[This interview contains spoilers for No Time to Die.]
For No Time to Die star Billy Magnussen, there’s no time like the present. In the 25th James Bond film from Eon Productions, Magnussen plays CIA officer Logan Ash, who, along with his fellow CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), tries to convince a retired Bond to assist with a mission. Magnussen, who had previously worked with No Time to Die filmmaker Cary Fukunaga on the Netflix limited series Maniac, actually made his case for a Bond role on Maniac‘s red carpet.
“I remember when we premiered Maniac because we found out that day that Cary was going to do the next James Bond,” Magnussen tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So I went up to him and I was like, ‘Listen, put me in James Bond if you need to.’ And then a year later, I was on a backpack trip in Vietnam, and I was standing outside this address. I have a photo of it in Sapa, Vietnam, and it said 007. I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ And then I got a text from Cary Fukunaga going, ‘Dude, what are you doing next summer?’ So I texted him right back without hesitation and was like, ‘If it’s for Bond, I’m free.’”
Magnussen also appears as Paulie Walnuts in the The Sopranos prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark. To prepare for the role, he did a deep dive into The Sopranos, something he wasn’t able to do at the time of its broadcast.
“I really tried to get his mannerisms and cadence down. All of those things,” Magnussen says. “I didn’t know much about The Sopranos until I got the job because I could not afford HBO, especially in college. So I watched the whole series, but I didn’t want to do an impersonation. I just wanted to catch the essence of this guy. So the key things I locked on were the mannerisms, the movements and where they might come from, but also how we constructed phrases, how his head thought and where the character was driven. A lot of that credit goes to David Chase, so I can’t take that.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Magnussen also reflects on his downtime shooting No Time to Die, including a “Color Run” with Fukunaga and surfing in Jamaica with Wright. Then he looks back at his time on the sets of The Big Short, Bridge of Spies and The Leftovers.
[This interview contains spoilers for No Time to Die.]
So did Maniac basically serve as your audition for No Time to Die?
I would say so. I got Maniac, which gave me the opportunity to work with Cary Fukunaga. So we became friends, and I felt we collaborated really well with each other. And I remember when we premiered Maniac because we found out that day that Cary was going to do the next James Bond. So I went up to him and I was like, “Listen, put me in James Bond if you need to.” And then a year later, I was on a backpack trip in Vietnam, and I was standing outside this address. I have a photo of it in Sapa, Vietnam, and it said 007. I thought, “That’s weird.” And then I got a text from Cary Fukunaga going, “Dude, what are you doing next summer?” So I texted him right back without hesitation and was like, “If it’s for Bond, I’m free.” (Laughs.) So I would say that Maniac was a part of it.
So the first thing I noticed about Logan Ash was his paranoia. Someone bumped into him on the street, and he immediately checked for his wallet and such. Were you trying to establish early that he was relatively new to this line of work and was worried about his overall plan?
Yeah, it was about the juxtaposition of the characters. You have Bond, who’s smooth, coy and comfortable everywhere he goes, in a sense. And then I tried to play the opposite of that: a guy who is in this world but is a little vanilla and hesitant. He doesn’t have his footing yet, but it also distracts from what the character’s real intentions are.
Was the smiling another way to show that he’s uncomfortable with what he’s about to do?
It’s more that there’s this dark world around him, and he is getting his plan to work. He’s excited. He drank Safin’s [Rami Malek] Kool-Aid, so he’s all about pushing his agenda forward.
What locations did you travel to on this?
Jamaica and the U.K.
I’m not trying to get into the weeds of Daniel’s injury, but was some of your stuff rescheduled for later?
No, I was on board for many months. I was there, and I was just there to service the project. I think that’s what you do as an artist or a performer. It’s not about you. It’s more about the project that you’re putting together. How can I be the piece that helps or makes it move as smoothly as possible?
So you not only fought James Bond but you actually held your own. Were you on cloud nine the whole time?
Yeah, when I got the opportunity — or was told that I had the opportunity to be in it — I was like, “There’s got to be a fight scene, right?!” And of course, when I found out, I was just like, “Yes!” Not many people get to fight Bond. It’s wilder now than it was then because when I was doing it, you’re showing up to do the work. You’re still just an actor in a piece. But looking back at it now, you’re like, “Holy crap, dude! This opportunity is unbelievable.” So I just have such gratitude for it all.
Did the choreography take its toll on you?
No, I was like, “I get to go do this every day?” So getting to do that every day, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I loved it.
And Logan Ash basically killed Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, who’s not only a fan-favorite character but one of Bond’s only friends. As an actor, you were probably ecstatic about impacting the story to that degree, but as Billy, were you slightly worried about fans giving you a hard time on the street?
No, not at all. (Laughs.) I love it, man. Again, you’re a character in a piece, and if you’re doing your part well, the hope is that it impacts people and affects people. We’re just telling a story and it’s all play. I love it. Who doesn’t like to play Brutus in Hamlet, you know?
Was there a lot of fanfare on set since Felix’s story was coming to an end? Could everyone sense how big a moment it would be for Bond and the audience?
No, not really. (Laughs.) It was just another moment.
Were you on hand to watch Ash’s Range Rover flip over?
Yeah, that was cool. That was really cool. All the motorcycles and Range Rovers were flying around. I loved showing up on those days because you’re like, “How are they going to pull this off?” And then they do it and you’re like, “These guys are professionals. This is some dope shit.” I wish I was using better words than “dope shit.” (Laughs.)
Did they flip Ash’s Range Rover several times?
I do not know the exact number, but it was definitely a few.
