BBC America’s acclaimed sci-fi series Orphan Black rests on the shoulders of series star Tatiana Maslany. Ostensibly a story about a shadowy corporate monolith and the consequences of illegal human cloning, in the details, it’s a character study focused largely on a set of identical female clones—11 of them by the end of Season 4—all of which are played by Maslany. Her uncanny ability to play every character so distinctly that it can feel to viewers like separate actresses in each part has won widespread acclaim and a passionate fan base drawn as much by her performance as by the show’s depiction of people from all walks of life, and various sexual orientations.
“I’m really proud that our show never really vilifies anybody, that everyone has a humanity and that everyone has vulnerability, and needs, and wants love, and deserves love, regardless of what they’ve done or who they are,” says Maslany about the show, and the intensely positive reaction from fans. Now looking at her second Emmy nomination for the role(s), Maslany talked to AwardsLine about Orphan Black’s devoted fans, the way TV is changing to reflect an increasingly diverse society, and being recognized in a crowded and competitive field.
This being your second Emmy nomination for the role, the interesting thing is that it’s for an often overlooked genre—sci-fi. What are your thoughts on being recognized, along with the show itself, by the Television Academy?
We’re really lucky to get this recognition because I do think there’s a stigma around science fiction. But so many shows that are science fiction speak about the world in a way that’s really subversive, and I think that TV is changing in general, that the stigma about television is changing. It’s really open to more complicated storytelling, and the structure of it allows for a lot of in-depth character progression and exploration. We’re just lucky that we’ve made any kind of splash—especially because right now, television is so strong.
I’ve always felt, also, that our show kind of transcends the genre. The conceit is sci-fi, but it focuses more on the human aspect, what it is to be human, what is it to be an individual; how do you exist as an individual in a system that seeks to commodify you? We’re lucky that we’ve hit onto something in that balance.
Your performance seems as though you’re asking, “What does it mean to be 11 humans?” If someone is eliminated, for instance—being trained by years of television viewing—one’s first thought is, “Who are they going to get to replace that actor?” But of course, they don’t have to, since it’s you. What’s it like for you playing these roles with such distinction that they feel like they’re being played by completely different actors?
That’s a testament to the other actors on the show, too, who, the second I walk on set as a different character, are imbuing me to that character, so it’s really a joy on my part to get to wear different shoes like that. I’ve always loved character work and have never had the opportunity to do it so much—definitely not as much as I get to do it on this show. But I feel like it’s the most natural thing for an actor to want to do, to inhabit different lives, and it’s a total joy. It’s amazing the audience believes it, that they allow us to do it. It could have fallen on its face so easily because it’s kind of a risky thing. I love what makes people tick, what makes people move differently, how our bodies reflect emotional lives, our past, our secrets. For me, it’s so fun to get to explore that sort of acting exercise in such an in-depth way. The writing is so strong for each of the voices, it doesn’t feel off ever. It’s a testament to all the parts of our show that people believe it.
How long did it take you to get a handle on who these characters were going to be, and what was that process like?
I still feel like there are days when I get to set where I’m like, “I don’t know who this character is,” especially if I’ve been playing someone else for a week. If I’m with Sarah for a week, switching into Alison is always a bit of a shock. Or playing Cosima and then I change into Helena. I think my body has started to understand the shorthand, but it is also a degree of trusting that I know them and that they’re in my body at this point, so to speak. Coming back to the writing, allowing that to lead me, just being a kid who can believe they’re an astronaut or a dinosaur, going into your imagination: It’s taken me a while to trust that, and not feel like I have to do 900 things, you know, like wear my lucky underwear to make sure that works. (Laughs)
Orphan Black has a devoted fan base and has also been championed by critics, and something I’ve found interesting is the reaction. Before you received your first nomination, many considered it a snub. What was it like when you were finally recognized, in light of those strong reactions?
