Interviews « Maggie Siff Web | Your Newest Fansite for Maggie Siff
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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.

You can purchase the magazine with exclusive photos of Maggie here, you can watch a preview of the episode here and a link to the podcast on iTunes will be available soon.


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.


Check out the first look at season two of #Billions, premiering on Sunday, Feb. 19th at 10 pm ET/PT!


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Back on August 7th 2016, Maggie Siff and Paul Giamatti attended Wave Hill, in the historic Armor Hall, to record a live taping for the podcast, hosted by Randy Cohen, ‘Person, Place, Thing’. Each broadcast focuses on one person, one place and one thing that are important to the show’s guests.

Since then, a copy of their episode taping has been edited and released and is now available on Itunes for a free download.


Today, you might know her as Rachel from Mad Men, Tara from Sons of Anarchy, and most recently Wendy Rhoades from Billions.

At Bryn Mawr, she was Alice in Wonderland, Medea in a modern retelling of the tale, Masha in Three Sisters; Ophelia in Hamlet.

Maggie Siff ’96 got her start on stage at Goodhart Theater under the direction of Mark Lord, chair of the College’s theater department. After graduating, she made a name for herself on the Philadelphia theater scene—in 1998 she won a Barrymore for her performance in Ibsen’s Ghosts—and soon moved to New York for the MFA program at New York University.

ML: How would you describe yourself when you came to Bryn Mawr?

MS: I always knew that I was going to be an actor, but I came from a pretty academic and artistic family. So education really mattered to me. I was an English major, and I was really interested in acting. I describe my time here as floating between these islands of English House and Goodhart. My English professor and mentor, Joe Kramer, was a great lover of Shakespeare and literature. He came to every show and just loved the way you were looking at narrative and deconstructing it and the imaginative explosions that were happening here. I found a pretty comfortable rhythm between my learning and my scholarship and the work we were doing. It was a rich collaboration between the two places and departments—a cross pollination of ideas and literature and plays and drama and narrative.

ML: What was your Best Bryn Mawr class ever?

MS: Every class I took with Joe Kramer was amazing, but I’m thinking about Sandra Berwind’s class on Ulysses, which was the one class that I took on just one book. To work your way through just one book that methodically—to look at one text in depth and break it down and realize that each chapter is a universe unto itself—was probably my most exciting adventure in literature while I was here.

ML: Right after you graduated, you spent the summer at Eastern State Penitentiary making this crazy, huge production with Hiroshi and me and several of your classmates. What was it like to graduate one day and then start rehearsal not too many days after that?

MS: It was an amazing transition, just out of school, to be working professionally and living in the city. We were working on these Beckett texts called Texts for Nothing at Eastern State Penitentiary. If anybody knows this, it’s a historic landmark, a very famous panopticon prison in an amazing state of decay when we were working there. There was a watchtower in the distance, and somebody was playing violin up there, and we were inhabiting the cells, and the audience could walk through and peek into them and see us speaking these Beckett texts. And then we put the audience in the cells, and we would move by the cells. It was a crazy, immersive, beautiful production.

From there, I started working in the city in different theater houses. It was the beginning of a time in Philadelphia of beautiful collaboration between actors and dancers and of cross-pollination between people coming out of Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore and Haverford—Pig Iron Theatre Company and Headlong Dance Theater.

ML: When you decided to go to NYU, it was so clear that there was a path for you into this career. But you paused, and I remember we had a conversation where you said, “I just really want to think this through because I don’t know that I want to go down this path.” Can you talk about what that pause was like?

MS: When you’re an artist in this country, you have to decide what you want to pursue and what your values are because there’s not a lot of compensation unless you get lucky and find some commercial success. But there’s no guarantee.

I was a theater actor living in Philadelphia, and it was a great community, and I could see my life playing out here. But the pause was, “What kind of actor am I? What kind of performer am I? Am I somebody who wants to make my own work, in which case, I should stay right where I am because there’s no better community for doing that? Or am I a different kind of actor? Am I a more interpretative actor?”

And I was really an interpretative actor, I really cared about inhabiting roles and telling stories. And I didn’t feel that the city was going to suit my needs. I wanted to develop myself more as an actor.

I worked with a teacher in New York, Ron Van Lieu, who runs the Yale drama department now. With him, I discovered a different way of working, and I knew that he would be able to help me become the kind of actor that I wanted to become; and he was the person that I got to study with at NYU.

And so, going to NYU, I followed this person, which is how I have made a lot of my decisions. “You! I’ll follow you! I want some of that!”

ML: Did you feel the kind of thoughtful approach to doing theater that you had here, going back and forth between English House and Goodhart, made you different than a lot of the folks in that MFA program?

MS: I think of actors as being either hard-brain or soft-brain actors. There was a contingent of us who came from really great liberal arts colleges who thought really critically, and then there was a contingent who were more intuitive and maybe not educated in the same way. The soft-brain actors were great at clowning and improvising and dreaming up sort of crazy things. But the hard-brain actors tended to be better at reading plays and breaking things down and making choices.

One thing that was nice about the education was there was this mash-up between people. In general, I was more considered—I’m a more cerebral person—and in some ways, my time in graduate school was undoing a lot of what I had done here, trying to break into a less considered place, a more intuitive place.

ML: According to the internet, your career just begins: Bryn Mawr, NYU, Mad Men. But I know that there were a lot of projects between graduate school and Mad Men.

MS: I was working as a theater artist for 10 years before Mad Men happened. The big turning point was a production in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre of a contemporary adaptation of Doll’s House, and I was playing Nora. If you’re playing Nora, you are running a marathon every night. I’d never really carried a play before and in such a big arena with a fancy director. It was very high-stakes as an actor. In any field, as you take the next step, you think, I don’t know if I can do that. Then you just step up and do it. It was a big turning point for me because I then knew I had the muscles and the strength and the fortitude and the skill to do more than I thought I could do up until that point.

