Stoll’s character, businessman Michael Prince, is written on the page as a small-town titan who is as competitive as his new rival Axe, but whose behaviour is tempered by a drive to do good. In a world of money and few morals. it does begs the question: is there such a thing as a good capitalist?
“That question is central to my character’s role,” Stoll says. “I was just looking at an article about some hedge fund manager that’s already up 32 per cent for the year because they shorted cruises and airlines.”
In earlier seasons of the show, Stoll observes, that question wasn’t asked of Axe’s character. “He’s not really even trying to be a good man, he seems to be very much settled that he is a pure predator and knows himself and has embraced that.”
In contrast, Paul Giamatti’s character Chuck is “striving to be a good man, but has also very much embraced the darker side of using political power. And Michael Prince is someone who is adept at using power and manipulating people, but is disgusted by that instinct in himself.”
Stoll first appeared on the radar of Billions creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien when at the last minute he filled in at a table read in New York for their 2013 film Runner Runner. As a result Levien says they were able to “write a character for him that is smart, aggressive, and charismatic, all the things that he’s built to play.”
“I had a lot of dialogue [at the reading] and I was sort of focused on that but I met them properly very, very shortly after,” Stoll recalls. A small part in the first season of Billions was discussed, Stoll recalls, but he says he held out for a bigger part. “And it turns out [it paid off] because this role is so much fun and I’m glad we found something that I can sink my teeth into a bit more,” he says.
Before taking the role, Stoll says he had watched Billions but “half as a viewer, and half as a colleague and friend to a lot of the cast. Maggie Siff [who plays Wendy, Chuck’s wife] is a very good friend of mine from acting school, and David Costabile [who plays Mike, Axe’s loyal lieutenant] also went to my acting school. So I knew a lot of the people on the show. It’s a very New York theatre show in terms of the cast.”
As a result, he says, “the reality was never completely airtight. But I was still able to really get sucked into the story because the writing is so sharp and so fun and the storylines, they sort of converge towards the end of each season, is so satisfying. Working on set and going to table reads now, there is a sense of being sort of a hybrid of creator and consumer.”
Despite the fact that they play rivals on-screen, Stoll says that Lewis has been welcoming on set.
“One thing that helps is that in this show, everybody in it lives on power struggles, everybody is constantly jockeying with each other, but in general these characters are having a great time doing it,” Stoll says. “There’s a playfulness to the power struggles and these are characters who enjoy the fight.
“So when we show up on set and we read through the scene and we figure out what the beats are and what the different power shifts that happen in there are, the understanding is that it’s fun for the audience to see, to see us striking blows and defending ourselves and dodging and it’s more akin to boxing sparring than actual fighting,” he says.
Television viewers know Stoll from the role of congressman Peter Russo in Netflix’s critically exalted House of Cards. And on the American stage he played the assassin Marcus Brutus in a New York production of Julius Caesar in 2017, which featured a Donald Trump-like Caesar and was besieged by pro-Trump protesters who called it “political violence”.
Asked if putting flesh to every great role demands the actor surrender a piece of his own, Stoll agrees but takes a different perspective. “Every role does change you, but I would say it’s the exact opposite of incurring a cost. Every role expands your range of experience.
“There’s so much that’s very difficult about being an actor, it is hard work, it’s unsteady, your insecurities are on full display and you’re open for everybody to have their opinion of your work,” he says. “But the incredible privilege of being an actor is that you get to explore the outer ranges of human experience in a safe way.
“A character like Peter Russo in House of Cards, I got to explore certain parts of my own psyche that are more vulnerable and unpleasant. But I feel like it was an incredible blessing and privilege to be able to live through it safely. It don’t see it all as a psychoanalytic tool, but that is one of the great side effects.”
WHAT Billions (series return)
WHEN Stan, from May 4
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.