This article appears in the March issue of 400 Life.
Renee Denney watched with equal parts admiration and horror. There went Billy Magnussen, a student at South Forsyth High School then in Denney’s theater class, scaling a 14-foot brick wall. It was the spring of 2003, when Denney allowed her senior students to direct a one-act play. She had just taught the class about the Theatre of the Absurd, a category of work that originated in Europe in the 1950s. Absurdist plays explore the notion that human existence is devoid of purpose, and they accordingly shun many of theater’s conventions. But pulling them off requires actors who are willing to also shun their own inhibitions; not exactly a high schooler’s strength.
Except for Magnussen. From the time Magnussen entered Kenney’s class on a whim his senior year, she found him to be game for anything, and that has been reflective of the trajectory of Magnussen’s acting career that has started to reach notable heights in the last couple years. His big break in the business was the role of Casey Hughes in the soap opera “As the World Turns” from 2008 until it was canceled in 2010. His first acclaimed role was as Spike, the “boy toy” of a famous actress (played by Sigourney Weaver) in the Broadway show “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” for which Magnussen was nominated for a Tony Award. He has appeared in almost every genre of film and television, from action (“Birth of a Dragon”) to musicals (“Into The Woods”) to comedy (“Game Night”) to horror (CBS’s “Tell Me A Story”) and even political satire (“The Oath.”)
Magnussen’s profile has ascended accordingly. His supporting role as Ryan, a shallow-but-likable friend of stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, in “Game Night,” a black comedy thriller, drew rave reviews. So did his role in “Maniacs,” a Netflix mini-series featuring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.
And Magnussen’s profile only figures to be further amplified this year. He’s in the Netflix movie, “Velvet Buzzsaw,” with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, John Malkovich and Rene Russo that came out in late January, and he’s in the live-action “Aladdin,” starring Will Smith, that is due out in May.
All of which makes for one heck of a whirlwind since Magnussen, now 33 years old, left Forsyth County to pursue acting.
But when I reached Magnussen on the phone in early January, he was far away from his former home and his current one in New York and his rapidly-rising Hollywood career. Instead, he was on a ranch in Wyoming. “I’m sitting on a mountain in Wyoming looking out the window in a cabin,” Magnussen says.
“You can’t turn your back on where you come from. I think I’m a better person because of the community that has surrounded me my whole life.”Billy Magnussen, actor
Magnussen was born in Queens, N.Y., and he lived there until he was 10 years old, when, he said, the family decided it was “time to move on.” They canvassed the country. For a short time the Magnussen family lived in Miami, but on a trip back to New York, they stopped to visit friends who lived in Cumming. Here, they decided, was where they wanted to raise their family of three boys, and they’ve been in Forsyth County ever since. “I was just there around Christmas,” Magnussen says.
This mix of upbringing in both suburbs and metropolitans alike has been an advantage, Magnussen says. “I got to taste all of it,” he says.
Magnussen found acting growing up in Forsyth County. It was an accident, really. Magnussen was a self-described “big jock,” and he was particularly good at wrestling. It ran in the family. His younger brother, Dane, went on to win an individual state championship at West Forsyth High School.
Before Magnussen’s senior year, he tore his hamstring. He couldn’t take gym class. On a whim, he decided to try theater.
“I think what he tells people is he decided theater is where the girls are,” Denney says.
Magnussen was captivated. He performed in several of South Forsyth’s shows that year, including “Rumor,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” and “A Piece of My Heart.” Denney found Magnussen an enthusiastic pupil.
“He would commit 150 percent to anything I asked him to do,” Denney says, “and that was from the very beginning. In a fundamentals class, whatever; he kind of has that child-like spirit. He’s willing to play and have fun, which is what acting requires. It requires you to play around with so many aspects of yourself and delve into things. He was so open and ready to do that. That’s why he was successful, even at our school.”
Magnussen credits much of that to his family, particularly his parents, Daina and Greg, as well as Denney. In his parents, Magnussen found the ideal balance of guidance and encouragement “to explore and go on that adventure that is life,” he says. In Denney, Magnussen received the push he needed to pursue acting when he wavered about what to do after graduating from South Forsyth in 2003.
“Me struggling as an individual is one thing,” Magnussen says, “but when you have a community and a group of people surrounding you to help, it’s the best gift in the world.”
And so Magnussen went off and “started swinging for the fences,” he says. He was accepted to the North Carolina School of the Arts. His first professional goal was to perform on Broadway, and it didn’t take long, making his debut right out of college in “The Ritz” in 2007. Then came “As the World Turns,” the Tony Award nomination, the ever-improving string of film and television roles, to where he is now.
It’s forced Magnussen to reevaluate his own career ambitions. “I had to learn that you are always evolving, you’re always changing, you can’t fit in one place forever,” Magnussen said.
Magnussen said this as he looked out at those Wyoming mountains, in a new place in his life in so many ways. But even there, it wasn’t hard for him to think back on Forsyth County, the place where it all began.
“You can’t turn your back on where you come from,” Magnussen said. “I think I’m a better person because of the community that has surrounded me my whole life.”