Women in Hollywood might be doing better these days when it comes to improving their level of representation on screen, but it’s still not easy to make sure that when they get a chance at a role on a high-profile drama, it’s one that really gives them agency and authority.
That said, Malin Akerman and Maggie Siff, who share the stage of “Billions” with co-leads Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, seem pretty happy with the roles they’ve been given to develop. At the TCA Winter Press Tour in January, the duo took our questions about what it’s like to create a marriage with someone who’s technically a stranger, how “Billions” differs from other shows and how exactly they fit into the tale of an extremely rich hedge fund king Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) and the U.S. attorney (Giamatti) who wants to take him down. An edited compilation of our two conversations follows.
How do they feel about their characters on “Billions”?
MALIN AKERMAN: I’m feeling elated. I think it’s such a good show. It’s something I want to say, I manifested for myself. I wanted [something] to sink my teeth into, and this came along. I read the script and I fell in love with these strong female characters who are equals to men. They’re not standing behind them. They’re standing beside them. I couldn’t be happier on Showtime. Fantastic cast. Amazing writers. Living in New York. It really is a thrilling show. I’m so excited.
MAGGIE SIFF: I thought she was fascinating. You know, everyone in the show is so bleeding smart. They’re all such confident, brilliant, talking people. And then for my character– As an actress, there was a big question about the [dominatrix] stuff. And how big a piece of the show and the character was that going to be, and what was going to be required of me. I thought it was really well done in the pilot and a really interesting reveal. A very exciting and fascinating component of their marriage. And I thought it was interesting that it was within a marriage. So, across the board I was really excited and intrigued and a little bit nervous about the prospect of doing it.
How Do They Make Sure They’re Not Just “The Wife”?
AKERMAN: By talking to the writers before you say, “Yes.” Because that was a discussion that we had and I said, “Listen.” Even in the pilot there weren’t many scenes of her, but the scenes that she was in, they were very telling of who she is and how strong she is. And so we had a discussion before signing on. In TV, you don’t really know how it’s going. You don’t really know how big of a part you’re going to play in it. I just said to them that I really want to be a part of this show because I think the writing is great, but I also don’t want [to be just the wife]. I don’t want to fall into the shadows, and they assured me that she’s very much a part of it and that she’s very much Bobby’s partner. They stand side by side and they respect one another. She definitely is not a trophy wife. They both come from humble beginnings and blue collar families. They have the same value system. They’ve worked hard and come into very big money, and they have a skewed version of what’s fair and not fair and that’s why they work well together. But it definitely was a concern of mine, and I wanted to make sure that wasn’t going to happen. I’m feeling pretty confident with what we’ve seen and what we’ve shot that she’s a big part of the show.
I said, “I don’t want–” and both David and Brian were like, “Are you kidding me? This is going to happen. And she’s going to be this. And she’s going to do this.” She takes the bull by its horns and so they were very good at convincing me — without giving too much away, because then I’ll give away the plot of certain episodes. But they gave me an idea of where her character was going.
SIFF: The thing that I think is fascinating is that Wendy has a standalone relationship with each of [the men] that is authentic and deep and true and honest and it has nothing to do with the other. And then what we experience in the pilot, there might be a conflict of interest here. And that’s something you see play out throughout the season. There’s a conundrum that’s at work for all of them in different ways, but obviously for her. But in her mind where we meet her in the pilot, she has her job and she has her home life like anybody so I don’t think it’s that confusing yet.
When I first read the script, I was like, “Oh my God. She’s the wife at home, but she’s also in the world.” I’ve been in a lot of shows where I’m the girlfriend or the wife and the bulk of the action — the world being dissected and explored — is over there. And female characters are often peripheral to that. Not always, but if you’re someone like me, who plays the love interest with any regularity, then you’re often off to the side.
What Does It Take to Create a Marriage on Screen?
AKERMAN: I knew of [Damian Lewis] because he’s a fabulous actor, but it was great to meet him and thank God he’s a lovely, lovely human being who I respect very much. We just hit it off. This is really good casting. Brian and David made sure that they didn’t get any rotten apples. Good actors with great attitudes who are there to work. Everyone is there for the right reason. But yeah, I think the world of Damien. I think he’s a fabulous actor and a charming gentleman and fun and great.
SIFF: I flew to New York and read with [Giamatti] when I was auditioning for the role because he’d already been cast. I kind of knew immediately that it was going to be good and easy because he’s such a mensch. He’s such a lovely guy. He’s so humble. I just felt like we had this very easy rapport and then when we got into shooting the pilot– There we were in those compromising positions and we just laughed and we had a good time. And we did some research together. He’s not your average bear. He’s a great human being in addition to being a great actor. I felt pretty confident, pretty quickly that we’d be able to figure that out. And the writers are really smart, and I think they both have really good marriages so I think they’re writing some of our scenes in a way that feels true.
AKERMAN: It’s hashing it out. It’s talking about it with the creators. It’s understanding their view of where they want to see this couple coming from and what their relationship has looked like. We’ve all been in relationships at some point in our life, and we know that it takes work and there’s ups and downs. We kind of figured out what our biggest moments were, but ultimately we have to get an understanding of our value system and where we stand on child rearing and all the life views we have have to be similar.
How Does Privilege Affect Character?
