Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: BBC America’s newest original drama series, the sci-fi headtrip Orphan Black, is one of those shows that simply would not work without the right actress at its center. Tasked with playing nearly a dozen different variations on the same person over the course of the first season, the central actress would have to be in nearly every scene, sometimes as the only person in those scenes, bouncing off of two or three different versions of herself. Fortunately, the network was able to find the virtual unknown Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian actress whose prior credits mostly included a long string of parts in Canadian TV series and made-for-TV movies, as well as the role of the Virgin Mary in a British made-for-TV movie about the Nativity. But none of those parts would have suggested she was capable of this feat: Maslany plays what would be the equivalent of four regular characters on other dramas, as well as a succession of guest-star turns, and she makes all of the characters distinct while never heading over the top. In true Random Roles tradition, she sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about all of the parts she’s played—just, this time, in the same show.
Orphan Black (2013) — “Sarah Manning”
The A.V. Club: Were you privy to the many layers of Sarah’s backstory at the start?
Tatiana Maslany: Not a lot of it. I knew what her central drive was, and that was always Kira [Sarah’s biological daughter, played by Skyler Wexler], and that was always to get her family back together and to try against all odds within herself and outside of herself to be a good mother and to settle down and stop running. But the reveals that we’ve had in the last couple of episodes were pretty much news to me, which was really exciting and perfect, that I didn’t really know what was going to happen with her because she didn’t either. It kind of makes sense that I’m not super aware of what’s going on in the world, because Sarah definitely isn’t.
AVC: Sarah’s a gifted improviser. How do you play up that trait, and is that a trait you feel you have in your own life?
TM: I did improv for about 10 years professionally, and before that, I had done it in high school as part of an improv team. It was definitely a big part of my upbringing. My friends and I would, instead of going to parties, like, congregate in my basement and play improv kind of things. It’s definitely always been a part of my life, and I think as far as Sarah’s concerned, it’s the way she’s gotten by. She’s tough, and she’s defended and guarded and able to get by because her intellect is such that she reads people really well, and she understands how to manipulate people really well, based on who they are or what they expect of her. I think that’s what makes her a good mimic and a good improviser, and she’s always in a very animal, adaptive state. Her life has been on the run, so she’s always adapted, and she’s always changed to suit the situation.
AVC: All the characters on this show are always doing what they would actually do, instead of something that the story needs them to do. Is there a particular moment that you were blown away by her response?
TM: I feel like that the whole way through, the whole first episode especially. My brain just doesn’t work in that way. Her brain just works in a different way than mine. She sees this woman kill herself, and the first thing she does is take her purse. You know what I mean? Instead of get help. She’s just a very different creature than I am. So she kind of surprises me the whole way, but at the same time none of it feels like it’s foreign to her. It doesn’t feel like, like you say, it’s just for the story. It always feels very grounded in who she is. That’s what I loved about her and what I found so fascinating and compelling about her character, specifically, was that she does the most horrible things, but we still love her and root for her.
AVC: How do you keep those accents consistent?
TM: I don’t know that they are. [Laughs.] I work at them. I mean, it’s part of the joy and the nightmare that is Orphan Black, keeping everybody straight in my head. Fortunately, I’ve got an amazing dialect coach who keeps an eye on that side of things, so I don’t have to think about it when I’m shooting. Because there’s so much other stuff to think about, and ultimately, you don’t want to be holding on to a technical thing. You want to be able to stay present and just be the character instead of trying to play the character or trying to do the accent. I worked really hard on them in prep and really hard on them throughout the shooting, but when I was on set, it was just about letting go of it and not making it an accent show, but making it characters.
AVC: How much time are you working on any given episode, since you’re playing four or five regular characters?
TM: The whole time. [Laughs.] I think I had one day off the entire shoot, and that’s because I literally lost my voice to the extent that I couldn’t speak. So yeah, I worked every day, and it was sometimes 18-hour days and three characters a day, or three characters a scene or whatever. It was the biggest adrenaline rush. I think I used up the adrenaline I would have for the duration of my life on that show. Just because there was no down time. And at the same time, it’s so much fun because as soon as I get tired or whatever, it was time to switch into a new character, and then I’d get the whole new surge of excitement because I got to be Alison or whatever. It just instills you with a new life.
