Billy Magnussen comes in from the cold

The latest Bond film may have been on ice — but Billy’s still been busy. 007’s latest asset talks a year of spying, spoilers and The Sopranos…

Billy Magnussen is snowed under; professionally, metaphorically and rather frustratingly. Not to mention literally — as we speak, he’s buried under a blizzard. No need to send help, though. It’s for a film. He’s in Los Angeles, calling from the faux snow-dusted set of Reunion, a wintry whodunnit also starring Chace Crawford, Nina Dobrev and a generous flurry of flakes. 

“It’s actually really great,” he laughs down the line. “They’re lovely people. But, sadly, because I’m on a project, it means, for insurance reasons, I’m going to miss the biggest premiere in the goddamn world!”

No wonder he’s feeling frosty. Because that premiere — for the long-awaited, much-anticipated, roll-out-the-red-carpet reveal of No Time To Die — is taking place in London next week, and will be quite the spectacle. Magnussen has a starring role in the film; playing a CIA agent assigned to assist Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Yet, despite missing the premiere, the 36-year-old is still in good spirits. He’s just happy to see the film finally released — if only so he can stop watching his words in interviews. 

“Although it is more fun this way!” he says, after stopping himself mid-sentence to side-step another spoiler. “Don’t you like surprise parties? I love surprise parties! And I never want to be the one who ruins the surprise. That’s my jam. I just think everyone’s really excited about it. It’s a beautiful story they’ve created.”

He has seen it, then?

“Ah!” he laughs again. “I’m going to have to plead the Fifth on that one, too! Am I being boring?”

Not at all. In fact, Magnussen seems rather adept at deflection and distraction — perhaps something he picked up from all the espionage on the Bond set. But he’s more affable than your average spy; fizzing with energy and warmth even as he denies us all the answers and plot points we so desperately want. 

“I’m going to miss the biggest premiere in the goddamn world!”

Let’s try a different tack; running through what we do know, and seeing if he flinches. In No Time To Die, Magnussen plays a character called Logan Ash. Silence. He’s a CIA agent who crops up in Jamaica, where Bond has been in retirement for several years. More silence. He’s working with Jeffery Wright’s Felix Leiter, who returns from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Even more silence. He has been described in many speculative articles and synopses as ‘mysterious’.

“I don’t know why people keep saying ‘mysterious’!” says Magnussen, finally piping up. “Yes, he’s a CIA agent, working with Felix. But he comes from more of a conservative background. He’s a very buttoned-up, by-the-book kind of a guy. It was there, on the page, saying that he dresses very clean and proper. And you can see that!”

Before he shot his scenes, the actor adds, he prepared for his role by researching CIA training. “For each character, you have a different process,” he explains. “But I just thought about a guy who’s in the CIA, and the training that they have to go through — the formalities of it all. So I kept him in a very tight box. Everything had its spot; almost a little bit OCD-ish. But people who are wound very tight don’t loosen up. You can move one thing in their life and they’ll have this whole reaction.”

It’s as much as Magnussen will reveal. He will, however, speak freely and fanatically about director Cary Joji Fukunaga, a man the actor first met when filming a show for Netflix, the psychological comedy-drama Maniac, in 2017.

“Throughout that process,” he says, “we worked really well together. We spoke a common language about art and filmmaking, and so we became friends. The man is just talented beyond belief. 

“And I was actually backpacking through Vietnam the following summer,” he continues, ”and I was standing in front of this address in Sa Pa. And, legitimately, the address is — and this makes no sense — it’s ‘007’. And then I get a friggin’ text from Cary Fukunaga, saying: ‘What are you doing next summer?’. And my instant reaction was like: ‘If it’s for fucking Bond, I am free dude! I’m in!’

“It makes no sense that it was 007!” Magnussen barrels on, laughing. “And I have a photo of this address. Because shouldn’t it just be ‘7’? Why would it be ‘007’? Who writes zero-zero-seven? That’s what was crazy about it!”

This sign, Magnussen says, was a sign from the universe: “It seems that every project that comes into my life is exactly what I need at that moment”. But it was also the actor’s fated introduction to a six-decades-old franchise. He subsequently watched around ten James Bond films — “I feel pretty solid about that number!” — but took pains not to agonise over the legacy and expectations surrounding the long-running series.

“You know what’s crazy? They say hindsight is 20/20 — and, because I’m a hired actor, I just did my work. I walked onto the project and just approached it as any job. And it honestly wasn’t until after that I was like: ‘Holy shit! I’m doing a Bond movie!’. While you’re in it, you can’t really see it — do you know what I mean? You’re just kind of doing it. But then, being out of it, being removed from it, it’s suddenly like: ’That is so friggin’ cool that I got the opportunity to be in something like that’. It’s absolutely insane!”

“I think of it like my buddies who have done Marvel movies,” he adds. “You look at it from the outside — as an observer — and think, this is going to be amazing. But, when you’re in it, you’re just doing the work. Your only job is to get it done.”

"Holy shit! I’m doing a Bond movie!”

And the work ethic on a Bond set, Magnussen says, is all about getting it done. He doubles down on his commendation of Fukunaga, saying the director was not only a “great leader” but someone who “disappeared into his job”. “He crushed it,” the actor says. And Daniel Craig, whose emotional goodbye during his last day in Bond’s iconic dinner jacket recently went viral, gets similar praise.

“Oh, man,” says Magnussen. “Daniel Craig is a true gentleman. A wonderful chap. He sets the tone and the pace — while also being a fantastic number one. He’s warm, he’s funny. It was great. And Jeffrey Wright was fantastic, too. I’d already met him doing a film called Game Night — plus we’re both from theatre backgrounds. It was just a really welcoming bath to jump into. And, because I already had a relationship with Cary, I was also able to communicate with him very nicely. Really, it was just a wonderful experience for me”.

It’s clearly going to be a big month for the actor. And not just because of Bond. Magnussen will be filling the multiplexes with No Time To Die — but he also has a starring role in The Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. Playing a younger version of Peter “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri, the role originated by Tony Sirico in the HBO show, the period piece sees Magnussen don prosthetics and flared fashion to bring an established character back to life.

“And that was a different challenge,” he says. “Because it’s different to playing a real person. I’ve played a character based on a real person; Kato Kaelin [in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story]. And I didn’t have to completely bring him to life, because he already existed.

“But the meta-crazy part about Paulie Walnuts was that another actor had played this character before — and I was playing the earlier phase of the same character. So I’m there, having to interpret how Tony played Paulie, and then taking Tony’s interpretation back to a younger age. Add to that all the prosthetic work and the time period? That was a challenge. It was an amazing opportunity — but there were some hurdles there!”

After a year of lockdowns, closed sets and restricted releases, Magnussen is glad to be back on set — even if filming his star-studded, snow-flecked mystery comedy has meant he’ll miss the Bond premiere.

“It’s actually really exciting to be back,” he says. “But it’s crazy — you do get a little rusty. I suppose that’s like practice with anything. But I couldn’t be more excited to see it unfold. You think you know the business, the industry, but the truth is that every job is a new job, and a new experience. It’s a beautiful life undertaking”.

Before he’s called back to set; a final attempt to break Magnussen’s steely, spy-worthy resolve. But even asking a simple question — What was your most impressive stunt in No Time To Die? — cuts no ice…

“No! I can’t answer that!” he laughs. “Sorry, that’s another boring answer, right? But I can’t, dude! I promised myself — I’m not going to be the one that breaks it!”

Want to know more about the upcoming 007 film? Here are all the cars Bond will drive (and wreck) in No Time To Die…

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