Maggie Siff on Playing Characters Who Die and Those Billions Sex Scenes

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Maggie Siff is not in Charming, California, anymore. After a six-season run on FX’s Sons of Anarchy as Tara, the doctor-wife of motorcycle gangster Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the actress has landed on Showtime’s new drama Billions as Wendy, psychiatrist wife of U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoads (Paul Giamatti) and in-house counselor for hedge-fund magnate Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis). “The shows couldn’t be more different tonally,” says Siff, whom you may also recognize as Mad Men’s Rachel Menken. “It’s like walking from one fever dream into another, and the people around you very quickly feel like family. So my family used to be a bunch of biker dudes, and now they’re billionaires.” And that’s not the only bizarre aspect of her new gig.

Your Billions character engages in S&M. Did you have any reservations about shooting the sex scenes?
I did. I’ve never been on a premium-cable show before. They have different rules and regulations, and Showtime can be fairly risqué. Honestly, before I took the job, I checked in about it. I didn’t want to be the girl doing the sex scene in every episode. It’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with — I just wanted us to all be on the same page as far as what those expectations were. I had conversations with people about what it was going to be, and I felt pretty game for it.

When you’re shooting those scenes, is it hard to keep a straight face?
It’s impossible. Between takes, we were just laughing either in embarrassment or at some joke. We have all kinds of nicknames for each other. We call each other “Buck” and “Cindy.” Since we were going to have to engage in this kind of intimacy, we knew we were going to have to get very comfortable with each other very quickly, which we did. Thank God.

Wendy is married to Chuck but has known and worked for Axe longer. If these two are on a collision course, where do her loyalties ultimately lie?
That’s definitely the ongoing question of the series, and something that gets teased out throughout the season. I think Wendy and Chuck have a real honest, deep, and true marriage. She’s very aware of what her oath is and what she owes to him. And she has tremendous loyalty to Axe. They have a different kind of intimacy. Up until this point, it hasn’t really had to be delineated. That’s the drama of this season.

What’s it like shooting scenes with Paul versus shooting scenes with Damian?
They’re very different actors. Damian’s character is brilliantly cerebral. Everything’s fast and light and facile, and I feel like I’m doing a ballet with him. With Paul, he’s a bigger, more visceral actor. He’s a force of nature.

How are you expecting viewers to react to Wendy? Will she be as polarizing to fans as Tara was? Some people were happy when her mother-in-law, Gemma (Katey Sagal), stabbed Tara in the head.
All the characters on Billions are a bit shifty, in terms of how audiences will respond to them episode to episode. I don’t think it’s going to be the same kind of “Team Tara”/"Team Gemma" divisiveness. Wendy is hard to read sometimes — there’s a quicksilver quality to her that will keep people guessing. But I think women will respond to her positively because she’s so strong in her career and her marriage.

You got killed on Sons of Anarchy, and it was revealed in Mad Men’s final-season premiere that your character, Rachel Menken, had died. Should we be worried about your fate on Billions?
I hope not. I told them if they killed me, I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I die in everything. One year I did five roles, and they all died. I started to get a bit of a complex. I’m really crossing my fingers that Wendy doesn’t suffer the same fate.

How did you feel watching the final episode of Mad Men?
My experience of watching that show after I left it was really pleasurable. I loved seeing that world go on and seeing my friends doing amazing work. And I loved the note it ended on — it was beautiful and ambiguous, but they could’ve ended it in a much darker way. 

Like the way Sons of Anarchy ended?
That whole season was really hard to watch. We all knew it was never going to end well for anybody. When you’re making a show that’s loosely based on Hamlet, you know almost everyone is going to die. It was just a question of when and how. I felt very sad watching Jax and Gemma die. Watching it play out at home on a TV screen without me was surreal.

Does Billions feel especially relevant to you right now, with one billionaire running for president and another candidate attacking “the billionaire class”?
It is timely. The writers are mostly interested in creating really complicated and compelling characters. The show can’t help but be political, but I don’t feel that it’s particularly polemical. There will be room for lots of different kinds of people to enjoy it. It’s a little nerve-racking, in a way, knowing it’s about to intersect with our culture, and it’ll be really interesting to see how people respond to it.