Today, you might know her as Rachel from Mad Men, Tara from Sons of Anarchy, and most recently Wendy Rhoades from Billions.
At Bryn Mawr, she was Alice in Wonderland, Medea in a modern retelling of the tale, Masha in Three Sisters; Ophelia in Hamlet.
Maggie Siff ’96 got her start on stage at Goodhart Theater under the direction of Mark Lord, chair of the College’s theater department. After graduating, she made a name for herself on the Philadelphia theater scene—in 1998 she won a Barrymore for her performance in Ibsen’s Ghosts—and soon moved to New York for the MFA program at New York University.
Mark Lord: How would you describe yourself when you came to Bryn Mawr?
Maggie Siff: I always knew that I was going to be an actor, but I came from a pretty academic and artistic family. So education really mattered to me. I was an English major, and I was really interested in acting. I describe my time here as floating between these islands of English House and Goodhart. My English professor and mentor, Joe Kramer, was a great lover of Shakespeare and literature. He came to every show and just loved the way you were looking at narrative and deconstructing it and the imaginative explosions that were happening here. I found a pretty comfortable rhythm between my learning and my scholarship and the work we were doing. It was a rich collaboration between the two places and departments—a cross pollination of ideas and literature and plays and drama and narrative.
ML: What was your Best Bryn Mawr class ever?
MS: Every class I took with Joe Kramer was amazing, but I’m thinking about Sandra Berwind’s class on Ulysses, which was the one class that I took on just one book. To work your way through just one book that methodically—to look at one text in depth and break it down and realize that each chapter is a universe unto itself—was probably my most exciting adventure in literature while I was here.
ML: Right after you graduated, you spent the summer at Eastern State Penitentiary making this crazy, huge production with Hiroshi and me and several of your classmates. What was it like to graduate one day and then start rehearsal not too many days after that?
MS: It was an amazing transition, just out of school, to be working professionally and living in the city. We were working on these Beckett texts called Texts for Nothing at Eastern State Penitentiary. If anybody knows this, it’s a historic landmark, a very famous panopticon prison in an amazing state of decay when we were working there. There was a watchtower in the distance, and somebody was playing violin up there, and we were inhabiting the cells, and the audience could walk through and peek into them and see us speaking these Beckett texts. And then we put the audience in the cells, and we would move by the cells. It was a crazy, immersive, beautiful production.
From there, I started working in the city in different theater houses. It was the beginning of a time in Philadelphia of beautiful collaboration between actors and dancers and of cross-pollination between people coming out of Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore and Haverford—Pig Iron Theatre Company and Headlong Dance Theater.
ML: When you decided to go to NYU, it was so clear that there was a path for you into this career. But you paused, and I remember we had a conversation where you said, “I just really want to think this through because I don’t know that I want to go down this path.” Can you talk about what that pause was like?
MS: When you’re an artist in this country, you have to decide what you want to pursue and what your values are because there’s not a lot of compensation unless you get lucky and find some commercial success. But there’s no guarantee.
I was a theater actor living in Philadelphia, and it was a great community, and I could see my life playing out here. But the pause was, “What kind of actor am I? What kind of performer am I? Am I somebody who wants to make my own work, in which case, I should stay right where I am because there’s no better community for doing that? Or am I a different kind of actor? Am I a more interpretative actor?”
And I was really an interpretative actor, I really cared about inhabiting roles and telling stories. And I didn’t feel that the city was going to suit my needs. I wanted to develop myself more as an actor.
I worked with a teacher in New York, Ron Van Lieu, who runs the Yale drama department now. With him, I discovered a different way of working, and I knew that he would be able to help me become the kind of actor that I wanted to become; and he was the person that I got to study with at NYU.
And so, going to NYU, I followed this person, which is how I have made a lot of my decisions. “You! I’ll follow you! I want some of that!”
ML: Did you feel the kind of thoughtful approach to doing theater that you had here, going back and forth between English House and Goodhart, made you different than a lot of the folks in that MFA program?
MS: I think of actors as being either hard-brain or soft-brain actors. There was a contingent of us who came from really great liberal arts colleges who thought really critically, and then there was a contingent who were more intuitive and maybe not educated in the same way. The soft-brain actors were great at clowning and improvising and dreaming up sort of crazy things. But the hard-brain actors tended to be better at reading plays and breaking things down and making choices.
One thing that was nice about the education was there was this mash-up between people. In general, I was more considered—I’m a more cerebral person—and in some ways, my time in graduate school was undoing a lot of what I had done here, trying to break into a less considered place, a more intuitive place.
ML: According to the internet, your career just begins: Bryn Mawr, NYU, Mad Men. But I know that there were a lot of projects between graduate school and Mad Men.
MS: I was working as a theater artist for 10 years before Mad Men happened. The big turning point was a production in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre of a contemporary adaptation of Doll’s House, and I was playing Nora. If you’re playing Nora, you are running a marathon every night. I’d never really carried a play before and in such a big arena with a fancy director. It was very high-stakes as an actor. In any field, as you take the next step, you think, I don’t know if I can do that. Then you just step up and do it. It was a big turning point for me because I then knew I had the muscles and the strength and the fortitude and the skill to do more than I thought I could do up until that point.
ML: Okay, Mad Men. The part that you played was maybe the only foil for Jon Hamm’s character, his only equal in the whole series. What it was like to come into that environment and play this woman who’s that high-status?
MS: I was in New York, and I was auditioning for a lot of really, really stupid television things because that was how I was going to pay back my student loans. I didn’t get any of the stupid jobs, but I got that script; and I said, “I love this.” I read that character, and “I love her.” Then I started auditioning, and they made me come in five times! Every time, I knew, “This part is mine.” You don’t get that feeling a lot as an actor.
One of the reasons why I had that kind of confidence was because it was an art project. Nobody thought it was going to be anything other than an obscure art project that AMC was creating. And so I think I felt comfortable. I felt confident and familiar with it.
And the show was incredibly fun to make. Matt Weiner, the creator, was in everything down to how the prop people were wrapping the sandwiches. He is an auteur, a real artist. And we got to wear these amazing clothes, but everybody thought we were going to be in LA for six months and make a season and nobody would ever see it. I was thrilled! “It’s my first big TV job, but it’s so small! This is perfect! The perfect place to grow.”
ML: When you moved on to Sons of Anarchy, your character is at the center of the drama. Is there a different approach with a character like that?
MS: That was another show where I didn’t assume that it would run as long as it did. I assumed that it was a subculture biker drama that would fall off fast. As an actor, it’s hard to commit yourself to something for years and years on end because you want to keep doing new things that keep you growing.
I really enjoyed my time working on that show. It was a fascinating investigation of a part of our culture and something that I would never have had exposure to otherwise. I was a very unlikely candidate for the show. I remember walking into the first read-through and thinking, “One of these things is not like the others.” And after about three seasons, I was thinking, “I don’t know.” But then the creator sat down with me and told me what was going to happen to the character, and I thought, “Now, I see the path. I can do this for another few years.” When you do something for a long period of time, the character has to keep reinventing herself to be interesting.
ML: There’s a measure of attention that comes when your character is named, as Tara was, the hottest woman in fiction?
MS: Who said that?
ML: The Internet! So I know it’s true! Things change about your life and your ability to walk down the street, and I wonder what’s that like for you?
MS: I almost never wear makeup, and I don’t dress up, and people don’t recognize me a lot. I get spotted a little bit here and there, but I’m a shy person, so initially it was hard. But as time has worn on, I’ve learned to negotiate that, and people are respectful and friendly.
ML: Tell us a little bit about the new show, Billions, which you’re doing with Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis.
MS: Well, after I had a child, I didn’t want to work for a while. She was about a year old when I read the pilot script, and it was really, really smart, and Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti were attached to it, and they’re people that I really admired as actors.
And the role was interesting to me because usually female supporting characters are consigned to one realm or another. They’re somebody in the office, or they’re somebody at home. It’s rare that you see them in multiple realms, and she had her finger in every pie. And I got really excited about that.
And it was an ensemble show, so I knew it would probably work well with having a family, that I wouldn’t have to work 18 hour days every day of the week but that, when I was at work, I would be doing good work with great people. So I wanted to be a part of it.
The show is good fun. It’s good entertainment, and along the way, it starts to ask some interesting questions about the world of finance and people who are super wealthy or super ambitious.
ML: What is it like to be a feminist and to work in the TV industry?
MS: It’s complicated! The industry really suffers from a lack of women in the really important roles—writer, director, cinematographer, editor, really down the line. In fact, the EEOC is investigating the industry because of its hiring practices, not just with women but with minorities as well. But you get used to it. So reading a script where there’s a female supporting character who is in all of these different pieces of the story—it isn’t until you see that and feel how unusual it is that you think, That shouldn’t feel so new and unusual to me!
For myself, I have found that I only get jobs that my heart is really invested in. So there’ll be a job that’s a good job on paper, but some small part of me has a little bit of judgment: “They’re not smart enough,” or, “Oh, this is the bitchy best friend.” It falls into some stupid trope that you see over and over again of women, and I just can’t summon myself to get those roles. Sometimes I’ve wanted them because I need to pay a bill or it would be good on my résumé to work with that person, but the deeper part of me can’t actually bring myself to do it. I have a lot of subconscious internal mechanisms that I probably have Bryn Mawr and a good upbringing to thank for.
I have struggled with doing certain things where I wonder, How do I feel about this? And sometimes I think, Well, if I can just bring a little bit of intelligence to this or a little bit of my own values to this little corner of this story, then maybe I’ll do a little bit of good. Sometimes my goals feel very modest, and sometimes they feel a little bit bigger.
But it’s tricky. It’s getting a little bit better, and I think there are more interesting roles for women, more roles in television for women and more different kinds of people.
ML: Can you comment about the so-called golden age of television that’s going on now?
MS: I feel lucky. Mad Men took me, picked me up and plunked me down into it. So I’m fortunate. I know so many brilliant actors who haven’t been able to make that journey. A long time ago, there was a studio system, and there were tons and tons and tons of movies and cinema being made, and actors were circulated around. In a way, television has replaced that. There aren’t a lot of movies being made, and if they are being made, they’re action hero movies. That’s one of the big ways that the industry has changed. There’s a very small independent film world, but it’s small, and it’s shrinking and shrinking.
I heard somebody once say, “Well, this is the age of artisanal television.” And it’s true. You don’t need 20 million people to watch a show for the show to be a hit. A million people can watch a show and have it be a hit on a smaller, more specifically targeted cable channel. It’s made what’s being made that much more varied, and there’s so much more of it, and so much more choice now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Maggie Siff ’96 as Rachel Menken with Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene from Mad Men’s first season.
Maggie Siff ’96 speaks with Mark Lord in front of a packed house over Reunion weekend.
Maggie Siff ’96 as Clov with Pearce Bunting as Hamm in the 1998 Big production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, by Big House (plays & spectacles).
(Top) Maggie Siff ’96 as Wendy Rhoades and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades; (bottom) Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod with Siff, both in Billions (Season 1, Episode 6).