Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy and Billions – actress Maggie Siff usually lives in very masculine worlds, both on and off screen, but that doesn’t mean she’s just going to accept the status quo.
Words by Kevin EG Perry. Photography by Betina La Plante. Styling by Mary Fellowes.
In the Showtime drama Billions, about a US attorney going after a corrupt hedge-fund manager, the very first shot of the pilot episode shows Paul Giamatti bound and gagged on the floor. A dominatrix appears, putting out a cigarette on his chest and then helpfully alleviating the burn by pissing on him. By the end of the episode, we’ve learned that this woman is his wife.
It’s a hell of a way to make a first impression. For Maggie Siff, who plays the psychiatrist-turned-dominatrix, it presented both a challenge and an opportunity. “The sex stuff I was nervous about,” she says. “I’m not really an exhibitionist, yet I thought it was a really interesting component of their marriage. It felt smart. It made me want to know about that marriage, who those people were to each other and how they arrived there.”
So it also makes her – in a show full of macho characters – quite literally the boss? “And in a very literal sense, it makes her the boss, yes,” she laughs. “She’s comfortable in that role.”
Siff and I are having breakfast in a hotel in Lower Manhattan, and over fruit and coffee she’s lamenting how rare it is to be offered such a powerful and complex female role. As an actress she has become accustomed to being presented with barely sketched stereotypes. “There’s the bitchy wife, the bitchy ex-wife, the sardonic best friend… There’s a lot of those tropes,” she says. “There’s just a disproportionate number of male writers and directors and producers, so the stories that are getting told are slanted that way. You get so used to that as a woman.”
It’s a particularly challenging situation for young actresses who are so keen to find work when they’re starting out that they find themselves playing roles they may inwardly cringe at. Siff, who grew up in the Bronx before studying English at Bryn Mawr, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and theatre at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, remembers this time of her life well. “When you start out as a scrappy theatre artist just trying to pay back your student loans, you go through several years where you’re panning for gold,” she says. “I wasn’t picky at all. Your standard for what is acceptable goes down because you have to do things just to survive.”
You can read the full interview with Maggie Siff over at TheFallMag. Photos will be up in the gallery soon.
Maggie Siff was born and raised in the Bronx by a Jewish father and an Irish mother, but always felt more “culturally Jewish.” If that sometimes resulted in typecasting, she didn’t mind. In fact, when she was called to read for the part of Peggy Olson on Mad Men, she asked to read for department store heiress Rachel Menken Katz instead. She saw such women as intelligent, strong, direct – and still sensual. Smart choice. The role brought her to L.A., and changed her life and career.
After a year on Mad Men, she landed her first major TV role on Sons of Anarchy, another show that started off with a cult fan base (albeit of a slightly different ilk) and subsequently ballooned in popularity. She described her character, Tara Knowles-Teller, as “a bridge for the audience. She represents the person with the more normative job situation and a morality that people relate to more.” But as a doctor who tries – and dramatically fails – to extricate herself from the motorcycle club world of her husband, she also became half of a rivalry that divided viewers so strongly that Siff had to stop reading fan boards for a while. Though critics agreed she was one of the best actors on the show, her character was killed off in season six (hey, you’re lucky to last six seasons in television these days).
Around the same time, film work started coming along in smaller features like Michael Clayton, Push, Concussion and a brief but philosophical turn as Rabbi Zimmerman in the acclaimed Leaves of Grass. Recently the roles have gotten more complicated and meaningful, perhaps none more so than Anna Baskin, an exhausted, workaholic 40-something actress who abruptly flees a successful but intolerably boring TV role, returning to her past life in New York to reinvent herself in the indie A Woman, A Part. The Hollywood Reporter praised her handling of the tricky role, which intrigued Siff with its parallels to her own life and some issues she understood as an actor in L.A. “There is just an ocean of roles and scripts that you’re sort of reading through that are really trite and redundant. There are a lot of tropes for women you encounter over and over again, depending on your type,” she told IndieWire. When you read something that’s actually got depth and warmth and feels real, it almost feels like a shock to the system.”
By nature or will, Siff has held onto some principles that the business can loosen one’s grip on. She stays open to opportunities that surprise and mystify her; she’s her own devil’s advocate, analyzing her choices to make sure she’s taking parts for the right reasons. And, she looks for roles that allow her to bore into who she is versus how she looks. In a Huffington Post interview, she said, “I don’t want to just play a role that is subjugated to a small corner of a romantic nook of a world…I’m just looking for interesting, complicated, unusual roles.”
She’s hit the interesting-complicated-unusual trifecta with Showtime’s Billions. How else to describe Wendy Rhoades, a psychiatrist and motivational coach for hedge fund power players by day, and wife to a U.S. Attorney General by night. She’s a woman who enjoys not only dealing with huge egos, but more often than not, holding all the cards. Siff has said she likes playing the characters that can swim with the sharks, male or female. Watching Siff navigate those waters, it also appears she’s having some fun with the dialog which The Guardian called “so fast and so smart, it makes the characters in The West Wing sound monosyllabic.”
Not surprisingly, she’s eager to do more independent film and get her hands into other areas of the process. Sounds like another smart choice. As great as she is in Billions, we have a feeling that the projects that truly match her capabilities as an artist are still in front of her. So as they say in therapy, let’s explore that.
Great news, everyone! Showtime has decided to bring ‘Billions’ back for a third season!
No word if Metallica are returning to Billions but less than a month after the second season of the big money high stakes drama debuted to large numbers, Showtime said today that the series is coming back for a Season 3.
“Billions continues to be a show on the rise, growing not only in audience, but in critical buzz and cultural relevance,” the premium cabler’s David Nevins said of the Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff and Malin Akerman led show “It offers a unique mix of pure entertainment with sly commentary on our current have/have-not economy. Season 2 is off to a tremendous start, and has only whetted our audience’s appetite for what will come in Season 3.”
With the war between Lewis’ billionaire hedge funder Bobby Axelrod and Giamatti’s increasingly desperate U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades reaching a scorched Earth pitch, that fan base appetite whettening will be a battle royale. Season 3 of the Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin created Billions is expected to debut in early 2018.
Sons Of Anarchy alum Siff plays Wendy Rhoades, the currently estranged wife of Giamatti’s character and formerly the in-house performance coach at Axelrod’s company on the show, which first debuted on January 17, 2016. Showing the same steel in the February 19 premiering Season 2 that she had in Season 1, Watchmen vet Malin Akerman portrays Lara Axelrod, Philly street-smart and as ruthless as her husband.
You can watch Billions on Sundays at 9 PM Central Time on Showtime!
Sam Jones talks to Maggie Siff from SHO’s ‘Billions’ on the next episode of Off Camera. Episode premieres Monday, March 13, 2017 at 8PM ET/PT on the Audience Network, Directv.