Cigar Aficionado

She's Worth Billions

She's Worth Billions
Portraits by Jim Wright
“Billions” star Maggie Siff plays some of the toughest—and smartest—characters on television

They play husband and wife on Showtime’s “Billions,” but one of the first scenes Paul Giamatti filmed with actress Maggie Siff was far from your usual get-to-know-you moment. • She towered over him in dominatrix gear, including thigh-high leather boots, as he lay trussed up and gagged at her feet. She demeaned him verbally, just before slowly grinding a glowing cigarette out on his chest. The next scene: The two of them, dressed for work and smiling, giving their kids breakfast and getting them off to school.

“Maggie was one of those people I instantly felt comfortable with,” Giamatti says with a laugh. “We had fun doing that scene. That kind of trust comes from being a decent, kind, lovely, warm person. We were both very curious about that world and talked to some people who are in it as research. That’s one of the fun extracurricular bonuses of being an actor—you get to learn about these other lives. 

“What made it comfortable is that Maggie is a great actress. There are times I watch her and I think, ‘If I could grow up and be you as an actor, that would be amazing.’ I’m amazed by how good she is.”

Sitting on a restaurant patio in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood (not far from her home in Silver Lake), Siff chuckles at a mention of that moment, the attention-grabbing first scene in the pilot for the 2016 series.

“Paul and I got through the awkwardness together,” she says. It’s clear that she approaches that particular kink in her character, psychotherapist Wendy Rhoades, quite seriously. “For Wendy, I think it’s something she allowed into the marriage because he needed it.” Siff adds with a grin: “And she ends up being good at it.”

You play to your strengths and Siff, a Bronx Science graduate, has built an increasingly noticeable career playing strong, smart women who make their mark in a world of powerful men. From “Mad Men” to “Sons of Anarchy” and now “Billions,” Siff has been at the center of some of television’s most arresting dramas for the past decade.

“There’s a pleasure in swimming with sharks,” she says.

She smiles, her green eyes offering a warmth and humor that can turn to chilly intelligence in front of a camera. In the 10 years since Siff got under Don Draper’s skin in the very first episode of “Mad Men,” she’s created a series of characters who blend brains, toughness and vulnerability in a seductive and refreshing way.

“The strength, the confidence, the intelligence, the beauty—you’re intrigued as soon as she walks on-screen,” says Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men.”

In the high-testosterone, male-ego-driven world of politics and finance depicted in “Billions,” the sharpest operator and canniest player swimming among those sharks may just be Siff as Wendy Rhoades, the woman in the middle. Like so many professional people, Wendy confronts the familiar contemporary conflict—career vs. family—with a twist: Her husband and her boss hate each other.

Actually, hate is too mild: They’re mortal enemies. 

Her boss is a hedge-fund titan, the rule-skirting Bobby Axelrod, known as “Axe,” played by Damian Lewis. His Axe Capital employs her as an in-house psychotherapist/performance coach for his team of testosterone-laden traders. But her husband is U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti), whose greater political ambitions rest on indicting Axelrod for insider trading and other financial chicanery. It’s business, but it’s also increasingly personal.

The in-fighting got increasingly brutal in the series’ second season, as Rhoades faced scrutiny that nearly cost him his job before reversing his fortunes to become a serious candidate for governor of New York. But Axelrod, who prides himself on his outlaw instincts, chafed at the effort to appear squeaky clean, even as he began to doubt Wendy’s loyalty for the first time—despite the fact that she’s separated from Chuck and going through marital counseling.

It all came to a climax in the second season’s final episodes. Axelrod bent the law in an effort to bankrupt Chuck and his father, even as Chuck committed transgressions of his own to ensnare Axelrod. The season ended with Axelrod arrested, freed on bail and facing off with Rhoades, who tells his nemesis that, no matter what the cost to himself, if he can bring Axelrod down, it will be “worth it.” 

Siff plays Wendy as the only one capable of surfing the big waves created when these two huge egos clash. Axe is her boss, but she’s also his therapist. Chuck is her husband, but their personal life also includes a bondage-and-domination element that makes him the submissive to her dominant. It’s the kind of acting challenge that Siff relishes: The push/pull within each relationship, she says, is what makes the role so interesting. 

“You don’t have to put a gun to Wendy’s head for her to choose her family over her job,” Siff says. “But I do think she’s susceptible. She’s not immune to being seduced by the world of wealth and power. It’s just that she’s a more well-rounded character, because of her intensive training. In some ways, this show is about what happens when you ignore the things that keep you connected to the world. She watches Axe and sees what happens to him when he disassociates from ‘higher values.’ That can be a deadly sacrifice. She has the capacity not to make that kind of Sophie’s choice.”

Siff came to “Billions” at a point when being a mom seemed a lot more important than being an actor. She’d finished six seasons of “Sons of Anarchy,” playing Dr. Tara Knowles, a surgeon whose career is compromised by her romantic involvement with the leader of a Bay Area biker gang. At the end of her final season Siff was pregnant, and gave birth to daughter Lucy in 2014. At that point, she felt blissfully cocooned in the baby bubble.

The script for ‘Billions’ called to me; it woke me up to want to do it. It felt like a gift.

“Having a family changed some of my fixation on my career and naturally shifted my priorities,” Siff, 42, says. “After I had my child, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to leave her. All that artifice of putting on costumes and make-up felt very far away. I was so hunkered down with my daughter in the act of nesting and turning inward—I couldn’t imagine leaving the house and spending time away from her.”

It was “Billions” that brought her back to acting. “The script for ‘Billions’ was the first one I read that got my juices going, that I felt myself interested in. It called to me; it woke me up to want to do it. It felt like a gift, something that made me feel that excited.”

Executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, cocreators of the Showtime series with Andrew Ross Sorkin, were equally excited when Siff decided to audition. They had struggled to cast the role of Wendy, trying out nearly 100 actresses without finding one “who seemed to nail it,” Koppelman says.

“We were looking at casting tapes on a Sunday night, each of us at home, and here was this tape of Maggie, sitting in a chair in her living room, saying the words of a scene where she’s giving a pep talk to a trader,” Koppelman recalls. “There was an intelligence in her eyes, an incredible amount of empathy, and this clear understanding of every nuance and human shading and thought that the character had. It was one of the most compelling auditions I’d ever seen. I called David and said, ‘Are you watching Maggie Siff?’ And he was.”

“It was the most obvious thing in the world,” says Levien. “We had read so many people for the role, and she was obviously the only one for the part.”

Giamatti agrees. “On the page initially, the character seemed liked she’d be steely. But Maggie brought more warmth and humanity to it. She made it an even more complicated character. Wendy moves between those worlds, studying power.”

Though “Billions” seems like a straightforward power struggle between two men on a collision course, the character of Wendy shifts the balance of power dramatically, sometimes to herself. Better than either of them, Wendy, a psychotherapist, knows what makes these two rivals tick.

“I’m a quiet, introverted person naturally,” Siff says. “I’m introspective, thinking about people’s motives. If I wasn’t an actor, I might be a therapist. But Wendy is a lot smarter than I am. All of these characters are incredibly competitive and interested in being king—or queen—of their realm. There’s this fixation on mastery. 

“Wendy is really comfortable with the male ego structure. She understands it, she enjoys it, she appreciates the fierce competitive nature of the work environment, of her husband and her boss. Wendy, like Rachel Menken [her “Mad Men” character], relishes her role. She’s unafraid to stand up in a man’s world,” says Siff. “Wendy is just fucking good at her job, at doing the work and living the life. She doesn’t feel guilt; she doesn’t have to apologize for throwing elbows. She’s graceful.”

“We joke that everybody talks about this as a male, testosterone-driven show,” says Levien, “But we knew the secret—that Wendy would win the first season.”

“That’s what’s so fun about the show, the power switches off between them,” Koppelman says. “Sure, with Axe and Wendy, one of them is the boss. But, in any given moment, anyone can take the power, depending on who needs what from whom. She’s able to read people and understands all the levers there are, how they move. Essentially, who’s zooming who.”

That type of situation is one Siff relishes. “I do enjoy playing characters who can stand up in those supercharged worlds and be heard. Wendy is a change-agent for herself and the people around her. Everybody has blinders on about themselves, but her gift is to see through other people’s facades. She’s a great manipulator, and she mostly uses it for good.”

