ABOVE: MAGGIE SIFF AS TARA KNOWLES ON SONS OF ANARCHY. IMAGE COURTESY OF PRASHANT GUPTA/FX
Dave Navarro, on first glance, looks not dissimilar from the steel-toed, chopper-riding members of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club; you know, that beastly group of shit-kicking badasses on FX’s brilliant motorcycle-gang drama of the same name. But the Jane’s Addiction guitarist, who makes a guest appearance on Sons of Anarchy for tonight’s season finale and who has contributed to the show’s soundtrack with a cover of “Sympathy for the Devil,” says his gruff exterior and bad-boy personality is, well, sort of a front. “It’s not like I’m actually causing any trouble,” he says, quick to proclaim himself an “armchair outlaw.”
Sure, the musician may have a slightly deceiving persona. But perhaps that’s why he found himself so quick to relate to Maggie Siff, the acclaimed actress who, as the ever-evolving Dr. Tara Knowles on Sons of Anarchy, serves as both the show’s moral compass and a signifier of how even the most grounded person can be corrupted by circumstance. On the occasion of his guest role, Navarro (with an assist from Interview‘s Dan Hyman) chopped it up with the acclaimed actress.
DAN HYMAN: Dave, how much did you know about Sons of Anarchy before your guest role? I’d have to imagine you were a fan of the show?
DAVE NAVARRO: I can just tell you I was a fan of the show from day one. In fact, my friend, Dave Kushner, worked on the theme for the show and the music too. So I knew this was going to be a show prior to it even airing. I instantly got hooked, and the thing that hooked me about it was how brilliantly written the show is. And as soon as I find that there’s an intellectual nature to any programming that’s above and beyond what we’re used to as a viewing audience, I get pretty sucked in.
HYMAN: And Maggie, what did you know about Dave? When did you learn he would be joining you guys as a guest star?
SIFF: Dave, am I right that we never met?
NAVARRO: You are correct.
SIFF: I just had heard it kind of around set that Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction was going to be on the show and I thought that was very cool. But I, however, wouldn’t recognize you even if I saw you, even though I’m a big fan of your music. [laughs] That’s one embarrassing pop-culture fact about me.
NAVARRO: That’s interesting because, if I may, Maggie. I’m also an avid fan of Mad Men, which you had a recurring role on. I’m an enthusiast. I actually grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when my dad was Senior Vice President of Grey Advertising.
SIFF: Oh, wow.
NAVARRO: It was a little bit later than when Mad Men takes place. But it was still the early days of advertising versus where we are now. And my dad pretty much had a Don Draper-type job. When you talk about recognizability and so forth, I’ve watched all of Mad Men maybe three times back to back to back; I watched all the seasons in a row. And it wasn’t until we were going to have a conversation that I even put together that you were the same actress playing the character [of Rachel Menken Katz] on Mad Men as the actress that’s on Sons of Anarchy. And I’ve just gotta tell you that the dynamic, the polar opposites between those characters, is pretty incredible.
SIFF: Yeah. A lot of people have that experience. I’ve been on Sons of Anarchy for five seasons now. And especially for the first few seasons, the viewership overlap between Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy was very, very small. As Sons of Anarchy became more popular and hit some of the demographic that does watch Mad Men, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that—that they never even put it together.
NAVARRO: You play, in both cases—as different as those roles are—grounding, centering women who are involved with seemingly bad men.
SIFF: [laughs] It’s true. I know. They do. They both like the bad boys. Although Rachel has the good sense to get out. Whereas Tara, she just can’t make it out of there, can she?
NAVARRO: No, but one of the things that I have found most compelling about your character, out of all the characters on Sons of Anarchy, is her complete shift in terms of where she stands morally. You’ve had Clay [Ron Perlman] go from the president of the club to the outcast getting involved in different clubs. But he’s still in the outlaw character. Whereas Tara seems, at first, resistant to what was going on within the environment. And now is pretty complacent.
SIFF: Yeah. I think what’s interesting about her is she still has a kind of moral ground or sense, and a desire she can’t quite shake—as much as she loves this guy—to leave. That conflict continues to play itself out. But what’s interesting is the longer a person stays in that world, the more fundamentally complicit they become—the more you’re around that kind of criminality, the more you’re around that kind of violence, the less extraordinary or awful it begins to seem. And I think she just again and again comes up against this choice, which is that to take this man means to accept this life. I’ve always thought about it from the beginning as a really deep love story. There are lots of reasons that I’ve dreamed up for myself about why she needs this person in her life. But her unwillingness to let go of him creates this situation where she needs to accept a whole bunch of circumstances that just get worse and worse and worse.
NAVARRO: Jax’s character is also starting to cross lines that we haven’t seen him cross in prior seasons.
NAVARRO: He’s starting to get harder. And I can see where, had it not been for the love of his now-wife and children, he may have gone even further.
SIFF: We had a bunch of SEALs come visit our set last year. The show is hugely popular in the military. But they all came up to me and they were like, “You don’t know how real this feels to us: this conflict between the domestic sphere and the intimate relationships and then the brotherhood and then the act of sort of having to go into battle, basically.” They so closely related to that aspect of our show. I found that really interesting. I didn’t realize that we were drawing such close parallels with that kind of lifestyle.
NAVARRO: If you think about fictional characters in Sons of Anarchy, and you think about yourself as an artist and myself as an artist, and trying to balance our work and relationship environments—in many cases putting our work first and our relationship second—we almost have to be that way in order to accomplish what we need to do. And the people in our lives have to accept that about us. [But we’re] all the while kind of dangling a fictional end game in the air saying, “I’m putting all this stuff first so we can ride off into the sunset. Fade to black. So we can have the happily-ever-after.” And the happily-ever-after keeps getting pushed further and further away.
SIFF: Yeah, I know. Sometimes it takes an incredible amount of strength. I got married a month ago, and I turned down work that would have happened the week after I got married, because we wanted to go on a honeymoon. It took a lot of strength—even though it was something I was really interested in—to say, “You know what, I’m going to get married and I’m going to have a honeymoon,” and absolutely carve that out in stone. The feeling of passion—and addiction, actually—that you end up having for the task of performing or creatively expressing yourself is so powerful that sometimes it’s even hard to say, “No, I deserve to have a honeymoon in this life.” It’s still a bit shocking to me.
NAVARRO: You’re talking about something that has put me in years of therapy, actually. In many ways, without being able to do what I feel I need to do as an artist, I can’t be who I am to my partner off the stage. Ultimately, and I can speak about this openly because my ex-wife is pretty open about it, too, what ended up happening with our marriage—which, I just want to congratulate you on yours, this isn’t a warning or anything—we would turn down things to make time for our relationship, and in the process down the line, end up resenting the relationship because it took us away from what we wanted to do. Which is a huge danger in this business.
SIFF: Right. My husband is really the first person with whom I have never felt that underlying feeling of conflict. And that makes it easier to say no when it’s time to say no. But there’s really a challenge. So I have a question for you: I want to know what your experience was like working on the show. Have you done a lot of other acting roles, or is this a new phase in your career?
NAVARRO: Put it this way: if you watched the episode that I’m on, you may miss me. This isn’t like me coming on for a guest-starring role. These are little cameos. And ultimately, how it came together is through [show creator] Kurt Sutter, who reached out to the band to do a song for, I believe, the finale. We did a cover of [the Rolling Stones’] “Sympathy For The Devil.” It came about through my association with Kurt, and then my experience was a lot like my experiences with other guest roles that I’ve done.
I host a competition show on Spike, so I’m aware of the waiting-around game. That’s the part that I have trouble with when it comes to your craft. Because in my craft, as a musician, the stagehands get there, the crew gets there, they set up everything, they do the lights, they do the sound, and everybody waits around for the musicians to get there and do what they do. Whereas in your craft, it seems like the actors get there and then wait around for everybody else to do what they gotta do. That’s the part struggle with, because when I arrive somewhere, I’m ready to go. And if there’s more than 30 minutes that goes by, I lose any steam I had.
SIFF: You have to learn how to recalibrate your energy for something like that. When I do plays, it’s probably more similar to what you do, in that it starts and you’re just shot out of a canon. And your experience is the trajectory of that cannonball: it begins and it ends, and it’s over before you know it, and you’ve lived through something. A day on a film set is maddening.
