Q & A: Maggie Siff Talks ‘Sons of Anarchy’, Shakespeare and Her Future Plans

Maggie: "If I commit to something 100% and I’m satisfied with what comes out then I can walk away from my day and I feel pretty light"

maggie-siff-sons-of-anarchySons of Anarchy just started its sixth season and Maggie Siff, who plays Tara on the hit FX show, said in a recent conference call that her character still surprises her. “Her reserves of strength and power,” she told me in a recent conference call.

In the interview, Siff, who received an M.F.A. in Acting at the Tisch School of the Arts, talks about how much of herself is in her character, why the best roles for women are on TV, her Shakespearean ways and what her plans are when the show ends. 

Sons of Anarchy airs on Tuesdays at 10pm on FX

Tara’s really made a big evolution.  Playing her this season, what still surprises you about playing Tara?  Secondly, how much of Tara is Maggie?  Or is there nothing about Tara that’s like you?

Maggie Siff: What still surprises me?  You know, I’ve been joking that Tara’s like the place people go to see their dreams die, so I guess what surprises me is the darker and darker progression of the things that she sees fall away.  The thing that surprises me in playing her and in figuring out how to play her are really her reserves of strength and power.  Even as her mind is sort of warping and things in her psyche are shifting in a way that I think is really negative and things are kind of breaking, there’s also a fierceness in her that rises up perpetually.  That’s the surprise.

In terms of how much of me is in the part, I think Kurt has always been pretty savvy in terms of his casting.  I think that one of the things that was alluring to him about having me in the role initially was the feeling of this is somebody who’s different, one of these things is not like the others and trying to figure out how that person fits and doesn’t fit and then slowly gets pulled back into a world that she’s worked really hard to define herself against.

I think that who I am as a person and perhaps similarly has some disjuncture with the world of he show, but that part is the part I’m trying to break down a little bit more as we go along.

There seems to be this consensus that some of the best roles for actresses now are being written not in movies but in television.  Would you agree with that statement?

Maggie Siff: I think so.  I think the thing that we’re seeing in television, in particular on cable television, is a really wide array of roles for women both in terms of age, ethnicity, type, socioeconomic status.  There are just more roles, but I think there are also more kinds of representation happening.  I know that I feel more excited about the landscape now than I did five years ago, so it’s good.

There was a scene in one of the new episodes when Jax picks Maggie up and there’s no dialogue. I was wondering if that was scripted that way or if you had filmed any dialog.

Maggie Siff: Yes, there was no dialog scripted.  There was some conversation about how we shoot it and what kind of looks get exchanged and how much gets communicated without language.  The way that our director, Peter Weller, wanted to shoot it was really that they’re both pretty inscrutable to each other and are content to have it be that way.  I really liked the way it turned out.  I thought it was very jarring, interesting and provocative.  Yes.  There was no language scripted.

You’ve built up a pretty impressive resume as far as television goes.  You got to appear on Mad Men and now you’re on Sons of Anarchy but as far as your film career goes you got to work with Tony Gilroy and Michael Clayton and Judd Aptow on Funny People.  Do you have a wish list of directors that you’d like to work with in the future as far as future films go?

Maggie Siff: Sure.  I mean, let’s see, I love Jason Reitman and I’d love to work with Kimberly Pierce and Katherine Bigelow.  I want to see more female directors out there, quite frankly, and the ones that are out there I’m dying to work with.  The list is long.  I love films.  I will say that I feel like we make quality short films every week and a lot of what independent film used to be is happening in cable television right now.  There’s a way in which I’m not sure there’s a better place to be as an actor and an actress … discussing earlier … right now.

You graduated as an English major, and I was an English major myself, so my question to you is actually about the writing of Sons.  You worked on stuff like Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy – they stand out, to me, as two of the best written shows on TV and such complicated shows.  I wondered what you thought really stuck out about Sons in terms of the writing and why do you think people connect to such a dark world?

Maggie Siff: My feeling about the script when I first read it for the very first time, when I read that pilot, what I wished people could see, although I think it comes across, are Kurt’s descriptions of events on the page, his descriptions of the action sequences, his descriptions of what’s going on inside the minds of the characters, what’s happening.  He writes very beautifully.  It’s very medic, it’s swift and it’s funny, it kind of sweeps you along.  I think that’s in the show.  I mean, to think that the feeling of heart and flesh and bikes and the motion of all that storytelling, he’s writing on a grand scale.  You feel that when you read the scripts.

I would say that his storytelling style is really – I don’t know, it’s just really sweeping and dramatic.  That was the first thing that stood out to me about the writing.

The juxtaposition of the dark material up against his incredible sense of humor I think is the thing that actually makes the show work.  He’s just very skilled that way.  I think it took us a little while in the first season to figure out the tone of the show.  I can’t really take responsibility for it, but he really figured out how those things coincide side-by-side.  It’s very skillful, I think. 

Did Kurt ever, in the beginning, go, “Listen, Maggie, this is the character arc.  This is where we’re going with the character” or has it been very organic on how it’s grown?

Maggie Siff: I think it’s been pretty organic.  I think he always wanted to see Tara progress towards Gemma and towards assuming the role of matriarch.  I think he didn’t know how that was going to happen, in particular because she was a moral compass, which I think was not necessarily what he anticipated for the character.  I think it was a combination of who I was as an actor and some beginning notions that he had about her.  I think early on the thing that he would say to me is that he realized that she was like the window through which the audience could see these people.  Like the audience, she loved this man but knew better, and that’s sort of the audience’s position as well, like you love them but you know that they’re bad people.

