‘Billions’ Stars Say Playing Bad Makes Them Nicer in Real Life
A lot of charity events come together when friends buy tickets or donate an auction item, and the Riley’s Way “anti-gala” at Hill Country Barbecue Market Wednesday night had its share of that.
It also had three cast members from “Billions,” mingling over plates of brisket, applauding a group of girls singing a hymn with Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”) and trying out the banana pudding.
They were Ben Shenkman, who plays Ira, a friend of Paul Giamatti’s character and is married to Riley’s Way program director Lauren Shenkman; David Costabile, the beloved Wags, Axe Capital’s chief operating officer; and Glenn Fleshler, Bobby Axelrod’s lawyer, Orrin Bach.
Next Sunday, they’ll return for a new season of “Billions” on Showtime, but on this evening they were just three friends reflecting on how their TV lives make them nicer in real life. It was a natural topic given the Riley’s Way mission, to empower young people with kindness and empathy.
“We do terrible things to people, and the beauty is, when we stop, we only want to be nice to each other,” Costabile said. “That’s how the show is made. The reason why we’re so good at being so awful is that we practice kindness and empathy in great amounts.”
“We spend the day talking about our children,” Fleshler added. “We’re sitting in a penthouse of Tribeca or a Long Island mansion or a courtroom of the Southern District of New York, and we’re giving tips to each other on raising kids.”
“I have so much fun playing that person,” Costabile said of Wags. “Then I go back to being a Park Slope dad.”
These actors didn’t meet on the “Billions” set; they’ve been friends for more than 27 years, since they were in graduate school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (Maggie Siff, who plays Wendy, is also an alum). Acting is part of their bond.
“We love what we do and we spend a lot of time talking about it and making each other better,” Costabile said.
They go the extra mile for each other, too. Costabile performed at Fleshler’s wedding to Jocelyn Greene, a theater educator. It was an Andrea Bocelli number. “He knew it in Italian, but my wife wanted the Spanish version, she thought it was more beautiful,” Fleshler said. “David learned it.”
Riley’s Way was founded by Ian and Mackenzie Sandler after their daughter Riley died at age 9. The couple’s goal: to create a long-term, sustainable way to honor Riley, who was not a great athlete or perfect student, “but the best friend you could ask for,” Ian Sandler said.
With a $700,000 annual operating budget and an endowment of almost $4 million, the organization, which is about five years old, focuses on developing kind leaders.
“It’s not just a club that talks about kindness,” said Nicole Mateo, a student at Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem who’s on a Riley’s Way Council. “This year we are focusing on the relationship between police officers and youth.”
Amber Rahman, a student at Nightingale-Bamford, said she went to dinner with a group of incarcerated women as part of her Riley’s Way Council work. “You have to see people as real to have empathy,” she said.
Sandler, chief operating officer at Insight Venture Partners, said he’s seen plenty of people on Wall Street demonstrate their kindness with their support of Riley’s Way. Others in finance gave examples of their empathy at work.
“In our profession, teams get tight,” Marc Khouzami of Deutsche Bank said. “Someone lost a sister and we were there to support her with cards, flowers. We get a bad rep that we’re only focused on success.”
Brandon O’Daniell of Susequehanna supports a kid from Chicago while colleague Makay Redd has volunteered with a “Junior Giants” league affiliated with the San Francisco Giants. Jamie Friedman got to play table tennis with champion Xinyue (Taylor) Wang when she visited the Susequehanna office.
During the program, Ian Sandler and Lauren Shenkman asked for help in letting more schools know about the Riley’s Way Call for Kindness. The nonprofit is offering a $3,000 prize to six teen-led projects. Applications are due March 22.
Rabbi Buchdahl said it was amazing to see how the Sandler family had taken the unimaginable, and then chose “life and love and goodness. It inspires me every day.”