Interviews

Getting To Know Maggie Siff Of Billions

Dress by J. Mendel.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

Thanks to her talent, ferocity, beauty, and brains, Billions' Maggie Siff is no garden-variety star.


By Chip Brown

The day will pretty much take care of itself if Maggie Siff can just get out of bed.

Hers is a large bed in a modest apartment not far from Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Her difficulty has nothing to do with the usual problems that make it hard for people to get out of bed, like the pointlessness of life or a dull job. It's really just a question of excessive togetherness, which sometime during the night will have turned the mattress into the cabin room scene from A Night at the Opera or, closer to home, a rush hour subway car on the F train.

Maggie Siff in a royal blue gown embellished with a floral pattern.

Dress by Pamella Roland. Ring by Yaya. Earrings by Jennifer Fisher.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

On one side is Siff's husband, Paul Ratliff, a psychotherapist. Insinuated between them is their 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, who will have wandered in from a bed of her own. Flanking Siff so that it's almost impossible for her to roll over will be their shaggy 80-pound Labradoodle, Augie, who has soulful eyes and a face that resembles an Old Testament prophet's. And finally, snugging up the works like an extra layer of bubble wrap, is Iris the cat.

"When I wake up, I can hardly move," says Siff.

Maggie Siff in a royal blue gown embellished with a floral pattern.

Dress by Pamella Roland. Ring by Yaya. Earrings by Jennifer Fisher.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

It's hard to imagine that the insightful, soft-spoken 44-year-old actress who starts her mornings immobilized in bedded family bliss is the same woman who has made a television career as what she herself once called "the queen of toxic masculinity." Siff plays in-house corporate therapist Wendy Rhoades, the ballsy female lead of the SHOWTIME series Billions, now about to begin its fifth season.

By day she slaps the alpha back into alpha hedge fund traders for her cocksure, corner-cutting billionaire boss, Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). By night she is a sometime in-house dominatrix indulging the S&M fantasies of her bulldog husband, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a crusading U.S. Attorney and Axelrod's arch adversary. In the pilot episode four years ago, Maggie Siff, in thigh-high stiletto boots (and advised on set by a bondage and discipline "consultant"), was called upon to dispense some "correction" by putting a cigarette out on her trussed-up husband's chest and then anointing the burn with a fresh stream of urine.

Maggie Siff in a royal blue gown embellished with a floral pattern.

Dress by Pamella Roland. Ring by Yaya. Earrings by Jennifer Fisher.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

All in a day's work.

"I'm a lot more controlled as a person than I am as an actor," says Siff, sitting in the back of a neighborhood coffee shop in Brooklyn on an S&M-cold December morning. She'd arrived in jeans, a heavy coat, thick wool hat, and purple scarf over a beige sweater and a green shirt that picks up the hazel in her eyes. "I monitor myself pretty closely as a person. When I'm performing, I try to let that go."

She cites the example of another scene from the Billions pilot in which trader Mick Danzig, played by Nathan Darrow, enters her office moping about his laggard positions and back-of-the-pack performance. Siff tells him to snap out of it and reminds him he's the financial equivalent of a Navy SEAL. The two actors had rehearsed the scene, but when they were shooting it Siff found herself unexpectedly punching Darrow in the chest to emphasize her point about his exceptional abilities.

Maggie Siff in a royal blue gown embellished with a floral pattern.

Dress by Pamella Roland. Ring by Yaya. Earrings by Jennifer Fisher.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

"When you create a character, you can't plan the shape things will take," she says. "I always know I'm doing a good job when I'm surprised by what happens. Surprise can take the form of a gesture or a vocalization—something that comes from the emotion. If you're not pushing for a result, emotion can land you in some strange places."

And where emotions might not take you, scripts will. After she read the pilot for Billions, Siff wanted to know how the S&M scenes would serve the story, whether they would be used sparingly without being exploitative or sensationalized.

"I also wanted to make sure I wouldn't have to perform them in my underwear."

Maggie Siff sitting on a shabby-chic chair that looks like a throne.

