“…It’s almost as if there’s a Wendy Rhoades argument to be made for swapping “Counsel to the President,” with “Counselor to the President…”
With her strong brows and delicate voice, Maggie Siff looks like the tough women and alpha moguls she plays, and sounds like an ingenue. From award-nominated turns as Tara Knowles on Sons of Anarchy and Rachel Menken on Mad Men, Siff’s latest role finds her at the crossroads of the two, with a complicated relationship and a high-powered job to balance, on the battlefield between business and the law. The second season of Showtime’s Billions lines up that ethical conflict, while it seems like the “writers” for the real world rush to keep pace with the same shocking plot twists. It’s a commonality that’s not lost on Siff. “It does have a very sort of crackly entertaining qualities, even though the subject matter is quite serious. And, you know the question of the financier and the law man… It’s sort of zeitgeisty.” Her voice trails up, not quite wry.
With the drama set between a hedge fund swashbuckler and the U.S. attorney who wants to douse his schemes — Siff’s character is the anchor in the middle, employed by one and married to the other. Working as the in-house psychologist for Axe Capital, a character based part on lifestyle guru Tony Robbins, part Ari Kiev, Wendy Rhoades’ job is to mentally balance the businessmen at the top. The higher the position, the more precarious the perch. “There’s a hugely psychological component to being a trader, to dealing with huge sums of money to make decisions really quickly assessing risk. It’s kind of like gambling — what happens when you’re in the hole, how do you get out of the hole? Like, we have all of these knee jerk emotional responses to situations like that, and so you really need to understand what your habits are.”
It’s almost impossible these days not to read between the plot points, as power and its affects are on display, 24/7. “It can become deeply psychological, so there are people who help these people work their way through their habits professionally, and these high pressure situations.” Her measured tone still registers disbelief over the current high-powered businessman in a certain high-pressure job. “I remember saying to Paul Giamatti that this election really needed to be over, because we needed to put to bed all of the fears and anxiety and negativity that had been growing and growing, because it’s really dark and dangerous rhetoric that was coming out of the Trump camp. And then suddenly, he was our president.” It’s almost as if there’s a Wendy Rhoades argument to be made for swapping “Counsel to the President,” with “Counselor to the President.”
And when the polls closed, the dark and dangerous rhetoric, “Never went away. It continued to build and grow and suddenly you feel like you’re living in a different world.” The news media isn’t the only way to resist, to comment on behavior, or keep inconsistencies in the light — entertainment media is poised to talk back too. While SNL blatantly critiques, dramas like Billions can comment on the Gothic shift too. “I think it’s gonna be on everybody’s mind going forward, how to address that in the story on the air, and I think our show it is well-positioned to sort of engage some of that creatively.” The show can comment, and Siff can take action off the clock. “We’ve been pretty active, making phone calls and writing letters. It’s a complicated, difficult, moment and I think everybody is really scared. There’s just a lot of uncertainty.”
Sometimes an actor uses a device to build a character — but in uncertain times, it’s the character who can give the actor tools to survive. “I’m getting a little esoteric here, but there’s a little bit of a circular identity with Wendy and myself. One of the things that help that’s helped me play her, is the experience that I have as an actor and walking into a lot of rooms where I’m very nervous, but I need to really like keep a cover on that and stay in control, do the work, and stay focused.” It’s a little bit Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé’s alter ego, this WWWD? (What Would Wendy Do?) trick that Siff uses. “I find that now Wendy helps me do that. Where I’m like, ‘Wendy would know how to make this situation a slam dunk,’ and she can make me a little fiercer which I appreciate. What I love about her is how smart she is. She has superpowers. She has incredible powers of being able to read a situation from a lot of different angles very, very quickly. I mean all of these things makes her seem like she has a lot of control in every situation she’s in.” The finale of Season 1 has Wendy taking complete charge of her destiny and walking out on both her work and her relationship — a ballsy move from the type of strong character she often plays, even if that’s at odds with how she feels in real life. “That’s not at all how I identify myself. I sometimes get cast in parts like that and I’m not entirely sure why that is.”
As mom to a three-year-old little girl with husband Paul Ratliff, Not even home life is spared the conflict of choice, whether to be a teddy or a Grizzly? “The question that I have around being a parent and being a mother, is the urge to protect versus the urge to give a little nudge into the world.” The struggle is both small and every day, and a looming decision based on current international events. “That question is around everything, how you walk down the street, how you approach the playground, that’s on the micro level, but it’s also on the macro level for us right now. In New York, because I grew up there, because of the kind of education that I had — I went through the public school system. What I got from that was really, really feeling New York harbors the entire world and you can’t shut it out, nor would you want to. And that’s a pretty different reality than LA, which is just a much more — it’s just a much more segregated city.” Is it safer to retreat or embrace? The question zooms out another level still. “At the same time at this moment, I’m like, ‘Oh my god let’s just stay in California and hope the state secedes.” She laughs, but barely, that wan mirth you have to have for self-defense these days. “But as a citizen of the world, I feel much more inclined to go back to New York and take our chances.”
Born and raised in New York with an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, her small-and-silver screen career is second to her first love, theatre. “I think where my heart is sort of calling me, is independent film and eventually when my daughter’s a little bit older, I’ll be returning to the theater. I just want to do things that I feel passionate about where I feel the writing is at the highest level and things that are character driven.” While her Billions character is fascinated by and has empathy for the male ego, Siff is ready work in a female space. “I really feel strongly about wanting to work with women, scripts written by women, being directed by women.” The transition away from Hollywood and back to New York City theatre roots have very similar streaks in A Woman, a Part, from Director and Writer Elisabeth Subrin. It’s a project that fits her goals in an almost biographical way. “Sometimes I feel like my ambitions are very large, and sometimes I feel like they’re very small. It just sort of depends on the day and how I’m putting a frame around things.”
Whether in real life or screen life, the one certainty is that one will merge with the other. Here is the one place where the two pillars aren’t at odds. “One of the most gratifying parts of being in actor is all of the people you get to come across creatively, but also all of these characters that you get to dive into and sort of take a piece of them away with you. You hope, at least with the ones that you love, you get to keep them as friends in the back of your pocket for when you need them.”
And even the toughest people can use a few good friends.
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.
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!
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?
ML: What was your Best Bryn Mawr class ever?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
ML: There’s a measure of attention that comes when your character is named, as Tara was, the hottest woman in fiction?
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?
ML: Tell us a little bit about the new show, Billions, which you’re doing with Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis.
ML: What is it like to be a feminist and to work in the TV industry?
ML: Can you comment about the so-called golden age of television that’s going on now?