TV’s kinkiest married couple, Billions’ Maggie Siff and Paul Giamatti, gives us the reel-/real-life down and dirty on sex, $$, power, and staying on top in Tinseltown.
On Siff: Dress, Roberto Cavalli (price on request). Saks Fifth Avenue, 5555 Wisconsin Ave., 301-657-9000. Slip, La Perla ($668). Saks Fifth Avenue, see above. Champagne diamond briolette hoop earrings, Alexandra Mor (price on request). 18k pink-gold, amethyst, and diamond pavé MVSA ring, Bulgari ($5,750). The Collection at Chevy Chase, 301-986-8610. Belt, Nina Ricci (price on request). Saks Fifth Avenue, see above. On Giamatti: Tuxedo coat ($695), shirt ($125), and trousers ($295), Joseph Abboud. Prop: Cast concrete cube, RH, Restoration Hardware ($130). 1222 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-625-2771
As scenes from a marriage go, it’s hard to top the opening moments of Billions for sheer eye-popping intensity. We don’t know it at first, but the man bound and gagged on the floor in the Showtime series premiere is actually wedded to the leather-bound dominatrix snuffing out a cigarette on his chest. The relationship only heats up from there.
Paul Giamatti, 49, plays the guy with the burn hole, who also happens to be United States Attorney Chuck Rhoades. His wife, Wendy, portrayed in thigh-high footwear by Maggie Siff, 42, is more than just his partner in blowing off steam. She’s the in-house shrink and performance coach at Axe Capital, a massive hedge fund that pays her eight times more than her husband makes. Needless to say, Chuck cannot wait to expose Axe and its rakish billionaire CEO, played by Damian Lewis, as corrupt.
What a relief that both Giamatti (Sideways, Downton Abbey) and Bryn Mawr graduate Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men) are vastly more likeable in person than their deliciously despicable characters. The actors recently sat down with Capitol File to talk about the show and the juicy themes it evokes: money, power, sex, greed, and, these days, how to dominate the not-so-small screen in Hollywood.
“I never watch television... I love to read!” admits king of TV Paul Giamatti, here entwined with his Showtime screen queen, Maggie Siff, enrobed in the Allene dress from Preen by Thornton Bregazzi ($1,335). Sterling silver Horsebit Light bracelet, Gucci ($1,950). CityCenterDC, 202-795-7950. On Giamatti: Tuxedo, Brooks Brothers ($1,198). 3077 M St. NW, 202-298-8797. Shirt, Eton of Sweden ($295). Bloomingdale’s, Tysons Corner, 703-556-4600. Tie, Title of Work ($225). Saks Fifth Avenue, 5555 Wisconsin Ave., 301-657-9000. Pocket square, The Tie Bar ($10), Nordstrom, Tysons Corner, 703-761-1121
Billions is being acclaimed as one of the best new shows on television, but Chuck and Wendy aren’t exactly easy to take. How do you explain their attraction?
Paul Giamatti: They’re two incredibly smart people who are almost too well matched in some weird way. They both love power, they play off each other’s intensity, and they both hunger for success. We’ve dropped into their relationship near the end of something rather than the beginning, though I do think it was loving at one point. It’s a portrait of people hitting a bad spot in a marriage. How they’re going to work it out, I don’t know. But it is certainly a helluva lot of fun to play.
Maggie Siff: They’re tough on each other but they’re also very honest. They can be their full selves in a way that’s completely uncensored and unguarded. People like to comment on the sexual element of their relationship as something very dark. But I see it as a testament to their connection. Somewhere along the line, it came up in conversation and they allowed it into the marriage. Behind the scenes, we talk about it being something that Chuck needs in his life, and that Wendy is like, Okay, I can do that. Don’t knock open, honest communication, right?
In last season’s finale, Chuck breaks into Wendy’s computer, visits another dominatrix behind her back, and accuses Wendy of being an immoral criminal. Where are things when Billions returns in January?
Siff: Season two picks up soon after we left off and you see them regrouping. Wendy’s not at Axe Capital anymore, which makes things complicated for her and Chuck personally and professionally. They’re trying to figure out what to do with themselves. It’s interesting playing a character this conflicted. Something I struggle with occasionally is wanting my characters to be maybe more heroic than they are. I don’t know if every actor struggles with that. I love Wendy and love that she’s so interested in helping people thrive and succeed. My question is always, why not help different kinds of people beyond the hedge fund guys? Can she examine her conscience and ask, “Why only help the super-rich?”
“I’M LUCKY AS HELL THAT I MAKE A DECENT LIVING, BUT I THINK I’M EVEN LUCKIER THAT I DON’T HAVE A TASTE FOR SPEEDBOATS AND TAILORED SUITS AND MANSIONS IN THE HAMPTONS.” —Paul Giamatti
Money is practically its own character on Billions—the $60 million beach house, the live-in chefs, the private helicopters. How has inhabiting this world altered your view of the 0.0001 percent?