AKERMAN: I didn’t grow up with privilege. We didn’t have much money growing up. We lived in a co-op, and I didn’t get to sit in a car ’til I was about eight years old. We had a bicycle and lived in Canada and Toronto with freezing cold winters. It was all good memories, but my dad would pick me up on his bicycle in the dead of winter in the snow with his suit and his briefcase in the front basket. I’d sit in the child seat and stick my cold hands up his back. It was so fun. Great memories. But we didn’t have much money and I think that I guess you have an appreciation in a different way when success comes your way — when you work hard and you make things happen, you appreciate it. You don’t take it for granted. We want to make sure that we play that in these characters because that’s what’s going to make them likable. And relatable in a weird way — to say, relatable to a billionaire — but they come from beginnings that very many people have had so you see that’s where their allegiance is: to their clan and where they came from.
I love the scene [in the pilot, where Lara confronts a widow whose husband used to work for Axelrod’s company]–
Yeah, it’s a great scene. It’s what made me fall in love with [Lara]. Here’s [June], this woman that has probably grown up with money her whole life. Granted, she lost her husband on 9/11, but I lost my brother in 9/11. We’re equal here. She’s sitting there complaining that she just had to sell the yacht, and you’re like, “Lady. There are bigger fish to fry in this world.” And I love that.
Where Does Lara’s Power As A Character Come From?
AKERMAN: Lara’s power? She’s a billionaire. You can make a lot of things happen with money. But you have access to pretty much anything she needs access to. Her confidence comes a lot from knowing that. She knows she can have anyone do what she needs them to do. Things have always sort of gone her way. She sits confidently and lets this woman know that she’s going to make sure her life is a living hell if she’s making her’s a living hell.
I think that’s reality. I think that the richest of the rich rule the world in the world we live in. I really do think that you can become president if you have that money. It’s almost to the point where I feel like money makes the world turn, unfortunately. I wish it weren’t so, but I do feel like it’s commentary on the world we live it.
What Kind of Research Did Maggie Siff Do?
SIFF: I’ve been trying to find the person who does what the character does. And I haven’t actually met anybody, but I’ve been reading some people who are psychotherapists for these traders. The writers connected me with Tony Robbins, so I had a fun talk with him about some of his strategies. He works closely with a hedge fund guy — his name is Paul Jones — and I talked to somebody in the sex industry about dom/sub dynamics. I talked to a couple people about that. Just reading a lot.
Does Malin Akerman Enjoy the Cursing?
AKERMAN: Yeah. I’m loving it. Because that’s real life, for me anyway. I have such a trucker mouth, so it feels really natural. And it’s not gratuitous either. We’re not just going to throw “fuck” in just because we can. They’re clever. The way that they write it in is clever. When it’s needed, we pepper in a bit of profanity.
Does “Billions” Feel Different From Working on Other Shows?
AKERMAN: It’s very different because it’s the first time I’m doing a one-hour drama. I’ve never done this before. It’s exactly what I want to be doing. It’s what I like to watch. “House of Cards” is one of my favorites, and “Breaking Bad.” It was on my radar to find a show like this, and I still can’t believe that it’s happening, but it’s definitely different just because of that. The genre is very different. There’s “The Comeback” and “Trophy Wife” — those are the only other shows that I’ve done. And HBO is very similar to Showtime creatively. You feel like you have a lot of liberty. And I’m so happy to be on Showtime for that reason. And, you know, [with] “Trophy Wife” I had a blast doing it and it was great, but there were definitely more limitations as far as what you can and can’t say or what you can and can’t do or show. I like a little bit of an edge, so this suits me quite well, to be on a network that allows edge and allows you to open your mind creatively to new ideas and push the envelope a little bit.
SIFF: I’ve been totally blessed to play really strong, independent, smart women who have careers; to represent that at large, which is great… I’ve obviously spent most of the past seven or eight years doing that. I feel very lucky. I’ve caught the wave of some really great shows. And I do love it. I love the long-form nature of discovering a character that way. And I’ve been blessed to work with some really great writers who know how to develop story over a 13-episode season in a way that’s isn’t repetitive. It’s entertainment on a very high level where you feel like you’re making a little movie each week and that’s exciting… A character really has a chance to transform in a different way; in a way that feels more like life. In movies or plays, there are these events — these cathartic events — that lead to the end where you think the character is different. They’ve changed. I think in a long-form story like this, you see people change over years and so the change can be incremental and amount to a really subtle and profound shift that an audience feels in their bones in a different way. Like you grow with with a character. Or you can see a character grow up.
What’s the One Major Thing They Hope People Get Out of the Show?
AKERMAN: A thrill. I hope they get a thrill out of it. It’s just entertainment. It’s some really fun, clever entertainment, and I hope that people enjoy the thrill of it. Some shows leave you something to suck on like a mint, but this is this edgy, provocative show that will keep you on the edge of your seat. And hopefully give you a fun ride.
SIFF: I hope people take away a great story. They’re great characters. Like when I watched the pilot, I was very surprised at how visceral it was. It’s almost operatic or something. And on the page you might think it’d be dry or technical because of the intricacies of these worlds, so I hope that what is exciting about it is how nuanced and detailed the worlds are wrapped up in this really visceral sort of emotional human drama.
AKERMAN: There’s a lot of pressure. It’s like anything. If in life you want to lead an extraordinary life, it’s going to be a harder journey or a bigger struggle. I think that that is– You have to work hard for something that’s going to be great and once you get there it’s hard to stay there as well. Because everyone is working towards it. Everyone wants it. Everyone is trying to take you down. The more money you have, the more problems you have.
“Billions” airs Sundays on Showtime.