Going Beyond Ab Fab: Off-Broadway Dreamboat Billy Magnussen Shares His Sensitive Side

Billy Magnussen keeps his shirt on. (Photo by Joan Markus)

Billy Magnussen keeps his shirt on. (Photo by Joan Markus)

Let the record show that I helped Billy Magnussen—the Tony Award-nominated shirtless hunk from 2012’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, who can currently be seen in Laura Eason’s off-Broadway two-hander, Sex With Strangers—become a huge success. At least I think I did? Let me present as evidence a Facebook chat sent by the actor to me in March 2012.

Billy Magnussen: “great meeting you last night, and thanks for the advice.”

I wish I could remember what that advice was! I could bottle it for every young thespian, because evidently I give awesome advice: in the years since that Facebook encounter, the 29-year-old Mr. Magnussen is having a very good go of it. He’s earned rave reviews and coveted coverage playing the hack novelist Ethan Kane in Strangers, opposite Anna Gunn. Charles Isherwood’s review in the Times referred to his “bouncing magnetism” and his “high-wattage, canny performance.” And earlier this year, an entire Times piece was based on the workout routines of other actors who have had the misfortune of playing Spike after Mr. Magnussen’s definitive (and well-defined) turn. As Ben Brantley put it, Mr. Magnussen was “reveling in a male bimbo role.”

“I’m not as in good of shape now,” Mr. Magnussen said at Gotham Market West. “Going to the gym was intense when I was playing Spike. Now it’s more of just keeping up a routine.”

(Which sounds kind of funny, considering that the actor spends the first half of the play topless and toned—it’s called Sex With Strangers, for God’s sake!)

And while I don’t remember the advice I gave young Mr. Magnussen all those years ago, I do remember the circumstances that brought us together at the Boom Boom Room. It was the premiere of The Hunger Games, and as Alan Cumming groused about turning down a role in the mega-franchise, my gaze wandered to the cute blonde boy next to him. I thought I had this guy completely pegged: one of those models-slash-musicians-slash-artists-slash-actors-slash-dogwalkers, always lounging around the glitzy parties that follow movie premieres, hoping for their big break.

What I remember most was that he asked a lot of questions. What did I do for a living? Did I like writing? Did I maybe want to go see his band, Reserved for Rondee? Yes, please. He looked like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, or like Michael Pitt without the weird lips—a spot on observation, it turns out, as Mr. Magnussen would go on to play Mr. Pitt’s doppelganger on Boardwalk Empire.

On screen and stage, Billy Magnussen often plays what I have started referring to as the Billy Magnussen Character: infectiously high energy, slightly drunk and constantly hitting on an older woman. Oh, and he’s got to take his top off. Just rip the thing off. Seriously, like right now.

But in playing to this archetype, Billy Magnussen keeps finding new ways to subvert expectations. In Strangers, he’s a sleazy but successful writer of a Tucker Max ilk who pens smutty tomes under the nom de plume Ethan Strange, and these pseudo-literary ambitions lead him into the arms of a much older authoress Olivia (Ms. Gunn), who can sand out Ethan’s rough edges and make him acceptable to those in the highest echelon of arts and letters. Sort of like a reverse-Pygmalion thing.

“He wants to find a mentor as a lover. How else do you learn from the masters, you know?” Mr. Magnussen told me.

When it’s revealed that Ethan is mostly infamous for recounting his various sexcapades on his blog—not all of which sound completely consensual—Mr. Magnussen’s unique talents shine through. And no, we’re not talking about his abs (though, if you paid your ticket to see his six-pack, you won’t be disappointed). What makes the Billy Magnussen Character so compelling is that he’ll simultaneously play both to and against type. You see him on stage (or real life) and think: “Frat boy.” But what does that mean, when it’s Mr. Magnussen himself who is constantly being objectified for his hot bod? And why does Ethan seem so truly, earnestly impressed by Olivia, doggedly pursuing a relationship while advancing her career, entirely without agenda? This is a guy who, according to his own public record, once left a girl in a pool of her own vomit on the side of the highway. He’s supposed to be odious. And yet …

“He did these things, but that’s not who he is,” Mr. Magnussen said. “He really loves the art of writing, the art form of writing. He does believe Olivia is the best writer out there.”

Even if you can’t make it to the show, you can plan on seeing Billy Magnussen a lot this year: he was in last week’s episode of The Leftovers, he’s involved in an untitled Cold War project from Steven Spielberg, and he’ll be showing off his vocal talents in Rob Marshall’s silver screen adaptation of Into the Woods, where he plays—what else?—a hunky prince who gallops into town to save the day.

So, he’s busy, but yeah, he’s around, he told me as I walked him to his Citi Bike. In fact, Reserved for Rondee had a show that Monday, if I wanted to stop by. I asked for the details. “It’s on Facebook,” Mr. Magnussen smiled as he prepared to ride off into the Midtown sunset. “And we’re Facebook friends.”

We sure are.