`Billions' Star Damian Lewis Talks Short-Selling at Emmy Panel

  • Star of Showtime hit took cues from talks with hedge funds
  • CBS-owned cable network renews hour drama for second season

Damian Lewis, the British actor who plays swaggering hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod in the Showtime drama “Billions,” said he’s spoken with real life Wall Street moguls and learned how they think, including their belief that they aren’t actually risk-takers.

Damian Lewis

Photographer: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

“Oddly the hedge fund billionaires that I met -- that I now count as my close personal friends -- all said that they were risk-averse,” Lewis said at a panel discussion Tuesday sponsored by the CBS Corp.-owned network. “None of them wanted to take big risks. They all claimed that their analysis, their research, was more thorough than anyone else and once they had all the dots lined up, then they’d make the bet.”

“Billions,” which wrapped up its first season this month and has been picked up for a second, follows the fictional investor Axelrod and efforts by federal prosecutor Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, to bring insider trading charges against him. The one-hour program, which features hidden safes, helicopters and an $83 million Long Island home, is a hit, according to Showtime Chief Executive Officer David Nevins.

Paul Giamatti

Photographer:Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

“It’s taken off faster than any of us thought,” Nevins told the attendees, members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences who will get a chance to nominate the show for Emmy awards starting in June. “It’s our biggest freshman show.”

Hedge Fund View

Lewis, 45, said the hedge fund investors he spoke with had other points that they wanted to get across, including their role in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, provided product support and creative input to the program.

“They’re very keen for you to understand that they didn’t get a single penny in that bailout,” Lewis said. “That’s important for them. The banks did. They didn’t.”

Lewis named only one real-life investor he consulted with, Kynikos Associates founder and well-known short seller James Chanos.

“He’s a fervent believer that the hedge fund guys are market regulators,” Lewis said. “They’re financial detectives. The very fact they find overvalued and underperforming companies and regulate them by shorting them. He thinks it’s a healthy and necessary part the economic mechanism.”

Said Chanos in an e-mail: “The show is great fun, and I’m a big fan -- but it is fiction!”

“Billions” was created by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, as well as New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Shakespearean Kings

“The thing that really got us and pulled us in was the idea that the power these billionaires wield and similarly the power that U.S. attorneys have,” Koppelman said at the event. “They were like nation states or Shakespearean kings going after each other.”

In the show, Axelrod holds meetings in his Connecticut offices in jeans, hooded sweatshirts and sneakers -- a studied move, according to Lewis.

“We came to a decision early on that this guy was so rich, so powerful, that he could be dispensing orders to his cohorts in a pair of sneakers and jeans,” Lewis said. “It gives him a kind of athletic feel and nimble quality that we like.”

It’s a departure from Lewis’s last big Showtime role, as the solider-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody in the Emmy-winning “Homeland.”

“He felt like a victim, always,” Lewis said of Brody. “And then he became a pawn. Bobby likes moving around the pawns on his particular chess board.”

There’s another difference, Lewis said.

“I don’t think that I’m going to get hanged for insider trading,” he said.

Not so fast, said Giamatti, keeping in the character of his vengeful federal prosecutor.

“I’m bringing back hanging on this show,” Giamatti said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.