Orphan Black (2013) — “Alison Hendrix”
AVC: You give Alison such a different physicality from all of the other characters. Where do you see her physical presence coming from?
TM: There’s something really wonderful about playing somebody who wants you to think they have everything together and is melting down inside. So her physicality, to me, was like a demonstration of her togetherness. If she can make you think that she’s got it together, then it’s okay. As long as everybody thinks that she’s perfect, then it’s all good. As soon as people start to see the cracks, she starts to get really terrified.
I just loved that idea of the external being completely different from the internal. I think the repressive idea, a lot of repression in her life and a lot of quelling of emotions or quelling of opinions [that] kind of burst out of her every now and then, this rigidity that it busts through. And also I thought that Alison would have done ballet as a kid or as a teen—I know because I did ballet when I was younger, and I still have trouble letting go of my stomach muscles or my bum muscles, because you’re taught to hold everything very tightly. So I thought she’s got these residual tendencies or habits that she’s learned from dance or ballet that was part of my exploration of her.
AVC: Alison and Felix [Jordan Gavaris] have developed into this odd couple over the course of the season. Was that always in the cards?
TM: [Laughs.] I don’t know if it was always in the cards. There’s something funny that Jordan and I discovered when we were on set as Alison and Felix. We were standing in a scene next to each other, and we were like, “Oh my God, we’re standing the same way. We’ve both got, like, an arm crossed across our chest and one hand kind of up and aloof in this sort of drama queen kind of way.” There was something about their physicality that was actually very similar, and we were like, “That’s so weird because these two could not be more different.” Alison probably judges absolutely everything Felix is and does and thinks, and he does the same for her. But I think they’re actually way more similar than they could ever imagine, or would ever want to admit. And I really love their friendship that’s starting to kind of develop.
AVC: Just in terms of the other actors, when you’re stepping into a different part, is there a different energy?
TM: Absolutely. And they’re so generous in that way that, when I step on set as another character, they don’t try to take me out of it. They just help me stay there. Like Jordan, he talks to me like I’m Alison, not like I’m Sarah. There’s a different dynamic between us on set when it’s Felix and Sarah than when I’m Alison. He gives me all these little cutting remarks and little judgments or under the breath kind of things, and it’s ultimately really helpful for me and really generous because it helps me to believe I am that character.
Orphan Black (2013) — “Cosima Niehaus”
AVC: All of the different clones, they’re the same person genetically, but they have very different personalities and types. What have you talked about with the creators and the writers about how these people have developed up to the point we first meet them?
TM: We discussed their backgrounds or where they might have come from, and I came up with a lot of what their parents would have been like, because I feel like their parents or their upbringing would have indicated how they turned out. Especially Cosima, she had quite a supportive, intellectually stimulating, very creative upbringing, and that there would have potentially been quite a bit of pressure for her to achieve and be hyper-intelligent, and that’s what her parents were like. That’s why she is the way she is, and why I think she thinks she’s special. I think she knows she’s special, whereas Sarah didn’t know her parents. Has never been told she’s special, has only been told she has no place. She doesn’t belong, and so her view of the world is so completely different from Cosima. Cosima sees the world full of opportunity and potential and positivity and life, and Sarah sees it as something to defend herself against and something to be guarded against and something that she can’t trust. That was very much in the writing and very much in the talks that [series creators] Graeme [Manson] and John [Fawcett] and I had, and it was so much fun.
AVC: Cosima is most involved in the science-fiction aspects of the show. Was that a genre you enjoyed before the show began?
TM: I didn’t know a heck of a lot about it. I’m a huge Futurama fan, so that’s my closest sci-fi tendency. [Laughs.] I liked Star Trek. I used to watch that with my dad as a kid, but as far as sci-fi goes, I’ve done a few genre films, but never anything like this. It was really fun, and the fans are really cool. They’re so voracious, and they love these really intricate worlds that sci-fi creates and these colorful characters and these characters that are very based in reality, but live in an extraordinary world, or extraordinary circumstances. I think it’s an escapist sort of genre, too. It’s the reason we go to films and watch television: to escape the mundane nature of life and see another world and see ourselves in that other world. I think that’s what sci-fi does so well.
