Billy Magnussen: Manhood Uncensored

Billy Magnussen walks into a nail salon.

No, that’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the first day of spring, though snow is falling at an epic rate, and Magnussen can’t wait to get his feet in the pedi-spa. He’s just come from filming the Sonnet Project, a series of short films based on Shakespeare’s poetry, and he’s carrying his costume and materials for band practice in a rugged duffel bag, as he has to be in Queens later to rehearse with his rock outfit, Reserved for Rondee.

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He takes off his coat, damp from the seemingly never-ending winter outside, and reveals a casual look: a fitted blue T-shirt, jeans, and a Nike cap. “I need new boots,” he laments, removing his worn-though, classic-looking work boots. “I didn’t know it was going to snow today.”

Whether he’s motorboating Kristine Nielsen in his Tony-nominated performance as Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on Broadway or galavanting in a waterfall with Chris Pine singing “Agony” in Into the Woods, Magnussen clearly likes to have a good time onstage, onscreen or anywhere else. (“Chris and I caused mayhem. Mayem,” he says of filming the movie. “When we were going out, we were setting London on fire.”)

However, today, he seems more subdued than his usual, more rambunctious self. But nothing can stop him from flirting with a pretty lady, and he has a knack for disarming anyone in his presence, a product no doubt of his Southern upbringing.

“Hi, I’m Billy. What’s your name?” the actor asks the woman prepping the water in the basin, as he gets cozy in the massage chair, toying around with the controls.

“What color do you want?” she asks, jokingly.

“Let’s go with maroon,” he responds. “Or mauve.”

I sit down next to him, and my aesthetician seems less-than-thrilled not to have landed the charming movie star. I ask him how he’s doing.

“I’m excited about this,” he says. “The only thing we’re missing are 40s.”

There’s the Billy we all know and love.

“Is this your brother?” his pedicurist asks. “You look alike.”

I will definitely take that as a compliment. The actor has quickly earned a place as a veritable Hollywood heartthrob, baring his abs (and more) onstage most recently in Sex With Strangers Off-Broadway opposite Anna Gunn. And he almost landed the role of Christian Grey in the semi-infamous 50 Shades of Grey. “Did you see it?” Magnussen asks, pointing to the film’s stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan on the cover of a nearby Glamour.

While Magnussen often gets typecast as the pretty boy, he’s ready to diversify his resume. He plays a social worker in The Great Gilly Hopkins, based on the novel about a young girl shuffled from foster home to foster home. His role was a woman in the book, but considering the powerful female-led ensemble, which includes Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, and Octavia Spencer, the screenwriter David Paterson changed the gender. (The film hasn’t set a release date.)

He’s about to move out to Los Angeles for four months to shoot American Crime Story, a sister series to American Horror Story in which a new crime will be explored each season. He’ll play Kato Kaelin, the surfer-esque slacker witness in the O.J. Simpson trial. “I’m trying to be serious!” he adds with a laugh.

“It’s time to be the hero,” Magnussen says sincerely, adding that he used to love to play superheroes when he was young and has no qualms admitting he’d love to play one now too. “There’s a quality to American actors, we’re losing that man quality,” he continues, noting the irony of saying it while getting a pedicure. “And that’s why these Australians get cast as these bros. Fuck man, I want to take it back.”

He strikingly determined as he says this, even though he admittedly doesn’t love being interviewed. “I can’t focus,” he says of all the hullaballoo that goes along with promoting a project. “I love the acting world but the other shit, that’s a lot.”

However, he’s comfortable talking to people and continually tries to turn what is traditionally a one-sided exchange into a two-way conversation. He asks me questions ranging from “How many siblings do you have?” to “When was the last time you had sex?” (He’s willing to answer these as well. His responses: two younger brothers and off the record.) He seems to feel stifled by the conventions of standard interview questions, getting easily distracted by his foot massage—“I love you so much,” he keeps telling the women rubbing them—or by the vibrating chair.

“I’m so chubby,” Magnussen jokes as the chair shakes and he attempts to make his rock-hard abs move with it. His muscles stay pretty solid despite the movement—his six-times-a-week-workout with buddy and fellow actor Philip Ettinger take care of that.

While Magnussen wants to come back to Broadway, he is wary of all the musical offers he’s been receiving since Into the Woods. “I’m scared of singing in public,” he admits, and says that his strategy on set was to “grip it and rip it.”

“I got so lucky,” he says of landing the role in the film—an audition that Meryl Streep suggested him for after seeing him in Vanya. “On IMDb, it says I’m playing Danny Zuko on Grease: Live. I was like, I don’t know about this!” he adds. “If anything I could be Kenickie, but I don’t want to do that. I admire them for doing it. I’ll enjoy watching them. Doing eight singing shows a week, I couldn’t do it.”

He does want to do a play. However, after he asks me what plays I’ve done and I list off a few high school credits — Once in a Lifetime, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables — he doesn’t recognize any of the titles. “I don’t know any plays. We were supposed to read a lot of stuff in college,” he says, suggesting that he didn’t do much reading while he was studying at North Carolina School of the Arts. (He never received his degree.) “I don’t want someone else’s role. I hate when people say whose career do you want? I want mine.”

As our nails are drying — his clear, mine pink — Magnussen continues with his distractions and pulls up his latest obsession on YouTube: Workout Wednesday. The delightful web series features Zach Anner, a comedian with cerebral palsy who Magnussen calls “fucking hysterical.” “I don’t think I’m funny!” he adds.

He also grabs a copy of New York Magazine with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer on the cover and confesses his love for their show Broad City. (He’s also a House of Cards addict and has been on a 30 Rock kick lately.)

He’s had some free time waiting for American Crime Story to start up, and he’s been spending it working out, recording an album with his band, and flirting with women. “Dude, nonstop,” he adds. “There’s so many. I respect them all.”

And he is always a gentleman, in the most unlikely ways. As we’re leaving, he looks at me and says, “You have a booger.”

I wipe my nose, self-consciously.

“I’d just want somebody to tell me.”

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