Giamatti: It freaks me out. I’m not going to condemn it, but I do find this level of extreme wealth to be strange and alienating. I’ve got no problem with living well, but you get to a place where enough is enough. In certain circles, though, more is more is more and it never ends. Money makes your situation better, I’ll tell you that. But I personally don’t tend to spend much of it. I think that’s made my life a lot easier. I’m lucky as hell that I make a decent living, but I think I’m even luckier that I don’t have a taste for speedboats and tailored suits and mansions in the Hamptons.
Siff: My feelings haven’t changed at all. I still think it’s bizarre and maybe even a little unhealthy to be rich enough to be a nation-state of your own.
At least tell us you enjoyed driving Wendy’s Christmas bonus—the Maserati GranTurismo Sport Coupe, which retails for around $132,000.
Siff: To be honest, it’s like getting on a thoroughbred for the first time. You’re like, Whoa! What is this? I only got to drive in a parking lot, unfortunately. And here’s the scary thing: Not only are you driving an extraordinarily expensive car, but they also strap on the most expensive camera equipment to the windshield and you’re barely able to see the road. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t the most romantic driving experience.
Paul, you won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for playing John Adams in the 2008 TV miniseries of the same name. Which is the most cutthroat—Washington, Wall Street, or Hollywood?
Giamatti: All three worlds have colorful characters and a high degree of ambition, backstabbing, and all that. I think the political and financial people tend to play things a little more low-key and hidden. That’s not to say you don’t have maverick characters who come up, like the guy who’s running for president. But Hollywood, I think, is the most out-there when it comes to flaunting success and spreading gossip and who’s got the biggest, you know, office.
What’s your take on awards season?
Giamatti: As an experience, awards ceremonies are truly exciting but also complete mayhem. I’m always amazed people don’t have epileptic seizures with the camera lights flashing in their eyes. If Billions wins an award now or in the future, that would be great, but honestly, the awards and the job we do are completely separate. You never, ever enter a scene thinking, Oh, this is my Emmy moment. You think, This is a great story, these are phenomenal actors I’m working with, and it’s just fantastic to be making a living in this profession. You get an award and you’re like, Wow, this is an amazing unexpected bonus.
On Giamatti: Tuxedo ($3,395) and shirt ($395), Dolce & Gabbana. Nordstrom, Tysons Corner, 703-761-1121. On Siff: Lace gown, Dolce & Gabbana ($8,995). See above. Platinum, white-gold, and diamond Heritage earrings, Van Cleef & Arpels ($82,000). Tysons Galleria, 703-761-1600
We’ve talked about success, but what are the worst jobs you’ve ever had?
Siff: For about a month in my 20s, I worked at a hedge fund for real. A friend of mine was dating a guy who was a banker, and he gave me a temp job. I had no clue what I was doing. I would sit in front of these Bloomberg computer terminals and bullshit my way through the day so hard it was scary. And while there’s a high degree of glamour in the world of hedge funds we depict on the show, this was pretty basic: a lot less swag and a lot more khakis and plaid.
Giamatti: I’ve done so much weird stuff as an actor. I once had to do an entire movie [the 2006 indie film The Hawk Is Dying] with a hawk strapped to my arm. I remember driving in the enclosed cab of a truck down a highway in Florida with the bird screaming out and its claws going after my face. That was way more dangerous than bringing down billionaires.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Siff: I take it easy. My husband and I live in New York, where I grew up, and we have a 2-year-old. I was pretty tired after the season and wanted to catch the last of my daughter’s babyhood. It’s going really, really fast. As far as guilty pleasures, I’m pretty nerdy. A night alone, I like to eat ice cream and watch BBC’s Call the Midwife.
Giamatti: I’m embarrassed to admit that I never watch television. I know I’m missing out. But I love to read and see theater. I took my son to Hamilton, which was incredible, of course, and we got to meet the cast, who were weirdly excited to say hello because they wanted to meet another founding father.
Okay, finally, what really happens during a sex scene?
Siff: In general on the show, we do everything we can to lighten things up. Paul and I call each other Buck and Cindy, and our version of Cindy is spelled X-I-N-D-E-E. Damian loves singing show tunes around the set. When the cameras roll on the sex stuff, it’s all a total illusion. I’m standing there in six-inch stilettos attempting to look hot but desperately trying not to fall on my ass.
Giamatti: For me, it’s interesting. Being tied up made me really relaxed to the point where I kept falling asleep. At one point, Maggie had to use a low-voltage prod on me, which nobody knew how to operate. I’m falling asleep and she’s tickling me with the thing by really pressing it into me. But then she kinda runs it lightly from my navel up to my chest and it shocks the living hell out of me. After that, I was wide awake. She didn’t try it again.
photography by rodolfo martinez. Styling by Gregory Wein. Styling assistance by Abraham Winter. Hair by Matthew Monzon for John Paul Mitchell Systems at Jed Root. Makeup by Matin for ChapStick. Grooming by Jordan Bree Long using SK-II Skincare at Starworks Artists. Manicure by Ana-Maria using Dior Vernis. Location: Bathhouse Studios is one of New York City’s premier photo facilities. A private roof deck, penthouse, and myriad design details have made it an ideal locale for shoots as well as large-scale productions. 540 E. 11th St., New York, 212-388-1111