Emmy Watch: 'Sons of Anarchy' star Maggie Siff talks Tara's rise and fall (and rise again)

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Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

Jax’s old lady Tara has always been the character to whom many Sons of Anarchy fans relate most: As long as this strong, smart woman is willing to stay in this outlaw world, it’s safe for us to play in it, too. That’s why it felt like we were all being punished when she was led away in handcuffs at the end of the season 5 finale. Siff spoke with EW about filming that soul-sucking scene, the season’s controversial masturbation moments (including the one with death row inmate Otto, played by series creator Kurt Sutter), and where her character goes from here.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you learn Tara would be ending the season headed to jail?
MAGGIE SIFF: It was toward the end of the season. There was this moment where the tension was mounting in the episodes, [Laughs] and I started to sniff around and ask the writers. I’m like, “Am I going to jail? Am I going to spend next season in jail?” At first, people were like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” And then the answer started to be, “Well… maybe.” And then I asked Kurt. I think he told me maybe two or three episodes before the finale. They were going back and forth about it. They weren’t sure if they wanted to open that particular can of worms and how it would lead into the story lines [for season 6].

Watching her get arrested when she had the job waiting for her in Oregon was so painful. How did you view the decision to take the character there?
There are these moments when I read things in scripts and my heart breaks a little. It’s happened to me before where I’m like, Oh no, that’s terrible! It is just like another piece of her dream is crushed. It’s always so upsetting to have to take that in, to think about it and digest it, and to perform it. But I get excited as an actor — those are the kinds of things that change a person’s character. So then I get to start thinking about what that means for next season. What kind of resolve does she enter season 6 with? Because she’s not a person whose spirit is ever totally crushed. She surfaces and rises again. She’s a very strong person. Over the course of this series, you’ve seen her suffer all of these blows, and then who she evolves into has a little bit more steeliness. So I know that there’s a rebirth on the other side of that. But going into it and preparing for it, it’s about looking into another face of hopelessness, [Laughs] and the immediate questioning of who’s to blame? That’s the question mark hanging over that episode and certainly the character: Why am I here, and who did this to me?

That line you delivered as Tara hears baby Thomas — “He’s crying” — was that scripted? It was gut-wrenching.
It was a really interesting moment because it wasn’t in the script. Kurt was directing the episode, which is always a luxury. He’s very strict about all of us adhering to the words as they’re written on the page, and on the page, I had very little to say. I was just led off in handcuffs. When we started to shoot the scene, I said to Kurt, “I have to be having a reaction to what’s happening.” We just talked about what the various possibilities are. I said, “I just put my child down to bed. I’m being dragged out of the house, and my children are in the other room. So I think I would go quietly, but I also think that I’d be freaking out.” So we were trying to figure out where it lived, and he told me to say that. He said, “Say, ‘He’s crying.'” We didn’t know how I would say it, or how it would come out, and then as we were shooting it, it’s this surreal I’m being led away in handcuffs, and he’s crying, and I can’t go to him. It’s kind of like a statement of fact. But it was a totally invented moment on the spot.

Earlier in the scene, as Tara’s telling Jax he shouldn’t have attacked Wendy (Drea de Matteo) the way he had (shooting up his recovering-addict ex to avoid a custody issue), I was happy Tara was holding Thomas. I couldn’t believe it, but part of me feared Jax would grab Tara — which I knew he’d never do if she was carrying the baby.
That was another long conversation that I had with Kurt when he wrote that scene between Jax and Wendy, and then when I found out that Jax did that to her. I was like, “That’s perhaps the worst piece of information I’ve ever gotten about my husband, and it’s really scary.” I think Kurt was more interested in telling the story of Tara deciding to leave, and she’s always approached Jax with a lot of love, even in the face of the brutality of that life. But there was something so personal about Jax’s attack on Wendy, and the fact that he had attacked a woman that he once loved and someone who’s in recovery. In my mind and in my psyche — both as Maggie and as the character — I was truly, truly horrified by that, and I wanted to find a way to really play that. So we negotiated how she could be strong and let him know that he crossed a really terrible line in her mind, and how she could hold firm to the plan of getting out and being really clear about why she’s doing it, and also not entirely losing the love between them. Again, it was a really fascinating scene to play because I’m sitting there in judgment of him and telling him what I’m doing, and he has this very cold reaction. The baby is there, and our family is in the room. It’s a conversation that’s just started to happen, and then the police walk in and arrest me. So it suspends this moment that feels really dangerous.

I remember talking to Kim Coates (Tig) after the season premiere, in which Tig’s daughter was burned alive in front of him. He shot that scene, and the one where he explains what happened to the guys, over two days. He said he didn’t shower that first night because he wanted to stay in that place. Did you do anything different to get yourself to that depth?
Luckily it didn’t take two days to film. I’ve never had to do something over days like Kim had to do with that. I think that would actually be very difficult. I find that it feels sorta like I’m sucked into a little black hole and then I’m spat out. If I’ve done it well, I actually feel like I shed it when I leave work. There’s a kind of exorcism in just performing it. I know that’s not true for everybody. The only time it haunts me is when I don’t feel like I’ve done it right… And I have to say when I shoot scenes with Charlie, the relationship has such history and such weight, it never feels like I need to do a lot of preparation beforehand. The reality of our relationship feels very, very real. In some ways, I try not to over think that. Like, I remember last year when we were shooting the scene where Tara’s hand got smashed in the hospital, I just spent a lot of time with the material the day before we were shooting. The thing that I do when I don’t know emotionally how something’s supposed to unfold is I take walks and let the words roll around in my head, and then I show up, and I’m working with somebody with whom truth always seems to arrive. When you’ve been working on something for so many years, these are the sets you’ve been living in for six years and the people you’ve been married to for six years.

