Interview With a Chameleon: Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany

We're not even halfway through 2013 and the race for breakout performance of the year is already over. Tatiana Maslany treated us to an acting clinic in the first season of BBC America's Orphan Black, a smart, taut science-fiction thriller about shady corporations, religious zealots, and murder investigations... as well well as suburban life, a mother-daughter relationship, and a brainy scientist doing research. That description makes the show sound disparate and confusing, but Maslany glues it all together, masterfully keeping things in order while playing seven (!) different roles as a set of clones. 

And the real Maslany is a delight, as I learned when I got on the horn with the Canadian actress to talk about how she endures such a demanding job and the events of last weekend's Season 1 finale.

This Q&A contains spoilers from the finale, so you may want to bookmark it for later if you aren't caught up.

Congratulations on the Critics' Choice Award nomination! How are you handling all this newfound attention?

Not well. Nah, I'm joking. It's a bit overwhelming, honestly, and surreal too. We only finished shooting about four months ago. So it wasn't even that long ago when we wrapped. People have seen the series already, and to be getting this kind of "buzz" off it is crazy. It's amazing. It's an overwhelming group of women I'm nominated opposite, I just can't believe it. 

When you auditioned, did you know the job would be so complex?

I think I was a bit ignorant in the beginning because I wanted the part so badly that I didn't think about how it was even possible to do it, or how much work it would be. Even the audition was a lot of work because I had to come up with all the different characters in the audition. During shooting the days were really long, and I didn't expect that. I'd never led a series before, so that was a whole other responsibility. It's crazy, but really empowering when you breathe in it. 

Whenever you received a new script and you weren't on the call sheet, were you thinking THANK GOD?!

Yeah, it was very few and far between. Usually when there was a scene without me, I was doing a changeover into the next clone. I think I had one day off, maybe a day and a half off, during the entire shoot. So it was full on.

What was your process of getting into each character? I know you have an improv background, did that come in handy?

Yeah absolutely, because so much of improv is saying "yes" and just committing in the moment, you know what I mean? That lent itself to these quick changeovers. I also did a lot of improv to help create the characters and build them. But also, the writing is so brilliant that each of the characters' voices is so clear on the page. [Creators] John [Fawcett] and Graeme [Manson] worked really hard on those first two scripts, and those were the only ones I had when I signed onto the show. The characters were so clear, a lot of the work was done for me. I also had a dialogue coach to help me with all the accents, who made sure I was staying on track. I would also find what I related to most in each character and elaborate on that, and make that the soul of the character. 

You also brought distinct physical presences to each character, particularly Alison and Helena. Is that something that helps you differentiate them, for example when you're walking so upright as Alison?

Yeah, totally! Jordan [Gavaris], who plays Felix, he always says you can tell so much about a person by how they load a dishwasher, and it's so true. You know, how you go about moving within the world you live in says so much about you are. A lot of the intellectual work I did on the characters I had to throw out the window and just be in their bodies. Like Helena, she's been treated like an animal her whole life, and consequentially she moves around like an animal and asexually, except when she dances, which is when all her sexuality comes out. 

AUDIO CLIP: Tatiana talks about the dynamic between herself and Jordan Gavaris, who plays Sarah's foster brother Felix, and how it changes depending on whether she's playing Sarah or Alison. (Click the play button to listen!)

I've read that you feel as though you are closest to Cosima. Does that make the part less interesting to play?

I think as far as the clones go, she's probably the closest to me but that doesn't me she is me at all. There are so many differences. Each of the clones has a great deal of me in them, but just a different version of me. I don't think it made it less interesting to play her. Sometimes the characters that are closer to you are sort of scary to play, because then you reveal more about yourself, you can't hide behind a mask or a set of bangs. 

In the season finale, Alison watched Aynsley die via garbage disposal strangulation! Did she do that just because she thought Aynsley was her monitor, or had their rivalry gone that far?

I think that Alison doesn't realize, necessarily, what she's doing when she's doing it. She's furious at Aynsley and she's terrified of her threatening her life. In Alison's head, Aynsley's a great threat to her family and her kids, and I think that can justify what she did. But I also think Alison didn't act in that moment, she didn't do anything. It's less so that she took a knife and stabbed Aynsley, she didn't do that. It was a momentary impulsive thing to not act, to not do something, and it ended up killing Aynsley. I don't think Alison was being very logical in that moment. She wasn't like, "Okay if I wait here long enough, she'll stop breathing." She was a little stunned and a little impulsive in that moment.

Because of Helena's situation, there's a large sympathetic part to her. When Helena and Sarah had their standoff in the finale, do you think there was any way they both could have made it out alive? Or do you think Sarah made the right decision to kill her twin?

It's hard because I'm thinking about it from both perspectives. As Helena, I'm like, "That was horrible! I didn't want to die." (laughs) And then as Sarah, of course she had to die. I think one of Sarah's huge regrets was when Helena took Kira. When she got hold of Kira, that was it. And yet, there was something in Sarah that couldn't pull the trigger at that point. She couldn't do it. Because Sarah is a human being, she's fallible, she's conflicted. I think there's a resonance in Helena that Sarah feels that she can't explain. And it's not logical and it's just based on the fact that they're sisters. I think it had to happen. It's hard to split my brain that way, I've never been asked a question like that where I had to see it from both sides. 

We also met Rachel Duncan for the first time in the finale, but we don't know a lot about her. What do you know about her?

I know a bit about her past, and it sort of helped me create who she was, even in those brief little scenes we saw her in. I'm really excited to explore more of her. She's a cool character, she's really quite ruthless and quite cold, and that's something we haven't seen yet in the clones. They all are quite emotional and quite human, we see great humanity even in Helena in the writing. But Rachel is written very coldly, I'm really excited about playing her. Really scared and really excited.

There are a lot of people assuming she's the original, is that a fair assessment?

Oh god, you know, I don't know. It's amazing the theories that people come up with on message boards. It's incredible. They're things I would have never thought of. And that's definitely one of them. 

And can we assume when Rachel made the phone call after Sarah's rejection and said, "You know what has to be done," it was to Mrs. S, who then took Kira?

I have no idea. (laughs) 

What clone would you trust most with your life?

Geez. That's a really good question. Like, Katja? I don't know. Sarah is a little untrustworthy, isn't she? She's a bit selfish. And Cosima has been known to leak information. And Alison would definitely be too self-serving to take care of me. If I were Kira, I'd trust Sarah but I'm not her, so I dunno. (laughs) Let's go with Katja.

Special thanks to Tatiana Maslany for speaking with us! Orphan Black Season 2 will air in 2014 on BBC America

Like on Facebook