking about situations they’ve faced and from that you’re going to build these fictional characters. And a bunch of people start talking about the kind of influence that Russian money can have. Not Russian money like the government’s talking about, but the kind of influence when someone who has billions of dollars might invest with you, how it’s different if it’s Russian. So that story shows up later in the season.
Simmons: Without giving too much away, does Bobby Axelrod like this character?
Koppelman: They, umm … Bobby Axelrod has scenes with the character for sure. I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll say this: You will really enjoy this thing.
How Billions Avoids Becoming Campy
Simmons: [Billions], you want it to be rollicking and entertaining, but the danger is that it would become campy. Which is a line that you guys have not really crossed — maybe you’ve dipped over it once, twice, three times over the course of two years. But you’ve really done a nice job of monitoring the rollicking, entertaining side versus the “Aw, this is fucking stupid. Come on, guys!” How much do you think [about] that balance? Because in my opinion that’s the key to the show.
Koppelman: My partner is amazing at that — at knowing where the line is. Left to my own devices I might push over it occasionally, but [Levien] is really amazing at having that conversation.
Simmons: What’s your favorite “we can’t do that” that you almost did?
Koppelman: We don’t really even —
Simmons: It would never get to that point?
Koppelman: No, you’re just sitting in a room talking through things and spitballing. Sometimes it will be something from life. You could come in with something that some billionaire told you, but if you actually did it on the show it would just seem corny and overdone and fake and you wouldn’t believe it.
The truth is, Dave and I are both constantly thinking about the tone of the show and the mood of the show, and how we do want it to be entertaining. We don’t want it to be work to watch it, right? If people want to pick out themes from the show, they’re clear and you can do it. If you want to figure out what we’re saying about the world, it’s there for you. But we also want to allow our enthusiasms to come into the show. And that is really what the show is. [Levien] and I have been best friends since we were 16 years old or whatever, 15. We’ve shared this language about pop culture. We decided in making this show, we’re going to try to make it for guys like us, or people who have the spirit that we have.
Simmons: And everyone at The Ringer.
Koppelman: Yeah. But people who have the kind of enthusiasms we do, or who have a bent for being an enthusiast. Who just love this shit. So in the first episode — it’s been in the trailers and it’s been amazing to me — there’s a run that ends with Wags saying, “Your ego just wrote a check your body can’t cash.” And a bunch of people online were like, “What a brilliant line from Billions!” And I wanted to scream: You obviously don’t watch our show, because you have to understand that’s not our line. That’s a Top Gun line. In the scene, we make that really clear. We say it. We say those words in the scene.
But that’s always going to be a part of our show, so if somebody doesn’t like that — we could have changed our show, and knew how to do it so it would just be a serious drama. On the face of it, just pure prestige. But honestly, we wanted to make a show that was a good time to watch. So if a Top Gun [line] occurs to us and Wags can say it, we’re going to give Wags the fucking Top Gun quote. And if it doesn’t tick your serious meter and you want to go watch something else instead, go watch that other show. That’s fine. I’ll be watching The Crown with you.
And then the other side of it: We’re also not going to get really silly. We’re not going to take it to a place, as you said, that these characters wouldn’t really do the thing.
Simmons: Yeah, [then] it’s campy.
Koppelman: Then it’s campy. Characters matter a lot to us.