First-Time Tony Nominee: Billy Magnussen bares his comedic side as the inane Spike in ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

Billy Magnussen.

Billy Magnussen.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike earned six Tony nominations, one of which is for Billy Magnussen’s enthusiastic portrayal of Spike, aspiring actor and younger lover to Sigourney Weaver’s Masha. In this Chekhov-inspired comedy, Masha and Spike visit her homebody siblings Vanya (fellow nominee David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen, also nominated). Spike and the self-absorbed Masha, who has married five times and gained fame for starring in the fictional Sexy Killer movies, interrupt her siblings’ quiet lives.

Spike is an outsider, an uninhibited fellow described as attractive “except for his personality.” Even his name suggests that he sometimes resembles Masha’s child or pet. Numerous critics and audience members lauded Magnussen’s hilarious performance and ability to bring sympathy to such an inane character.

Magnussen appears to enjoy the part immensely but he also works very hard. He auditioned at least five times and works out twice a day due to the role’s physical demands. Not to mention, the character is partially undressed during a good percentage of the play. Weaver said that as Spike, Magnussen “is inspired” and his cast members “never quite know what he’s going to do.”

Billy Magnussen in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Billy Magnussen in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Raised in Queens and then Cumming, Georgia, Magnussen was a well-rounded athlete. However, when he ripped his hamstring while wrestling, he threw himself into theatre and attended the University of North Carolina, then the North Carolina School of the Arts. He went on to debut on Broadway in The Ritz (2007) but is most recognized for playing Casey Hughes on the soap opera As the World Turns. In addition, he has guest starred in several television series including Boardwalk Empire and The Beautiful Life.

I first saw Magnussen in Whit Stillman’s film Damsels in Distress, which has been described as a cross between Jane Austen and Animal House. His comedic skills are on full display as Thor, a frat boy who struggles with identifying colors, not because he is colorblind, but because he simply never learned them. The character is ludicrous yet Magnussen plays him straight; Thor is earnest about hitting the books and mastering the colors.

Readers might have seen him in various movies such as The Last Valentine (2011), Twelve (2010), and Happy Tears (2009). You can see Magnussen later this month in the thriller The East.

Still curious? Here are a few fun tidbits about the good-humored Magnussen: He plays guitar and synthesizer in the rock band Reserved for Rondee, which recently recorded their first album; he believes strongly in protecting the environment; he enjoyed transitioning into theatre from sports partially because there were more girls in theatre.  When asked about playing opposite Sigourney Weaver, Magnussen referred to his part on Boardwalk Empire and joked, “The majority of my career has been taking off my clothes and making out with older women.”

Will Magnussen take home the Tony for “Best Featured Actor in a Play”? It seems the favorite to win is the universally praised Tony Shalhoub for his role in Golden Boy. Still, Magnussen played alongside veterans of the stage and screen with remarkable ease, and there is a chance that his exuberant character will win over voters.

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