Why you should care
With so many career swings, he’s living proof that a no-fear-of-failure approach is the crucial ingredient of success.
“Into the Woods,” Magnussen’s new film, opens on Christmas Day.
They used to call it beefcake: that ripped muscularity of the world’s sexiest men. And sure, go ahead and talk about new acting star Billy Magnussen’s chops all you want. But after People magazine plonked him on its 40-hot-stars-to-watch list recently — accompanied by a steamy photo of Magnussen en déshabillé while embracing a female co-star — it’s fair to predict there’ll be women (and men) aplenty keeping an eye out for this hunky thespian’s appearances.
The People accolade comes at just the right moment for 29-year-old Magnussen, a talented performer who’s on a rocket ship to mainstream stardom after years of dusty curtain calls. But this Christmas, Magnussen puts on his big-boy pants. You’ll see him starring in Into the Woods, Disney’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical; he plays Rapunzel’s Prince and shares the screen with Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Magnussen’s star is rising, and he’s certainly trading on his looks — sandy blond hair, ice-blue eyes and stony abs — but he also has a rare combination of little-boy charm and grown-up, bad-boy danger.
He got into acting because “that’s where the girls were.”
The Tony Award nominee began in a far less sexy place, on the acting equivalent of the farm team — he starred in a soap opera, As the World Turns, for two years. Then there was a drama on the CW, a few appearances on the necessary crime TV shows like Blue Bloods and CSI. When he jumped to theater, he began to catch critics’ eyes; in 2013, he co-starred in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on Broadway (the show that earned him a Tony nod). Earlier this year, Magnussen co-starred with Anna Gunn in the well-received, two-character play called Sex With Strangers at New York City’s Second Stage Theatre. The show, directed by Friends’ David Schwimmer, was extended by a week, the day after the reviews came out. The New York Times said Magnussen gave a “high-wattage, canny performance.”
Born in New York City, Magnussen grew up first in Queens, and then in the town of Cumming, Georgia, outside Atlanta, as part of a close, loving, athletic family, with an aerobics-teacher mom and a dad who was a kickboxing champion. An avid high school athlete, Magnussen was forced into acting after being sidelined by a sports injury. This day, over the phone, he laughs mischievously and admits he got into acting because “that’s where the girls were.” And it’s paid off … several of his co-stars confided — anonymously, of course — how hot it is to work with him. But rumors, which he won’t confirm, are that he’s deeply involved with one woman. When asked about it, he replies: “That’s personal. It’s none of your business.” Then he adds: “I get to work with beautiful women.”
After graduating from North Carolina’s School of the Arts. Magnussen headed back to New York and got a job on Broadway in the play The Ritz. However, that was short-lived and closed after two months. Next, he played good-guy turned bad-boy Casey Hughes on CBS’s popular soap As the World Turns — often sans shirt. He had to face down real skepticism from veteran actor Eileen Fulton, who played his grandmother on the program, when he was cast. She wasn’t sure the high-energy 20-something could pull it off. “I was concerned because he was so on edge,” she says.
The five-decade-long show’s cancellation might have been the end of Magnussen’s career. Many soap stars are cast just on looks, not talent, says Michael Fairman, a soap opera journalist. “There is a stigma attached to soap operas.” But then again, Fairman adds, the longer that actors stick around in soaps, the “harder it becomes to break out of them.” So maybe Magnussen got lucky. In any case, he immediately started auditioning, and of all the talented actors on the soap, he was among the first to start getting other TV jobs: In Plain Sight, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Boardwalk Empire, the CW’s The Beautiful Life and more. At first, he had a bit of a struggle keeping up with more experienced prime-time actors. But he kept on, and soon he was holding his own and then getting way ahead of some of his co-stars.
The lowbrow form of acting on a soap opera can actually be a strong training ground.
The soap’s end yielded lots of fans rending their clothes — at least metaphorically — and pining for the show. But despite the soap’s “lowbrow” standing, it taught Magnussen more than four years of studying drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts did. He called the show “a professional setting; the stakes are heightened.”
Yet the lowbrow form can actually be a strong training ground, says Stephanie Sloane, the editorial director at Soap Opera Digest; she cites the pace, the amount of dialogue. Actors develop a “discipline of working in front of camera and doing a new show every day,” she says.
After the soap went off the air, Magnussen did a couple of movies (The East with Ellen Page and The Brass Teapot) and then it was back to Broadway. He landed a role in the play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and in 2013 was nominated for a coveted Tony Award. Then came Sex With Strangers. Next up, Magnussen is filming the Steven Spielberg-directed St. James Place, a Cold War thriller out next year, in which he’s co-starring with heavyweights Tom Hanks and Alan Alda.
Still, he gives that old line — it’s all about the work: “[It’s about] what I work on, who I work with and how I work. And the discipline it takes.” He adds, “I’m not saying I don’t falter. I falter all the time. But it just takes a lot of discipline to do this professionally.”
Discipline is clearly the key to his success. And he shows that by his daily gym workouts, his hours of voice training and even by the acting coaching he sometimes still endures. It’s all about doing better than his best.
These days he’s segueing between movies and live theater, one of the riskiest venues for actors because it’s all live. No take twos! He’s also on his second band. He plays lead guitar with the indie band Reserved for Rondee, which has put out a few songs that sold moderately well on iTunes and is an outlet for his restlessness. As he puts it, he doesn’t like being bored. “I might fail,” said Magnussen, “but I think it’s important to have the courage to fail.
“And I am trying,” he adds. “My father always said, ‘Look at the bright side.’ And I have to say that I’m very lucky. I’m a lucky SOB.”
Meghan Walsh contributed reporting.
This OZY encore was originally published Nov. 16, 2014.