Q&A with 'Orphan Black' Star Tatiana Maslany

BBC America’s latest original series, "Orphan Black," has garnered a host of critical praise and fan appreciation since its premiere this past weekend as part of BBC America’s Supernatural Saturdays. The show’s breakout star, Tatiana Maslany, deserves plenty of the credit. After all, she plays not one but several of the lead roles. Maslany stopped by the BBC America offices recently and we had the chance to sit down and chat with her about some of the challenges of playing clones, often in the very same scene, how she got her start as an actor, and the central role that music played in her work on "Orphan Black." BBC AMERICA: You’ve been acting for a long time. What was the moment you knew this was the career you wanted? TATIANA MASLANY: I started out as a dancer as a kid; I’ve been dancing since I was 4. So performing was always part of what I was. I don’t know if it I enjoyed the response I got from people or if I liked having an audience, but there’s something in me that wanted to perform. I transitioned into theater and acting when I was about 9, community theater and musicals, being, like chorus-kid-number-78 or whatever. But I just loved it. As a kid you just crave attention, and early on I just felt it was so cool and fun to play around and have people clap for me. But eventually I grew up and fell deeper into it. About 7 years ago I moved to Toronto and kind of took control of it, and realized there’s a depth to this art form, and a reach, and a chance for expression and creation and telling story about human nature and all the contradictions that we are as people. Now I’m really obsessed with characters, I’m really interested in people and I love playing different kinds of people, learning about them and defending them or understanding them better. There’s something in it that’s much better than the attention. [caption id="attachment_341" align="aligncenter" width="540"]If you're going to steal your dupe's identity, home videos are perfect study material. Tatiana Maslany as Brit punk, Sarah Manning[/caption] BBC AMERICA: Has your interest in characters influenced the kinds of roles you’ve taken? MASLANY: Yeah, I try to get roles that challenge me in what I can do and who I think I can portray. For me it’s about creating characters with really fascinating stories, because that’s what I like to watch on TV. "Deadwood"keeps popping up in my head because I keep thinking about Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), and the cool complexity of that character. He’s not a good guy. He’s vile. And yet you can’t stop watching him. There’s something so compelling about the humanness [McShane] brings to that character. And there’s so many actors that I look up to, and that I’m obsessed with their work because their level of humanity is so deep. As an actor you have to be a person first, and that, for me, is the focus. BBC AMERICA: So character must have been what attracted you to the role in "Orphan Black?" MASLANY: I auditioned for it about six months before I booked it, and just fell in love with the character of Sarah immediately. As soon as I read the breakdown for her I was like “Oh wow, who is this girl?” and reading through the script I was like, “I want, I need so badly to play this!” The excitement of playing multiple characters, that challenge made me salivate, I was so hungry for it. You don’t ever get that kind of challenge as an actor. To play six to 10 different characters is just a fantasy. I dreamt about it, panicked, pestered my agent. I did four auditions altogether, the last was a network test and chemistry read with Jordan (Felix), and got to play five different characters with little pieces of costume to help me navigate through them, and it was the most fun and the most terrifying audition I’ve ever done. [caption id="attachment_601" align="aligncenter" width="540"]Tatiana Maslany opposite...Tatiana Maslany (and Tatiana Maslany) Tatiana Maslany opposite... Tatiana Maslany, with Tatiana Maslany[/caption] BBC AMERICA: Once you got the role, how did you prepare before shooting? MASLANY: I worked with a dialect coach for all the different dialects. I also worked a lot on movement. I took a studio by myself, and put on my characters’ playlists—I had various different playlists for each character—and I just explored a space however that music moved me, music that felt or sounded like that character, the rhythm or the emotion or the aggression behind it. There’s something about music that makes me feel like a different person, that feels like an escape. I also read a lot about gang culture, the nature of being an orphan, the science of cloning, and about identical twins. It turns out twins tend to be a lot more similar than a clone would be since they share a womb, and so much information is passed to us while in the womb, and that wouldn’t happen for clone. That also gave me some room. I’m sure there will be some unavoidable similarities, since it’s always me playing these characters, but I really want to blow them out and make them as different from one another as possible. BBC AMERICA: Sure, they share the same DNA, but everything else can be vastly different. MASLANY: I read a whole lot about the nature/nurture debate, from the science and sociological perspectives, and how society makes us behave in various ways depending on where we’re from and what we’ve gone through, and what part genetics plays in that.

