What is the worst thing you’ve ever done to make your boss happy? Undermine a coworker? Neglect your significant other to work over the weekend to finish an assignment? That’s never a good look, but have you ever [deep breath] been willing to poison the American food supply so that the company you work for doesn’t have a bad quarter? Don’t worry, I’m not speaking from personal experience; I don’t do the stonks. But that is what nearly happened in the fourth season of Showtime’s Billions, when Axe Cap trader “Dollar” Bill Stearn was fully prepared to eradicate countless chickens to prove his loyalty to Bobby Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis) and save his boss some money on a position. Thankfully, even a ruthless capitalist like Axe stopped short of Poultry Armageddon, and forgave his devoted employee for making a bad investment.
While this story line was partly an excuse for a chicken-themed homage to Chinatown—Billions gonna Billions—if any character on television should be the poster boy for the inherent toxicity of hustle culture, it’s Dollar Bill. Armed with a fleece vest and imbued with the burning intensity of a thousand suns by actor Kelly AuCoin, Dollar Bill’s commitment to Axe Cap is rivaled only by his frugality—in a show in which characters routinely flex fancy sports cars, sleek penthouses, and private jets, the oft-described “cheapest millionaire in America” drives to work in a minivan. Of course, it might be wise to save some cash when, like Dollar Bill, you’re juggling two families.
Like any good performer, AuCoin has immersed himself in the role. There’s no greater sign of the actor’s versatility than the fact that he also played Pastor Tim on The Americans—someone who couldn’t be further from Dollar Bill in terms of temperament, appearance, and family values. (Also, that character had only one family.) Ahead of Billions’ Season 5 premiere, I spoke to AuCoin about what he’s been up to in quarantine, what we can expect from Dollar Bill this season, how he felt about the ending of The Americans, and the actor’s beloved Portland Trail Blazers. No, seriously, AuCoin might love the Blazers more than Dollar Bill loves fleece vests and saving money.
Before diving into Billions, how are you holding up and passing the time right now?
Well, if you could see a picture of me, you would see a verging-on-Santa-Claus-level beard. It’s my pride and joy at the moment. It’s the extent of my creative outlet since we’ve been in lockdown. It’s pretty spectacular.
Nice. I’m growing a bit of a quarantine beard myself, but I might trim it soon. Any other hobbies or other things?
Like something actually interesting? [Laughs.] I’ve been trying to learn how to edit. I’ve been trying to do video editing. I’m launching an IG Live sort of interview show that’s just for me to keep busy and connect with people who I find inspiring and interesting. Other than that, no, it’s just the beard.
So Showtime already announced that the fifth season of Billions will go on hiatus after seven episodes. How close were y’all to wrapping up production?
Well, each season is 12 episodes, and we had just begun Episode 8. So we firmly dipped our toe in the second half of the season. The timing was really unfortunate, too, because we were really kicking it up into high gear. Episode 7 is just a crazy-fun ride, and I think we all had such a fun time on that.
We are excited to really bring it home on the back stretch of the season, but we’ll get to it. The producers, Showtime folk, and our direct show producers have been in touch with us periodically, just keeping us updated and letting us know that everyone from set was healthy, which is great. I think just about any interview you may have had with cast members, they may have said that this group is really like a family, and it’s not a cliché. It really is true more than any other project I’ve ever been on that people are really looking out for each other, and it’s lovely.
This question might be more appropriate for series creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, but how do you think Dollar Bill would juggle his two families in a pandemic?
[Laughs.] I’ve been asked this question on Twitter. I would say he might find a third little place to hole up, like a little man-cave-type place, and just be like, “Honey, honey”—to both honeys—“can’t quite get home. I have this cough. And I lost my sense of smell. Maybe I should really quarantine.” I think he would find a way to be even elsewhere.
Also, maybe he’d hole up with Bonnie. It’s a pretty spacious minivan.
Well, that is one of the interesting things heading into this season. The character’s still got that love/hate relationship going with Spyros, and then this very different kind of relationship growing with Bonnie. Can you talk a bit about how those dynamics might develop this season?
I don’t want to get too much into how they might develop this season, but I will say the thing that I love about these characters, Dollar Bill is really thrown by these two characters coming in. Spyros is just the kind of perfect storm of irritation for Dollar Bill, you know? Every possible thing that would piss him off is embodied in Stephen Kunken’s performance of Spyros, which makes putting them together just delicious fun. But we always have a good time.
And then with Bonnie, you’ve got someone who can almost out–Dollar Bill Dollar Bill. And that is intimidating at times, but also is like one of the hottest things that could possibly happen to Bill. It’s just like, “Oh my God. It’s me. It’s a female me. That is so hot.” It’s brilliant. The casting of those two actors and the writing of those two characters and the way they’ve grown, it’s just been fun for me. Every time I get to interact with either of them, it’s very tasty.
What is the biggest unanswered question you still have about the character?
I’ve always wondered how Bill and Axe met, and what it is about Axe that keeps Bill loyal. In my dreams, we’d have some flashback episodes where—I think they did this on The West Wing once, where you got to see how everyone first met up to go work for President Bartlet—it would be fun to have some episodes where you get to see how they all came together. Yeah, my biggest question would be “How did Axe and I first throw in together? How did I throw in with him, or what was the circumstance?” That would be fascinating.
The other thing is I would love a little bottle episode where you see Dollar Bill at home with each of his families. Nothing huge, just like reading the paper, and one of my wives saying, “Hey, did you clean the gutters?” I don’t think anyone else would find that interesting, but I would find it hilarious.
We’ve also got Mafee (Dan Soder) coming back to work at the company after you guys had that hilarious boxing match last season. What was that like to film?
I think the world finally understands the physical and athletic prowess of Dan Soder and myself. It was a blast. The final product might not show this, but we had about a week’s worth of boxing training, and then we spent about a month choreographing the fight, figuring out what the moves were, honing them, simplifying them, to make it look like something real. We didn’t want it to look like we were trying to be goofy. We wanted to look like these guys are really trying to beat the crap out of the other guy and they’re just terrible at it.
So that took about a month, and then on the first take of the first shot of the boxing ring episode, Soder broke my rib.
Are you serious?
I am totally serious. Yeah. We got a little off in the choreography, and you know, I don’t know how many extras there were—maybe 100 or 200 background actors—and it was adrenaline, you know? And they’re all cheering and chanting for blood and, yeah, there was a little cachunk sound. I’m like, “That’s not good.”
And then the next day I couldn’t move, and Soder is so sweet, he feels so bad to this day. I wish I was a bigger dick and I could try to get something out of it from him, but I just want him to feel better. But apparently when he found out my rib was broken, he went over to Damian Lewis on set and said, “Oh my God, I just made change out of Dollar Bill.”
Was that your favorite Dollar Bill moment on the show, or do you have some other moments that stood out for you?
There’s a handful of them. I mean, I love every moment on the set. It’s great. I love this character and I love the people we work with—crew, cast, background, producers, everybody. It’s terrific. But I’d say in no particular order, my favorite episodes, favorite moments of episodes, was the fake fight in Season 1 that I had with Bobby.
That probably is no. 1, actually. I said no particular order, but that’s probably no. 1. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun as an actor on anything, be it stage or film. That was a really fun time. And it also was the first time Damian and I had a chance to work together, so we got to know each other more.
For certain people at The Ringer who’ve watched both Billions and The Americans, realizing that Dollar Bill and Pastor Tim are played by the same person is like a rite of passage. I’m not sure if it’s the wig or the fact that these characters couldn’t be further apart, but it seriously blew my mind.
For two seasons, I was shooting both shows at the same time. That was kind of a mindfuck, going back and forth. To my mind, these are two of the best shows that have been on in the past 15 years, and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of them—and I’ve been a part of Billions since the beginning. But The Americans, when I auditioned in Season 2, it was already my favorite show on TV. I had never had the experience of auditioning for what was legitimately my favorite show.
I’m so glad I didn’t fuck it up because in situations like that, you can check yourself out because you want it so badly.
Were you happy with how The Americans ended and everything with Pastor Tim? Compared to most people on the show he sort of had a happy ending, all things considered.
I mean, who knew? Everyone thought he was going to die. Everyone wanted him to die. I thought it was really funny that everyone loved this asshole, Dollar Bill, and everybody hated one of the very few people on The Americans who was just a sweet do-gooder. I mean, he might have been annoying, but that always cracked me up. As a fan, I think the show ended brilliantly. That final episode was ridiculously perfect.
The fact that Philip and Elizabeth—that it wasn’t a bloodbath, it was the loss of their children, was so unexpected, and so much more poignant than if one of them had died. So that was great. I love the way the Pastor Tim story ended. It was nice to be able to come back in the penultimate episode.
Just from following you on Twitter, it’s clear you’re a very passionate Portland Trail Blazers fan.
Oh, fuck yeah. Excuse my French. Fuck yeah.
Obviously the rest of the NBA season is up in the air, but do you feel like the Blazers would’ve been able to turn things around and make the playoffs?
God, it was a weird season, wasn’t it? It was surreal, especially coming off of last season. You know, I think the story really is summed up in one word: injuries. There’s [Jusuf Nurkic], we knew he was going to be out, but that still was something we were going to try to tread water until he came back, and he was a week away from coming back when the season ended. Zach Collins we could really use again during the playoffs, and Rodney Hood—who really seemed like he was a perfect fit in the first part of the season—was playing so well. Those two guys, along with Nurk not being back, there just was no way to recover from that.
Even Damian [Lillard] playing—this guy’s an All-NBA talent, and he took it up another notch, and if he had pulled us into the playoffs, or maybe even a seventh or sixth seed or something like that, you’d have to think of him in the MVP conversation. It’s just he was playing at an otherworldly level.
There were going to be growing pains anyway, getting rid of some of the mainstays that were great rotation players for us, and we had chemistry. Maybe the chemistry we had over the last couple seasons made our team greater than the sum of its parts. Whether or not we made the playoffs, I was really sad to see the season end, because what would have been really great to see is if Nurk and Hassan [Whiteside] can play together. That would have a lot of sway in how we make moves in the offseason. The season was deeply frustrating.
[Editor’s note: Kelly had a lot to say about the Blazers; these are his condensed thoughts.]
You have my sympathies. I’m a Wizards fan so I’ve been feeling this way for years.
Are you old enough to have been around when the Bullets were still the Bullets?
I really grew up and became a fan with the Jordan-era Wizards and Gilbert Arenas, those days, which obviously were a blast.
I do love Gilbert Arenas.
Yeah, he reminded me of Steph [Curry] before Steph.
Oh, totally. Because of the way things ended with him, people forget how good he was. There was a [second]-round matchup between the Wizards and Miami when Wade was full-on fucking supernova Dwyane Wade—and Gilbert Arenas, they were going at it, and it could have easily gone the Wizards’ way, because Gilbert was just as good.
I will always have a soft spot for the Washington basketball franchise, but you got to come up with a better name. The Wizards.
I wish we had some basketball to pass the time right now, but at least we’ll have that Michael Jordan doc series for the next few weeks.
I got to check that out, even though it’s a little painful because I don’t like to remember the Trail Blazers should have drafted him.
I’ve seen the first two episodes, and unfortunately that will be brought up.
Thanks for bringing that up. I spent so much time thinking about when Jordan came out, it was a different era. People thought very traditionally, and it was like Portland needed a center, and we lost a coin flip. If we won the coin flip, we would have had Hakeem Olajuwon, and Olajuwon and [Clyde] Drexler would have been playing together. That actually would have been the best outcome for the team because they played together in college. They were amazing together.
But we lost the coin flip and instead of picking the best talent available—Jordan—we picked Sam Bowie, who was a great college player until he lost two years of his career with broken legs. Terrible in hindsight, but at the same time, if that draft happened today, I think people do generally pick the best talent available. They don’t pick for need as much. Especially at the top of the draft, and I think things would have been different. But what are you going to do?
Well, I’ll answer that. Actually what I do is I cry myself to sleep at night, thinking about Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan being on our team.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.