Maggie Siff has a knack for choosing TV scripts.
For more than a decade, the actress has been best known for her roles on television — from ‘Mad Men’ to ‘Sons of Anarchy’. But her most recent silver screen success has been embodying the intricate skin of Wendy Rhoades on the crime drama ‘Billions’, now streaming its fifth season on StarzPlay in the Middle East.
Driven, unflappable and multifaceted, Wendy is a trained psychiatrist with a sharp eye for human behaviour. She aids the charitable but ruthless self-made billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) build his hedge fund, and plays a key role in his company, Axe Capital, as an in-house performance coach. Behind closed doors, she leads a risque private life with her sadomasochistic husband Chuck Rhoades — a US attorney fighting corruption and, naturally, Axelrod’s natural nemesis — but this season, their marriage is skating on thin ice.
For Siff, it’s been a wild journey portraying the character since the show’s initial premiere on Showtime in 2016. What was her way into this particular role?
“I loved how sharp AND empathetic she was,” writes Siff in an email to Gulf News, which she sends from the northeast of America. “I’m in the state of Maine, near my family,” she says; the production of ‘Billions’ is currently on hold with only seven episodes available to fans, due to coronavirus restrictions.
All those years ago, Siff says, it was the duality of Wendy that pulled her in.
“I really enjoy characters who embody oppositional qualities — the fact that she can be a shark around certain people, and wholly receptive and soft around others. This was what drew me and intrigued me about her,” says the actress.
The most surprising part of her ‘Billions’ journey so far, however, was the way in which Wendy, one of the more likeable characters on the series, could be swayed into amorality.
“I’ve enjoyed the way the character has been corruptible,” explains Siff. “No one is immune to the seduction of power; no one is free from their ego and its dubious control over one’s better moral instincts. She has been in a power struggle with her own demons and you really see her trying to regain moral ground when she loses it.”
Has it been fun for Siff, as an actress, to enter into that morally grey area as the show develops?
Siff responds with a resounding: “Yes!”
In an industry that has proven itself to be far more sympathetic towards men playing dirty on screen, here is a female character who can get blood on her hands, rather than live up to pristine and outdated expectations.
“I’ve always thought women have a harder time being allowed to inhabit that kind of terrain,” says Siff. “For a long time, women have been expected to be the moral centre — beautiful, kind, virtuous. That’s changing in the world of entertainment, but I have enjoyed seeing her fall into grey areas and seeing her deep conscience try to grapple with it.”
DIGGING UP A GOLD MINE
Siff, who celebrates her 46th birthday in a few days (June 21), began her Hollywood career on the small screen.
Her first credited role was ‘Mother’ in 1998 on ‘Sunset Beach’, followed by a guest spot on the crime series ‘Third Watch’ in 2004. She also appeared on ‘Rescue Me’, ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’, ‘3 lbs’, and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ before she had her first small film role in 2007’s ‘Michael Clayton’, starring George Clooney.
But Siff’s breakthrough moment on TV was in the hugely successful period drama ‘Mad Men’, where she played main character Rachel Menken starting in 2007.
A year later, she appeared in ‘Sons of Anarchy’, a crime thriller about an outlaw motorcycle club, as Tara Knowles, a role that earned her two Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. Both ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’ ran for seven seasons, and ‘Billions’ is now in its fifth.
What’s Siff’s secret to choosing scripts that resonate with audiences?
“I haven’t really ‘done’ anything beyond try to follow my instinct about roles I like,” admits Siff. “But I do think I’ve been interested in all of the projects because I hadn’t seen the worlds depicted on television before.”
THE STORY CONTINUES
In season five of ‘Billions’, the rivalry between Siff’s on-screen boss and her husband continues. But Wendy forms surprising new alliances that will test her relationship to both men. For fans and critics alike, Wendy has undergone a satisfying arc over the years and has the character growth to show for it.
Ask Siff why fans have stuck around for so long with ‘Billions’, and she points to a clear answer.
“I think people like to see people who are living large lives that look nothing like their own. It’s a particular form of fantasy and escapism,” says the actress.
But, while fans will probably need more escapism than ever in today’s world of quarantine, uncertainty and unrest — there’s only a portion of the season that they will be able to access. Due to COVID-19 and social distancing measures, production on ‘Billions’ had to be stopped temporarily.
The tagline for season one of the series was: ‘Trust no one.’ So, what would the tagline for the latest season be, if Siff had to write it herself?
“‘Wait for It’, because audiences will have to,” she says. “We’ve shot and will air seven episodes but won’t be able to complete the season until it’s safe to go back to work.”
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'Billions' streams on StarzPlay in the UAE