NEXT: Maslany on music, improv, and working opposite herself >

BBC AMERICA: With all those playlists you must be a big music fan. MASLANY: Huge! BBC AMERICA: Was it all music you were already listening to? MASLANY: Totally, and so each one was in some ways just me elaborating on some side of myself, using that side as a nut from which to improvise and build and play and elaborate. BBC AMERICA: It’s quite acrobatic to play so many shifting roles. What was tough about it?  MASLANY: I was really lucky because the voices were already so clear on the page, but definitely switching between them sometimes felt like a very technical gearshift, and my brain didn’t quite catch up with it, and sometimes my body would be stuck in doing the mannerisms of the character before. So I’d be scratching my head in a certain way, and then the continuity person would stop me and gently say, “Just so you know, I think that head-scratch is more of a Sarah thing than it is Cosima.” So I was lucky to have people watching and noticing all that and helping. A lot depended on the hair and makeup chair, because that’s where I’d be listening to music and that’s where I’d be changing visually, and I found that gave me so much. BBC AMERICA: It’s an increasingly common challenge to have to act in scenes that will later include monsters, zombies, or in your case, versions of yourself. MASLANY: It was definitely a challenge working opposite nobody! I had to remember to be looking over here, and not moving there, making sure the eyeline was moving at the same time I moved, remembering what I had done, and trying to be present: that was the hardest thing. As an actor you’re listening to the other person and always trying to be present and take everything they’re giving you, but when they’re not there you have to produce that yourself. BBC AMERICA: So you would watch scenes right away to remember what happened? MASLANY: After the costume and makeup changeover I’d come back, watch the scene, and make notes, like, on that line, I stood up, moved from there to there, so I can keep pace with the other version of myself. I have an earbud in my ear so I can hear the lines and be in dialog. The first time I did it I found myself acting really hard, because I was trying to do so much at once. It came off as a bit pushed because there was nobody there and I feel more un-actor-ey when there’s someone else there. So I had to learn, and I relaxed and realized that I don’t always have to be staring someone else in the eye for the entirety of a scene. And those scenes took so many hours to put together, 10 hours at a time, and were so heavily technical. BBC AMERICA: But outside the clone scenes, things were mostly more organic? MASLANY: Yeah, character work and human interactions and all that, and then suddenly you have to stop and be several different people, like this robot sci-fi. It was so cool for that reason. [caption id="attachment_367" align="alignnone" width="540"]Katja demands to know why Tatiana as Katja "The German"[/caption] BBC AMERICA: Are you much of a sci-fi fan yourself? MASLANY: It’s kind of new to me. I’ve done a lot of horror before. I am a "Futurama" fan so I get that world. I like "Star Trek" a lot, I grew up watching the original "Star Trek" series, so it’s in my head, but it’s not what made me do this, because I never really saw it as exclusively or overly sci-fi. It’s got clones as the backdrop, but as an actor it’s still all about characters because Allison’s world is decidedly un-sci-fi, except the fact that she’s a clone and caught up in this mystery. So in effect there were different genres within the same show. BBC AMERICA: Did you have any role models in playing such a tough, complex lead character in Sarah? MASLANY: Gena Rowlands for sure, in "A Woman Under the Influence." Gena was one of the big ones because the way she deals with drama or difficulty or internal conflict. She almost always had the same look, the same hairdo, but she found this amazing way of differentiating people, or making wholly new characters, just based on their worldview. Also I watched "United States of Tara" just to get a sense of some of the technical solutions for playing multiple characters. Toni Collette also just kills it, so keyed in to these physical differences, and the external feeding the internal, and commitment to the comedy of it and the weirdness and surrealness of it, but always finding the basis in human behavior. BBC AMERICA: "Orphan Black" is pretty tightly plotted, but were there chances to get looser, use improvisation? MASLANY: That was a big challenge for me, because I am used to the indie film world, and the theater world: that’s what I come from. And so I have a background in improv. I actually did improv professionally for about 10 years, doing longform improv and one-act plays with my company. It’s something that I really love to do. And at the same time, I’m a dancer, and that’s all about this step being followed by that step followed by this step, and that movement. So there’s something in me that understands the structure of things, and patterns, so I guess maybe it’s the combination of the two things that I try to bring to "Orphan." Some days we were doing 10 pages in a day with me playing three characters, and there’s not a lot of time for me to be like “You know, I think she’s maybe got to be feeling a different way here; let’s try it ten different ways!” The cool thing was that in the first two episodes there were a lot of big long scenes, and Jordan and I had a lot of those scenes together, and John Fawcett, who is the showrunner and one of the creators and directed the episodes, he gave us the space to do scenes for like 10 minutes, uninterrupted. And we had blocks for where we were moving but there was a lot of space for breath in it, to find different levels of emotion, take it somewhere else, not be so concerned about hitting marks and moments and kind of spreading out. That was such a dream to have so much freedom, because we began to understand our characters and our relationship much more deeply, emotionally and physically and psychologically, and also explore the space of these cool sets. It allowed then for a quicker pace to shooting later, because we’d done the work and really deeply understood the relationship between our characters. Both Jordan and I were so excited about that. It felt like we were doing a play, like a one-act, and was so cool. When do you ever get to do that on a television shoot? Never! BBC AMERICA: What are some of your hopes for how viewers will relate to "Orphan Black?" MASLANY: I hope people have debates and arguments about what’s going to happen, and who they like as characters and who they hate. I hope they’re constantly challenged as far as who they’re allying themselves with. And I hope it has that kind of public discussion, where people discuss it and compose theories about it, and have questions they can’t answer, and that the ideas behind it provoke thoughts and start new, exciting conversations. Don't miss a new episode of "Orphan Black," this Saturday at 9/8c on BBC America!