Pleased to welcome Maggie Siff to this program. While the debate about whether or not a certain real life billionaire is mentally unstable, Siff’s breakout character, Wendy Rhoades, on the hit Showtime drama, “Billions” goes inside the fictional mind of the hedge fund titan known as “Axe”. Here now a scene from this week’s episode.
Tavis: I love Paul Giamatti.
Maggie Siff: I do too [laugh]. The feeling is totally mutual.
Tavis: Yeah. I suspect that it must make a huge difference — and you’ve been at this long enough now to know what I’m talking about. It must make a huge difference to be working that closely with someone who you do like, who you do respect, where the chemistry — because I suspect every character you play, you haven’t always had that experience. I won’t ask you to call names, but it might be nice, though.
Siff: You know, I have been remarkably lucky to love most of my costars. But especially when you’re playing something like a marriage which has such history and like so many years behind it to really love the person you’re working with and to be able to like call cut and keep having the conversation you were having and like learning and sharing stories and he’s like wickedly funny.
He makes me laugh like nobody else. You know, he plays a lot of like kind of serious and sort of dark characters, you know, but he is sort of light and hilarious which is an amazing thing to be around.
Tavis: Speaking of characters, for those who have not yet been turned on by “Billions”, tell me about the character that you play.
Siff: You say that with a twinkle in your eye [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah [laugh]. And you know why, because you play the character, yeah.
Siff: Yeah, she walks an interesting line because she is the in-house psychotherapist/performance coach for this hedge fund titan, Bobby Axelrod, but she’s also married to the attorney for the Southern District of New York, Paul Giamatti. They are sort of going after each other. So there’s a big conflict of interest.
I think your twinkle may have been alluding to the fact that she and her husband also have a dominant-submissive relationship, so she is kind of smart and dominant in a lot of different realms [laugh].
Tavis: What is the joy [laugh] — this is my word, back to that twinkle in my eye — what is the joy of playing a character like that, Miss Siff?
Siff: Well, you know, I myself personally and as an actor, I think I’m pretty like a modest kind of shy person. So stepping into that aspect of the character is somewhat challenging for me. But there is joy in it because it’s so outside myself that it’s something sort of interesting and new.
It’s also like I feel like they have been actually very tasteful in terms of how they use it and how it kind of exposes a facet of their marriage. You know, like the thing that I find so interesting is like somewhere along the line, they made room for that in their marriage.
You know, the way we’ve talked about it, it’s not like they’re going to clubs or within a community. They’re figuring it out sort of on their own. It’s a little bit like DIY BDSM [laugh].So it’s like, you know, the questions that that raises is like, well, how did that conversation happen and who broached it and how did the other person take it? You know, it’s been interesting to think about.
Tavis: What I thought was — first, two things. One, if you’re that shy in real life, it just shows what a great thespian you are because you inhabit the character and you pull it off quite nicely.
Siff: Thank you.
Tavis: But secondly, what I think was — trying to find the right word here — smart, strategic but smart on the part of the writers, the creators, to make a guy who does what he does for a living every day exist in that kind of world. Because it just seems — I’m sure there’s somebody somewhere that does that, you know, in real life — but it just seems so antithetical to the kind of character that he plays by day. Does that make sense?
Siff: Yeah, because he’s so powerful and he seems to take a certain amount of pleasure in sort of like twisting the screws in his own life. But it seems to be met sort of equally by the personal pleasure he takes in having the screws twisted on him. It’s almost like a kind of relief for him. But something that I noticed like the very first scene that we shot, like it made the character make a lot of sense and gave him a lot of dimensionality.
Tavis: So tell me about this Axe character and what you think the audience is making of him to date.
Siff: I think one of the things that the show does really well is it shows people who are like kind of the pizzazz of the show is that all of these people are smarter than anybody you know. They think faster, talk faster, they think 500 steps ahead of everybody else. So you kind of root for them because they’re so impressive.
You know, there’s like a game and a fun of sort of following where they’re going and what they’re doing. But there’s also always this question, and I think this is particularly true of the Axe character and the people in that world is like how corruptible are they because of that?
You know, like all of that power, all of that wealth, how deep does the corruption go? Will it go? Are they redeemable? Will they walk back from that cliff? Or are they, you know, going over it and not looking back?
I think that’s like what we feel about the Axe character is that, you know, he’s like scrappy, he’s come from nothing, he’s got so much life force. You know, he has passions and stuff.
But last season, there was this question that came up between us of like is he a sociopath, right? So like I think that question still hovers over him, but you really hope for his humanity [laugh]. He’s, you know, a billionaire and there’s a lot of scrutiny around that kind of excess, especially in this day and age. So I think the question of like his corruptibility and how far gone he is.
Tavis: See, I referenced this at the top of the conversation, which obviously didn’t surprise you. But it is fascinating in this moment that we have a billionaire who people are asking whether or not he’s a sociopath. We’re concerned about his corruptibility.
We’re rooting for — I certainly am rooting for the humanity to one day sort of show itself — and obviously the critics of this show could not have known that Donald Trump would be president at some point.
But I guess the question is, again, not that we have control over this, but how does it feel to be doing a show where some of these issues are so parallel to what’s going on in real life? I don’t know if it’s art imitating life or life imitating art, but you’re in the midst of it one way or the other. How does it feel to be in that space in a show like this?
Siff: I’m really interested to see where they go next season, you know, now that the politics have sort of caught up to our topicality and the questions we’re asking. It’s complicated because I feel like with all entertainment, you know, like there is a critique of that wealth and there is a critique of Bobby Axelrod.
At the same time, there’s the entertainment aspect of it, so there is a kind of like ooh and ah about he uber-wealthy life style, right? And I feel like all entertainment walks that line. You know, it’s like I was on “Mad Men” and there was kind of like that critique about the gender stuff that was going on.
At the same time, there was this like lushness around how the women were dressed. You know, an objectification of the women that was simultaneously entertaining, right? So I feel like everything walks that line and it’s just about how skillfully the people who are creating the show choose to like walk that line.
I think they did a really good job this year, sort of posing those questions of like how corruptible is this guy, how deep is his soul? I think they’ve set themselves up for actually a really interesting season next year when they start to think. Because you can’t not think about the politics now.
Tavis: I think you’re right. And for fans of the show, it is going to be fascinating to see where they go next season. But you said something a moment ago that made me think about the following, which I hadn’t really processed prior to your sitting in this chair, which is that you have been the beneficiary of such good writing — and this is not a gratuitous shout-out per se.
But it occurs to me you’ve been on “Mad Men”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Billions”. So much of your good fortune is to be in the hands of people who write really well.
Siff: Oh, yes. I mean, I’ve been incredibly lucky. And also like I come from New York and the theater and I kind of found myself in the world of cable television. You know, I was cast in “Mad Men” out of New York and out of sort of what I had been doing, which was mainly theater stuff, into a world where like the long form storytelling was really just like taking off in terms of like depth and quality.
You know, the great writers are going to television now. I have absolutely reaped the benefit of that in all of those shows.
Tavis: “Billions” is a show that a lot of people are loving. As a matter of fact, I told Maggie when she sat down I had to stop my barber, Marcel, from coming. I didn’t even tell him you were coming because he would have been stalking you [laugh] out of the studio today. A lot of folks are loving it on Showtime. Check it out if you haven’t. Maggie, good to have you on.
Siff: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Tavis: Thanks for coming. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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