Insider look at hedge-fund world

Damian Lewis plays charismatic billionaire Bobby Axelrod in Billions.
Damian Lewis plays charismatic billionaire Bobby Axelrod in Billions.PHOTO: FOX NETWORK GROUP

The star and creators of drama series Billions consulted the who's who in finance

The series Billions is set in the arcane world of hedge funds, and its star and creators met with some of the biggest names in the industry to get a feel of what makes them tick.

The drama charts the feud between hedge-fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Homeland's Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Sideways' Paul Giamatti), a federal prosecutor trying to take him down for insider trading.

At a press day in Los Angeles this year, Lewis and executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien - who created the show with financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin - are asked whom they consulted. They rattle off a veritable who's who of finance.

"James Chanos, who is a famous hedge-fund billionaire, has been very generous with his time," says Koppelman, 50, adding that the creators and Lewis also chatted with Mr Marc Lasry, Mr Bill Ackman and Mr Dan Loeb, who have made fortunes from hedge funds too. "And then there were a bunch that we're not allowed to talk about."

On the show - which is in its second season on Fox HD (Singtel TV Channel 330, StarHub TV Channel 505) on Mondays at 9.50pm - Bobby is cast as an antihero: a philanthropist and devoted family man, but also a cunning and ruthless manipulator.

The hedge funders, they wake up every day and convince themselves they’re poor. It doesn’t seem like the ambition had dimmed the slightest from when they had five dollars.

EXCUTIVE PRODUCER BRIAN KOPPELMAN

Asked what the real Bobbys of the world are like, Lewis, 47, says he believes many of them are, like leaders in other fields, "sort of borderline sociopaths or fully fledged sociopaths".

"These are people who are able to successfully compartmentalise their emotional lives, which is why they can act without shame or guilt. And you need to be able to compartmentalise because you're going to have to make tough decisions," says the English actor, who won an Emmy and Golden Globe playing a soldier-turned-terrorist on Homeland from 2011 to 2014.

Koppelman, who wrote the 1998 poker film Rounders with Levien, says what struck him is "how competitive these guys still are. The hedge funders, they wake up every day and convince themselves they're poor. It doesn't seem like the ambition had dimmed the slightest from when they had five dollars".

Levien, 49, says: "A billion or two billion dollars or any amount doesn't cool the flame that's burning in them. They just want to keep going."

Although the series clearly demonstrates Bobby's flaws, including his arrogance, those Lewis encountered freely admitted they see themselves in the character.

He says: "Every hedge-fund billionaire I meet thinks that Bobby Axelrod is him - I don't know how closely they are watching the show because I don't think you would want to own up to that, given some of the things that Bobby does."

Hedge-fund managers are a particular breed, he adds. "None of them are billionaires to start with. I found them all to be very good listeners, very watchful.

"Most of them said that they were risk-averse - I think that is a euphemism for 'I will make the bet only once I've got the information to guarantee that my bet will come good'," he says, adding that "all those guys play in the margins", and "the reason it's so difficult to prosecute them is because the law is vague" when it comes to insider trading.

They also see themselves a little differently than others do.

"They don't consider themselves to be gamblers. They consider themselves to be activists for good and that they are a necessary part of keeping the economy clean, removing overperforming undervalued companies with corrupt boards who are underachieving."

"But of course, there is great vanity," adds the actor, who has two children, aged nine and 10, with British actress Helen McCrory, 48. "And I think - really I think the thing that drives them is the game."

Hedge-fund bigwigs also employ characters such as Wendy (Mad Men's Maggie Siff), who is both Chuck's wife and Bobby's therapist-slash-confidante. Her job is to figure out Bobby's and his traders' weaknesses and help them focus so they can make more money.

The person brought in to consult on the show regarding this was none other than self-help guru Tony Robbins, whom the producers had worked with while making the recent documentary about his life, I Am Not Your Guru.

Koppelman says: "Paul Tudor Jones, one of the top hedge funders, has Tony Robbins on retainer and for 20-plus years, he has paid him over a million dollars a year to speak to him and e-mail him every day. And Tony himself coached Maggie Siff to play the part.

"It's like a subset of the industry. These coaches get these people in a mindset where they can perform at their highest and try to get them over the fear of loss and to follow their instincts to get the most gain."

• Billions Season 2 airs on FoxHD (Singtel TV Channel 330 and StarHub TV Channel 505) on Mondays at 9.50pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2017, with the headline 'Insider look at hedge-fund world'. Print Edition | Subscribe