Maggie Siff Interview
Maggie Siff stars as Dr. Tara Knowles on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. The actress spoke to us (and others) during a press call about the show, the state of television and more in a recent telephone interview. An edited version of that conversation is below.
HereIsTV: Playing Tara her this season, what still surprises you about her and how much of Tara is Maggie? Or is there nothing about Tara that’s like you?
M. 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 the show, but that part is the part I’m trying to break down a little bit more as we go along.
HereIsTV: It seems that some of the best roles for actresses now are being written not in movies but in television. Would you agree with that statement?
M. 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.
HereIsTV: For people who are fans of Jax and Tara, is it hopelessly naïve to keep pulling for them at this point?
M. Siff: I don’t think so. You know, I think that the thing about the show, one of the things about the show that really pulls people in is that no matter how awful things get between people there is this deep and passionate, kind of violently passionate love between the characters, within the family, between Jax and Tara. It’s hard not to, on a basis level, root for that. I think I root for that. I think we all root for that.
That said, it’s such a brutal and brutalizing world, god knows how it’s all going to end. I think it’s natural and I think it’s set up for us to root for that.
HereIsTV: We’ve seen Tara become more like Gemma over the years, and that prison scene in the first episode of this season really, really showed her manifest her Gemma-ness. What’s it been like for you playing that conflict, becoming this person that you really are trying to escape and not be like?
M. Siff: Yes, it’s pretty fascinating. I think there’s something almost magnetizing about Gemma and Tara. The way I’ve been thinking about it recently is Gemma is like this fierce mother figure. She’s just such a powerful matriarch and she loves fiercely and will protect to the death her children, her clan, anything she feels is going to threaten the sanctity of her family. Tara is like this quintessential orphan who’s parentless and she’s been so in need of parents and protectors and people she can look to. So between those two things there’s this magnetism, which is why I think they’re so drawn to each other and repelled by each other.
Gemma is the only person around who serves that role for Tara. It’s a huge source of conflict because I think while she desperately needs a parent she desperately doesn’t want to become Gemma. It’s just had her bouncing back and forth between states of mind over the last six years. It’s really fun to play, especially with Katey, who I love. She’s a very maternal figure but she’s such a fierce actress we just flip in and out of these modes acting and hating each other and then love each other as people. It’s all there for us to play with. It’s a fun relationship.
HereIsTV: Fans were very upset when Jax cheated on Tara I’m wondering what you thought when you read that in the script, or was it something Kurt had told you beforehand? How do you explain the disconnect that happened between them?
M. Siff: I’m glad to hear that fans were upset. I was upset as well. You know, I think that they’re in such a disconnected place from each other right now. I think that at the end of season five we saw just incredible disillusionment on both their parts with the other person. I think Jax is feeling the sting of her betrayal in terms of trying to set things up so that the kids would be given to Wendy and she was feeling the sting of his betrayal in terms of a real lack of support for her priorities in terms of getting out and getting her kids into a safe place and also some of the more violent and terrifying aspects of his nature that were revealed to her at the end of last season.
They’re on different planes right now and she can’t even see him when she’s in prison. What I was playing with in the premier episode is that she’s using the time to really collect her thoughts and create a plan for herself in terms of what she’s going to do to protect herself and her kids because nobody else is going to help her, and that includes Jax. Therefore, she can’t expose herself to him because it would be too difficult.
HereIsTV: 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?
M. 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.
HereIsTV: As an English major, what do you think really sticks out about Sons in terms of the writing and why do you think people connect to such a dark world?
M. 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.
HereIsTV: It seemed towards the beginning of the series that Tara might be our moral compass to the show, which obviously seems to have gone to a much darker place as far as all that she’s been through. 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?
M. 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? The thing about her that I would say – I’m sorry, what?
HereIsTV: Do you think that’s what she wants at this point, to be the neo-Gemma?
M. Siff: No. That’s what I was going to say. 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.
HereIsTV: She has that ability to turn back at this point or do you think it’s the point of no return?
M. Siff: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think she hopes she can turn back, but I don’t know if she can turn back. I think in some ways this season what I see in the character is somebody who doesn’t really care that much about herself anymore. She’s just really interested in figuring it out for her children. I think so much has been lost that her hopes and dreams, who knows where they are or what can happen with them. They’re off to the side now.
HereIsTV: You’ve recently been in two major roles including Much Ado About Nothing. 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?
M. 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. 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.
HereIsTV: Ho do you feel about women’s role on the show?
M. Siff: It’s a long and complicated question. I think the women’s roles are actually pretty fictitious in terms of what’s actually out there in the world. I don’t think any outlaw club would let their women into the inner workings nearly as much as Gemma is a part of the inner workings.
I think that what we see on this show are two very powerful and smart women who are also marginal to the life of the club and the kinds of decisions that get made. In certain respects they’re reactive to events and then in other respects they’re very conniving and right at the heart of how things get done and what happens. I think Kurt is walking a really strange and kind of interesting line in terms of where their power lies. I have moments where I’m like “Hmmm” and then I have moments where I’m like “That’s interesting.” I think they’re pretty powerful women in general in terms of the spectrum of powerful women on television …
HereIsTV: What shows on TV do you like to watch?
M. Siff: Well, like everybody else I’m breathlessly watching the end of Breaking Bad, which is a show that I really love. I just started watching Orange is the New Black, which I think is really super-interesting and exciting for women. What else? I watch Homeland, which I think is an incredible show with just spectacular acting and really interesting female roles as well, obviously. I watch my Game of Thrones and my Downton Abbey and Mad Men, actually. I mean, I started on that show and watching it is so deeply pleasurable for me that I can’t even describe it. Just watching these people that I know transform through time and seeing the show and the characters, the look, the attitude just morphing from season to season, I just love it. I love it so much.
