Tatiana Maslany, Beside Herself
ABOVE: TATIANA MASLANY
In just its first season, BBC America’s Orphan Black has garnered positive press, reviews, and a worldwide fan base—thanks in large part to the woman at the center of it all, Tatiana Maslany. Maslany stars as Sarah, a woman unfortunate enough to see someone who looks exactly like her commit suicide. Sarah steals her purse and assumes her identity to get out of a jam, but soon realizes that there are other doppelgangers—clones of herself—everywhere. Maslany plays all of the clone characters as well, an infinitely expanding group of women who have nothing in common except their physical appearance.
Critics have praised Malsany’s amazing versatility in these performances. She was recently nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series. Maslany has also received glowing notices, if not worldwide recognition, for impressive turns in indie films like Picture Day, Grown Up Movie Star, and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.
We caught up with Tatiana Maslany as she prepares to film Season Two of the series. Here, she pauses to discuss playing multiple roles at the same time, the power of improvisation, seeing your name on the internet, and the importance of playing in your own backyard.
JAMES OSTIME: Congratulations on the success of Orphan Black.
TATIANA MASLANY: Oh, thanks!
OSTIME: It’s such an amazing, layered, brilliant show. I imagine you filmed most of the first season before the show premiered, but now that the show is airing and has a dedicated following, has that changed how you approach the work? Is there an added sense of pressure?
MASLANY: Yeah, I definitely feel daunted to go back to the work, but at the same time, there’s so much love and support for the show. The first time we shot it, we had no clue how it was going to turn out or if anybody was even going to watch it or like it. It’s kind of an odd show and unlike what’s on TV right now, so it’s amazing that it’s been received the way it has. I’m just trying to take that as a positive push into season two, instead of something to live up to. I try to forget about all that stuff, go back to the work, and just start exploring again.
OSTIME: We first meet you in the series as Sarah, a young woman who discovers that there are twins, or doubles, or clones of her that exist—potentially all over the world. People that share her physical attributes exactly, but are otherwise unrelated. You play all of these different characters, each of whom has a distinct voice, physicality, and manner. How did you determine those characteristics for each role? Is it hard to keep everything straight?
MASLANY: A lot of it was in the writing. The writers are incredible, and I was definitely drawn to the piece because of the specificity and complexity of the writing; that none of the women on the page read as the same woman. They feel like different people with different life goals and different upbringings and worldviews. A lot of the work was done for me in the writing. It was about physicalizing and embodying that, putting it my body, walking differently depending on how I look at the world. Alison [one of the clones] looks at the world in a completely different light than Helena [another clone] does, and consequently they move through that world differently. I worked with dance a lot, for each character—different ways I could move my body, different music. It’s the most fun thing in the world, because I love each and every one of the characters and I’d be happy just to play one of them, but the fact that I get to play upwards of six, seven, eight or whatever, it’s a total dream.
OSTIME: Is there a lazy part of you that hopes they write a character with a peg-leg and an eye-patch and maybe a moustache you could fiendishly twirl?
MASLANY: [laughs] Totally. Or just like a head sitting on a table. That would be really helpful.
OSTIME: I know in addition to your work in film, tv, and theater, you do a lot of improvisation. Is there something improv offers you that those other disciplines might lack?
MASLANY: Yeah. I think there’s something really freeing about improv, that it’s a collective, creative, in-the-moment piece. That’s really exciting and really frustrating, because it’s there and gone. There’s an amazing interaction with the audience that happens because they are very much another scene partner. How they respond determines the kinds of stories we tell.
OSTIME: Did improvisation help in any way when you started creating these characters in Orphan Black? I imagine the technical precision required to film scenes with yourself as Sarah and Allison and Cosima and Helena means you can’t stray from the script or change any blocking. Do your instincts as an improviser work at cross-purposes here?
MASLANY: I think in the inception and creation of the characters, improv was the most important part for me, because I wanted to feel at home in those characters. I wanted to feel like I could commit to them. And so much of improv is saying yes and committing, so I think that’s where the improv came in. And there’s a part of me that has to stay very technical and very precise in those clone scenes, very much kind of scientific about it, but then I have to be present and I have to be saying yes. Even if I’m saying yes to the X across the room from me, or the tennis ball on a stick, I have to stay alive. I think the improv also helps with the imagination of dealing this person across from me who’s not physically there. When you do an improv scene, you’re usually working on a blank stage and creating the props and creating the environment.
OSTIME: Orphan Black certainly deals with serious themes and is billed as a sci-fi thriller. But there are also moments in the series that are hysterically funny. What’s it like to play these moments of comedy in an otherwise intense, action-filled, dramatic piece?
MASLANY: It’s great, but it’s terrifying for me. I find comedy to be really scary, because it can go so wrong so easily, and the margin for error is so huge—and I guess that’s what makes it funny, that tension. What’s cool about the show is that its got its own sense of humor and its own genre. It’s not just sci-fi, it’s not just dark, it’s not just a drama. It’s this full world, and it’s very unique to Orphan Black. Its sense of humor is character-based, and that’s my favourite kind of comedy. I think as dark as Helena is, to me, she’s hilarious because she’s so off and not part of the world, trying to be normal in her own screwed-up way. And Felix [Sarah’s brother, played by Jordan Gavaris] is incredible. He’s got these one-liners and he’s such a large character, but he’s so grounded, and I totally believe him in that world. It’s a cool show for that purpose. It makes its own rules in that way.
OSTIME: Your character Sarah does have an incredible closeness with her brother Felix, and wants to reconnect with her daughter; the series has a lot to say thematically about family. How does family motivate you in your life?
MASLANY: It’s a lot for me. I’m incredibly close to my family. I have two younger brothers, they’re both artists and actors; and their work and the way they see the world inspires me. We’ve been making films together since we were kids, in our backyard. [My brothers] are so much a part of who I am, and such a large part of my heart and my drive. I think that’s why I can relate to Sarah. I’ve never had a kid, but I understand that whole, “I would kill for my family” kind of thing. Sarah’s drive for her daughter, I understood it, it resonated with me. It’s a very primal, animal thing that you feel for your family.
OSTIME: How long have you been performing?
MASLANY: I’ve been acting since I was nine.
OSTIME: How do you see the craft of performance differently as an adult?
MASLANY: Oh, it’s entirely different. When I was a kid, it was the attention I got from it, the immediate response from the audience, the thrill of being onstage. That’s carried over into my adult life, I can’t pretend I don’t like the attention or whatever, but for me now, I’ve witnessed incredible performances that have changed the way I see the art form. Cassavetes’ films have really altered the way I see film and acting and storytelling and emotion and love, so I see [acting] as this incredible revealing of human nature and this means of telling our story, sharing our voice with the world. That’s what acting is for me. It allows for people to experience things through the character, through the story, that they might not go through in their real life because they’re too scared to say that about somebody, or too ashamed to admit that about themselves.
MASLANY: But if you watch it onscreen, there’s a catharsis and a shared human experience and that’s the most beautiful thing about acting. That’s definitely not what I was thinking when I was nine. I was thinking, “Awesome! I get to eat chocolate off the craft services table all day long.” And I’m not saying that’s not the reason I still do it, [both laugh] but there are other reasons as well.
OSTIME: I know you’re from Saskatchewan, Canada.
OSTIME: You’ve been performing onstage and in TV and film for most of your life, yet your journey doesn’t seem like the typical trajectory of a “child performer.” Do you think things would have been different if, say, your family packed up and moved to a larger center when you were a kid, in service of a developing career?
MASLANY: Yeah, I think the fact that my parents are still, “Hey, great, that’s great!” and not, “We need you to do this and be a star!”—it was never like that. My mom’s a translator, my dad’s a woodworker; that’s the world I grew up in, that’s the world I’m most comfortable in. The whole idea of Hollywood or any of that other stuff that unfortunately goes along with film, that wasn’t part of my upbringing, thankfully. They were just happy I enjoyed doing it. It was so normal and the whole “star” thing or “LA” thing, that wasn’t part of it.
OSTIME: So Orphan Black has been picked up for a second season, yeah?
OSTIME: Excellent! I imagine this series keeps your plate pretty full, but are there other projects you’re working on, other ventures you’d like to try?
MASLANY: Well, I’d love to work on a feature before we start shooting, but I took some time off right after we wrapped [Season One of Orphan Black] because I needed time to fill up creatively again. I have a film coming out in the fall, I think it’s coming out in the fall, called Cas & Dylan, that I worked on before we started Orphan Black. It’s a buddy comedy with Richard Dreyfuss where we drive in an orange Bug across Canada, it’s really cool. Other than that, I’m just trying to get a job. [laughs]
OSTIME: Over the course of this season, Sarah realizes there are other people in the world who look exactly like her but that she otherwise has nothing to do with. Meanwhile, as you gain popularity for your work, you must see a version of yourself reflected in the press and on the internet that you can’t necessarily control or have anything to do with. I’m wondering if you see a parallel experience there.
MASLANY: That’s such a cool question! Yeah, I mean, the whole press thing and who you are in the media, or what you have to project yourself to be, it feels very much like another person. People say to me, “Oh, your life must be changing,” and I’m like, “Uh, I guess?” For me, it’s such a gradual change, and I don’t see it from the outside like everybody else does. It’s weird, I see my face on a bus or online or somebody has my picture as their picture on Twitter and it’s all a bit weird and I feel very disconnected from it and very much, “I guess that’s me.” It’s very surreal.
OSTIME: You’re heading into awards season! Congratulations on the Critics Choice Award and surely more nominations to come.
MASLANY: Oh, thanks!
OSTIME: What’s it like, after playing all of these distinct characters, to have to give interviews and walk red carpets as yourself? Do you see that as another character to inhabit, in a way?
MASLANY: Yeah, I guess so. I feel like there’s a lot to talk about with Orphan Black, and it’s a unique experience that I’m so happy to talk about. I’m really proud of the show. Walking those red carpets, I’m not like, “I’m the shit.” But I know I did work, I worked my ass off for four months and I guess this is part of it now I’m going to walk across this carpet and say some stuff. I’m just happy to talk about acting and about the show.
OSTIME: The season finale of Orphan Black is set to air next week. What can we expect from this episode and going into season two?
MASLANY: The relationships we’re seeing in question start falling apart in front of our eyes. Each of the clones’ worlds is being changed forever. It’s a further exploration of that, and we get some answers to questions we’ve been wondering about throughout the season. But as much as we get those answers, there are 150 more questions that pop up. I think there’s some great potential for some really cool stuff coming up next season. I don’t know anything that’s going to happen, but I’m just excited to read the script!
OSTIME: So if you met a nine-year-old girl today, growing up in the Canadian prairie, who wants to grow up to be an actor, what would you tell her?
MASLANY: [laughs] Go with your gut every single time. It’s never, ever wrong. Even if feels like everybody else is telling you that you need to do this or do that. Your gut is your artist and who you are as a person and what makes you special, and what makes you an interesting performer. Never try to be something you’re not. Oh, and go play in the backyard, too! Stop trying to have a career at nine. [laughs]
THE SEASON FINALE OF ORPHAN BLACK AIRS TOMORROW, JUNE 1, AT 9 PM EST ON BBC AMERICA.