The recognition was such a shock in the first place, but the outrage was the most shocking for me. That people actually cared whether I was nominated or not, that they felt they had a stake in it, I think that was such a testament to our fans who are so supportive of us. They’re the only reason we have a show because they sort of forced people to watch (laughs). The critics have been good too. We’re really lucky to have been championed by people who have some influence on what people watch. For me, it felt like it was for the fans that that nomination came through; it really felt like a communal thing, it was for us that the show got recognized. But by no means did I ever expect it, or seek it out, or think I deserved it. It’s a world I don’t necessarily feel part of. I’m just baffled to be in the company of actors like Robin Wright—it’s wild to me. These are women who’ve been working for years, who have such a body of work and such a legacy, and are changing television. It’s just really surreal to be in that company.
One of the things that fans have responded to is the way the show very matter-of-factly treats the diversity of the human experience, particularly in terms of sexual orientation. It’s also very sympathetic to people whose lives aren’t exactly normal. What’s that like playing such a cross-section of people, and do you feel that there’s an importance to that within the show?
It’s something that I’m most proud of on our show, especially that it’s through the eyes of a woman and the experiences of a woman. But also, I feel like nowadays it’s so important for us to remember the things that connect us, and the things that make us human, and the same, as opposed to this idea that we’re different and should be separate. There’s such a divide right now in terms of politics, in terms of people. There’s so much fear of the other, so much hatred. So I’m really proud that our show never really vilifies anybody, that everyone has a humanity and that everyone has vulnerability, and needs, and wants love, and deserves love, regardless of what they’ve done or who they are.
The way that we treat sexuality is something I’m extremely proud of and that I’m very political about as well. One of my favorite lines of our show is when Cosima says, “My sexuality isn’t the most interesting thing about me.” That to me is so important to drive home, to remember that as much as Cosima represents a large community of people, she is more than her sexuality. She’s defined by her intelligence and her desire to learn and her knowledge of science, her huge compassion and her huge heart, her flaws and her selfishness. She doesn’t just sit as this archetype and that is something that I feel really proud of and excited by.
This matter-of-fact portrayal of sexual orientation is a recent phenomenon. Do you think there’s something about the way television has been working, especially over the last decade, that makes it more likely?
There’s a real bravery to storytelling right now—people are kind of fed up with misrepresentations of women, with the LGBT community, with minorities. These groups are so underrepresented. We’re so used to seeing men as the default perspective, and that’s just changing intrinsically. You look at Transparent and Orange is the New Black, perspectives that we’ve never been privy to on television, and now they’re front and center, and they’re capturing people’s imagination, and making them think and feel. I feel that television is definitely taking cues from people, but at the same time, the fact that we’re so lucky that our fans watch our show, feel brave enough to be themselves because of it, because they see themselves represented on television. I don’t know what came first but there’s a real desire to be seen right now and I do think television is reflecting that change, and that loud volume of voice that’s coming from people who never had a voice before.
You were raised speaking several languages. Does the fact that you were multilingual from a young age inform your ability to play these multiple roles?
It definitely exposed me to the way people relate to each other differently in different languages, the words that we use, the way we communicate, the way we express ourselves, and I feel like it has stimulated my imagination. My parents are both multilingual, as are my brothers, my family. Languages were always part of our lives. It was very helpful in terms of expression.
Looking back on Season 4, is there a particular episode, moment, or character that stands out as your favorite performance?
I’m so lucky that I get to do this—like Krystal, this more comedic, arch character I would never be cast in otherwise. And also Rachel, who’s gone through this huge transformation, she has power, scrambling to get back to the person she used to be and find herself in the midst of all this adversity. Sarah had Episode 7 last season, where it felt like a little mini movie; we just got to live with her a little bit and see what it’s like to be her, to carry that weight and not want to have to carry it. It was fun to watch her go back to her old ways and be the sort of selfish, free spirit character she always has been.
Regardless of which character you spend the most time inhabiting, which do you like playing the most?
That’s an impossible question, but it’s usually the one that’s in front of me. But I love Helena, I love playing Alison, I love playing Krystal — three character types I’ve never got to play.