Sometimes a small guest role can have an outsize impact: take Maria Doyle Kennedy‘s part on Downton Abbey. As the vicious Mrs. Bates, she offed herself and framed husband John Bates for murder, leading to his protracted stint in the clink and sparking the “Free Bates” movement amongst Downton‘s dedicated fans and hipsters worldwide.
But now the Irish-born actress/singer has re-emerged in a meaty regular role on Orphan Black, BBC AMERICA’s critically acclaimed thriller about a troubled streetwise heroine named Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) who, in order to build a better life for her daughter, fakes her death and takes on the identity of a dead woman who looks just like her. However, Sarah learns that her deceased lookalike is a clone — and that there are many more out there. In the series, Kennedy plays Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S, an enigmatic woman who is now raising Sarah’s young daughter.
At last month’s BBC Worldwide Showcase event in Liverpool, I spoke with the actress about her new role, balancing a career as a musician with her acting work, and whether she’s kept up with the death parade over at the Abbey.
Anglo: What’s the story behind the show?
Kennedy: The basic story is around the central character, Sarah (Maslany), who’s a pretty wild one. She’s fairly rebellious and often in trouble, not making the best choices. She’s trying to sort of figure out her life, and one evening at a train station she sees somebody who commits suicide in front of her. Just before she does that, she sees her face and she realizes that it’s somebody that’s identical to her. Not even looks like her but absolutely identical. It’s incredibly bizarre. But since her own life is so troubled, and she’s kind of a fast thinker and a dodgy mover, she decides to jump into this person’s life. She steals her wallet and decides to steal her identity because she thought maybe it would give her a new chance, a fresh start. But actually she discovers that this other person’s life is in fact even more complex and every bit as dangerous as her own. And the journey goes on from there when she tries to discover why there is someone else who looks exactly like her, like a clone. And I play Mrs. S who is Sarah’s foster mother, and I have raised her basically.
Anglo: What attracted you to the character of Mrs. S?
Kennedy: She’s really strong. It’s very difficult when you start off because they haven’t written all the scripts. You have a few scripts that are done and are solid. You sort of have to take a jump and hope that [the show] is gonna be what it is gonna be. But I spoke to [Orphan Black co-creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett] on the phone, and I really like them. And what sold it for me was that it was very obvious that she was kind of feisty, strong, and tough — but also that she has a loving and tender side as well, particularly in the way she relates to Sarah’s young daughter, Kira.
I was talking to Graeme and John just before I was figuring out whether I would do it or not. I play music as well. I had a lot of gigs, and was it all gonna work out? They were very sweet. They said, “No, we can work around all your gigs.” And at the very end, Graeme said to me, “You know, I based Mrs. S’s character in my mind on Patti Smith.” And that was a done deal for me. She’s a huge heroine of mine.
Anglo: What’s it like to work with Tatiana Maslany, who has this Herculean task of playing all of these different characters in the show and learning different accents?
Kennedy: I was so incredibly impressed by her. She absolutely knocked my socks off. [For her], it’s a great gift to have a part like that as an actor, obviously, because you get to show every single thing that you can possibly do. You get to be light and dark. Loud and quiet. One of her characters is incredibly uptight. One of them is very geeky. All these different things that you can have so much fun with. And you change your look all the time and even go so far as to change your accent several times. It’s a great showcase of an actor.
Along with that, it’s an unbelievable workout. Switching in and out of characters and voices and scenes — I don’t think she had a day off in the five months. I think she worked every day. It was an incredible workload, but she’s really, really strong, incredibly committed to Orphan Black, and I just totally fell in love with her. Absolutely adore her. I know that we’ll remain friends afterwards, which is a great thing to be after a piece of work.
Anglo: You are very well-known for your performance as Bates’ wife…
Kennedy: Oh dear!
Anglo: …on Downton Abbey.
Kennedy: Vera Bates. What a dreadful woman! (laughs) It was so much fun to get to behave so badly without the real-life consequences of your actions. And I think everybody likes the play the villain. They’re always much more interesting characters. But the particularly great thing about that was that it was a period. She’s so conniving, dreadful and so awful, but if that was a modern-day thing, you’d probably be directed to be very shouty, very over-the-top. But because it’s period, it’s all so controlled. Brendan Coyle [Bates] and I had worked together before so we knew each other so there was a great ease from the beginning.
Anglo: Certainly your character’s death sparked a lot of stories!
Kennedy: Apparently they’re still talking about me.
Anglo: Are you still following the show? And what are you thinking about the recent departures?
Kennedy: I haven’t seen, to be honest. I have seen no telly for ages because I have been working like a lunatic. We released an album in August, so every second that I haven’t been filming, I have been gigging all over the world. We have been touring. So I have stacks and stacks of stuff at home recorded, waiting for me to watch. I did manage to get a box set of The Hour, which I watched back-to-back pretty much. God, it was fantastic.
Anglo: Isn’t it, though?
Kennedy: Thought Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw, in particular, they were just luminous. I adored that. But everything else is waiting for me.
Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 9/8c in BBC AMERICA’s Supernatural Saturday block following Doctor Who.