AVC: Have you done any research into some of the scientific stuff Cosima talks about?
TM: Yeah, totally, and we have an amazing science consultant whose name is Cosima. She’s friends with Graeme, and she took us on this sort of two-hour clone seminar sort of thing and talked about cloning and talked about the potential for it and the very present nature of the science. It’s not far off from anything that we’re doing right now, and it’s been happening since the early 1900’s. It’s crazy. Also, just watching her speak about it, she spoke about it with so much passion. I could understand it better than I ever could in school or anything because she loves it so much, and it was like art to her, the way she talked about it. So that helped me key into Cosima, who could have been a bit of an alienating character for me, only because I don’t have a science brain. I’ve never understood it or been fascinated, really, by it. But because I watched her talk about it, it opened up the passion and creative side of it for me.
AVC: Just technically speaking, how do you film one of these scenes, when there’s three or four versions of you in the same space?
TM: It takes, like, 12 hours. [Laughs.] It’s the most technically ridiculous time of my life. We have a camera that’s called the technodolly, which basically memorizes a camera move internally, so that it does the same thing every time, which is awesome, so we don’t always have to just do a lock-off shot, where it’s just, like, two people standing in the same shot. The camera actually moves, and I think it really sells it. So the first pass we do to memorize the camera move, we use doubles in place of the other characters that I’m talking to. Then, once we have that, they leave, and I start to do it for real, just to eyelines, with an earwig [earpiece], which is saying the other lines, so the rhythm is the same. Then once we get a perfect take of that, I leave and come back as the next character and then shoot it from the other side. Now, I’m having to remember where the eyelines were, where I was before, when I stood up, how high I stood up, or how close I came, or if I handed myself a bottle of pills or something. It’s heavily technical and probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done on screen.
AVC: Do you enjoy having yourself as a scene partner?
TM: [Laughs.] Sometimes. Sometimes, I’m a real bitch. But most of the time I’m all right. [Laughs.] No, it’s good. It’s awesome. I have ultimate control over the scene, and that’s both a blessing and a curse, because acting is all about listening and all about interplay with the other actor and with your imagination and everything, but because there’s no other actor there, it’s all my imagination. Which is a wonderful challenge and so much fun, but I definitely am very excited when Jordan or Kevin [Hanchard, who plays Detective Art Bell, Beth Childs’ partner] or Dylan [Bruce, who plays Paul, Beth’s boyfriend] comes to set, and I get to play with a real person.
Orphan Black (2013) — “Helena”
TM: I love Helena because I feel like as much as she is crazy, her upbringing was so vital to who she was. I think because she was trained as a killer and ripped of her humanity, even in those kind of circumstances, we’re still human. We’re still people. We still have love. We still have fears. We still have deep needs and deep human needs, and for me, that was the most exciting thing to explore with her: Where’s the humanity in her? To me, it was that she actually loves deeply. She loves insanely and obsessively. And she… not falls in love with Sarah, but she does in a way. I don’t mean that in a sexual or romantic way, but she falls in love with Sarah and needs her deeply and feels this connection with her. Sarah awakens something in her, because she recognizes herself in her.
So all the shitty stuff she does, and all the horrible ways she goes about things, it’s all out of love, and it’s all because she just doesn’t know how to love. She’s never been taught love. She’s never been shown love. Love to her is probably very much tied with abuse and with pain, and so that’s the only way she knows how to go about loving because she hasn’t been taught otherwise. She hasn’t had examples of real love. I think that’s what I love exploring with her and I find so fun.
Orphan Black (2013) — “Katja Obinger”/ “Beth Childs” / various other characters
AVC: You’ve played a lot of other versions of this person. Is there one of the other characters that you wish could or would come back?
TM: I loved Katja because she was so fun. We see her so briefly, I’d love to know more about her. But I think it would be really fun to see Beth’s life and explore that further, because I think there’s a lot there to be mined. I think she’s quite a complex character, and we don’t even see her. We see her for three seconds and in the home-video footage, and I think she would be quite fascinating to go back to.