Malin Akerman cares, even though she probably doesn’t have to. With her comic timing and natural charisma, the 38-year-old Swedish-Canadian star could likely enjoy her choice of fluffy roles for the rest of her career. Luckily for us, though, Akerman has always wanted more, a desire that led her from smart comedies like Trophy Wife to her current run on Showtime’s hit drama, Billions.
Paste chatted with Akerman recently about child psychology, the humanity behind Wall Street corruption and fighting to be much more than a pretty face. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Paste: Not many people know that you actually wanted to be a child psychologist long before you became an actor. Why was that your original plan?
Malin Akerman: There are a few reasons, I think. Just watching how schools dealt with certain issues, there wasn’t really anyone who was able to come in and nip things in the bud and find or figure out when kids were having issues and really help them. I just thought youth is really our future and it felt like such a lost cause. My initial reaction was, I’d love to work on the counseling system in schools so that we are able to catch any kind of behavior that needs to be worked on, because the youth is our future.
I just feel like there are so many people who go unhelped and who need it. And, I don’t know, it was interesting to me. I was curious about it and just felt like it is so sad to see kids who are lost. There was a friend of mine in high school who hung himself in a tree and he was only fifteen years old. It’s like, how and why do things like this happen?
You know, we need to be more present in these kid’s lives. Kids don’t come with a handbook and our parents don’t necessarily don’t know what to do. So, what better way then to have counselors and someone who gets us, who can do that, who are trained to help people be good mentors to these kids who need it?
Paste: On an entirely different subject, is it true that your first role was playing a robot?
Akerman: I was an avatar [laughs. I think it was like five lines or something like that. It was before Skype and FaceTime and all that. It was pretty cool… I was an avatar in a computer.
Paste: That’s amazing. Beyond the excitement of getting a gig, was there any paranoia at that time about being typecast as an android?
Akerman: No! I couldn’t even think that far. You didn’t even know that you could get such a role in any kind of genre at that point. I was just like you said… just happy to get a job. Wow! I got a job that is not a TV commercial, it’s an actual TV show. I was just super happy to be a part of it. I would have been a duck if they needed me to be a duck. So, you know, this was probably much better.
Paste: You’ve played so many different kinds of parts in so many different kinds of vehicles and films and shows. Has it been a struggle for you to break away from stereotypical roles?
Akerman: Yeah, absolutely. You know, initially it wasn’t much of a fight… I was very happy and still am. I’m so thankful, I love comedy and am very happy to do some of the roles I got to do. But after awhile, I think that, as an actor… I can only speak for myself, but I got into it because I love the idea of being able to play different characters. Again, maybe that’s a bit of the psychology background for me, being able to delve into people’s psyches and figure out why they do the things that they do. The comedy was so much fun, and of course I got pigeonholed as that sort of outrageous, crazy, pretty comedy girl, which there is absolutely nothing wrong with that but, then I started watching these wonderful TV shows… I started seeing True Detective and House of Cards and just thought, “God, I would really love to get into something that’s a little darker and start really digging into many more layers in characters.” So that was definitely a struggle, when I decided to try to shift and make that change and move into dramatic roles, because of course everyone now knew me as comedy girl.
So, that’s definitely been a fight, to try to convince people to even see me for certain roles, because they already have an idea of who I am and what I can do from my comedy. But luckily, things worked out with Billions, and that felt like the perfect opportunity. I really fought for it, because I loved that this woman was a strong, female character who is fierce and has so many layers to her. That was an exciting prospect. I am so happy and glad that they gave me the opportunity to this. I also think its way more interesting to see an actor in one genre jump over to the next genre because of the surprise. There’s an element of surprise to it that’s exciting and enticing.
Paste: Before landing on Billions, you were involved in several shows that were funny, smart and garnered critical acclaim, but weren’t able to find the ratings to survive. Do you think that shows like Trophy Wife and Suburgatory would have had a longer shelf life if they were around now?
Akerman: Yeah, perhaps they would have. I’d like to think that they would have, because I do think that those shows you just mentioned were great shows and audiences really seemed to love them. I always feel like there are a lot of elements that go into making anything successful in film and television. I think timing is a lot of it—audiences being ready for it and networks being ready to take a chance on certain types of shows or films. Yeah, I’d like to think that in this day and age, people are a lot more inclined to take chances on different and new content. I feel like network television kind of goes by an older formula and the new streaming outlets and cable networks can think outside the box and have a little bit more creative liberty.
Paste: Billions broke viewership records for Showtime when it premiered last year. Why do you think it was a hit from the very start?
Akerman: Considering that all eyes have been sort of turned onto Wall Street and what’s happening when we had the financial crisis back in 2008 and 2009, I think all heads were turned to people in hedge funds and people were curious as to what the hell is going on. Where is the money going? How much money do people actually need?
The show itself is exciting because you have different elements of it. There’s not really a good or bad… there is sort of a human element to it. I don’t know if you found this, but you are not quite sure who you’re siding with, if you’re siding with the U.S. attorney or the billionaire who has a hedge fund. Somehow, there is a weird relatability to this show. Also, I think there is just a curiosity: It’s a little peek into the lives of the people that we don’t know that much about, [that] we only hear about in the tabloids. People are curious. People were pissed and want to know what the hell is going on.
Paste: I think that one of the things that a show like this and House of Cards brings to light is that these people aren’t necessarily motivated by pure greed. There’s pride, ego, family—genuine human motivations that are more relatable then the world actually knows. Billions does a great job of bringing that to light. Is that something you guys are conscious of?
Akerman: Absolutely! I mean, obviously, the creators are the ones who make this all happen, but it is definitely what we talk about it a lot—what makes people tick. I think that the same could be said about business, really, but often, it’s power. Once people get a taste of power, it really is intoxicating and it really is addicting. It really is what drives them and what makes them tick. It’s an interesting exploration to see how far people are willing to go to make sure that they keep their egos well fed. It’s a hard balance to keep. To keep your feet on the ground as a billionaire, how do you make that happen? How do you make that work? How do you not buy into the greed and the power and the challenges that it brings?
Paste: What else can we expect when Billions returns for Season Two?
Akerman: What I like about Season Two is how it’s treated mine and Bobby’s [Damien Lewis] characters and our relationship. Season One set us up as almost like a superhero couple. Everything kind of works and we have quite a balanced relationship. We respect each other. We treat each other as equals. We don’t cheat on each other. It’s just kind of like this perfect situation. In Season Two, we get to go into a little bit more of the humanity of their relationship and the fact that they are fallible. They’re not unbreakable and we get to see a bit more of them working through these situations. They have a lot on their shoulders and the fact that they haven’t cracked yet is incredible. So, we get to see a little bit more of the cracks in their relationship in this world.
And, of course, we get to see a lot more of the cat and mouse chase between Damien and Paul [Giamati]’s characters. As well as Maggie [Siff]’s Wendy Rhoades, how she sort of comes back into the picture, and the people involved with her coming back around. I can’t say anything else. I’ll get killed! [laughs]
Paste: We talked earlier about all the different things you have already done in your career. What is something off the top of your head, what is something that you’d like to try that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to do?
Akerman: I would love to do a period piece. I would love to go back to the 1800s. Maybe even do a Shakespeare play—something that no one would think of me for. Not that I would be looking forward to getting into corsets, because I know they suck, but I would love to get into that world. The romance of it! Dangerous Liaisons is one of my favorite films of all time. Wouldn’t mind doing something like that. That would be my next dream job.
Season Two of Billions premieres Sunday, February 19 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.