by Moonah Ellison
Photography: Dennis Leupold
“…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.
photography by Dennis Leupold
stylist Katie Bofshever
hair Joe Ruggiero
makeup Jo Stressel
location The Redbury Hollywood