I think getting from A to Z in terms of that slide, she can’t actually become a Gemma-like figure without losing some of her moral ground, you know? 

I think that’s the thing that ultimately will always distinguish her from Gemma and ultimately the thing that keeps her on – it’s not firm moral ground, but I think it’s slightly firmer moral ground, that she really wants to provide a safe life for her children.  She really ultimately doesn’t want to live the life of a criminal within the world of that kind of danger and violence. 

I think this season what you see is a Tara who’s progressed to a place where she knows how to use the tactics of Gemma.  She has violence in the aspects of her nature that she now draws upon or that rise up more quickly, but her goal is different.  Her goal will always be different.

You’ve been recently in two major roles … which you’ve been great in.  … Much Ado About Nothing.  So do you find yourself kind of embracing – first of all, how has it been returning to the show after those two major theater stints?  Do you find yourself embracing the Shakespearian element more now with the show?

Maggie Siff: I’ve always loved the Shakespearian element on the show.  If Tara is the Ophelia character I’ve actually played that part on stage twice in my life before.

Third time’s a charm.  No more.  I’m done.  Doing theater and doing a huge, meaty classical role, it kind of feels like it satisfies a different part of myself artistically and creatively.  For me, it’s been what I felt like I had to do to round out my career and my creative energy.  It’s like throwing myself into a stage production.  It’s a full-bodied, full psyche workout every night for a few months.  Working on television is a much more stop and go experience.  Even though Sons of Anarchy is such an intense show and as a viewer it doesn’t feel like a stop and go experience, as an actor it just is for me.

Yes, I’ve definitely been floating around in Shakespearland for a long time now.

Talking about some of the darkness that we’ve seen not just in this show but in television in general, as an actress, when you’re on set everyday and dealing with some of this darker subject matter, how do you separate yourself from that when you go home for the day?  How do you leave that on the set and not let it affect you, your personal life?

Maggie Siff: That’s a good question.  I always feel like maybe I’m a freak this way, but when I’m there I’m there 100% and when I leave I’m gone.  I don’t know why.  The world is so dark and so specific and we throw ourselves into it, but the beauty of shooting film and television as opposed to theater where you have to keep reliving things night after night is that you do it and it’s done.  If you do it well it’s like a form of catharsis.  That’s what I find.  I find that if I commit to something 100% and I’m satisfied with what comes out then I can walk away from my day and I feel pretty light.  I know that that’s not true for every actor, but on this show I have found that to be relatively true.

Also, I will say as Tara, I don’t have to do a lot of that shooting that the guys do where they’re constantly in the middle of these terrifically violent things that are happening day after day and they’re riding around in the desert in their leathers.  Really, my job is so confined to a really specific portion of the story.

You basically played the moral compass to Don Draper on Mad Men and the same could be said of your relationship with Jax on Sons of Anarchy.  Do you find any personal relation to playing these characters as far as being the opposite side of the coin to these guys that come from the wrong side of the tracks?

Maggie Siff: You know, what is that?  I don’t know why I keep getting cast that way.  I think they’re characters who can sort of speak truth to power a little bit.  I don’t know, you know?  I’m not sure that I can entirely answer what that is.  I don’t think the characters have that much in common, quite frankly, but I’ve never played flighty women, I’ve never played particularly girly-girls.  I think that I’ve never really been an ingénue, you know?  I’ve often been cast in roles that are a little bit more grounded and still, or something.  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been playing these roles.  I’m kind of grateful.  I think they’re somewhat unconventional roles for women.  I have a lot of gratitude for that.

The short black hair that you have, it kind of gives you a Joan Jett, Patti Smith punk rock look.  Was that directly made for the show or is that something that the Sons of Anarchy writers had to work into the script?

Maggie Siff: You know, I had been wanting to cut my hair for a long time.  At the end of last season I talked to Kurt about it and he was like, “Yes, let’s do it” once we knew that she was going to prison.  … for the episodes when she’s in prison is that it not look too done.  The thing that I ended up feeling before I cut my hair was that it would be a really good thing for the character and for the season because it’s tougher and I think it’s – what is it?  There’s something about losing the hair that’s a little bit like losing the part of her that is submissive, I think, to Jax and to the club and losing that really feminine edge I think is a really good thing for the season and for the character.  It all ended up coming together, I think.

Kurt has been talking about having one more season to go. What do you plan to do after Sons of Anarchy?  Go to another series?  Films?  What are you looking forward to?

Maggie Siff: I am looking forward to everything and anything.  I’m looking forward to having my year to make it up as I like.  I come from the theater and that’s kind of my first love.  I still split my time between here and New York, so I look forward to going back to New York and doing more theater.  I look forward to finding another great series.  I think that what’s happening on cable is really exciting.  I hope that after this show there’s another great cable show that I can be a part of. 

I think for actors and for an actor like me who works in all of the mediums, including theater, it’s a great schedule.  It’s like half the year and then you have half the year to do other things to round yourself out.  It’s like what we all do in our downtime between seasons is really like you need to cover a lot of ground to make yourself feel full as a creative person.

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