Maggie Siff has the kind of range most actresses dream of and she puts it to good use playing the type of complex women television is sorely lacking. Siff first caught widespread attention and critical praise for the memorable role of high-society Rachel Menken-Katz on Mad Men, where she was wooed by Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, only to turn down his offer of running away together. From there she became Tara Knowles on the long-running cult hit Sons of Anarchy, where her character fell for yet another bad boy, albeit one who runs in somewhat less swanky circles. In both cases, Siff plays way more than a foil to her troubled love interests, often becoming the most interesting character in the room.
As a long-time fan of Sons of Anarchy, I was delighted to get the chance to talk with Maggie Siff not only about what Season Six of the biker drama will have in store for Tara, but also about her love of the stage (she still performs regularly between seasons), Mad Men (which she still watches), and how she spends her time when she’s not busy cozying up to Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) on SoA. Read on for the full interview with the talented Ms. Maggie Siff…
The Daily Quirk: I know that you have a background in theater; I was curious do think you’ll ever return to the stage? Or do you have any desire to do that again?
Maggie Siff: Oh well, I never really left the stage. You know almost every hiatus that I’ve had from the show I’ve come back to New York and done plays. So that’s kind of how I’ve been rounding out my career for the last several years, going back to New York and doing theater. We kept our apartment there. You know when I first moved out to LA I thought it was a very, very temporary situation. And I think I’ve continued to be in denial about the fact that I live here. So, I don’t think of myself as having ever really left the theater.
TDQ: So you’re pretty much bicoastal?
MS: I have been, yes. I mean the show keeps me here for six months out of the year, about, and then I’d say I probably spend three to four months in New York every year during a show.
TDQ: You’ve guest starred on a lot of great drama television shows, would you ever consider doing a comedy?
MS: Sure. I think yes, absolutely. I mean, I think it would have to be the right thing. I don’t know, I’m not sure that I’m really a sitcom gal in terms of, sometimes it feels like the joke and the joke making is very formulaic ,and I’m not sure that’s entirely my speed. But if it was the right thing, I would absolutely love that. I’ve been cast in very sort of dark and brooding roles in television, so it’d be a nice change.
TDQ: Speaking of one of those roles, you played Rachel Menken-Katz in the first two seasons of Mad Men. She’s one of the few women smart enough to realize Draper was nothing but trouble. Can you tell me a little bit about how that role came about?
MS: Well, you know, they really cast many of us from the pilot in New York, which is where we shot it. I got the script and I had an audition for the character. Initially I was scheduled to go in for Peggy, and my manager read the script and called me that morning and was like, ‘I think Rachel is your role.’ And I said, ‘I agree.’ So I ended up going in for Rachel at sort of the eleventh hour. I went in several times for Matt [Weiner] it was one of those parts and one of those projects that I just felt incredibly tenacious about. It was so smart and I’d had a particularly kind of brutal pilot season in New York. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to actors about doing pilot season, especially from New York, where you’re just trudging through the winter and snow and sludge and you’re putting yourself on tape and these tapes that are going out to god knows where; it just feels like such a grind. And it [Mad Men] was one of the last pilots of the season and I was just like, ‘This is the pilot that I want and this is my role.’ I just sort of had a feeling. I had a conviction and a real fierceness about it.
TDQ: I hadn’t heard much about the New York Pilot season, but I can imagine the snow would make it a lot more dreary and add a determination to get things done.
MS: Yes, and when you’re a New York actor it’s also sort of like you spend most of your time doing theater and doing workshops. You know all these castings agencies; there’s this community of people that you know, and yet, you’re sort of dreaming of that job that takes you elsewhere. A job that actually gives you a decent paycheck, but it feels very ‘pie in the sky’ sort of panning for gold. So, when things actually come to fruition in that way, it’s sort of a minor miracle.
TDQ: I’ve heard that Mad Men is what brought you to LA, and eventually your role as Tara Knowles on Sons of Anarchy. Is that true?
MS: Yes, we shot the pilot in New York and then there was a long delay between the pilot getting picked up and the series kind of starting to shoot. So, it took maybe another year and then they finally decided to shoot the series in Los Angeles. So I came out here with the assumption that I’d be here for about six or seven months, and then I’d go back to New York. And I think everybody just thought it was a great art project, I don’t think anyone really expected it to take off in the way that it did. And the change in my own life kind of coincided with a lot of other things that were changing. A lot of things in my personal life that were turning over and all of a sudden life just felt more, there was so much happening here so I just ended up staying.
TDQ: So then I guess moving onto Tara, what first attracted you to her and her story?
MS: Well, I guess the first thing that attracted me to her initially in Season One was that she was a character who had left this world behind, but then she came back. And she was carrying, the whole first season, this secret, which is that she’s being stalked. And I just was intrigued. I was intrigued by the weight of what she was carrying around and of her historical relationship with these people who she seemed so different from, but sort of scratch the surface and you realize she’s not that different. I thought that was very interesting. I also, when I read the pilot, it felt so different to me than a lot of other television scripts that I had read. It just moved. It sort of had this velocity and this vision in it that was kind of exciting, you know? It got your heart racing. And the characters felt strange and interesting and were people we hadn’t seen before. So, you know, I was really relatively new and lucky in terms of what I encountered when I first entered the world of television. You know, the thing that I say about it is that Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy have absolutely nothing in common except that both in my experience in reading both of those pilots I thought that there was nothing else quite like them.
TDQ: What has been one of your favorite scenes or storylines on the show?
MS: I mean they’re all sort of tragic storylines, but I’ve enjoyed them all. I think for me the turning point in the character that I have really enjoyed is when she lost the use of her hand. Because I feel like that was kind of like the net falling down over her and you just knew that she wasn’t getting out of there. So to me, it was really galvanizing in terms of imagining how the character was going to continue forward through the rest of the series. It’s one of those things that unhinges part of a person’s psyche and it really took away a whole set of ideas that she had about herself. And while it was sort of traumatic to play, it was very exciting as an actor to be like ‘Wow. This changes the game of not only this person’s story, but who this person fundamentally is.’ And it felt very real. It didn’t feel contrived and it didn’t feel like the writers were forcing something.
TDQ: We’ve definitely seen a damaged Tara the past few seasons and the most damaged was when Tara was being taken away to jail in the season finale. It was one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the season. I’m pretty sure everyone was emotionally jarred especially when Thomas started crying. How did you prepare for that because she’s just so broken at that point?
MS: I think with all of those moments I read these scripts and I’m like ‘How am I going to do that? How am I going to do that?’ I just spend a lot of time with the material. I take some walks and I let it turn around in my head. The thing about that scene that was a big question mark was that there was very little text. And that line about him crying was not in the script. Kurt Sutter was directing that episode and so when we started working on the scene I said ‘You know, there’s no text here so I need to really figure out what I’m doing as I’m reading. To what extent am I resisting? To what extent am I having an emotional reaction? To what extent am I just numb?’ I wanted it to feel kind of like I couldn’t believe it was happening as it was happening. As I was explaining to him what the feeling I wanted to communicate he said, ‘Why don’t you say something about the baby crying?’ And I said, ‘Okay. I’ll try that.’ And it was sort of the only way that it could happen. Because one of things I said to him when we were discussing was that her children are in the next room so she’s not going to go screaming and wailing, she’s going to go quietly. But you know we had to figure out how. It was a really nice, collaborative moment that ended up being very organic.
TDQ: I agree. I think it was very natural and emotional. Although, I have to say last season in general was pretty emotional.
MS: I know. It was a rough one.
TDQ: What do you want to see most for Tara this season, besides her getting out of jail and being deemed innocent with last season’s murder?
MS: I think where she arrives by the end of Season Five, and it really pushes into Season Six, is the necessity. It’s no longer sort of a desire, it’s a necessity to see that her children have a future and a safe future. I think that’s the other way that the character has really changed over the seasons. The first few seasons are much more about her making, perhaps unwise, decisions based on her own individual needs and wants and longings and shadows. And I think in the last few seasons you’ve seen her role as a mother kind of take over her decision making energy. I would say that’s fundamentally what she carries forward into Season Six, how to usher her children into a safer life.
