‘Billions’ Maggie Siff on Love and S&M

Actress Maggie Siff breaks down her S&M scenes with Paul Giamatti and explains why Americans love billionaires like Donald Trump.

James Minchin/Showtime

Maggie Siff just finished up her last bit of work on the first season of Showtime’s new series Billions. Shooting ended a while back, but the actress has spent the day looping audio, a process that includes what she calls the “ridiculous” task of replacing curse words with nonsense for possible syndication down the road. “You have say things like ‘motherflopping’ and ‘crud,’” she tells The Daily Beast, laughing.

Those are words that would never come out of her character’s mouth. On Billions, which premiered last month, Siff plays Wendy Rhoades, wife of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and in-house therapist for hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). A woman caught between two male-dominated worlds, Wendy is adept at manipulating the leaders of these two warring factions. And she makes her dominance known from the start: In the opening scene of the pilot she puts out a cigarette on her husband’s chest and then urinates on him.

After spending the early part of her career in theater, it was the rise of the cable television drama that helped propel Siff into the public eye. Her breakthrough role was as Jewish department store scion and early Don Draper love interest Rachel Menken on the first season of Mad Men. From there she spent six seasons as Dr. Tara Knowles on FX’s Sons of Anarchy—ending with a particularly violent incident involving a large carving fork—before landing one of the main roles on Billions.

Siff talked to The Daily Beast about how TV has given her opportunities that are few and far between for women in the film world and gives us a taste of what’s to come in the second half of Billions’ inaugural season.

This is quite a role you’re playing on Billions. Can you talk about your first impressions of Wendy Rhoades when you read the pilot script?

I was really excited by it. It’s rare to read such a multi-dimensional character in a pilot. Usually a really interesting character can kind of accumulate over time, but she was really fascinating right out of the gate. The marriage was really interesting, the conflict of interest, the fact that she is part of the main action at the workplace. Especially in supporting female roles, you’re usually confined to just one realm so I was just really excited by all the spaces that she got to inhabit.

In an upcoming episode, Wendy says of the two men in her life, “I am not going to be the shuttlecock that you two smack back and forth.” That seems to really represent the situation that she’s in.

Right. And I really like the way that they set up the conflict of interest in that Chuck is a zealot, he’s really, really good at his job and he has this passion for going after guys like this. And yet, Wendy is in the middle of this, but it’s never explicit that she’s somehow fueling this tension. But in that one line, you understand that they are all operating on conscious and unconscious levels.

In some ways, Wendy is a surrogate for the audience because she gives us a window into both sides of the central conflict. Do you find that in doing scenes with Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis your sympathies shift back and forth?

Well, I never really think of it in terms of allegiance, or how an audience will perceive it. I think that the way Brian [Koppelman] and Dave [Levien], our showrunners, have written her and written the relationships. They’re just very honest and they’re very deep and they have folded into them a lot of history that feels authentic.

We should probably talk about the S&M scenes that have gotten a lot of attention. What was your experience shooting those with Paul Giamatti?

[Laughs] I love him so much as a human being. And we bonded very quickly, because we had to shoot those scenes without knowing each other particularly well. But, to his credit, I never felt uncomfortable or disrespected. We just kind of laughed our way through it. He’s so humble and immediately disarming. I think what’s kind of great about those scenes is that what he’s being asked to do is challenging in one way, because he’s in the submissive, humiliated position. And I’m in the sort of dominant position, but I’m always dressed in these ridiculous clothes. We’re both sort of struggling with our own anxieties and insecurities and they’re both pretty different. I think we kind of help each other along. But it’s always a weird thing when you just met somebody and you’re like, “Now I’m going to pee on you and put a cigarette out on your chest.”

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What do you think that aspect of their relationship tells us about the characters?

I think it says a lot of things that we’re still trying to unpack and explore. But personally, one thing I think it says about them is they have a very healthy marriage. Because somewhere along the line, this need made itself known and the marriage then made room for it. And I think that’s pretty extraordinary. One thing that I loved about the pilot is that at the top of the show you think you’re seeing one thing—you think you’re seeing the all-powerful politician who’s being unfaithful, naughty, salacious, doing something outside of the marriage. It’s a story we know, it’s a trope we understand. And then you learn that it’s actually within the contract of this marriage. And I think that’s actually really healthy and an interesting component of their relationship. In some ways, they’re real equals, even though there is this submissive/dominant thing. They really know each other and they really need each other and they have a really uncensored, unfiltered way of dealing with each other. It’s really fun to explore that with a great actor like Paul.

With Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy and now Billions you’re best known for your work on TV. Do you prefer to work in television or have you found that there are just juicier roles there that you’re being offered?

You know, I definitely like the medium. I have come to really love the form, which in my case, in all of those jobs, it’s a cable schedule. It’s 13 episodes, it’s really high quality writing and acting and producing. To me, it feels like we’re making an hour-long movie every week. And the roles that I’ve had a chance to play have been really exciting to me. I feel like I’ve ridden a little bit of a wave with cable television blossoming and I feel fortunate. But I also love the schedule because it’s half the year and in the other half of my year I’ve gotten to do a lot of theater, which is my first love and where I come from, and some independent film, which has been very rewarding as well.

It definitely seems as though the opportunities for both women actors and actors of color on TV have outpaced what we’re seeing in film. Is that something that you have experienced personally?

It’s hard for me to answer that. My body of work in film is a lot less than my body of work in television. And I think that the film industry has been shrinking and I think that roles for women and minorities—I think there’s more out there [on television] but I don’t think there’s nearly enough. And I think that that’s about who’s being given the opportunity behind the camera and whose scripts are being produced. I think it’s a problem up and down the chain. And I think that for myself, I came to Hollywood pretty late in my career and I think that that has, in some ways, curtailed what I could do in more commercial films.

There was some well-documented fan backlash to your character on Sons of Anarchy. What was that like and do you foresee any of the same on Billions?

I’m not on social media, so I’m purposely not privy to a certain amount of the fan chatter. Although, I was certainly aware of it on Sons of Anarchy. But in terms of Wendy and Billions, so far I think that people are interested and excited by her. Sons of Anarchy really appealed to the tribal aspect of people’s natures so I found it kind of hilarious. [Co-star] Katey Sagal would go to these conventions where people ask you to sign pictures. And after Season Six, people were coming up to her with carving forks and asking her to sign them. And I just found that unbelievably funny. I didn’t take it very personally.

Between Billions and The Big Short and the success of Bernie Sanders, there seems to be a resurgence in pop culture of stories about the financial system. Why do you think that is?

I just think there’s a lot of increased scrutiny of the world, as there should be, in the fallout of 2008 and the financial collapse. So I think people are maybe recovered enough that they can listen to the stories in a fictional context. There is perhaps just enough distance that people are ready to take it in in these forms and digest it and think about it. And maybe be entertained along the way, maybe be provoked. But I think that the whole world is thinking about it. It’s on our minds so it makes sense that it’s in the culture.

Meanwhile, we have a brash billionaire leading the Republican race for president. Has working on this show given you any insight into what a President Trump would mean for the country?

I don’t think working on this show has refreshed or invigorated my opinions about it. I think he speaks for himself.

On the show, Damian’s character does give us this look into the mind of a billionaire, this rare, exotic breed. What is it about that character that you think is so compelling for people?

Well, I guess it does relate a little bit to the question of Donald Trump. I think somebody who has that much money assumes a certain amount of power in the world. And the waters part for him. [Bobby Axelrod] does exactly what he wants to do and meetings start when he shows up and he flies to Quebec to see Metallica because he can and he’s got his private jet. That kind of freedom is the thing that is so bizarre and interesting to watch. And I think one of the things that this show does well is show that he is constricted psychically and emotionally. So you have this duality of someone who seemingly has carte blanche and is suffering under the weight of his own mind and heart. Because at the end of the day he’s human. And even Donald Trump is a human being.

We’re just about approaching the halfway point of the first season. Anything you can tease about what’s to come?

There’s a climax halfway through the season and then there’s a kind of a reboot for the second half. And I think that structurally that’s really interesting. You only ever see Chuck and Axe meet a few times. And I think the creators have done a brilliant job spacing that out and letting the audience wait for it and build up to it. So I think one thing you can expect is that there will one or two more incredibly exciting encounters between those two actors.