NEW YORK (AP) — For years, David Costabile has flourished as a most familiar unknown star, the sort of all-purpose actor you like and recognize but aren't sure from where.
With a laugh, he recalls being accosted by a fan in a Pennsylvania shopping mall who blurted out, "Hey! Are you —? Uh, do I —? Do YOU know ME?"
Fans, new and old, are welcoming Costabile in his latest role as Mike "Wags" Wagner on the Showtime power-battle drama "Billions." In this lively clash of a U.S. Attorney (Paul Giamatti) and the hedge-fund titan he wants to take down, Costabile plays attack dog and consigliere to high-flying financier Bobby Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis).
"Bad idea," jokes Axelrod as Wags assists in swapping out his dress shirt for an upcoming meeting. "No man is a hero to his valet."
"That goes double for his COO," Wags fires back in his clipped purr. "So you are (expletive) with me either way."
On "Billions" (which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern), Wags Wagner is giving viewers one more dot to connect with the many characters Costabile has logged in the past, some so different it's hard to remember they're all him.
He was the stone-hearted managing editor on "The Wire" and a doofus, cuckolded husband on "Flight of the Conchords." He was the fussy former law partner on "Suits" and the savage police detective on "Damages."
On the movie screen, he played a pivotal U.S. congressman in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and a pivotal CIA operative in the recent Michael Bay film, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi."
Perhaps he is best remembered as Gale Boetticher, the dweebish, karaoke-fancying chemist who served as lab assistant to crystal-meth king Walter White on "Breaking Bad." As Gale, an eclectic loner with a taste for the poetry of Walt Whitman, he hurled the series toward its explosive finish as well as stealing every scene he appeared in.
A man with chipmunk cheeks and a broad forehead, a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile, the 49-year-old Costabile can morph into different roles almost as if shape-shifting. But he seems to have a particular gift for characters that are slightly "off."
He acknowledges a penchant for "the ineffectual bureaucratic type — a beige guy who blends into the wall." But even if he doesn't call attention to himself, you don't dare take your eyes off him, because there's always more to his performance than first meets the eye.
"I feel really lucky that as an actor, you're trained to transform," says Costabile, who after graduation from Tufts University earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University. "If you get the opportunity to play lots of different characters in lots of different worlds, you get the opportunity to disappear. That's the most fun: when you get to disappear."
Costabile is expounding on the actor's craft over a recent lunch at a slow-foods Brooklyn bistro near the home he shares in pleasant anonymity ("No photographers on the sidewalk," he chuckles) with his wife, actress Eliza Baldi, and their infant daughter.
A Washington native, he acted in high school musicals, and his extensive stage work on and off Broadway was grounded by summers with a regional theater company performing Shakespeare free outdoors in Albany, New York.
"It's something you're always chasing," he says of acting. "There's never a moment when you can actually be satisfied. It's exciting to do something that you know you cannot succeed at, only hope to get closer to success."
He says he tries to take the road less traveled in each role.
"I'm not interested in what's on-the-nose," he explains. "I read the script and I say, 'Well, that's what SHOULD happen, so I'm not going to do that.' My wife says, 'Why DON'T you?!' But that's boring! I want to take an oblique angle to get to the answer. That's the more interesting path. Maybe it's because I'm obstinate."
For Costabile, the joy of acting comes from the element of surprise.
"I don't want you to know what's next, what I'm gonna do or think," he says. "I want to constantly push people off-balance. Even my fellow actors."
Taking the character somewhere new "without people saying, 'What the (heck) are you doing, that doesn't make sense' — it's tricky to do! But it's important. For the audience and" — he flashes an impish grin — "for me."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore