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Broadway Breakthrough: Vanya's Hilarious Billy Magnussen on Soap Operas and Kissing Sigourney Weaver

The Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike star talks about how sports brought him to an acting career, and his side gig as a rock star.

Billy Magnussen
© David Gordon
We should all be grateful for Billy Magnussen's adolescent wrestling accident; without it, he may never have become an actor.

Billy Magnussen is one of the brightest new stars of the Broadway season, giving a breakthrough hilarious performance as the titular Spike, in Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Golden Theatre. The entire cast has transferred from the show's Lincoln Center run at the Mitzi E. Newhouse.

In the Chekhov-inspired comedy, Magnussen plays opposite Signourney Weaver. Weaver plays Masha, the star of Alien-like movies, whose hot, young boyfriend, Spike (Magnussen) also happens to be an aspiring actor.

Spike's greatest success to date is almost booking a role on Entourage 2. Playing a boy toy who spends much of the play in little clothing, Magnussen manages to bring heart and depth to the seemingly shallow role. Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce costar as Sonia and Vanya, Masha's sadsack siblings who stay at home.

Magnussen made his Broadway debut in a small role in The Ritz in 2007, but he is offering one of the funniest performances of the season at the Golden. We spoke to the rising actor while he was in the studio where he's currently recording an album with his rock band, Reserved for Rondee. He told us about his terrible costars, his soap opera training, and making out with Sigourney Weaver.

Can you tell me about where you grew up? Did you always want to be an actor?

I grew up in Woodhaven, Queens, here in New York. I went to public school. I never even thought of [acting] at all. I was always into sports and a lot of physical activities. My dad was a kickboxer and a body builder. My mom was an aerobics teacher. I moved down to Florida for a year in Miami...[then] to Atlanta [where] I went to middle and high school…I was big into football, hockey, soccer, [and] wrestling. Then I hurt myself wrestling, and I couldn't take gym class, and they threw me into acting. And I thought, this is great, and the girls are there. Then, I found out you can go to college for it. That's what happened.

Then I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, which is the University of North Carolina now.

You have a lot of television and film credits. How do you balance that out with doing theater?

I was doing The Ritz [on Broadway] first, and then I got a film, Blood Night. Then I got As the World Turns, the soap opera. That was honestly the best training I ever got. Doing the soaps, every day it's constant training. Dealing with camera angles, the other people — it's great training.

Billy Magnussen and Kristine Nielsen in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
© T. Charles Erickson

How did your involvement with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike happen?

I auditioned for it like eighty times and they kept calling me back. I read the character and he was chaos. You don't know what he's gonna do next. He's filled with heart and love, no ill intentions, everyone can make love. He doesn't think anything amazing of himself; he walks through the world admiring it.

What was it like doing it at Lincoln Center and then having some time off before revisiting it?

It wasn't difficult. We know our play very, very well. At Lincoln Center, we were in the round. Here [on Broadway], with the proscenium, the laughter is infectious and everyone is sharing the same perspective and experience. What I love [about the play], is that it has so much heart and love in it. It's a wonderful play to share with everyone. We always talk about it. "Let's go share this."

What's it like to work with theater legends like Christopher Durang and Sigourney Weaver?

Oh my god, they're all a bunch of a**holes. They're horrible. (Laughs) No, I couldn't be more blessed. I don't know where I heard this quote. Someone asked someone, "What do you look for in a director or a writer?" They said, "You can't look, that's the wrong word to use." I can only hope to work with people like this. They're smart about their work.

What is like to make out with Sigourney Weaver?

She's lovely. She's wonderful… I had to teach her a few things. (Laughs)

It's a high-energy show, especially for you. How do you prepare for that?

I work out twice a day. I have to keep in shape, the character demands it. It also teaches me a lot of discipline.

You said you're calling from the recording studio. Can you tell me a little about your band?

We're called Reserved for Rondee. We're recording our first album right now and I could not be more excited. It sounds so awesome. It's exceeding my expectations. We're playing a gig this Friday at Arlene's Grocery. I'll go there after I do the show. We also have a gig at Mercury Lounge on April 6th.

Have you thought about what you would do if you weren't a performer?

I'm very fortunate to get paid for something I love doing. I was watching this thing the other day where they said, "that's why they pay you. They pay you to wait. The acting is free."

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opens on March 14 at the Golden Theatre.

Click here for more information and tickets.

Click here for TheaterMania's review of the Lincoln Center run.