Maggie Siff interview

by Fiona Rae / 29 June, 2011
The Sons of Anarchy actress talks about her character Tara, the empowered women of SoA, and the awesomely weird Stephen King.

New York-born Maggie Siff began her career in theatre, before being lured to LA to play one of Don Draper's many paramours in Mad Menher character was the only one who told him to man up and accept his responsibilities, however. Next came the critically acclaimed Sons of Anarchy, the FX series about the tumultuous lives of the members of a motorcycle club. She plays Tara Knowles, who escaped the life, only to be pulled back in for love.

Is it fair to say that Tara has had the greatest character journey? I think she has. The thing I love about the character is that she knows that world, she comes from that world, but she really left. She really transformed herself and then she gets sucked back in and transforms in the other direction but all the while the character is trying to balance her different identities, and also is a woman who is in love with this guy and is part of the life of this club. So that keeps evolving and as the seasons go by it gets increasingly complicated.

We’re in the midst of season three, and it’s the one where she’s changed the most. Jax really chooses to put her to the test and she’s really on the edge of trying to figure out what she can endure, but all the while there’s this child who they’ve been caring for together who is in jeopardy and her life is hanging in the balance.

Is Samcro corrupting her? What’s interesting about the character is that she has a moral conscience that never really goes away, however there are all these moments, these spikes, of real violence and compromise I guess. For me, as an actor working on the character, they’ve always felt pretty justified and I think in a strange way – and I’ve talked to the writer of the show about this – Tara is a lens for the audience to look at this world and understand our own moral ambiguities. She’s sort-of a doorway for allowing an audience to love these people at the same time that we recognise that they’re not always good people. That’s the situation that she’s in, so corrupting? Maybe, but she never really loses her moral ground, she’s choosing a life because she loves this man. That’s how I look at it.

Is there any other reason why she would want to be part of that world – she is fitting in, isn’t she? She is, she grew up in the world, so there’s a level on which it’s deeply familiar even as it’s an uncomfortable journey or slide back into it, she knows it. I would say in terms of my understanding of the character, there is a part of her that has a volatile or violent side. I think in order to be a doctor or be a surgeon, there’s a certain amount of … I don’t want to say brutality, but to be able to go into those high-pressure environments and cut open people and the blood and everything else. She’s not an innocent, there’s a way in which she’s connected to some of the violence that runs these people’s lives.

Has it been fun becoming a bit more badass this season? It has been fun, to let loose in that way. For me, there’s that kind of a release in being able to join the world instead of holding it at arm’s length, or feeling so much fear. I guess that becoming a little more of a badass is really about being a little bit less afraid and knowing that she can do what she has to do and defend herself when she needs to defend herself and not have to be in a state of fear that somebody’s going to do something bad to her, so in that sense it’s been fun and empowering.

She was at odds with Gemma originally, but now she’s like Gemma’s young apprentice, isn’t she? Hm-mm, she is. I think Kurt [Sutter], our showrunner, is setting up a story where Tara is in a way being groomed by Gemma, there’s an education that’s happening. There’s these two women who are innately strong and identify with each other; I think the difference though is that Tara has been out in a larger world and has a larger career and perspective, so that tension won’t ever go away and it lives inside of her relationship with Gemma.

Charlie Hunnam (Jax) knows members of a real motorcycle club and got advice about the lifestyle – did you do the same thing and get advice from women in clubs? I didn’t. We have some people in and around our set who intersect with that world that we’ve been able to talk to, but I didn’t really venture into the clubs themselves, I didn’t exactly feel that it was necessary for my research and the research that I did it was very hard to find a lot of information about the women and I think it was also a little intimidating because those clubs are so male dominant and it’s very hard to feel your way into them and find out who the women are and where they live and what the deal is. I honestly think that the show takes a little bit of liberty or licence with what the roles of the women are, I intuited that when we started the process.

