In the Showtime drama Billions, about a US Attorney going after a corrupt hedge fund manager, the very first shot of the pilot episode shows Paul Giamatti bound and gagged on the floor. A dominatrix appears, putting out a cigarette on his chest and then helpfully alleviating the burn by pissing on him. By the end of the episode, we’ve learned that this woman is his wife.
It’s a hell of a way to make a first impression. For Maggie Siff, who plays the psychiatrist-turned-dominatrix, it presented both a challenge and an opportunity. “The sex stuff I was nervous about,” she says. “I’m not really an exhibitionist, yet I thought it was a really interesting component of their marriage. It felt smart. It made me want to know about that marriage, who those people were to each other and how they arrived there.”
It also makes her – in a show full of macho characters – quite literally the boss?
“And in a very literal sense it makes her the boss, yes,” she laughs. “She’s comfortable in that role.”
Siff and I are having breakfast in a hotel in Lower Manhattan, and over fruit and coffee she’s lamenting how rare it is to be offered such a powerful and complex female role. As an actress she’s become accustomed to being presented with barely-sketched stereotypes. “There’s the bitchy wife, the bitchy ex-wife, the sardonic best friend… there’s a lot of those tropes,” she says. “There’s just a disproportionate number of male writers, and directors, and producers, so the stories that are getting told are slanted that way. You get so used to that as a woman.”
It’s a particularly challenging situation for young actresses who are so keen to find work when they’re starting out that they find themselves playing roles they may inwardly cringe at. Siff, who grew up in the Bronx before studying English at Bryn Mawr, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and theatre at NYU’s Tisch School of the arts, remembers this time of her life well. “When you start out as a scrappy theatre artist just trying to pay back your student loans, you go through several years where you’re panning for gold,” she says. “I wasn’t picky at all. Your standard for what is acceptable goes down because you have to do things just to survive.”
After years working in regional theatre her television break came in her early 30s when she was cast to play department store heiress Rachel Menken in Mad Men. It was a role close to her heart. “Somehow I just knew that part was mine, no matter how many times I went back to audition for it,” she says “I just had this feeling like I knew who that person was. She reminded me of my grandmother, who grew up in the Lower East Side as a Jewish woman. I just thought: ‘Nobody else knows this character as much as I do.’ That’s a very unusual feeling, but it does happen rarely.”
Just as Mad Men was taking off, Siff won her next major part in biker drama Sons of Anarchy. It turned into a six-year job, filming for six months a year in California. She spent her summers there and her winters back in New York with her first love, theatre.
“I never think about quitting acting, but sometimes I do think: ‘When can I just go back to theatre?’” she says, pointing out that on the stage there’s less of a struggle to find great female roles. “It’s nice to go back to jobs where it’s purely an artistic exercise and not a commercial enterprise. I feel like that’s really where you get into the trouble spots. I’d also like to do more teaching, or things where the love that I have for the craft doesn’t have to be constantly slimed by the sexism that is really hard to avoid.”
Finding good roles is a perennial problem for actresses, and one that exacerbates off-screen problems of gender inequality too. When there are fewer great female roles to go around – and fewer female roles in general – it places actresses in a difficult bargaining position which in turn leads to the pay gap that’s recently been such a heated topic of debate in Hollywood. So – I ask Siff – what’s the solution?
“I don’t know, I’m trying to figure it out!” she laughs. “I go round and round because as a working actor you have to figure out how much power you actually have and how to use it. I’m not Scarlett Johansson, I’m not a box office draw in mainstream movies, so I feel like all I can do is be very selective about the kind of jobs that I choose to take. It’s about the kind of stories that I’m choosing to tell.”
The challenge for actresses continues even after they’ve won roles. Often, Siff says, they find themselves having to battle for how their character’s stories will develop. “You have to cross your fingers, especially when you sign on to do television, that the creators and directors are going to stay true to the course of what is promised from the outset,” she says. “Within creative projects you have to fight for the character continuing to have an interesting voice, and also fight for things like how many women are in the writers’ room. I do all that. I try to talk to people about that and make people conscious of it.”
One of the things which drew her to Billions was the chance to play a woman who’s on an equal footing with a cast of powerful men which includes Paul Giamatti as a US Attorney and Damian Lewis’ charismatic hedge fund manager. Siff’s character, Wendy Rhoades, is caught between the two as the wife of Giamatti’s character and a colleague of Lewis’.
“In the pilot the thing that was apparent to me was that she was this strong, unusually smart woman,” says Siff. “She’s really her own woman, and that’s really what attracted me. In terms of the story, yes she is married to somebody, she is somebody’s wife – as a woman you get used to being somebody’s wife, or somebody’s girlfriend, or somebody’s paramour or whatever – but she’s also in the workplace. What she does is of interest to people. She holds power in a similar way to which men do, and that’s interesting.”
Alongside her television work, Siff has also turned to independent films with the hope of telling more nuanced stories about women. This includes 2016’s A Woman, a Part, written and directed by the avant-garde filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin. “She approached me about it and told me what the story was and I thought: ‘Oh, that sounds interesting,’” says Siff, “and familiar.”
The film follows a successful television actress who has a nervous breakdown and returns to New York from Los Angeles to try and reclaim her old friendships and her theatre roots. For Siff, her only concern was that the film might be a little too close to the bone. “It was terrifying because it felt too close,” she says. “I thought: ‘Are people going to think this is me?’ It’s not me, but it’s a story that I’m really interested in telling and when else am I going to get the opportunity to tell this story? Elisabeth calls herself a feminist filmmaker and 50% of the crew were women, so the whole ethos behind the making of the film really had that at its heart.”
One positive change that Siff has observed has been the move of so much talent and money from film to television, where she argues there are more opportunities for actresses, particularly older women. “Films is a shrinking industry, and I think the energy of that has gone over to television,” she says. “The gift of that is there’s this ever-expanding opportunity for women, and for people of colour. You don’t need to get an audience of 16 million people for it to be a hit, so it’s more artisanal. Look at Orange Is The New Black, which has Blair Brown, an amazing theatre actress who’s 70 years old. She has this great arc on that show right now. I look at people like her and think that things are changing.”
In the decade Siff has spent working in television since she was first cast opposite Jon Hamm in Mad Men, she’s seen first-hand how women’s roles have slowly grown more powerful. Where once she had to contend with Don Draper storming out of a board room because he wouldn’t be spoken back to by a woman, now she’s crunching a stiletto’d heel onto Paul Giamatti’s chest. Even so, she points out there’s still some way to go before we see more strong female-led stories on our screens.
“The thing I find myself grappling with is how many macho shows I’ve been on,” she says. “You get to be a certain age, and as a 40 year-old woman you look back on your career and think: ‘How much of it has been spent shining a light on a man?’, you know?”