The show “Billions” pits the Axelrod family, left, played by Malin Akerman and Damian Lewis, in a battle over money and loyalty with the family Rhoades, portrayed by Maggie Siff and Paul Giamatti.
The show “Billions” pits the Axelrod family, left, played by Malin Akerman and Damian Lewis, in a battle over money and loyalty with the family Rhoades, portrayed by Maggie Siff and Paul Giamatti.

Wendy Rhoades is one in a decade-long series of TV characters with whom Siff has made her mark. From her breakthrough as department-store heiress Rachel Menken on “Mad Men” in 2007 to Tara Knowles on “Sons of Anarchy” (2008–13) and now with “Billions,” she’s played astute, perceptive women, which means they were casting to type. Siff, after all, was canny enough to follow her mother’s advice and attend Bronx High School of Science, instead of the High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan.

“Really, my mother made me go there. I actually got into both Science and Performing Arts,” Siff recalls. “But my mother pushed me in the direction of Science High. She said, ‘Get the best education you can get.’ I felt like there would be time to do acting and theater after high school. As a kid, I cared most about being smart and doing well.

“Some part of me knew that from the time I was a kid. So, in high school, I participated in speech and debate. I did dramatic interpretation and rode the bus to the tournaments with all the policy nerds who were debating. But I was also acting; Regis High School was this all-boys school in Manhattan and I got recruited to take the subway into Manhattan to play women in their plays.

“I probably should have started this whole process of an acting career when I was a lot younger. But I wasn’t thinking ahead about how that was going to happen, or what I wanted my career to look like. When I would think about the future, all I could see was a big gray wall. I thought, well, shouldn’t I be able to see something more? I cared about my education and I liked school. So I prioritized that.”

Siff went to Bryn Mawr College, which led to work with professional theater companies in Philadelphia, where she acted during college and for five years after she graduated. 

“I was working a lot, but I had this constant feeling of self-criticism. I was really hard on myself,” she says. “I wasn’t growing in the way I wanted. I was doing a lot of avant-garde, site-specific work and, if that’s what you want to do, Philadelphia was a great place.

“But I felt called to explore characters and felt like I needed formal training. So I applied to NYU for graduate school and got in. And by the time I got out, I was 30. You could say I came to Hollywood late, but those three years at NYU gave me a chance to regain the sense of what makes me want to act. It restored my faith and conviction in the craft. It grew me in a way that was incredibly helpful, in terms of sustaining a career over time. It was a way of learning to trust your own instincts and get out of your own way.” 

As she talks about working in New York theater, the subject of cigars arises, because one of her favorite directors, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, used to use rehearsal breaks to enjoy fine tobacco.

“He’d run outside to smoke his cigar, then stash the butt for the next break,” she recalls with a laugh. “He had a special spot where he’d stash his cigars and you always knew you’d find him there.

“Actually, he’s one of three guys I’ve worked with who are great smokers. Beside Oskar, there was Ron Perlman and Peter Weller… All of these men are very outsized characters, with charismatic, smart, very big personalities. They’re people who are unashamed to smoke a cigar in public. The cigars felt like an extension of the joie de vivre they all possess. It’s kind of a trope: this very old-boy, rarefied men’s club. For these guys, it’s definitely an extension of a certain kind of machismo.”

After grad school, Siff did plays in Chicago, then took aim at Hollywood and, after two years of TV guest spots (including a couple of three-episode arcs on “Nip/Tuck” and “Life on Mars”), she got a call from a casting agent to read for the pilot of a new series: “Mad Men.” 

“I thought it was brilliant when I read it,” she recalls. “I’d been auditioning all winter for pilot season. The year before, I’d tested for a bunch of pilots and didn’t even get a nibble. It was the last script I read for the pilot season. And I stuck my claws out for this one.

Maggie Siff.

“Originally, I was supposed to read for the character of Peggy Olson [which went to Elisabeth Moss], but my manager said, ‘I don’t think you’re Peggy. You’re Rachel.’ So that’s what I read for. They kept calling me back. Matt [Weiner] had so much specificity about who the characters were and who to cast. I wound up reading for him five times. Every time I went in, I’d think, ‘This is mine,’ and then I wouldn’t get it. My manager and agent were trying to prepare me, saying, ‘They’re probably going to go another way,’ but I wasn’t giving up. It happens so rarely where you’re really convinced that something is coming to you.”

“I wanted someone who had that slight New York vibe,” Weiner remembers. “I wanted a little bit of a city edge, but also an assimilated quality. And then we found Maggie—she was so beautiful and she did it so many different ways.”

More important, her Rachel Menken clicked with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, in a subplot of marital infidelity and romance that became a central conflict of the first season of “Mad Men.”

“There was incredible romantic chemistry,” Weiner notes. “You can’t plan for it but it really did happen in this case. There was a tinge of vulnerability under her strength that made her seem susceptible to Don. I loved her dry sense of humor. She has an elegance that comes from education, but there’s also a toughness. She’s so strong, but she’s also really feminine. She’s a real person, not someone who’s putting on a front. There’s something amazing about someone who can convincingly let a character’s intelligence come through. And there’s a conflict when that person makes a bad decision—about Don, for example—that’s really dramatic.”

It was a year between shooting the pilot and the series going on the air, and then, Siff wasn’t sure if the show had a future.

“It was like an art project,” Siff says. “In fact, I remember an AMC executive using that term: that the show was like an art project, that it would give the network credibility even if nobody watched it. Nobody had any idea it would do what it did.”  The show went on for seven seasons, and won a host of Emmys, Golden Globe and SAG awards. 

Siff’s character was written out after the first season of “Mad Men,” but she segued directly to “Sons of Anarchy.” She spent six seasons playing Dr. Tara Knowles in the series about a motorcycle gang that was sometimes described as “Hamlet on Harleys.” Among other things, she got to ride on the back of several motorcycles and acted out a brutally violent final scene in a fight with Katey Sagal.

“Every character in that show was in a constant state of managing their PTSD,” says Siff. “I did a lot of things on that show that I’d never done before; the thing that was so breath-taking was the violence. Whenever I had one of those scenes and I’d come home covered in fake blood or I’d killed someone, I’d think, ‘I can’t believe this is my job.’ ”

“She’s a great, great girl who hasn’t been affected by all the Hollywood rah-rah,” Sagal says. “She’s very down-to-earth and sincere. She comes from a theater background, so she upped my game. You want to work with actors who are better than you—and she was very good at what she does.”

Tara’s murder provides an emotional climax to the sixth season of “Sons.” She was killed in a particularly gruesome scene: smashed in the head with an iron, then drowned in a sink of ice water while Sagal’s character also stabbed her repeatedly in the back with a carving fork.

“That was kind of traumatic,” Siff recalls with a laugh. “This was not an ordinary death. On one level, I was glad it was so spectacular because it means you meant something to the show. It was kind of surreal, because we had stunt doubles; Katey and I were taught the fight and we would jump in and out for close-ups. But you’re also watching your double enact it at full-speed. It’s a long, bloody process. My mother and sister couldn’t watch that episode.

“It’s intense to live with those characters for that many years and then have to say goodbye. On a practical level, you’re cold and wet and covered in fake blood, and that goes on all day. Then for the two days afterward, I had to lie on the floor as a dead body and watch the rest of the characters deal with my death. I still have ‘Sons of Anarchy’ dreams. It lodges in your psyche. It doesn’t die.”

I need to work for my well-being. Every job has to call to me in a deep way to feel we'll all be served.

Sitting on the patio in Los Angeles, Siff is in a rare quiet moment. She will shoot an independent film in Kentucky before returning to shoot Season 3 of “Billions” after Labor Day. In between is family vacation and spending time with her husband, design consultant Paul Ratliff, and their daughter, Lucy. Siff and Ratliff have been married since 2012, and their child turned three in April. 

For the moment, Siff’s schedule accommodates her needs as a mother. She hopes to work theater back into the mix, and she realizes that acting is important not only for her, but for her daughter as well. 

“I need to work for my well-being, as well as hers,” she says. “If I’m not really digging in to express myself in that way, I start feeling a little crazy and that’s not good for her. So I’m trying to find the balance. The calculus is more complicated than it used to be, when my romantic relationship and my career filled up my time. That was easier math to do than being a good mom who’s really present. 

“This year I said no to things that I’d have said yes to before I had a child. At this point, every job has to call to me in a deep way to feel we’ll all be served. And I don’t regret that for a moment.” 

Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, NY.