'Billions': Maggie Siff on Wendy's Secret and Playing a Woman with 'Balls'

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Warning: This interview about the season premiere of Billions contains spoilers.

If you tuned into Billions tonight to watch acting heavyweights Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis go head-to-head as a financial world prosecutor and a financial world tycoon, respectively, you probably weren’t disappointed. Even though U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes (Giamatti) and hedge fund wizard Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) didn’t confront each other until the final few moments of the season premiere, that encounter delivered all the dramatic fireworks we were anticipating. But there’s a scene earlier in the episode that packs even more of a punch than that clash of the titans, and the two stars are nowhere in sight.

Instead, the sequence is a showcase for Maggie Siff, who plays Wendy Rhodes — a talented performance coach stuck in the unenviable position of being Chuck’s wife and Bobby’s employee. Her love for her husband is matched by her love of her job, which requires her to give the would-be Masters of the Universe toiling at Axelrod’s hedge fund the confidence they need to go out and earn millions for their employer. In the scene in question, Wendy is having a session with one particularly confidence-challenged employee, Mick (Nathan Darrow), who feels he’s “lost his mojo.”

Related: Ken Tucker Reviews ‘Billions’

Waving away the suggestion that he might need medication, she goes about trying to tease out his inner alpha — cajoling, coddling and practically bullying him into getting his groove back. It’s the moment where Wendy proves that she can equal — and even surpass — the machismo of the two alpha males in her life, her husband and her boss, and Siff plays it to the hilt. Yahoo TV spoke with the former Sons of Anarchy star about being a tough woman in a very manly world.

So much of the premiere is about Chuck and Bobby showcasing their machismo, it’s fun to see Wendy demonstrate her alpha qualities, too.
Wendy loves swimming in those waters with alpha men. She’s very comfortable there, but the tools she’s employing to live there are really varied. She’s as strong and sharp and intellectual as any of them, and she has balls, so to speak. But she’s also very comfortable using her sensuality and her humor and a bunch of other things that put these guys at ease. And she’s completely unapologetic about her tactics, whatever they may be in the moment. All of the characters have a great appetite for what they do and how they’re doing it, and the power and influence they yield.

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We see her employing a number of those tactics throughout her session with Mick. At times she’s mothering him, and other times she’s almost coming onto him.
One of the first things we learn about Wendy in the premiere is that she’s a dominatrix within her marriage to Chuck, so she’s comfortable inhabiting that role. I thought about how that might translate into her role with these guys at work, because in a similar — but obviously much more subtle way — these are people she can take control of in a way that pus them at ease. They live in these high pressures environments all the time, and exerting some power over them fundamentally relaxes them. It’s like, “Somebody else is in control right now.” In order to be any kind of counselor, you need to have a tremendous amount of empathy and compassion. She’s micro-reading micro-moments and adjusting course, breaking down the session beat by beat about what [tactic] is called for.

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How many versions of the scene did you shoot?
Nathan Darrow and I played with the physical nature of the scene and we improvised a little bit, too. The exchange about how much money he was earning and the moment where I punch him in the chest — none of that was scripted, it all just come from playing together. We had to figure out how you pump up this guy and fill him with enough confidence and ego in a way that didn’t feel cartoonish, but was really fun and genuine and very fast. One of the things the showrunners have talked about with me is that Wendy is a person who has to make change happen for people very, very quickly. So we played around with it for quite awhile until we all felt good [about it].

Are there any individuals within the financial world who have a similar job to Wendy?
I would say the character is an amalgam of certain professions and certain people. I There was a psychiatrist named Ari Kiev, who worked for hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, and I read a bunch of his work. One of our showrunners has a relationship with Tony Robbins, so I got to speak with him. And there are a couple of other performance coaches in this world that I’ve spoken to; it’s a role that exists, but it’s hard to know exactly what goes on inside those doors. I think our writers did take some liberties in terms of thinking about who Wendy might be and how she works. She’s a lot of people rolled into one, which is why she’s so fun to play.

Are there specifically any women who inhabit this kind of position? Wendy’s gender adds a very different dynamic to her sessions with these guys.
I did speak with one woman who does something akin to this. One of the interesting things I heard from a couple of people is that there are very few women traders in the financial world. It’s a growing population, and some people feel that women are potentially more skilled in this particular area, because they’re very good at assessing risk and perhaps have a little less ego at stake. But it’s definitely [still] a man’s world in all the different ways. One of the ongoing questions I have for our writers is what Wendy’s ultimate goal is. Is it just to help these guys make money, or am I also trying to help them rediscover aspects of their humanity and help them be better people? That’s something that I personally carry around in regards to Wendy; I think she has deeper humanitarian goals as well.

Watch the full Billions premiere here:

Another key element of the premiere is Wendy’s precarious position between Chuck and Bobby. How is that going to play out over the course of the season?
The writers are being very artful about it. The history between her and Bobby is longer than the history between her and her husband, Chuck. She’s been with the firm longer than she’s been married. Things have built over the course of a decade to this moment where suddenly there’s a real conflict of interest. One of the things that’s an issue throughout the season with her and Chuck is the question, “Should I quit my job or should you quit your job?” And it’s a very fair question given how invested she is in her job and Bobby’s firm. So that will continue to play itself out.

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As you mentioned earlier, Wendy and Chuck have a very private relationship behind closed doors. How did you prepare for that aspect of the role?
Paul and I talked to a lot of people, and thought a lot about how this relationship within the marriage came about. One of the things you see teased over the course of the season is whether this is something they both need or if it’s something one of them needs. The great thing about Wendy as a character is that she’s very understanding and empathetic towards these powerful men than perhaps a lot of other women are. I don’t think she feels at the mercy of anyone. She and her husband have an agreement that they can keep this within the marriage.

We can’t say goodbye without asking one Sons of Anarchy question. Did you tune in to watch the final season even after being killed off?
I did watch the final season. Kurt’s parting gift to me when he told me I was leaving the show was giving me some intimation of what the arc of the seventh season was like, so I knew certain things. But it was still really strange and dramatic and sad to watch it all play out. It was such a tragic show. The weirdest thing about watching that last season is that I felt very present there. I felt myself there very intensely, but I absolutely wasn’t there [on set].

Billions airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime