Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Billions is all about about the men. After all, the show — Showtime's sleek drama that returned for its sophomore season on Sunday — straddles two traditionally male-dominated spheres: high finance and law. Damian Lewis' Bobby "Ax" Axelrod is a billionaire hedge fund titan whose firm, Axe Capital, is teeming with toxic levels of testosterone; the company culture is built around big-betting and dick-swinging. The office of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who in season one skirted the same legal and ethical boundaries he was prosecuting Ax for breaking, runs on its own (more buttoned-up) grade of macho energy. They're in a chauvinistic chess match of risky power plays and they both get off on winning.
But that intrinsically masculine backdrop only throws the kick-assness of the women of Billions into high contrast. There's Ax's independent-minded wife Lara (Malin Akerman); Rhoades' estranged wife, and Axe Capital's former in-house therapist, Wendy (Maggie Siff); and the ambitious, whip-smart assistant D.A. to Rhoades, Kate Sacher (Condola Rashad).
Of the three women, only Kate makes her living playing in the guys' ring with cutthroat intensity. And she's positively fearless when it comes to A) Defying her male coworkers' expectations, and B) Getting her hands dirty in service of Rhoades' crusade for justice. "She’s one of the people there that purely believes in justice and serving that, but she might get in the mud to get there, and that’s very interesting," Rashad tells me over the phone a few weeks before the premiere. "It's the idea of someone whose intentions are pure, but they’re so passionate and driven that they will do whatever they might have to do to get there," she continues. "The contradiction there is really fun to play with."
The 30-year-old daughter of Phylicia Rashad (a.k.a. Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show) has been playing with a contradiction of her own lately. As the Tony-nominated stage alum is cast in more screen projects and wading deeper into Hollywood (another ruthless, sexist sphere), Rashad is grappling with a force that in 2017 America, is as powerful as Ax's wealth or Rhoades' legal authority: the bizarre nature of celebrity, a concept that she sees as more relevant than ever now that we've put one in the White House.
"We have a very interesting relationship with celebrity. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but I do think there is this overwhelming kind of addiction to it," she says. "There’s a certain level of awe and wonder, and 'Who’s wearing what?'...it's been interesting for me, being a part of that industry, how I navigate through that. Because sometimes even for me it’s like, wait. It just gets a little bit — it’s a lot."
But Rashad is disarmingly frank about the fact that she thinks celeb culture is a shiny diversion from the real world. "It can absolutely be used as a distraction and I think that is the way it has been used recently." We're speaking only days after Trump's inauguration, and Rashad believes we're at a tipping point, poised to shift our attention to the forces, like climate change, that don't give a shit about fame or fortune. "A collective shift in consciousness," she calls it.
Photo: Jeff Neumann/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.
"Climate change is not going to affect a celebrity differently then it does as a person who’s not," she explains. "At the end of the day, when the lights go out when the climate starts changing, people are people. There are a lot of facades that are going to get messed with because of all of these very pressing matters that are coming to the surface right now." She continues, "I just feel like the more and more real shit gets, excuse my French, I think that certain realities are going to — certain bubbles are going to start bursting."
A recently toppled facade: the idea that women's equality and rights are something we no longer need to fight for. We're speaking just a few days after millions of people took part in the Women's March. Rashad joined the march in New York after jetting in from Atlanta right after a film shoot that lasted until 5 a.m. She was marching on no sleep alongside her fiancé, who was sick as a dog that day. "It didn't matter...we both were like ‘Alright bundle up, here we go!’" she laughs.
"It does get to the point where we have to accept that these very important moments of standing up, they’re not going to always come at our leisure, it’s not always going to be comfortable to do so. Once you release the importance of whether it’s convenient or not, it doesn’t matter."
That is the attitude of an authentic activist, not a posturing celebrity. "What a powerful day that was, I’m still feeling a buzz from that. It was charging. It was like, ‘Okay, we are here and now I can see that we’re all here. Bring it on.'"
In a way, the Women's March was a beautiful antithesis to the me-first machismo and small-minded power struggles that drive the men on Billions; it's about harnessing something bigger and stronger. "What really moved me is to see how many men made it out. There are men that are so behind us, and so ready to support us as human beings." She adds, "And that made me feel super powerful. We just have to maintain this kind of unity, this kind of energy. This kind of power."
Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait.