For Asia Kate Dillon, 'Billions' Is a Numbers Game
The 'Billions' star talks about Taylor Mason's climb to the billion-dollar club, losing Axe, and taking on a new mentorship role.
From the first scene that Asia Kate Dillon's Taylor Mason was introduced in Season 2 at a charity poker game between "the billies" (as Paul Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades now classifies them), Billions transformed from a cheeky finance bro faceoff between District Attorney Rhoades and billionaire hedge-fund visionary Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) to a richly layered show about the cost of insidious greed. And no one has been fucked over more, especially by Axe's self-centered plays, than his own genius protegé, the young financial advisor Taylor. Even though he hardly batted an eye destroying Taylor's relationship with Mike Birbiglia's Oscar Landstraat in Season 3, and even relished squashing their independence in starting the environmentally focused Taylor Mason Carbon, Axe drew battle lines against anyone who would misgender Taylor, who uses they/them pronouns, as does Dillon, who called for the end of gendering acting categories in award shows years ago.
As the first ever non-binary lead character in a TV show, Taylor's enemies and allies can be often be identified by how a person genders them. They come in blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments, but if you're sensitive to it, those quick lines shoot like barbs. And while Billions writes in those infractions, it's used sparingly, never becoming a punchline or defining Taylor as One Thing.
"It's just a credit to the creators and the writers for being so thoughtful about the ways that they weave that stuff into the show," says 37-year-old Dillon over the phone. "Making it not a tokenized version of an experience, but actually a fully thought-out, fully lived-in human experience that is part of Taylor's life and therefore part of the world of Billions. I'm one version of what non-binary looks like, sounds like. Taylor is another. Taylor and I are not the same. The stuff that I'm playing rings true and authentic for me and for the character."
And, of course, Taylor is so much more complex than merely their gender identity, clawing out of those instances of being fucked over, doing business with shady Russian oligarchs (John Malkovich), and pinpointing the opportunities in the financial playing field that others have missed, just as their former mentor Axe taught them. In the Season 5 finale, Axe and Taylor have a heart-to-heart before he jets off to Switzerland to avoid arrest, in a trap to finally catch Axe that Taylor helped set along with Chuck and their now-boss, Corey Stoll's Michael Thomas Aquinas Prince. ("What a name," I say. "I know!" Dillon agrees.) As a viewer, their conversation is bittersweet, both because Axe finally acknowledges Taylor as a peer and because we might not ever see the two together again. Shipping off to a neutral territory was Billions' way to write Damien Lewis off the show, a decision that had been planned for years but one that felt especially tragic in the wake of the untimely death of Lewis' wife, Helen McCrory.
"From day one, he was just so incredibly gracious and humble and vulnerable. Brought his triple-A game every time," says Dillon. "Playing a scene like that one that we have in the finale where, we have years of the characters' relationship behind us, and also our relationship as friends and performance peers. There's a lot of emotion wrapped up in something like that."
Dillon has also acted opposite Keanu Reeves as the villainous Adjudicator in John Wick Chapter 3 — Parabellum and was just cast, along with Ruth Negga and Daniel Craig, in a new Broadway staging of Macbeth. But five years working together is a long time, and their last moment on-screen together exudes a weary consolation. It's the first time Taylor has ever seen Axe with his knees taken out—and at their own hand, no less—and, even in defeat, recognizes that he's learned nothing.
"There's something very sad about Axe in that moment for Taylor," Dillon continues. "Taylor's like, 'I really am sorry it went this way. I wish you'd made better choices, man.' It is a moment of them being like, 'Wow, we're actually peers. I'm not your mentee anymore. You're not my mentor. That relationship is done, and I think that means that we're done'—at least for now."
Though Taylor is officially without a mentor, they've taken on a mentee in their newer hire Rian (Eva Victor). Their scenes together are episode highlights; their rapport is hilarious, with Taylor's advice often falling into "the wrong side of a generation," as they describe in a Season 5 episode, and Rian's Millenial-Gen Z cusper attitude challenging how Taylor's been reared to make money in the cutthroat financial industry.
"One of the things that Taylor sees in Rian, as Taylor says, is that Rian is also struggling with how to be a good person, a respectable capitalist, if that's possible," Dillon says. "Taylor is trying to be the mentor that Axe wasn't to them, meaning tell Rian the truth about what this job is. The only thing that Axe ever told Taylor was, 'Turn your hate into fuel and you'll make millions of dollars.' Taylor's been able to paint a much broader picture for Rian. That is also an interesting part of the dynamic: Rian's got the whole picture and is still wanting to be in this world. What does that say about Rian?"
For one, it says that Rian is the type of person who would like to buy $5k worth of brand-new camping equipment whenever she feels like it, as exposed in Sunday's "Burn Rate." The Season 6 episode plastered the line-item expenses of its core characters on the screen in another move of showing exactly how wealthy the people of this world are are while revealing fun insight into their taste. Like, who knew Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) would be so fond of Mejuri jewelry?
For the richest TV characters, "stealth wealth" has become a cornerstone of exploitative capitalist costuming and a meaty point of fascination for those of us who would like to fill our closets with chic staples like Shiv Roy's many deceptively expensive turtlenecks on Succession but can't shell out $2,000. Billions, the other rich people show—its cache of accumulated wealth right there in the name—has more often traded in the sort of luxury experiences, like an adult rock camp or paying to smash cars and dig holes with heavy machinery, that us normies would never dare even consider as options to blow off steam. Still, the Billions-verse is hardly immune to its characters wearing a sneakily expensive t-shirt, and finally did a close read on its characters' financial statements.
Taylor is one of the first casualties of financial transparency, whose nondescript fit clocks in at a cool $182,615, including an $180k Patek Philippe watch you'd otherwise never notice. Compared to that time keeping sticker shock, their $1,850 custom blazer seems downright reasonable.
"You just look like you're wearing a turtleneck sweater and a blazer, but that character knows that actually cost 10 grand," says Dillon. "What does that do to that character's attitude? Can you imagine walking into your first day at a new job, knowing you're wearing $34,000 worth of whatever?" Dillon is referencing the moment Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad), poached from the State's Attorney's office, confidently marches into her first day working at the newly minted Mike Prince Capital as legal counsel for Prince's lofty plans to bring the 2028 Olympics to New York City. "The onion continues to be peeled over the course of Season 6."
With Axe out of the picture, Season 6 clears the way for Mike Prince to fill in as the new billionaire figurehead of Billions moving forward, buying up every asset once under Axe Cap. By the middle of Episode 4, Prince seems to have won over the office's most important stakeholders, including Wendy and Wags (David Costible), after a contentious first three episodes, but not Taylor, at least just yet. "Burn Rate," like the character's expenses, exposes Taylor's "number"—that is, how much money they need to make before leaving the firm for greater pastures—first set at $100 million, with the intention of using the wealth they've accumulated to make real social change for good, harking back to the starry-eyed Taylor of Season 2.
"I've always known that Taylor was trying to figure out if they could stay a morally centered person in this world, but I didn't know that their ultimate goal was actually to be a philanthropist," says Dillon. "There's now a deeper why, which is, is Taylor doing that because they're trying to make up for all of the shit that they did to get to where they currently are? Or are they doing it because it's something they've always wanted to do?"
In singlehandedly killing Taylor's first philanthropic idea under Prince—to build the infrastructure for free Wi-Fi in both New York City, to be a more attractive destination for the Olympics Committee, and, broadly, Africa—he recalibrates their (mis)conception of how much their Number can truly achieve. The $10 billion boy Prince calls Taylor "kind of rich," even when they're in striking distance of $100 million, and reality-checks their dreams. "If you want to change the world, nine digits ain't gonna do it," he says at the end of the episode.
"What Taylor is going through is a great illustration of a person who is complicated, and is at all times trying to do what is in both their best interest and in the highest interest of all," Dillon says. "It is at the times when those things come into conflict that create the most internal conflict for Taylor."
With a newfound hunger to show up Prince and change the world—their best interest and the highest interest of all aligned—Taylor instantly conjures a new number for their exit strategy. I bet you can guess exactly what it is.