Billy Magnussen on Why He Embraced Playing the Bad Guy in ‘Road House’

Billy Magnussen always understands the assignment. Whatever the medium or genre, the actor manages to stand out with an impressive range. He has literally played a Disney prince — twice! — in the film versions of “Into the Woods” and “Aladdin.” (In the latter, Magnussen is hilarious as a suitor spurned by Jasmine, but he’s so likeable in his brief screentime one could argue she made the wrong choice.) He earned a Tony nomination for his role as a dimwitted young lover in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and has stood out in ensemble films like “Game Night” and “The Big Short.”

But Magnussen also excels at playing the bad guy, such as the tech billionaire who installs a tracking device in his ex-wife in “Made for Love” to a Nazi officer in “The Survivor.” But never more deliciously than in “Road House,” a reimaging of the 1989 Patrick Swayze classic. The new version, hitting Amazon Prime Video this week, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a former UFC fighter who becomes a bouncer at a roadhouse in the Florida Keys. Magnussen stars as Ben Brandt, a developer who will stop at nothing to acquire the land upon which the bar resides. It’s a fun ride from director Doug Liman, a movie that never takes itself too seriously, and Magnussen manages to come off as both comedic and genuinely menacing — sometimes in the same scene.

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It’s just one of many projects for the busy Magnussen, who is currently shooting “The Franchise,” a new series from Armando Iannucci, Sam Mendes and Jon Brown. He’s also become active behind the camera, starting the production company Happy Bad Bungalow with Anne Hollister, Shane Andries and Matt Lowenthal. Their first film, “Coup!,” starring Magnussen and Peter Sarsgaard, premiered to strong reviews at last year’s Venice Film Festival. They also recently wrapped their second film, the revenge thriller “Violent Ends,” in which Magnussen will also appear.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never seen the original “Road House.”
You’re not the only one — there’s many other people I’ve talked to who haven’t seen it. And the original is great — it’s Patrick Swayze in all his glory. But the best part about this one is you don’t need to — I think it stands on its own. I think Doug Liman created something really beautiful in its standalone glory, and it’s so cool to be a part of it. He’s one of the most prolific directors of our generation.

What was your relationship with the original “Road House”? Do you remember seeing it for the first time?
I didn’t get to see it until I was like 14-15, which is the perfect time because it was about fighting and brawls and all the things I’m attracted to at that age. I was like, “Oh my God, what is this?” At the same time, it didn’t take itself too seriously, it has fun. And that’s what I think entertainment should be — this beautiful place where people can go and connect with each other. Art is something we can communicate about and reflect on together and lead to conversations and connections between people. I know that’s a weird answer since we’re talking about “Road House,” but I really believe that.

You mentioned being an admirer of Doug’s; is that what drew you to the project?
For sure, I’ve been a fan since “Swingers.” But honestly, it ticked a lot of boxes. For one, there was Jake Gyllenhaal. And I’m at a point in my career where I feel lucky to even be in contention for playing this character. It’s a gift. This industry is fleeting and anytime you have an opportunity to play, I’m grateful.

I want to say this in a professional way, but this character is a huge douche.
Oh, yeah, he’s that guy. He’s the bad guy of the film, that was the job.

You’ve played a wide range of roles, but your bad guys have a way of standing out. In “Road House,” he’s actually more layered than you might expect with a sense of humor and daddy issues.
Having any opportunity to work is a gift and you are brought in to fill the role in the story you’re trying to tell. So I’m trying to the best of my ability to fill the part in the piece being made. In something like “Made for Love,” they were using the veil of sci-fi and dark comedy to tell a story about toxic relationships. And the more you dive into and commit to your character, villainous or not, it only improves the story.

Well, I would even say with something like “Ingrid Goes West,” your character isn’t wrong. He’s trying to warn his sister about someone who’s lying to her.
Yes, he’s just trying to protect his sister. I’m not saying he was the best of people, but no one was really innocent in that movie. That’s what I loved about it.

At the same time, you’re very good at earnest characters. I’m thinking of you taking over the David Cross character post-plastic surgery in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” or even the prince in “Aladdin.” And you make even those smaller roles stand out.
I am so grateful for those, like 30 seconds in “Aladdin.” It was a character I got to build that I actually fell in love with. And that’s what I try to do, no matter what the role. Every character thinks they are the best version of themselves, no one is trying to be the villain. And sometimes you can make big choices and do something quote-unquote weird. But as long as it’s grounded in a character’s desire to be taken seriously, you can do anything.

I got to work with Rideback Ranch on that project and I’m working with them again on “Lilo and Stitch.” It’s so fun to get to play in those worlds and dream a little bit.

You’ve also started your own production company, Happy Bad Bungalow. Is that a reference to an actual, physical bungalow?
For us, it’s a figure of speech. A bungalow is place where a community can come and share ideas and brainstorm and create something together. And a bungalow is an inviting place. It also usually has a front porch where people can congregate, and it makes me think of growing up in the South — or even the stoops in New York — where people throw ideas around.

What led you to want to start the company?
I’ve been doing this professionally for over 20 years now and you realize your strengths and weaknesses. With this company, we think it’s important for artists to support artists, and we know so many talented people who don’t have a platform or a bridge to jump to the next level. I love producing, I love putting people in the right place, and I want to celebrate their ideas and achievements alongside them.

Is there a common theme or type of project you’re looking for?
It sounds silly to say we’re interested in character-driven stories, but there are a lot of films out there that are not.

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