And what do you remember about shooting Ash’s final moments?
I was with Cary and Craig, and I just tried to be as present as possible. I tried to be grateful for the moments that were in front of me and I tried not to worry about anything else. I don’t need to worry about what the fans are going to think or whatever. I’m there with people I love and care about, and we were creating something that I feel is beautiful. And I got to experience it, which means the world to me. Nowadays, we live everywhere other than the present moment, and I’m just glad I got to observe and be a part of this whole process.
In 50 years, when you tell your great-grandchildren about your experience on No Time to Die, what memory will you share with them first?
(Laughs.) I will remember surfing with Jeffrey Wright almost every other morning in Jamaica. Just surfing, having a few rums and being like, “Wow, this is beautiful.” Jeffrey is a true gentleman.
What’s the story behind this run you and Cary did?
Oh, it’s called The Color Run. I think it’s a 5K run. So we were just in London at the time, and I was like, “Cary, you want to go do this race?” And he was like, “Yeah.” Sometimes, you’ve got to step away from work and then come back to it. So we just did the jog, and they threw color at us. And then we got a few mimosas and called it a day.
So, Paulie Walnuts. How’s that for a segue?
Did you watch a lot of tape on Tony Sirico’s Paulie?
Oh yeah! I really tried to get his mannerisms and cadence down. All of those things. I didn’t know much about The Sopranos until I got the job because I could not afford HBO, especially in college. So I watched the whole series, but I didn’t want to do an impersonation. I just wanted to catch the essence of this guy. So the key things I locked on were the mannerisms, the movements and where they might come from, but also how we constructed phrases, how his head thought and where the character was driven. A lot of that credit goes to David Chase, so I can’t take that. But putting breath into the lines and the character was my job. So I just soaked it in. It was fun.
Sirico’s Paulie gave a very specific look whenever he was offended, and I think you captured that well.
(Laughs.) Thanks, man. I wish he had a little more to do, but I’m happy with what I had. So I feel really grateful for it.
Was using a drill on someone’s mouth everything you thought it would be?
(Laughs.) Oh, so fun! Such a fun day. The guy who was getting drilled was such a sport.
How intensive was the makeup process?
We got it down to an hour. So it wasn’t bad. It’s more about sitting in it all day. That was the thing because you’re like, “I have this itch on my nose that I’ve just got to scratch, but I can’t get to it.”
As the makeup and prosthetics pile up, does it become more difficult to act since your face may not have the same movement it usually has?
No, I think it’s easier. You’re building the character and you’re just sliding yourself into it. It’s the same with wardrobe and set design. When those people do a good job, you’re just in the world. You don’t have to pretend. You just have to be the character. So a lot of the credit goes to the prosthetic team, the makeup and hair team, because they made my job so much easier.
Let’s go back in time to your The Leftovers episode, “Guest,” which I love. I’m actually speaking to Carrie Coon again pretty soon…
Oh, she’s wonderful, isn’t she?
Tell her I adore her!
I absolutely will. So what do you remember about your scenes with Carrie?
She was just fun. She’s a theater-trained actress, and we had the same kind of dialogue with each other. So we knew how to talk about it. And throughout my career, I’ve just been trying to be more present and more in the moment instead of worrying about everything else. So I just remember sharing a beautiful time with her.
They made an actual doll that looked like you, right? It wasn’t a bunch of camera tricks with you playing both parts?
Yeah, they made a whole doll. It was really freaky, I’ve got to tell you. To stand over yourself lying there was crazy. That was a jarring moment, I do have to say. It’s an out-of-body experience. (Laughs.) I didn’t have HBO at the time, so I actually never saw the episode.
What did you observe during your time on The Big Short? What’s stuck with you?
The genius that is Adam McKay. That’s what I observed. To be around someone so talented, so smart and so innovative with cinematography and storytelling, you’re like, “I want to know how this guy gets it done.” So it was more just observing such talented people. Look, I can’t explain how many amazing opportunities I’ve had to work with some of the most talented people of our time. And when you’re in those moments, I think you just shut up and just observe. (Laughs.)
And what was your takeaway from Bridge of Spies?
The amount of joy and fun that Steven [Spielberg] has. He’s just having fun. He’s playing.
Do some sets forget that it’s supposed to be about playing make-believe?
I always find that the most challenging projects I’ve come across are when someone makes it about ego and themselves rather than the project. Their priority is not the project first. We’re in a collaborative art form. It’s about a bunch of people coming together and making the best idea win. And those times when it’s all about an individual is when it goes to shit. It’s all about being open and the willingness to play. And with Steven Spielberg, all I could think was that he was playing, and he was listening to people’s ideas. He was just open.
So when are you and Lil Rel Howery starting a band?
(Laughs.) We already did. We’re called The Low-Key Kings. You saw that little post?
Yeah, I also heard your first single, “Inglewood.”
(Laughs.) Yeah, Rel is the man, dude. He is so cool. I actually have to go to set soon, and we’re with him. We’re finishing up a film. But I love that guy; I really do. I admire him, I respect him and I’m proud to call him a buddy.
What does a good day at work mean to you?
It means I was present, invested and committed to the day. I wasn’t trying to be somewhere else. Even if it was a struggle, even if it was challenging, even if it was amazing, it’s about being present. If I was trying to leave or escape, that’s a bad day.
Are you excited about anything that’s coming up for you?
It’s crazy. Sometimes, this career can confuse you and make you hunt more than rest and be at peace in the moment. So I’m excited about today, man, and I hope you are, too.
No Time to Die and The Many Saints of Newark are now playing in theaters.