It’s a pretty tough world for women … I do suspect that the women play a more significant role than is seen on the surface of those clubs, and certainly what has been written about those clubs. It’s hard to find one’s way into the lives of those women.

There was a scene where Jax tells Tara if she really wants to be his old lady, she should shut up and do as she’s told – but Tara wouldn’t be comfortable with that, would she? No, I don’t think she is, and I actually don’t think that’s their relationship. Someone said to Jax, “If you have an old lady, you either tell them nothing or you tell them everything”. In the most functional version of their relationship he would be telling her everything.

It’s a testosterone-fuelled world and the show is very male-centric – what’s it like working on set with all those guys? They’re so funny and lovely, it’s just like having a big band of brothers, they’re so sweet and funny and not nearly as tough as they look. We have a good time, I guess what’s kind-of cool about it, even though it’s such a testosterone-heavy show, the female characters on the show are actually some of the more empowered women on television. So we all have a lot of respect for each other and enjoy making the world.

Do you mean they’re empowering for other women? In terms of the female characters that you see on television – there are so many female characters in television or movies that are more conventional versions of the girlfriend or the best friend or the sidekick or the bitchy sister. Things that you see over and over again and I feel like the women on this show, Gemma and Tara in particular, they’re complicated and they’re powerful and they’re making decisions and kicking ass.

Katey Sagal as Gemma has been an absolute revelation. She’s amazing. It’s an amazing role. One of my favourite storylines from the first season was the fact that she was going through menopause – the raging mood swings and the fact that she’s this menopausal woman who’s so sexy and alive and clearly sexual and powerful and all of that. I think it’s pretty radical, and she brings so much to it.

We also know you from Mad Men, which is a pretty extraordinary CV. US television is in a pretty good place right now, isn’t it? It really is, before I came out here to work on TV, I mainly did theatre. Mad Men was what brought me out to Los Angeles. I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten to ride this wave of what’s happening in television. I was having a conversation the other day where we were talking about how few truly independent films are being made these days, and you could make the argument that cable is like getting to do 13 short independent films a year. It feels like that’s what’s happening right now in terms of the depth of character and the unusual stories that are being told. We’re very lucky.

Do you have any theories about why it’s happening, or is it just The Sopranos effect? I’m not really sure, it could be because there are fewer films being made, it could be the hunger for stories showing up here now. I do feel like The Sopranos broke ground in terms of what television could do. Also the fact that there’s so many cable channels and so many venues now where the network doesn’t need to get 16 million viewers for a show to be a, quote unquote, success. We can have five million people, or three million people, or in Mad Men’s case, two million people who watch the show and still be considered a success.

You worked on an episode of Sons of Anarchy with the amazing Stephen King, who was awesomely weird – what was it like to work with him? He was lovely and awesomely weird. What was funny was that we were all sort-of in awe of him and he’s a huge fan of the show, so he was like “I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to Gemma and Tara” and we were “I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to Stephen King”. He just fit right in in a really weird way and everybody on the set was wanting to talk to him and he was gracious and lovely and open with everybody.

It would be great if he could write a script … Kurt found out that he was interested in the show and said, “What do you want to do? Do you want to write?” and he wanted to act.

Sons of Anarchy has been called Hamlet with motorcycles – is that a reasonable analogy? I think it is. It remains to be seen whether Kurt will stick to the true Hamlet storyline through to the end. It feels sort-of Greek to me. The reason that I think it’s an apt analogy is because it’s so writ large, it’s so high drama and incredibly high stakes all the time. It feels Shakespearean and Greek in it’s own weird American motorcycle way. The archetypes of those relationships are certainly there – you know, between Gemma and Clay.

Are you filming season four now? Can you give us any hints or general themes? There’s so little I’m allowed to say. I will say this season stays closer to home, it’s a more intimate season, there’s more going on within the life and politics of the club and the family. It really returns to Charming and takes up with the domestic drama. It extends out in other ways. The focus of season four is really the internal relationships.

SONS OF ANARCHY, TV3, Wednesday, 9.30pm.


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