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.