ML: Okay, Mad Men. The part that you played was maybe the only foil for Jon Hamm’s character, his only equal in the whole series. What it was like to come into that environment and play this woman who’s that high-status?

MS: I was in New York, and I was auditioning for a lot of really, really stupid television things because that was how I was going to pay back my student loans. I didn’t get any of the stupid jobs, but I got that script; and I said, “I love this.” I read that character, and “I love her.” Then I started auditioning, and they made me come in five times! Every time, I knew, “This part is mine.” You don’t get that feeling a lot as an actor.

One of the reasons why I had that kind of confidence was because it was an art project. Nobody thought it was going to be anything other than an obscure art project that AMC was creating. And so I think I felt comfortable. I felt confident and familiar with it.

And the show was incredibly fun to make. Matt Weiner, the creator, was in everything down to how the prop people were wrapping the sandwiches. He is an auteur, a real artist. And we got to wear these amazing clothes, but everybody thought we were going to be in LA for six months and make a season and nobody would ever see it. I was thrilled! “It’s my first big TV job, but it’s so small! This is perfect! The perfect place to grow.”

ML: When you moved on to Sons of Anarchy, your character is at the center of the drama. Is there a different approach with a character like that?

MS: That was another show where I didn’t assume that it would run as long as it did. I assumed that it was a subculture biker drama that would fall off fast. As an actor, it’s hard to commit yourself to something for years and years on end because you want to keep doing new things that keep you growing.

I really enjoyed my time working on that show. It was a fascinating investigation of a part of our culture and something that I would never have had exposure to otherwise. I was a very unlikely candidate for the show. I remember walking into the first read-through and thinking, “One of these things is not like the others.” And after about three seasons, I was thinking, “I don’t know.” But then the creator sat down with me and told me what was going to happen to the character, and I thought, “Now, I see the path. I can do this for another few years.” When you do something for a long period of time, the character has to keep reinventing herself to be interesting.

ML: There’s a measure of attention that comes when your character is named, as Tara was, the hottest woman in fiction?

MS: Who said that?

ML: The Internet! So I know it’s true! Things change about your life and your ability to walk down the street, and I wonder what’s that like for you?

MS: I almost never wear makeup, and I don’t dress up, and people don’t recognize me a lot. I get spotted a little bit here and there, but I’m a shy person, so initially it was hard. But as time has worn on, I’ve learned to negotiate that, and people are respectful and friendly.

ML: Tell us a little bit about the new show, Billions, which you’re doing with Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis.

MS: Well, after I had a child, I didn’t want to work for a while. She was about a year old when I read the pilot script, and it was really, really smart, and Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti were attached to it, and they’re people that I really admired as actors.

And the role was interesting to me because usually female supporting characters are consigned to one realm or another. They’re somebody in the office, or they’re somebody at home. It’s rare that you see them in multiple realms, and she had her finger in every pie. And I got really excited about that.

And it was an ensemble show, so I knew it would probably work well with having a family, that I wouldn’t have to work 18 hour days every day of the week but that, when I was at work, I would be doing good work with great people. So I wanted to be a part of it.

The show is good fun. It’s good entertainment, and along the way, it starts to ask some interesting questions about the world of finance and people who are super wealthy or super ambitious.

ML: What is it like to be a feminist and to work in the TV industry?

MS: It’s complicated! The industry really suffers from a lack of women in the really important roles—writer, director, cinematographer, editor, really down the line. In fact, the EEOC is investigating the industry because of its hiring practices, not just with women but with minorities as well. But you get used to it. So reading a script where there’s a female supporting character who is in all of these different pieces of the story—it isn’t until you see that and feel how unusual it is that you think, That shouldn’t feel so new and unusual to me!

For myself, I have found that I only get jobs that my heart is really invested in. So there’ll be a job that’s a good job on paper, but some small part of me has a little bit of judgment: “They’re not smart enough,” or, “Oh, this is the bitchy best friend.” It falls into some stupid trope that you see over and over again of women, and I just can’t summon myself to get those roles. Sometimes I’ve wanted them because I need to pay a bill or it would be good on my résumé to work with that person, but the deeper part of me can’t actually bring myself to do it. I have a lot of subconscious internal mechanisms that I probably have Bryn Mawr and a good upbringing to thank for.

I have struggled with doing certain things where I wonder, How do I feel about this? And sometimes I think, Well, if I can just bring a little bit of intelligence to this or a little bit of my own values to this little corner of this story, then maybe I’ll do a little bit of good. Sometimes my goals feel very modest, and sometimes they feel a little bit bigger.

But it’s tricky. It’s getting a little bit better, and I think there are more interesting roles for women, more roles in television for women and more different kinds of people.

ML: Can you comment about the so-called golden age of television that’s going on now?

MS: I feel lucky. Mad Men took me, picked me up and plunked me down into it. So I’m fortunate. I know so many brilliant actors who haven’t been able to make that journey. A long time ago, there was a studio system, and there were tons and tons and tons of movies and cinema being made, and actors were circulated around. In a way, television has replaced that. There aren’t a lot of movies being made, and if they are being made, they’re action hero movies. That’s one of the big ways that the industry has changed. There’s a very small independent film world, but it’s small, and it’s shrinking and shrinking.

I heard somebody once say, “Well, this is the age of artisanal television.” And it’s true. You don’t need 20 million people to watch a show for the show to be a hit. A million people can watch a show and have it be a hit on a smaller, more specifically targeted cable channel. It’s made what’s being made that much more varied, and there’s so much more of it, and so much more choice now.

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