Over the course of four seasons, Tatiana Maslany has played 11 separate characters on Orphan Black, with each clone having individual mannerisms, accents, and motivations. With a lesser actor, this would feel like a gimmick, but with Maslany, every character feels fully alive. Honestly, it’s easy to forget that they’re all played by the same actor, proving that all of the critical accolades and fan fervor are more than warranted.
As Orphan Black‘s stellar fourth season comes to a close, a season we now know to be its penultimate, we spoke with Maslany about the whirlwind show and how it’s changing the conversation surrounding female characters. Few shows pack as much into each episode as Orphan Black, and Maslany is always in the center of the storm. From the sound of things, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Part of what is so great about Orphan Black is how you can portray such a broad spectrum of women. Everybody is so different, each clone has such a unique perspective. What’s it like to portray so many different characters at once?
It’s so much fun. I always feel like it’s the most natural thing for an actress to do is want to transform and play like that. It’s a job that requires a lot of energy and imagination, and that really fuels me every day. It’s such a stimulating job. I also just love the challenge of getting to portray so many different people, trying to discover what makes them fit to their nuances and allows them to change each other, and all of that. It’s really, really fun.
While Orphan Black is not a preachy show, it does delve into some hot button issues, like female autonomy, scientific ethics, that kind of thing. Was that kind of depth important to you when you were looking for a project or did you just get lucky with Orphan Black?
I really just got lucky with Orphan Black. That was stuff that at this time was becoming very important to me, and I didn’t realize that Orphan Black was tackling that subject matter until we were doing it. The response was really helpful in terms of that because they so caught on to those scenes and made them very physical, and made them the topic of conversation, and highlighted what we were saying on the show. It’s become something that we feel very strongly about and we feel we have, not a lot of responsibility, but a privilege to tell people about this, you know?
I’m concerned and passionate about our right to choose what to do with our bodies and that no one can tell us what that is, and that it’s an individual thing. Yet, we live in a world where we’re very much controlled by images, especially on TV shows or in the media. It teaches one way to be and that if we don’t fit into that category, we have to struggle to make ourselves fit. I find it really fascinating. Everything that’s going on right now with reproductive rights and women craving their space, that we’ve been denying for years. It’s really exciting to get to explore as an artist, in my work.
I know you have a bit of a history with improv, has that helped you slipping in and out of different clone personas? Every single clone has such a different accent and mannerism.
Yeah, it’s all about saying yes. It’s about creating a character, and taking suggestions from the audience and your teammates, and feeding off that energy and creating a story together. I feel like it’s the base of what you do as an actor, always. I’ve definitely learned a lot about in the moment spontaneity and creativity, and all that, from improv. A lot of people on my show love doing that. So for takes and during takes, and all of that, it sort of becomes part of the process.
Is it hard to keep up with all the different plot lines on the show? You’re involved in pretty much all of them, and I can imagine keeping all of the different threads in order is a little tricky sometimes. Do you have a particular method to keep it all straight?
Absolutely! I don’t have a brain for all that stuff! I know what’s going on, but it’s extremely confusing. But I sort of enjoy the mess of it and trying to keep up on it as much as I can. Also, surrendering to the fact that the characters don’t know exactly what’s going on either. They’re trying to pick who they can trust, and who’s on their side. Being in that space is helpful to me as a performer.
I’ve especially loved this latest season. It’s felt so sharp and so tight, sort of bringing the action back to the core clones, with Beth returning and all of that. What has it been like to flesh out Beth, who’s been such an enigmatic character from the beginning?
It’s been awesome because she’s sort of within the mythological realm through the first three seasons. She was an icon in the clones, sort of. You could put that on her, whether that was like, she protected them or whatever, these sort of ideals on her, but to get to actually play her and discover her pain. I think Paul at one time said she was cold. Really, she was deeply saddened by the fact that he was betraying her. It’s interesting to put those expectations on their heads a bit. She’s such a fun character to me. There’s such a complicated depth there, I really enjoyed playing her.
In the past, sci-fi and genre shows are often overlooked during awards season, but Orphan Black, and especially your work on the show has really become a part of that conversation. What was it like to forge ahead like you did?
It’s so unexpected, entirely. I don’t know, we’re just lucky that we’ve fallen into that and that people are seeing it as worthy of whatever. I don’t know, it’s hard for me to talk about. We feel very lucky to be the way we are and to have the visibility that we do, and critical support and the fan support. And, yeah, it’s weird to me that sci-fi doesn’t get the, kind of, respect that it deserves. It’s got a stigma around it, but there’s so much compelling storytelling. Just because it’s fantastical doesn’t mean it can’t shed light on what’s happening. It’s doing it in a more entertaining way. Look at a show like Black Mirror.
It’s sort of sci-fi, but it’s amazing, right? It’s so dark and so foreboding, and yet feels like it could happen here and you could be there. I think it’s very subversive and says a lot, without on-the-nose high drama.
There’s a lot of conversation happening about female action heroes these days. I would definitely include, not to a full degree, some of the clones from Orphan Black in that category. What do you think about that call for more female leads? I think it’s an exciting time.
Yeah, it really is! And I think we’re redefining what a female character can be on the screen. I get weirdly bored of the trope of the “strong female,” it’s becoming as redundant to me as any kind of classic female character. I think it’s just become a buzzword, it doesn’t really mean much any more. To me, a character that is alive and vulnerable and complicated, that’s interesting no matter what gender. I think there are a lot of shows that are now making female perspective the default and that’s really exciting to me.
One thing about Orphan Black that is so great is the passionate fandom around it. Was that overwhelming or has that been a mostly positive experience for you?
It’s amazing. Any time we get interactive fans, I’m excited and grateful. I like fan art, and all that. It’s very cool. And the cool thing about that community is that they support each other. There’s a real communal love and respect for each other, love each other’s art, and all of that. It’s surreal to have people who know the show, and know me. It’s crazy, but it’s super awesome.
What would you say has been the strangest or most interesting fan interaction you’ve had at all the different cons you’ve been to?
I don’t know, there’s just so many. It always excites me to see somebody in cosplay in a really specific version of a character. There was a girl at Comic-Con dressed as Helena pretending to be Sarah pretending to be Beth. It was so specific, and I was like, that is unbelievable. That was such a moment for all of us, we’ve really arrived.
The Orphan Black finale airs at 10 p.m. EST on Thursday on BBC America.