Earlier in the finale, Tara has that heated scene with Gemma (Katey Sagal) in which Gemma threatens to tell the investigators that Tara had asked her for that crucifix Otto used to kill the prison nurse and also that Tara had told her exactly what she’d have Otto do with it. Tara told Gemma that Jax would kill her for that, and Gemma said he might as well kill her because she’s dead without her boys: “At least I would have the satisfaction of knowing you were locked up gettin’ fist-raped until they were well into their 20s.” Tell me about filming that scene.
The whole episode is really Tara pulling up all of her resolve to leave, and she’s not afraid. That’s the thing about that episode that I really enjoy and that I feel is so critical about the development of that character: She finally reaches a place where she’s like, “I’m out of here, and you people can’t hurt me anymore.” Even though Gemma punches her in the stomach, Tara really, truly believes that, and that’s stronger than we’ve ever seen the character… In terms of shooting that scene with Katey, we love each other. So whenever we have these particularly violent scenes with each other, we have to wade through our affection and get to the nastiness, which is fun. We enjoy doing that with each other. They’re serious adversaries.

I also wanted to talk about the masturbation scenes: After Tara wears Luann’s perfume and runs her fingers through Otto’s hair while he masturbates in prison, she returns home, sniffs the perfume, and touches herself. I never quite knew how to read that. What was she thinking in your mind?
At that point in the series and in the world, she is very, very lonely. She’s just been around somebody who’s in a lot of pain and is very lonely. I think the event triggers a set of feelings in her. I think it’s about her own relationship with herself, and her own feelings of loneliness and abandonment, and not knowing how to be or how to comfort herself. I know that it was a talked about and twisted moment. People read it a lot of different ways. For myself and how I played it, it didn’t make any sense that it was an erotic fixation on Otto or that it was self-flagellating. People masturbate. [Laughs] People masturbate in weird moments, in weird ways, and nobody else knows because it’s behind closed doors. The chain of association that leads people to sexualized places is sometimes very strange and kind of labyrinthine. So it didn’t actually seem that weird to me. Although I understand why it read that way. And she’s a doctor. She’s a healer. That moment [in the prison] is helping him. As weird as it was, I think there’s a feeling that she ends up having for Otto in that moment that is actually a little bit tender because he’s so pathetic, and he’s so alone, and he’s so in need. It’s her nature to facilitate helping people to the extent that she can.

What excites you most looking ahead to season 6?
For me, with Tara, it’s always been about her shedding fear. And the way that that’s unfolded has been a pretty interesting combination of becoming simultaneously more like the people who she’s surrounded by — Jax, the club, Gemma — and becoming a little bit more clear about what she needs to do for herself and how to protect her family. So she’s at once transforming more into somebody who can populate this world without thinking twice about it and also somebody who’s drawing lines and boundaries and trying to change the trajectory of her families’ lives. She doesn’t want to be Gemma and Clay [Ron Perlman], and she doesn’t want them to be criminals, and she doesn’t want her sons to enter that life. I think where Tara and Jax end last season, there’s just a lot of betrayal. The door that was open to her in terms of having an exit strategy is now closed. So what I’m excited about is where she goes from there, because she does not admit defeat. Her feelings of needing to protect her family are stronger than ever, and yet she is more hemmed in than ever. I think what you end up seeing in season 6 is somebody who is craftier and using her wiles a little bit more, and kind of playing by the rules of that world, which are shadier, more complicated, and a little bit more violent. Her goal — what she wants for herself and what she wants for kids — is completely the opposite of the values of that world, of the values of Gemma.

I was also surprised by how much I disliked Jax in the end.
I think last season you saw Jax becoming somebody who people feel pretty ambiguous about. He is sliding more toward who Clay has been, and his violent nature has blossomed. The thing that’s so great about Charlie in the part is that no matter what Jax does, there’s this kind of fundamental sweetness and goodness that people sense and root for. But we’re meant to be a little bit upset with him and horrified by some of the turns that he takes. In the course of the series, you’ve seen him go from being an idealistic innocent trying to follow the philosophy of getting on the right path that his father’s journals offer, to being a very dark version of himself. The death of Opie [Ryan Hurst] really sent him on a dark path. I think that’s gonna continue for a while. He’s no angel. And one of the things that I’ve appreciated about the way Kurt has written their relationship is that he never wanted Tara to be a Carmela Soprano. He’s wanted her to have these moments of really seeing him and reckoning with it.

Kurt has already said season 6 will be the most violent one yet. How do you feel hearing that?
None of us feel safe. Everybody on this show is like, Oh god. [Laughs] What’s gonna happen? He’s definitely not afraid to have terrible things happen to the people who are involved in the club. That’s one of the consequences of the life, and I think he’s really trying to pull the curtain back on that. I think we all feel like we’re in the homestretch of this series [which Kurt anticipates lasting seven seasons]. It’s gonna be drawn-out and bloody, but we’re all ready for however that plays out.

Read more:
Emmys: 15 Actors We’re Rooting For
Emmys: 15 Actresses We’re Rooting For
‘Sons of Anarchy’ season 5 finale recap: Jax got this?

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