She’s played a scientist, a delinquent, a suburban housewife, a Ukrainian killer, and a steely business exec—in varying degrees and all in one episode, across 30 episodes. Tatiana Maslany’s dramatic personae of clones—up to nine different characters—on BBC America’s Orphan Black has been marveled at not just by her legion of fans, but by her peers in the business. In fact, Scandal‘s two-time Emmy lead actress nominee Kerry Washington personally marveled to Deadline last year about how much she’s a fan of Maslany’s talents. After three seasons of Orphan Black, TV Academy voters finally have woken up and bestowed Maslany with her first Emmy lead actress drama nomination, a category in which she squares off against such previous Oscar nominees as Taraji P. Henson (Empire) and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder), as well as three-time Emmy winner Claire Danes (Homeland) and nominees Robin Wright (House of Cards) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men). On the surface, Orphan Black looks like a cool, dystopian action series about a group of female clones battling for their independence against the forces that spawned them. However, the show speaks to larger set of feminist issues while intelligently smashing female TV character tropes. Maslany spoke recently about how she curbs the camp and accentuates the nuance in her clone stock.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did this project come to you and what was the audition process like?
I auditioned for it during the summer of the year we started shooting. I auditioned for it three times for the casting director and for co-creator John Fawcett. I read for the characters Sarah, Beth, Cosima and Allison. It was a pretty normal audition process. To mix it up and transform before the executive producers was daunting.
You feasibly segue between characters while not hamming it. What prepared you to tackle an ambitious set of roles such as this?
We are really conscious about the largeness of the shtick of the show. It’s a high concept piece. But through all of this, we stay true to the scene. It’s not just about the major characters but how we’re telling major stories. I was in a kids repertory company for many years, continually putting up projects and doing scene study. There were a lot of productions we turned out. I also performed a lot of long-form improv since the age of nine in different capacities through school and outside of it. The thing about the characters in improv is that you can create hundreds of them, and then you have to remember those that came out of the previous scene. You call them back. There’s no props, no costumes, and on Orphan Black, improv serves me. Improv has given me strength. My favorite improvisers are courageous and those who say yes to things in a scene. The notion of saying yes helps me every day on set, especially when I have to switch characters half-way through the day or play characters off the top of my head.
Which one of your clones are you the closest to?
Alison. For some reason the uppity housewife resonates with me. She can be lame and stern, but for some reason there’s something about her that feels resonant. There’s a high emotionalism to her that feels comfortable to me, limitless and freeing. Also Cosima, particularly in regards to how she is with people and her fascination with people’s behavior.
You’ve been very outspoken about sexism in Hollywood. How does it pervade on TV?
“Strong woman” is still a buzz word. I’m obsessed with the idea of deciphering and trying to define it. Do I think we’ve made strides? I’ve noticed a lot of change. People have endured boring archetypes (on TV), and they demand more complex portrayals in all aspects. That goes for male archetypes as well. I don’t think it’s limited to women. For me, the complexity of the role and contradictory nature of the role is important; (the role) of the masculine woman doesn’t denote strength. I speak out about these things. Feminism is a remarkable thing, and it’s lucrative. There are different versions of feminism that make money and I’m constantly critical.
Have there been shows out there masquerading as female empowerment, such as Sex and the City and 2 Broke Girls?
I think we’ve made huge headways in showing that it’s not special for a woman to lead a TV series. Sex and the City did a lot to normalize four women being the central focus of the story. It was pivotal. All of these shows do something positive. Kat Dennings is an amazing actress. She’s bad ass. I haven’t seen her show. But there are shows out there that continue to propagate the same things we see over and over. People want to be challenged.
This season you also became a producer, which implies that you have some say in the writers room. What fingerprints have you had on Orphan Black this season?
John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, the creators of the show, have had an open-door policy in terms of the characters and what they’re doing. If a new clone is introduced, I’m always involved. I don’t sit in the writers room, but the conversations are always happening on set. There’s a fluid transfer of ideas and inspirations, things we’re excited about and things that are about to happen. There was a moment last season where Kristian Bruun, who plays Alison’s husband Donnie—we were dancing in the parking lot to keep warm one night during our Toronto shoot. This led to John Fawcett saying, “We need to make Donnie and Alison twerk on a bed filled with money.” There was also the clone Crystal. She popped up in Episode 8. I was riffing on an imitation on set, and Graeme said, “We need to make that a clone.” She’s a naive clone. We don’t realize that when we meet her. She’s doing Delphine’s nails and she’s a bit of an airhead—not quite there, not quite grounded.
You have a body double, Kathryn Alexandre, who will play the arm or the back of your clone in a scene. How have you specifically drawn inspiration from her in your portrayals?
She shows up every day, blocks with me as though she’ll be in the scene, she does all the accent work and the physical work. She goes through all the motions with me as well as improvises with me in a scene. She’s incredible. She never gets on camera; she just wants the job to be done well. There will be situations where she will start off a scene, say as Helena, and she’ll improvise an opening line, which when I take over that spot on camera, I’ll use that line. I’ve stolen many of her great improv lines.
What can we expect next season?
The only thing I know for sure is that it will feel like the pace of Season 1. It will have that sort of mystery.
What was the audition like for Disney/Lucasfilm’s Rogue One? Given the long days on Orphan Black, is your schedule flexible enough for you to tackle big studio film roles?
No, they don’t allow us to talk about the Rogue One audition. We shoot (Orphan Black) from early September to February-March. Days can go 17 hours, especially when there’s a scene where there’s all four clones in it, but generally they are 12-14 hour days. This past year, I did two movies during my hiatus. One of them was opposite Dane DeHaan, Two Lovers and a Bear from Kim Nguyen, a Montreal director. The second film, The Other Half, I played opposite Tom Cullen. It’s from a first-time feature director and I’ve been attached to it for five years and have seen it through many drafts. I’m connected to this story (about a bipolar woman and her relationship with a grief-stricken man). For me, I’m most excited by indie features—places where I can collaborate with projects that shape me as an artist. Those are the more compelling projects to me, more than anything.
To see more of Maslany in Orphan Black, click play below: