'Billions' star Maggie Siff explains how a phone call with Tony Robbins helped craft her character, and what she loves about the role
- "Billions" star Maggie Siff has had an impressive career picking roles on iconic shows like "Mad Men" and "Sons of Anarchy."
- In an interview with Business Insider, Siff mentioned two people who inspired her "Billions" character: self-help guru Tony Robbins and Ari Kiev, the late in-house psychiatrist to Steve Cohen's SAC Capital.
- She said the character is a fun antidote to her outside-of-work life and that the S&M scenes were the biggest challenge for her to play.
Actor Maggie Siff grew up in New York City, a major setting of her latest hit TV show, "Billions," in which she plays a powerhouse hedge fund's "performance coach." But she really grew up in a totally different world.
"My parents were ex hippies who settled down in the Bronx," Siff told Business Insider in a recent interview. "The worlds of this show were really far removed.""Billions" depicts the collision of two high-powered and morally complex worlds: hedge funds and federal prosecutors. Siff's character, Wendy Rhoades, is caught in a ethically dubious battle between her boss, Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, and her husband Chuck, a US attorney.
Before diving into the worlds of "Billions," Siff's only experience with hedge funds was a very brief temp job in her twenties, when she was an out-of-work actor.
"I really only did it for a few weeks," she said.
What drew her to "Billions" was how smart and fun the script was, she said, and also her role as a multifaceted character with a nuanced marriage, one who has a foot in two worlds and who is constantly getting pulled between them. It's a struggle that echoes some of what Siff's last blockbuster character, Tara Knowles in "Sons of Anarchy," also had to contend with.
Talking to Tony Robbins
In crafting the character, Siff mentioned two people she took inspiration from: Ari Kiev, the late in-house psychiatrist for hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen's SAC Capital, and self-help guru Tony Robbins."I went down the Tony Robbins rabbit hole," while prepping her character, she said, and then had a phone conversation with the man himself. "I had a lot of questions about him," she said, specifically around how someone ends up in this rarefied world of helping other people perform at high levels.
"What did it mean to him?" she wondered, and by extension, what did it mean for her character. "How does somebody who is this talented and empathetic end up here?"
"He talked a lot about helping people achieve," she said of Robbins. "What it meant to lead people to peak excellence." He talked about "forward momentum" in a relationship, or work, or philanthropy (something that has become a particular theme in the last few episodes of "Billions" season 3). He also led her through some visualization exercises.
The main inspiration she took from Robbins for her character was the timeframe of his work: "Let's make this transformation happen right now. It's part of the way [Wendy] operates."
The deep, underbelly question
But the question of why Robbins does it, or why Wendy does her version, is never one that entirely went away for Siff or for the creators of "Billions."
"I think it's a deep, underbelly question for the show, and for the character, and for me," Siff said.
"I think that - she might not say so - but that she is as addicted to wealth and power as anybody else," she said, and that she has a love, albeit a platonic one, for Axelrod. "The need to be around at the right hand of someone as rarefied and brilliant and all-powerful in some way is not something she wants to trade."And though the show has an intensity, part of its appeal is that it's playful, and Siff said she has fun playing Wendy (more fun, perhaps, than the "tortured" Tara Knowles character on "Sons of Anarchy").
"With Wendy, I love, I just love stepping in and out of her," Siff said. "It's kind of a joke for me. When I'm not at work playing this superwoman, I'm a hausfrau in sweatpants looking after my four year old. It's like a big cosmic joke. [Playing a character with this] swagger around dudes is really fun. It's been a lovely antidote having a small child."
(A side note about parenthood: Siff said her and Paul Giamatti, her on-screen husband, joke about how on the show they are "the worst parents in the world," which is 100 percent accurate.)
Not all anti-heroes are men
Siff said what's surprised her most about the role has been the fan reaction, of how many professional women identify with her character.
"There is just so much appreciation for a character that has that much power, pulling strings behind the scenes," she said. A lot of women relate to it, she continued. And she finds the character refreshing in other ways as well.
"On TV we see all these anti-heroes who are men," Siff said. "We don't see a lot of women." While Siff doesn't believe Wendy is necessarily an anti-hero, strictly speaking, she is a character who can "relish the occasional evil deed, can play with as much kind of freedom and relish that the guys do."
But Siff said there are challenging parts of playing Wendy, chief among them the scenes of S&M between her and Giamatti.
"I'm pretty naturally modest and those scenes, they require a lack of self consciousness," Siff said. "They are actually incredibly intimate. When they work their best, you are looking at the most intimate moments in a marriage, things you should not be able to see."