Actress Maggie Siff has proven adept at providing a smart and bewitching counterpoint to the powerful characters of her male co-stars. As a strong-willed, Jewish department store heiress on Mad Men, she was a stark and particularly appealing contrast to Don Draper’s ice queen wife, Betty. And earlier this year, Siff found herself juggling the attention and demands of two egomaniacs on the Showtime series Billions, in which she starred as the psychiatrist Wendy Rhoades, wife of (and dominatrix to) the D.A. Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and employee of her husband’s nemesis hedge funder Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis).
In A Woman, A Part, currently having its North American premiere as part of the BAMcinemaFest (and still seeking distribution), Siff reveals a more vulnerable, less self-possessed side. The feature length debut of filmmaker and artist Elisabeth Subrin, the film has Siff as Anna, a television actress on a popular, “guilty pleasure” show who experiences a crisis of conscience and creativity sparked by her lackluster role. As she considers quitting acting, she heads to New York where she reconnects with estranged friends from her experimental theater days and is forced to contend with the disparate paths their lives have followed—and where they could and should head next.
In addition to starring in A Woman, A Part, you are also an executive producer. What was the major draw of both the project and character of Anna for you?
I met Elisabeth probably two years before we shot the film—I got to work on it with her for a long time. Initially what drew me is it’s a subject matter that’s very close to my heart and a storyline that’s very close to home. Even though I wouldn’t say I deeply resemble the character and her particular struggles, it’s the milieu and questions and themes I struggle with all the time. And I was like, "Well I’ve never encountered anything that actually rubs up against me so intimately." And on the one hand I was like, "I should run for the hills!" And on the other hand, I was like, "No, I should take this on and see what it’s like because it will probably never happen again." I think it’s rare that actresses get to play actresses. Those films certainly exist, they’re out in the world, but it just doesn’t happen very often. So I was really intrigued by it.
At least one critic has described this movie as being a feminist film. Do you think that’s a fair description of the work?
Elisabeth, the filmmaker, is very explicit about calling it a feminist film. I’m not in a position to disagree. I mean, yes, it’s a question. She’s very interested in representations of women. And I would also say for me, there was all of that subject matter and all of that inquiry both around the industry and what it means to be actress and the world we’re asked to inhabit: there are political questions at play within the film. I would also say, though, that in the making of the film Elisabeth went out of her way to make sure the entire production team was representative of our population. So 50 percent of our production team was women. And that’s really completely different than normal operating paradigms for how things work.
That demographic on the set combined with being directed by a woman, did that have a very noticeable impact on you?
It did. In a way it’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly what and why. But the vibe on the set felt really different. There was not quite as much tension. It was a very deeply cooperative set. That’s also a function of being super low budget and everyone being there for the love of it. That’s part of what makes independent film a wonderful thing to work on, when it’s functioning well. But also, Elisabeth was always saying to me, "This film is not about the male gaze. The camera will never be looking at you, objectifying you, trying to glamorize you, trying to sexualize you."
Was that liberating?
It was! It felt great. It did feel liberating. And it made me trust her and our DP [director of photography] very deeply. I always knew what we were doing and why we were doing it.
You mentioned what Anna goes through hit very close to home for you. Are there any specific elements that really resonated with you?
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with amazing people. I’ve worked on amazing television shows. However, I’ve done long-running series in very male-dominated milieus so I will say some of that felt familiar to me, not in a hyper explicit way, but more in the kind of accumulation of quiet distress you can feel in a situation like that. And I also think that when you’re working in television and things move really, really fast you don’t have a lot of creative say in what goes on and that can be extraordinarily frustrating at times. I don’t think there’s anybody working in television who hasn’t experienced that to one extent or another. And then, you know the Los Angeles milieu is very familiar. There can be a sort of hollowness to life out there in that sort of industry-dominated city that is familiar. And then I would also say there’s familiarity in the quiet distress that as a woman in the industry you feel when you read a lot of scripts and the roles that come your way and they’re not interesting or trite or you’ve read them a thousand times before. You know you just kind of become inured to it. And those aren’t all the things that are going on with the character in the film. I think all of those things are things that as an actor or an artist, those are waters that you can navigate if the rest of your life and the rest of your soul is intact and functioning properly. And hers is not.
Definitely not. I know you got your start in theater and so did Anna. There is an insinuation that she sold out by going to Hollywood. You’ve had so much success on television. From a creative standpoint, has that ever been a concern of yours or a sentiment you had?
Definitely. My theater days started out in Philadelphia when I got out of college and I was part of a real interesting artistic community. There was a lot of dance and theater hybrid work and avant garde theater work that I did. And slowly my career grew and I left that city and started doing theater based in New York and then regionally and then it sort of became film and television. As I sort of moved further and further away from those roots, there was definitely a time probably about ten years ago where I was looking at my life, like, "Oh my god, the road not taken!" And it’s kind of easy to romanticize that place you leave behind. And I also think in my business as an actor, there are so many vastly different worlds that you can inhabit. You can be an experimental artist or you can be, I don’t know, a super shallow, super wealthy entertainer. And each of those people would call themselves actors. So you sort of have to decide which direction you’re moving in and what happens to you and you need to make a living but you want to be an artist. And then you’re like, "But that’s so pretentious, being an artist with a capital ‘A.’" It’s a huge conversation that goes on in your head for years and years and years. At least my head.
Exhibit A for finding a meaty role in a more mainstream medium would probably be Wendy in Billions on Showtime. Is it a funny juxtaposition to do this film and then you end up in this show playing this really complex and dynamic female character?
I shot the pilot before we shot the film. And then I shot the film right before I started shooting the show. Like I say, there are a lot of ways in which my life is different from Anna’s life. I have many, many things to be grateful for and Wendy Rhoades is certainly one of them. But she is really different from a lot of female roles that you come across in television scripts. What makes her so unusual is that she inhabits all these different parts of the world, so she’s not just somebody’s wife, she’s also in the workplace, she’s got all these things going on in her own life and you see them all. And yet, she’s a supporting character in the story. She’s a very, very multidimensional character from the get-go. So when I read her, I just went after it because I hadn’t come across a role like that in a long time.
On Elisabeth’s tumblr, Who Cares About Actresses, she says she feels actresses are inherently performing a political act or role in culture through their vocation. Is that something you agree with or identify with at all?
For me, it takes reminding. When Elisabeth says that to me, I’m like, "Oh yeah, you’re right." When we first read the script, we got a bunch of actors together and read the script and a lot of us were like, "Who cares about actresses? Why is this an important story?" So it’s very easy to downplay it. I’m always like, "What am I? I’m just an actress?" But then she says things like, "You know it’s a time capsule—in 50 years people will look back at these representations of these women and it will mean something." And whenever I think about aging onscreen and what women do to their bodies and their faces, I’m like, "Yeah, it is political." The way we do or don’t mutilate ourselves or make ourselves younger, it says something. So I think I ultimately agree with her although the part of me that wants to diminish what I do and the modest part of myself and part of me that likes to hide because I’m an actor, I have to work against that.