If you were to guess which TV series would be the first major program to introduce a gender non-binary regular character, Showtime’s Billions probably wouldn’t leap to mind. The high-finance drama is hyper-focused on the dueling testosterone-soaked worlds of Axe Capital hedge fund (led by Damien Lewis’ scheming Bobby Axelrod) and the Southern District of New York’s U.S. Attorney’s office (commanded by Paul Giamatti’s growling Charles Rhoades).
Yet it’s Billions’ hyper-masculine perspective that makes Sunday’s season 2’s introduction of Taylor so mesmerizing. As played by Asia Kate Dillon (who, like the character, also does not identify as either gender), Taylor is a hyper-smart rising star intern at Axe Capital who disrupts hedge fund world with their unique presence (and yes, “they” is the pronoun — as Taylor crisply informs a nonplussed Axelrod when they first meet).
Billions showrunners say they were looking to add a character in season 2 who could effectively match wits with Axelrod. “We were looking for a character that Axe could see himself in — someone as smart as Axe is and someone who Axe could potentially groom,” said Brian Koppelman, who co-created the show along with David Levien. “And as you pointed out, to have this male-dominated world of hedge funds and then introduce a gender non-binary character who was brilliant and ambitious but also someone who could take their own moral inventory was really interesting to us. And of course, we noticed the way gender has become something that we’re all discussing and learning knowing more about and grappling with. So it seemed really worth doing.”
When it came to casting the part, the showrunner did not specifically seek out an actor who was non-binary. “You want to cast partly for veracity but primarily you want to cast the best actor for the part,” Levien said. “People were coming in to [audition] from the entire LGBTQ spectrum. Some were in various stages of transition and some were asked if there was going to be a major change in [their appearance in the] next couple months. But when Asia came in and read they were so locked in and perfect for it. And it was only after that we learned how they lived their life. When casting a role you can’t ask questions [about a person’s gender] in advance, that would violate all sorts of decency.”
The role represents the big breakout for the New York actor after scoring a minor role in Orange is the New Black. Dillon recalls reading Taylor’s character description and thinking, “‘My gosh, this is incredible, this feels like me.’ That a non-binary character was going to be on a show like Billions, on a network like Showtime, and they were going to be integral to the plot and their gender identity was just one of many parts that made up the character — that really drove me to want to play this part. I feel very proud to represent something on television that hasn’t been represented before. I know it would have meant a lot to me, as a younger person, especially. Visibility and education are so important — particularly now in the face of the current administration.”
The showrunners conducted research and interviews among the non-binary community to write the role, and also regularly consulted Dillon as well. “Brian and David and the producers and the crew were all very welcoming but also very adamant about the fact they wanted me to speak up and say, ‘Hey, that’s not how somebody is non-binary would say,’ or, ‘’have you thought about it from this perspective,'” Dillon said. “They wanted it to be a collaborative experience and it was. Occasionally a script would come through where the pronoun would be wrong, and I felt very comfortable shooting an email to Brian and David and saying, ‘Oh, I just caught this’ and they didn’t take it personally and it got changed right away. It made me feel really respected and comfortable during the whole process.”
Taylor’s introductory scene is particularly sharply done, which has the buzz-cut Axe Capital intern giving their manager some grief for assuming they’re vegan, demanding to know why he’d make that assumption. The manager defensively squirms, worried he’s offended them, until Taylor lets him off the hook with a slight smile (“Of course I’m vegan”).
“We want to play with your expectations of the character,” Levien said. “We wanted this to be a human being and not somebody who was perfect, and that scene felt like for us was the best way to go about it.”
Expect Taylor and Axelrod to form an unlikely partnership this season as the billionaire looks to exploit Taylor’s talents (which include playing a mean game of poker — bringing producers back to the world of their breakout title, Rounders). But the scene Dillon was most excited about was one of the most simple. “The very first walk-and-talk that I get to do with Damien Lewis. I always wanted to do a walk-and-talk. And getting to do my first one with Damien Lewis was very exciting.”
Season 2 of Billions premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.