Dress by Vivienne Westwood. Shoes by Stuart Weitzman. Earrings by Celine. Ring and bracelet, vintage.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

Maggie Siff was born in Albany, New York, in 1974 and raised in Riverdale after her parents decided to stop growing a lot of their own food at their home in upstate New York and move to the Bronx in 1977. Maggie was their last child, eight years younger than her brother, Ivan, who now works in Germany as a cabinetmaker and is a fluent-in-Japanese 10th-degree black belt in Aikido, and 10 years younger than her sister, Ellen, a community outreach educator at Bates College in Maine.

"My family had a whole life together in the sixties before I was born," she says.

Siff's Russian-Jewish paternal grandfather was one of the tutors of Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Her father, David, now 84 and living in New York, worked as a theater and television actor in the 1950s and '60s, appearing under the stage name David Faulkner in shows such as Wagon Train and The Untouchables. After earning a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, he quit acting and took a job as an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where his outspoken antiwar activism and membership in the radical Students for a Democratic Society eventually got him fired in November 1970. He reinvented himself again as a sportswriter and resumed his acting career.

Maggie Siff in floral-inspired fashion.

Dress by Zimmermann. Earrings by Yaya. Ring by Kavant & Sharart.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

Siff's mother, Jenny Dowling, grew up in an ex-pat family in Mexico, "a most brilliant person, an autodidact, an extraordinary writer," Siff says. She, too, had acted but eventually gave it up. She spent many years working for the New York City government and is now employed as a Spanish-English translator for immigrant communities in Portland, Maine.

"I think after the 1960s my parents were in recovery mode. One of my aunts was in the Weather Underground. During the Olympics we rooted for the Russians! The feeling in the house was upper-middle-class Jewish, but we were culturally different. My parents were anti-consumers. We didn't have a lot of money. For about five years in a row on Halloween, I dressed up as a gypsy because my mother had a lot of Mexican clothes. Not a shred of princess."

Maggie Siff standing on a fire escape in a floral dress.

Dress by Temperley London. Earrings by Jennifer Zeuner. Rings by Kavant & Sharart and Selim Mouzannar.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

Maggie Siff knew she wanted to be a performer when she was 8 years old. And not long after that, she discovered the potential for humiliation that is part and parcel of anyone who courts life on a stage.

"My brother caught me singing the Toys R Us jingle when I was 9," she says. "To his credit, he later wrote me a letter and apologized for making fun of me."

"Do you still remember the jingle?"

As if the 1980s shelves of pre-bankrupt Toys R Us were still beckoning, Siff shifts instantly into a saccharine singsong: "I'm a Toys R Us kid, I got the best for so much less. I don't want to grow up because if I did, I wouldn't be a Toys R Us kid!" Then she laughs. "The irony is my parents would never buy me a toy from Toys R Us. They would never allow a Barbie in the house."

Maggie Siff standing on a fire escape in a floral dress.

Dress by Temperley London. Earrings by Jennifer Zeuner. Rings by Kavant & Sharart and Selim Mouzannar.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

Siff was accepted at New York City's famous High School of Performing Arts, but at her mother's insistence she attended the equally challenging Bronx High School of Science—four years of math classes (including calculus), Latin, and a heavy dose of lab work. She flourished in speech and debate courses, traveling with the school team to area tournaments on weekends to perform.

She placed first a few times, delivering monologues from plays by Craig Lucas and Athol Fugard, which attracted the attention of a tournament judge from Regis High School. The drama teacher at the private Jesuit all-boys prep school on the east side of Manhattan was looking to recruit girls for a Shakespeare production. So Siff, 16, started taking the subway into Manhattan to rehearse her theatrical debut as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Black and white photo of Maggie Siff in New York City.

Dress by Corpus. Coat by Max Mara. Shoes by Stuart Weitzman. Earrings by Selim Mouzannar. Rings, vintage.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

When she went off to college at Bryn Mawr, she fell under the influence of professor of theater Mark Lord and took part in a number of student productions, including a Beckett play done at the crumbling ruin of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

"Mark taught the skill of presence and precision and controlled movement on stage that felt more like dance," Siff says.

Black and white photo of Maggie Siff in New York City.

Dress by Corpus. Coat by Max Mara. Shoes by Stuart Weitzman.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

Graduating with a degree in English in 1996 she quickly made a name for herself, appearing in numerous Philadelphia regional theater productions. She won Philadelphia theater awards, but to pay the rent she also had to scuffle around in various jobs, from waitressing to cleaning houses to working as a temp at a hedge fund for three weeks, a gig that gave her a glimpse of the world of Billions. Looking to deepen her craft, she enrolled in a three-year graduate acting program at New York University in 2001, when she was 27.

"I was feeling all the worldly pressures, the monetary pressures of trying to be an actor. And the program at NYU reminded me of the inherent transformative power of acting. It taught me to become a vessel for surprise—how to remain open to things dropping in, how to trust in a paradoxical process that marries work with a lack of control. It takes training to drop artifice and let yourself be a conduit. For me the whole experience was like being parched in a desert and somebody giving you water."

Black and white photo of Maggie Siff in New York City.

Dress by Corpus. Coat by Max Mara. Shoes by Stuart Weitzman. Earrings by Selim Mouzannar. Rings, vintage.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

After NYU, Siff's career took off, fueled more by television work than theater. She's ridden to a measure of fame over the past 12 years, first playing a department store heiress, Rachel Menken, who has an affair with Don Draper on AMC's Mad Men. Then living in Los Angeles, she starred for six seasons in the FX series Sons of Anarchy. Her character, Tara Knowles, a doctor who becomes the wife of the head of a motorcycle gang, exited the show after her mother-in-law drowned her in a sink of dishwater while stabbing her in the back of the head with a barbecue fork.

A death like that might make anyone want to stay in bed with a Labradoodle and a cat. Siff had gotten married during her run on Sons of Anarchy; she and Ratliff, who'd been an actor before becoming a therapist, had courted by email; on their first anniversary, her husband had the correspondence printed and bound and gave the book to Siff as a present.

Black and white photo of Maggie Siff in New York City.

Dress by Corpus. Coat by Max Mara. Shoes by Stuart Weitzman. Earrings by Selim Mouzannar. Rings, vintage.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

After their daughter, Lucy, was born in 2014, Maggie Siff was called for a Billions audition. The producers had reportedly screened more than 100 actresses before bowing to the queen of toxic masculinity, seeing in her reign some steely quality undaunted by outsize male egos. Before and after the start of each season, Siff has made a point of sitting down with the showrunners to talk about Wendy Rhoades, who initially seemed to be the moral compass of Billions, giving "corrections" of one sort or another to her moral immoralist of a boss and her immoral moralist of a husband.

"I said to the showrunners, 'I don't want to be a moral compass. It's boring.' The show is about corruption. I'd like to see Wendy lose some of her self-control and then see if she can put herself back together. We live in an age of male anti-heroes. Is there a truly female antihero? All the female antiheroes seem to be copying the male form. What really interests me about Wendy is how complicated she is; she's not one thing, she's not one color, she's not consigned to one role."

Maggie Siff standing on a fire escape in a floral dress.

Dress by Temperley London. Earrings by Jennifer Zeuner. Rings by Kavant & Sharart and Selim Mouzannar.

Photography by David Needleman. Styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

The same could be said for Siff herself. Last spring she starred in a New York production of Sam Shepard's The Curse of the Starving Class, and next fall, when season five of Billions is finished, she is scheduled to perform the role of Lady in a production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending.

"I want to do it all," Siff says. "Film, television, theater. Theater is much more intense because you get to use all the tools, physical, vocal. You're in real time; nobody's editing your performance. It's very taxing, too—there's a liminal quality; you feel sometimes as if you're about to go over to another dimension. I'm truly interested in acting. I've always thought if I had another career, it would be teaching acting."

For a second Maggie Siff seems preoccupied by a hypothetical life. Then she shrugs, knowing full well that at the moment there just isn't room in the bed.

Originally published in Watch Magazine, March-April 2020.

PHOTOGRAPHY: David Needleman

STYLIST: Cristina Ehrlich

HAIR: Bradley Irion

MAKE-UP: Genevieve Herr

Season 5 of Billions returns Sunday, May 3 on SHOWTIME. Catch up on the SHOWTIME and SHOWTIME ANYTIME® apps, as well as via SHOWTIME On Demand.

MOST POPULAR

Trending

By viewing our video content you are accepting the terms of our Video Services Policy.
© 2020 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.

Follow us: