When BBC America’s Orphan Black premiered this spring, no one could have anticipated what a smart, complex and welcome addition to the science fiction pantheon it would be, or that its lead actress, Tatiana Maslany, would serve up one of the best performances in recent television history.
In Orphan Black, Maslany not only gives a tour de force performance as Sarah Manning, a young British con woman who discovers she might be a clone, but she also portrays a half dozen other fully fleshed out (and wildly different) women.
Since the first season aired, Maslany has become a critics’ darling and inspired multiple calls in the press for her to receive an Emmy nomination for Best Actress in a Drama. In June, she stunned Hollywood when she snatched the Critics Choice Award for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series (beating out the likes of Claire Danes and Elisabeth Moss) and received a TCA Award nomination for Individual Achievement in Drama.
We spoke to Tatiana last month on the heels of her surprise Critics Choice Award win about the difference between Canadian and American television, which characters on Orphan Black scare her the most and how her background in comedy prepares her for drama.
VH1: Congrats on your Critics Choice Award win! What was that like? Did you think you would get it?
Tatiana Maslany: No! I mean not at all! It’s just the category I was in and the women I was nominated with…it’s just like there was no way. I was the weirdo that nobody knew in the group.
VH1: You’ve also just been nominated for a TCA Award. You’re up against Matthew Rhys, Monica Potter, Vera Farmiga and Bryan Cranston. Is that insane?
TM: It’s nuts! That’s such a crazy category, too, because it’s just a mash up. It’s not just other actresses. So, it’s crazy. It’s totally crazy. The whole thing’s just really surreal. Just the fact that like Bryan Cranston was there in that room last night [for the Critics Choice Awards] is crazy to me.
VH1: You have a huge career in Canada. What’s the big difference between Canadian and US television?
TM: There’s definitely a different feel to it. I mean, the fact that there’s a star system here that doesn’t really exist in Canada…immediately it’s a different climate, you know what I mean? Visibility and public image and all that plays into it a lot more than I feel it does in Canada. It just isn’t that kind of industry, you know what I mean? Like, we don’t have stars necessarily. We have people who are really well known and respected and have worked a lot. But there’s this whole other world here. Yeah, it’s crazy.
VH1: Does it excite you that now you might be moving into the star system? Is it frightening or is that something that you’d want to go after?
TM: No, it’s definitely not something where I’m like, “That’s what I want to do,” and it so feels like something completely counter to what I do, which is acting. To me, that’s all I’ve wanted and that’s all I want. The star system thing, or you know, that whole Hollywood kind of thing, feels like a whole other side of the industry that feels really foreign to me and I think to a lot of actors.
You look at like Bryan Cranston and he’s got this incredible career where he doesn’t need to be in the press, or not the press. He doesn’t need to be in the like paparazzi rag…isn’t that such an outdated term? Like the “rag mags” or whatever they’re called? Like he just does his work and loves his work and does excellent work, and that to me is the dream.
VH1: I did notice that you worked with Canadian actress Megan Follows, who is internationally known for playing Anne in Anne of Green Gables. What is she like?
TM: Yeah, I’ve worked with her twice now! Once in Toronto and once in Budapest and she’s incredible. She’s one of those women who’s just such a powerhouse. She’s so strong. She’s such a fighter. She’s so talented and has pushed past being just “Anne of Green Gables” and having a career as a child and has made a career for herself in theater, in film and television as an adult. I think that’s quite a hard transition to make and she’s done it so gracefully and grown in it. It’s really incredible.VH1: You’ve said that the clones were pretty fleshed out for you already by the writers. Do you have any input into their mannerisms or patterns of speech?
TM: Obviously, the writing is such that Allison has a very different cadence than Cosima or Sarah or Helena, but I think what I did was… You know, the writing is all there. It’s all beautiful. It’s all thorough and detailed and very visceral. Then, what I have to do is make it physical, is embody it. That was the joy that I got from it was being able to come up with mannerisms, with physicality based on the writing. So, then based on how these people were written, how they spoke on the page then informed how I walked through the world. Because you know so many clues about what they think, what they feel, the kind of person they are, the way they see the world is in the writing, so then, I physicalize it. So it’s definitely a collaboration between myself and the writers.
VH1: From the moment I saw you as more than one clone, I could tell that you had an improv background. I didn’t have to google it. Did you knowingly apply any improv training or is it just happen to creep out?
TM: Well, I think that there’s two things improv does so well and it teaches you about committing and saying “yes,” and that was like a big thing. Like committing to a character in the moment…committing to a way of walking, a physicality, a way of speaking, a sort of life view, a world view in the moment based on somebody’s suggestion. So, you say yes and then you’re that character and you explore the scene, not knowing where the hell it’s going to go, through that character. So, there’s this immediate commitment that I think I’ve learned from improv.
And then also, the creation of a world that’s not actually there. Because we don’t have a set. We don’t have props. You know, it’s all created in your mind and created through your physicality so I think that lends itself to me being able to act opposite nothing in a way because you know I’m not acting opposite myself, obviously. I’m acting oppositie a little ‘X’ that will then be myself. So I think that definitely helped. I don’t think I knew that until people started kind of asking me how improv translated into my work and I think that’s probably the way it did.
VH1: Orphan Black is super serious and dark. Given that you’ve done improv, do you have a yen to do more comedy on television in the future?
TM: Well, I just shot a comedy [called Cas & Dylan] with Richard Dreyfuss about a month before I started Orphan Black. It’s like a buddy comedy kind of thing where we’re sort of playing opposite each other and driving across Canada in like a VW bug. So, I’ve been fortunate to get to play comedy in certain senses in film, but I don’t know.
Comedy scares me a lot. I feel like it’s way harder than drama. I think my safety net is definitely drama and I would love to kind of be able to be able to push into the comedy world and do something kind of like a Christopher Guest kind of style show. That to me is my kind of comedy. Like, Ricky Gervais comedy. That’s my kind of thing. I’m not big on pratfalls and stuff like that. I kind of like the more subtle stuff that’s more character driven.
VH1: Were you a big sci-fi fan before Orphan Black?
TM: You know what? My sci-fi was kind of like zombie movies. Like, I loved zombie movies and I’m a big Futurama fan, but that’s the extent of my sci-fi. I fell in love with Star Trek after J. J. Abrams’s movie. I’m so into that.
But sci-fi was kind of a new genre for me and definitely something I never thought I would fall in love with so much. What I think it does so well is that it kind of creates a very unique world and the fans are so rabid and they are so excited by the new worlds and excited by weirdness and by kind of really brave and bold storytelling and I think that’s what’s really exciting about sci-fi. And I always think it also reflects back on society.
You know, the cloning thing is not far off and it kind of speaks to a lot of what I think is socially apt right now. Like identity and ownership over yourself and ownership over your image and ownership over your body, which is stuff that I think women deal with. I think it’s kind of subliminally about at least my exploration of Orphan Black. I think that’s what sci-fi does so well. It puts it in a kind of a fun context, but it actually speaks volumes about the world.VH1: Is there one clone that’s particularly hard for you to play?
TM: They’re all like a gear shift for me because none of them is me really, you know? There’s definitely times when like playing Allison is harder. When I’m tired or when I’d rather be kind of able to breathe a bit deeper because Allison breathes quite high up in her chest.
And playing Helena is always kind of…I never really know what’s going to come out with her. So that, in itself is difficult and also really fun, you know? Because she kind of exists outside of societal norms, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what her scenes are going to look like. I don’t know how she’s going to respond. You know, that’s hard.
And any of the dialect I have to do that’s always a bit of a struggle, but at the exact same time it’s difficult, it’s like the best and most exciting thing I’ve ever gotten to do. That kind of challenge like ignites me. I just love it.
VH1: Going back to when you were talking about Helena-how you could never tell what was going to happen. When I first saw her in the mirror pulling the rebar out of her side, my roommate and I were just shocked. Like half disgusted, but half fascinated. Has anything on the show shocked you more than you thought you could be?
TM: I think Allison—have you seen the last episode? I don’t want to say it! I don’t want to ruin it!—something happens. Allison does something in the last episode that was really shocking to me. And when I read it, I was like, “How am I going to get there?” Like, how do I justify this? But in the end it made sense because she’s trying to protect her kids and her family and her perfect life.
Strangely, it’s the Allison stuff that I’m like, “Holy $#@!” Because she’s sort of like ends up being more of a wild card than even Helena. Like she’s a nutcase.
VH1: Is there a certain accent or personality you haven’t been able to tackle yet on the show that you would love to?
TM: There’s so many! Oh my God! I can’t even think in terms like that really because I just feel like it’s endless. It’s limitless. I mean, there’s so many different people that I’m fascinated by. Different kinds of characters that I meet in like everyday life that I’m like, “I don’t know how you exist. Like you’re so fascinating.”
It’d be amazing to play a clone that was like Jordan [Gavaris] who plays Felix. He’s like so opposite of Felix, it’s unbelievable. He’s like kind of country, always baking, just like watching Murder She Wrote. He has like the weird little Southern twang. Just like the sweetest guy on the planet. It would be really cool to play somebody like… I just want to play Jordan. I just want to be Jordan really.
Orphan Black is out on DVD today. The Emmy nominations will be announced this Thursday morning.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images & BBC America]