Therapist Sees Herself on TV's ‘Billions,’ Except for One Thing
(Bloomberg) -- Like many on Wall Street, Denise Shull has been a regular viewer of Showtime’s “Billions," a series that’s made a splash partly because of its not-so-subtle parallels to real-life money managers.
But there’s one similarity she says she can’t get over: Dr. Wendy Rhoades, the performance coach at fictional hedge fund Axe Capital who works with the firm’s traders. Rhoades’s character, a straight-talker who’s married to the Manhattan U.S. attorney, helps the company’s analysts manage emotions, quell fears and find confidence to better perform their jobs.
That character is an “unauthorized rip-off,” Shull, who’s also a performance coach for traders, claimed in a lawsuit filed last month. Except for her sexual appetites. “The first episode focuses on her being a dominatrix,” Shull, a former trader who now runs the ReThink Group, said in a phone interview. “I’m not. I wouldn’t know the first thing about it."
“Billions” exposes a facet of the money-management industry that wasn’t widely known: top hedge funds sometimes employ people to work with portfolio managers and traders in hopes of improving their performance and profits.
Shull, 59, doesn’t work at a hedge fund, but says a fictionalized version of herself did in her 2012 book, “Market Mind Games: A Radical Psychology of Investing, Trading and Risk.” She claims in her lawsuit that “Billions” creators, including Andrew Ross Sorkin, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, borrowed heavily from the book without compensating her.
Read more: CBS, Showtime face ‘Billions’ copyright infringement suit
A Showtime spokeswoman disputed the claim, while Sorkin, Koppelman and Levien didn’t respond to requests for comment. “Ms. Shull has cycled through multiple law firms and theories of her supposed case, as part of her repeated failed attempts to force us to engage her as a consultant on our show,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “We are confident her lawsuit will similarly fail.”
In her complaint, Shull said she discussed her book with Sorkin in 2012 during an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” which he co-hosts. Sorkin, who’s also a New York Times reporter, then contacted her in August 2015, seeking help in developing Rhoades’s character, according to the lawsuit. Shull said she exchanged emails that month with Maggie Siff, who portrays Rhoades, as well as Koppelman and Levien, ultimately culminating in a meeting the following month. Koppelman expressed interest in reading her book, but “appeared uncomfortable" when she told him it was fiction, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 31 in federal court in Manhattan.
Over the following week, Shull said she spoke with Showtime’s marketing and creative teams about being involved in promoting the series. But conversations soon went dark, and she said she never signed an agreement for compensation or credit with the creators or the network, which is owned by CBS Corp. Showtime ordered a pilot in March 2014, according to press releases, and the first episode aired in January 2016.
“I knew nothing about television,” said Shull, who has a master’s degree in neuropsychology from the University of Chicago.
Parallels between the show and her book and coaching style are readily apparent, she said. Since the show began airing, Shull has talked freely about having spoken with the show’s creators and is referred to in some published reports as well as her Wikipedia entry as an inspiration for Rhoades’s character. In March 2017, a Showtime lawyer sent her a letter warning her to stop saying that she consulted on the show, Shull said.
Whether Shull was an inspiration for the character, “Billions” has regularly tiptoed close to real life. Critics have commented on parallels between hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, the show’s high-living protagonist, and Steve Cohen, whose SAC Capital pleaded guilty to insider-trading. Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who led the SAC investigation, has said he had dinner with actor Paul Giamatti while he was researching his role as the show’s hard-charging U.S. attorney. Koppelman and Levien have said that Rhoades, like other characters, isn’t based on any one person.
Wall Street has other real-life performance coaches. Tony Robbins, who’s coached hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, is someone the show’s creators have mentioned in interviews. The late psychologist Ari Kiev channeled his experiences boosting the confidence of depressed patients into techniques for professional athletes and traders, and once worked for Cohen’s hedge fund.
Shull argues that the similarities between the scenes in “Billions" and those in her own book are so strong as to constitute a copyright violation. It’s now possible that a show based on the egos of powerful Wall Street executives, the law enforcement officers who chase them and the people who live in this opulent world could spawn a real-life court drama.
“It’s like I’m part of one of the plots,” Shull said.
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