HereIsTV: The hour dramas nowadays seem to be quite dark. Any thoughts on that? Is that a reflection of where we are as a society?
M. Siff: I don’t know. I was just thinking about how films from the ‘70s or whatever or earlier than that, I feel like films used to not be afraid to be dark and end in a dark place and then somewhere along the line movie making got scared of that. This is really just off the top of my head. I don’t have a big theory about it but this is what occurs to me. I feel like television has taken that up in a way, like not being afraid to go dark and to be noir-y and brazen in its approach to pulling the cover back on the darker parts of our nature. I think there’s a place for it. That’s my answer.
HereIsTV: There’s a scene with Jax and Tara having sex and Tara crying, it was a very powerful moment, can you talk about what it was like to film that?
M. Siff: Yes. I was just sad. You know, well, filming those scenes is always so awkward. It’s just further evidence of their disconnect and going through the motions. Charlie and I have a real shorthand for how we do those things and deal with those thing and talk about those things. We talked about it and were like, “Alright, here we go” and we did it and it was sad and hard, but I think it was a good moment for the show, to show the depth of how disconnected they are, that even in the middle of that they couldn’t be further apart.
HereIsTV: How will it affect Tara. Is there anything substantial that we’ll see in it affecting her?
M. Siff: You know, I think for much of this season she’s a little bit off to the side figuring out for herself how she’s going to get out. I mean, yes, it does absolutely affect her in a side fashion, just the way everything is woven together thematically. There are several tactics that she tries throughout the season in terms of what she can do for herself to help her out from under her legal problems but also to help get her kids out of … She does start to intersect with that storyline in ways that I can’t actually get into. I mean, I think it affects everybody because the law sneaks in in a very powerful way. Everybody’s caught up in ramifications …
HereIsTV: 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?
M. 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.
HereIsTV: In the past it’s kind of been bad people doing bad things to worse people, so you could kind of still get on board with them. With the whole school shooting and the cover up, does that put a whole different slant to it, in your mind? Is it harder to rationalize what those characters are doing now?
M. Siff: Yes. I think so. I mean, I think Kurt was interested in that, like really bringing it home for them in a way that can’t be escaped. I think there have been other moments. I know for me there have been other moments. I found that moment last year when Jax slammed the … into Wendy’s arm, for myself and my character, I should say, I was like “How do I come back from that?” I think that the school shooting, I think Kurt opened up a huge can of worms for the show and for the characters on the show. I know he really wants to see it through to the end. Hopefully it’ll pay off in a way that people can get behind.
HereIsTV: The whole idea at the beginning of Maggie being a doctor, someone who was helping and healing others and to just turn that around so much to in some ways – maybe not directly and in other ways directly – hurting people, was that always a conscious decision on Kurt’s part to make her that person at the beginning? What are your feelings on it?
M. Siff: You know, from the beginning I thought that the thing that’s interesting about her being a doctor and being a surgeon is she’s somebody who has to be capable of performing surgery, of dealing with the blood and the guts of life. To me, that means that she’s somebody who’s really fierce and tough. Even though it was for good and she’s a healer and she really identified herself as a healer and she has a gift, I could also connect it to the part of her that came from that world and was able to deal with life and death and darkness and shadow and light.
In some intuitive way she’s somebody who is comfortable taking life into her hands, life and death into her hands, so I kind of felt like that’s interesting, it’ll be an interesting coin to flip through the series, to see her going between these places of healing and destruction.
I think she’s lost right now because she’s lost her ability to be a doctor and a healer. She has to turn her attention to other things and I think it’s really wreaking havoc on her and bringing up the darker parts of her nature. I don’t think that part of her that is a healer has been destroyed
HereIsTV: 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?
M. 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.
HereIsTV: 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?
M. 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.
HereIsTV: You talked a little bit earlier about Tara’s evolution and how these days she seems quicker to let the violent sides of her nature take over. We saw a little bit of that in the premier at the end of when she walked over to the other gal in the jail and just beat the shit out of her. Are we going to see more of that side of her as the season goes on or is she going to have trouble keeping that side of her in check?
M. Siff: Yes, you’ll see a little bit of that. I mean, I think that she spends a lot of this season really scheming and plotting and doing what she has to do to protect herself. Her tactics are somewhat questionable sometimes. So yes, you’ll see her doing some things that are pretty reminiscent of Gemma and they’ll make you cringe slightly.
I think she’s also learned that if she’s going to survive in this world, which she’s determined to do, then she has to get a little bit dirty.
HereIsTV: We’re talking a little bit now about heading towards the ending of the show and these final two seasons. I wanted a personal perspective from you on Tara. It seems to me that she could sort of go the way, if you’re looking at the Hamlet metaphor, of Ophelia or Horatio. Do you root for her to stay with the club? Do you hope for her to have that disconnect?
M. Siff: Yes, I do. I think the thing that’s complicated is I think in Tara’s ideal world it’s like she has the love of her life, who’s Jax, and she has procured the safety of her children. I think the question, though, that remains as if those things can actually happen together. I think Jax’s happiness is dependent upon there being a club and him being part of it. If the club attempts to come clean it’s like is that possible, is it possible, is it possible? Those are the looming questions. I don’t know if she’s Horatio or Orphelia. It’s a live question. I’m hoping for Horatio.