TDQ: Do you think a safer life will involve their grandmother? I’m always curious if we’re ever going to see Tara and Gemma on the same page again. At one point it felt like they were aligned, but by the end of the season they were against each other again.
MS: I really enjoy the way Kurt has played with that relationship because he’s characterized it as sort of a mother-daughter relationship, up and downs sort of moving through adolescent phases and more nurturing phases and more straight out rebellious phases. And I think it’s just, it’s going to be a love-hate situation. Gemma is a character who is passionate and has a lot of love in her. But she’s also kind of dangerous and I think fundamentally is very threatening to Tara because she represents everything that she doesn’t want to become. Gemma is like the end of a very dark road and Tara is fighting for something different. So, I don’t know that we’ll see them on the same page. I think they have moments. I think they’ll always have moments, but this season in particular is pretty contentious.
TDQ: Kurt Sutter has said that this upcoming season of Sons will be the most violent one yet. Will Tara be in the middle of some of that violence again because we saw her get pretty physical last season with a few people?
MS: Yeah, you know, I don’t think anyone can escape it. So I would say there is some of that, yes.
TDQ: Good to know, I’ll start preparing myself now.
TDQ: Moving on from the show, what is your current favorite TV show? Any TV guilty pleasures?
MS: Well I’m just starting to watch the last season of Breaking Bad, which I really think is genius. And I continue to be a huge fan of Mad Men, which is a particular pleasure of mine because you know, I almost feel like I was on a different show, which is the genius of that show. It’s evolved through time. And to just see all of these characters and friends evolving with the times and in those roles is delicious for me, a real delight in a kind of ticklish way. Then I just started watching Orange is the New Black, which I am very much enjoying. I think it’s an awesome show for women, being able to see all of these faces we’ve never seen before and characters we’ve never quite seen before. It’s pretty great.
TDQ: Did you take anything away as obviously Tara is in jail? I’m assuming Tara’s experience is a little bit different.
MS: It’s different. Tara’s in a county holding pen for the beginning of the season, but she’s not actually spending the whole season in jail. So, she’s not setting up for a long term stay.
TDQ: Well that’s good because I think in all the previews so far we’ve only seen Tara in a jumpsuit.
MS: [Laughing] Yes, with the bad short haircut.
MS: I just got a dog. My husband and I got a puppy. So I’ve been spending a lot of time with my dog. He’s really, really so fun. You know, it’s like with this life of travel I haven’t been able to have a dog in such a long time. So we’ve been taking long walks and doing training. And I love to hike and do yoga and read. I love to just read novels and travel when I can. My husband and I went to Thailand and Vietnam for our honeymoon this year, which was really, really great. I feel like it’s very therapeutic to take yourself far away from the reality that you live in every day, particularly when it’s Los Angeles.
TDQ: Oh yes, I definitely agree, it’s nice to get away every now and then.
MS: Get a taste of the real world.
TDQ: Well I’ve just got one more question. I know that Theo Rossi and Kim Coates are pretty involved with Staten Island Strong and The Boot Ride and Rally and I was wondering if you had any projects or causes that you’re pretty passionate about that you’d like to share with the readers?
MS: I do a little bit of fundraising stuff. I don’t have any projects or events coming up. I work with a couple of different Buddhist sitting groups around town, Against the Stream. It’s an amazing Buddhist group in LA that does a lot of work with recovery and the Twelve Steps and community service as well as Insight LA. Those are the groups that I kind of work with more.
Theo is really amazing. He’s devoted a lot of time and energy to his community and Staten Island, it’s really amazing.
TDQ: Thanks so much for chatting with me today. I’m a huge fan of the show.
MS: Thanks for watching!
The Daily Quirk would like to thank the fabulous Maggie Siff for taking the time to chat with us! Be sure to watch Maggie as Tara Knowles in Season Six of Sons of Anarchy premiering on FX Sept 10!