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Billions’ Maggie Siff on How It Feels to Yell at Paul Giamatti

Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

When Maggie Siff is interviewed about her Billions character, the always-composed Wendy Rhoades, it’s only a matter of time until the subject of BDSM comes up. But in the world of Showtime’s Financial District drama, the public isn’t aware of what happens in private between Wendy and her husband, Paul Giamatti’s power-hungry Chuck Rhoades. Well, the public wasn’t aware — until now.

In Sunday’s episode, to neutralize a blackmail scheme meant to push him out of the race for New York State Attorney General, Chuck calls a press conference and details the couple’s sexual dynamic to the media. He does this after Wendy explicitly tells him that she’s not comfortable with that information being public, and that he simply has to bow out of the race. “It was not okay with her, and she made that very clear to him,” Siff says over the phone. “He broke all the rules.” Chuck wins the election, but has he cost himself his marriage?

What was your first reaction when you heard that Chuck would go public with the most intimate details about his and Wendy’s marriage?
“W-T-F?” Paul and I were both a little shocked. When you work on a long-running series, the machinery has to change really significantly for the story to keep moving forward, so I recognized it as a giant gear-shift for that marriage. It impacts Wendy on so many levels — that was the thing that I was most nervous about and also most excited about, honestly, because it’s fun to play a big, huge moment of upheaval.

In an interview a few years ago, when Billions first started, you described Paul Giamatti as a “visceral” actor and a “force of nature.” What’s it like to go toe to toe with him? How did you feel filming that scene where Wendy confronts Chuck about the press conference?
I just enjoy so much everything I get to do with him. It’s constantly surprising and we help each other through, but it’s awesome to get to play something momentous and awful and nightmarish. We’re so invested in these characters, we’ve spent so much time with them and we really care about making that marriage feel real. The day we were shooting that, he was like, “I can’t believe he would do this to her,” and he was still really wrapping his mind around it. I read that press conference [scene] and I was like, “How is this gonna work?” But it’s Paul Giamatti. He really made it fuckin’ work.

What do you think is more upsetting to Wendy: Chuck actually describing their sex life in front of the media, or the fact that he broke their agreement to not go public with that information?
The violation of their bond is primary. Although, she’s an extraordinarily private person. There’s so many violations. There’s the violation of the marital agreement, there’s also the violation of the code around what it means to be a dom and what it means to be a sub. He broke the rules of the marriage; he broke the rules of their role-playing. And then, on a purely personal level for Wendy, it’s humiliating beyond what that would be like for a normal person because she’s so private. And it’s very threatening to her professionally, because now there’s this huge piece of information that all these people have about her. She’s no longer this blank slate.

We’ve seen Wendy and Chuck go through rough patches before — they were separated for a while a couple of seasons ago. What makes this time different?
The betrayal is much, much deeper. She’s so shellshocked. The complete disregard for who she is as a person and as a human being, it’s just on another level. We’ve never seen him act in his own self-interest so profoundly and so at the expense of the one person who’s really been in his corner. It’s just a massive betrayal.

I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but there’s been some writing online that Wendy is actually the real villain of the show, or that she’s at least just as much of a villain as Chuck and Axe are.
I have to find this article. You’re the second person who’s mentioned that to me, and I don’t think I’ve seen that speculation. She is capable of being as evil as they are because of her incredible powers of perception, and when she chooses to be manipulative, she’s incredibly powerful. If she wants something to happen, she knows how to have a couple conversations with a person and make it happen, without them realizing that she’s made it happen. However, I do believe that she’s not ultimately as interested in pure power as they are.

I mean, she’s married to that guy, she works for that other guy, [so] she clearly is interested in her own power and in her own use of power. And power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and she is not immune to that truth and that equation. But I do believe she has other things that pull her back to a moral questioning.

Have you also seen that Wendy’s regarded as a bit of a style icon, as far as TV characters go?
Yeah, I’m a little bit aware of that. Our costume designer Eric Daman, he’s pretty much a genius. Because the clothing is very stylish and very contained, it’s really an expression of her character. They’ve got, like, the perfectly placed cutout, or grommet, or zipper — things that point to her shadow side — but they don’t reveal it, they don’t expose it. It’s really like her armor, at the same time that it’s totally an expression of who she is.

Vulture recently did a piece about the different vests that the traders at Axe Cap wear.
The fleece vests. Wendy wouldn’t be caught dead in a fleece vest.

Earlier in this season, it’s clear that Wendy isn’t quite enjoying the BDSM between her and Chuck as much as he is. What do you think is behind that change? Or has she always felt like this, like she’s indulging and humoring him?
I think it was something that he really needed and he brought it to her, and Wendy said yes. She’s a psychiatrist, she deeply understands that people are hardwired in ways that are not always comfortable or socially acceptable. She sees that in him, and she says, “Yeah, I can do this for you,” and it starts there. And then she realizes she’s quite good at it and enjoys it, or can enjoy it. I think, though, the move for her away from it has to do with not wanting to live in that space for herself anymore, wanting a different kind of intimacy. I don’t think she has the same fundamental need to be a dominatrix as he does to be a sub.

In that interview from a few years ago, you also said that when you first took this role, you weren’t sure you’d be entirely comfortable with the BDSM scenes. How do you feel about them now, four seasons in?
It’s always heightened and not, like, particularly comfortable. That said, what I was told at the beginning of the series — and they’ve been true to their word — is that these scenes would be used sparingly, that they weren’t going to be a huge component of the storytelling. When they come up, they really mean something to the story and to the characters. Every time we’ve had to do one, we both walk in and are like, “All right, what’s this gonna be?” And we walk out being like, “Well, that was interesting. That exposed something about their relationship that was really interesting.”

This show is filled with pop culture references, and in one episode this season, Wendy makes a reference to Robert De Niro’s character in Heat. Is Wendy genuinely a fan of the movies and TV shows that Axe and Wags like? Or is she just so good at her job that she knows that’s the language those guys speak, so she needs to be fluent in it too?
I think she knows what she needs to be fluent in. I’m imagining there’s some overlap, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say she went home one day and watched Heat for research and needed to understand exactly who all those people were, because this is how they communicate with each other.

This is a theory I have: When Wendy is watching Chuck’s press conference in the Axe Cap office with everyone else, Axe seems to give her a sympathetic look. With Wendy and Chuck on the rocks, is there a chance that Wendy gets closer to Axe? And could that reignite the feud between Chuck and Axe?
I can’t possibly answer any part of that question.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Billions’ Maggie Siff on Yelling at Paul Giamatti https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2019/04/05/05-maggie-siff-chat-room-silo.png