Billy Magnussen On His Breakout Year

The actor is currently shooting Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and shredding with his band, Reserved for Rondee.

Billy Magnussen has already broken big. Two years ago, the actor earned a Tony nod and countless female sighs for his work in Broadway’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Last year he proved an adept scene-stealer on the big screen, shining in Into the Woods during a comic and competitive duet with Chris Pine. But now Magnussen is about to explode: In addition to starring with Glenn Close, Kathy Bates and Julia Stiles in this spring’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, Magnussen has scored a coveted role alongside Tom Hanks and Alan Alda in Stephen Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies, due out in December.

And Magnussen’s seeing success offstage, too: Reserved For Rondee, the blues rock band in which he plays guitar, is about to drop a new single, and an album is due out this summer. We spoke to Magnussen about rising stardom, his rock god goals, and why poetry always wins him the girl. 

When you were fifteen if someone asked you to chose between being a theater star or in movies or in a rock band, what would have chosen?   

At fifteen I was just masturbating and smoking a lot of weed, not thinking that far ahead. But I probably would have said, “Nah, I’ll do all of them.” That’s my personality – I’m open to every possibility and I try knowing I might fail. I don’t have a plan for my career. But these days I don’t do drugs because you don’t want to be sitting on your ass when opportunities are there.

You earned a reputation for being unclothed on stage in show after show. Did you worry about that?  

No, it was always part of the character to me. I don’t think I got nominated just for being shirtless. And in Sex With Strangers my character had so many layers. I was constantly shifting.  

Did Meryl Streep really help get you the part in Into the Woods?

She saw me in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and came back stage and said, “Good job.” I found out later she helped get me the audition. Man, it is so good having her in your corner. I’m indebted to her. It’s one thing to believe in yourself but to have others believe in you is the greatest gift.  

You’re working with some big stars in these movies. Is that distracting or intimidating?   

Nah. I have my geek out moments at home – “Oh my god, it’s me and Alan Alda” – but when you go to work you can’t be sheepish and shy. I show them my respect by being ready to work. My friends were more excited about me working with Spielberg than I was -my attitude was “What are my lines? Am I ready.”  But he was amazing – you can still see in him the 12-year-old kid down the street shooting movies in his backyard. He is doing what he loves.   

Now you’re pursuing another career too. When did you get into music?   

Until sixth or seventh grade I played clarinet, trombone and trumpet. And my dad was a carpenter so when I’d hang out in the carpentry shop with him I heard all this classic rock – The Who, Zeppelin, Floyd, Billy Joel – but I didn’t start really playing guitar seriously until after college when I came back to New York.   

How did that come about? 

Someone asked me to play bass in their band. I didn’t know how to play bass but I said, “Sure, why not?” Then I started really focusing on guitar. I couldn’t play a cover version if you asked me, but I can make my own noise. And I’m practicing and getting better. 

There are other actors in your band too. Is it hard finding time to rehearse?   

Yeah, one of our alternate band names is The Stubborn Bastards. But we also think about The Laundry Emergency because it’s so hard to find rehearsal time and then often one guy says, “Dude, I couldn’t make rehearsal because I had a laundry emergency.”  

You once said you use poetry to woo women. Does that work?  

Yeah, no one does it anymore so it’s a unique thing. I’ll recite one or text or email one. Who doesn’t love a good poem?   And one of my New Year’s resolutions was not to purchase cards anymore, just to make my own – even if it’s just me drawing a smiley face on a piece of paper, that’s better. People are losing that personal connection.  

On IMDB you are rumored to be cast as Danny Zuko in the live television production of Grease. Is that true?  

I saw that and said, “Really? I didn’t know about it.” I’m flattered but it’s all bullshit.

Photos by Photo by JD Urban