HYMAN: I have a question for you, Maggie. What I find interesting is that both Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy started off with a cult fanbase and have since both ballooned in popularity…
SIFF: You know, Mad Men, I feel like I’m in such an unusual circumstance because I was hired to do Mad Men out of New York, and I was mainly just doing theater. And that’s what brought me out [to LA]. We shot the first season [in LA]. My arc on the show, I knew it was going to be a season-long arc, and then I accepted the job on Sons of Anarchy after the first season of Mad Men. So the second season of Mad Men sort of happened while I was working on the first season of Sons of Anarchy. And all of a sudden, the critical acclaim just sort of kept growing and growing and growing, and it started to become this sensation. But by the time it did, I was already sort of on the outside looking at it happen. And it was really, really wild and interesting.
[Sons of Anarchy] was an even slower burn. I just happened to catch a wave of something happening in cable television, these really quality hour-long films being made every week. The amount of quality and attention and the caliber of work happening is so high, and I feel the wider audience started to understand that that’s where the artistry was happening, was on cable television. In the last seven years or so, there’s been this blossoming that I’ve sort of gotten to be in the middle of. I feel very lucky.
With both of them, I remember having conversations with two different network executives: one at AMC, we were shooting the pilot, and he was like, “Well, you know, it’s probably just an art project, but we’re all going to feel really proud of it at the end.” And then an executive at FX was like, “Yeah, this show will have a little cult following. It’ll do all right. It’s really not going to grow, we don’t think.” And then all of a sudden, it started to explode. I don’t think anybody could have predicted what was going to happen with either show.
NAVARRO: The thing that I love about both programs—and when you initially said the crossover audience was minimal at first, I found that to be a bit surprising, but I guess on the surface, based on subject matter, it isn’t—but both programs are so intelligently written.
NAVARRO: And in many cases, not a whole lot has to happen… we can be in the clubhouse, watching a very slow conversation taking place, and be riveted. We can watch Don staring into a cup of coffee for five minutes and be riveted.
SIFF: Yeah. Sons of Anarchy, I sometimes wish the show could slow itself down. Although I recognize that part of what works in Sons of Anarchy is this crazy pace of action, action, action, and then these slower domestic scenes where everything sort of stops and hangs. My wish for the show would be no commercials, so that there would be more time spent dwelling on psychological moments, and more time getting into the specificity of dynamics between people.
NAVARRO: You bring a relatability to some of the mass audience—they can see your character on the show and then put themselves in the position where they’re in a professional work environment, and how they would feel and react if they had a foot in this world.
SIFF: I think Tara is definitely a bridge for the audience. She represents the person with the more normative job situation and a morality that people relate to more. Although obviously it’s becoming a little more corrupted.
NAVARRO: And also since having the kid, the moral line keeps getting pushed further and further, in terms of what she’s comfortable with. But I feel like at the end of the day, most people might be able to relate to the fact that what her end-game is is to get him out of this and be a family with the children.
SIFF: Yeah. Also, I think that having a child on the show was a good way to both make it so that she really can’t leave this man; he’s the father of her child. And she’s that much more ensnared in the club and this family, basically. At the same time giving her a kind of emergency feeling about needing to leave. It’s like a vice that sort of squeezes her a little bit more.
NAVARRO: And also watching her sort of become a threat to Katy’s character, in terms of being the matriarch.
SIFF: Yeah. She’s trying. I think that relationship keeps being kind of tested and revised. This year Kurt talked about it feeling like the adolescent phase of a mother-daughter relationship. As Tara, when I need her, I need her; and when I hate her, I hate her. The relationship sort of swings in this way. So she needs her, but she’s also trying to define a different kind of matriarch and a different kind of mother.
NAVARRO: I think we’re good.
SIFF: Yeah. It’s been really fun talking to you. I hope you’re around on the set next season. And I was just talking to my husband about the fact that I was gonna talk to you and we were laughing about the fact that we danced our asses off to “Been Caught Stealing” at our wedding.
THE SEASON FINALE OF SONS OF ANARCHY AIRS TONIGHT AT 10 PM ON FX.