SPOILER ALERT: You might want to read this after you've seen "Natural Selection," the season premiere of "Orphan Black." It will repeat at 8 p.m. CT April 4 on BBC America.
In BBC America's new series "Orphan Black," Tatiana Maslany stars with herself. And herself. And herself ...
The Canadian actress plays Sarah, a streetwise Toronto hustler who decides to steal the identity of a suicidal woman who looks like her. Little does she know that her doppelganger, Beth, is not her long-lost twin, but her exact clone--one of many.
"When I read the script I was like, 'Oh, my God,'" 27-year-old Maslany recently told me about playing multiple roles. "It was just kind of an active stream to face that challenge, and extremely daunting because it is a technical, emotional, physical, a creative stretch for me. On every level I have to challenge myself."
"Orphan Black" (3.5 stars out of 4), which debuted Saturday night after "Doctor Who," mixes elements of conspiracy thrillers, police procedurals, fringe-science fiction tales, sexy actioners and black comedy. Most importantly, though, it asks questions about self-identity and what makes each of us who we are.
Maslany, who got some attention at the Sundance Film Festival in recent years but hadn't worked for a year before landing "Orphan Black," injects a raw humanity into her main character, Sarah, who didn't actually plan on taking over Beth's life. But when opportunity knocks, she answers, thinking that maybe she can scam her way into escaping her life with cocaine-dealer boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) and start a new one with her quip-wielding foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and her daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler)--if she can get Kira away from Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the foster mother who raised Sarah and Felix.
Sarah bluffs her way through several sticky situations in the series premiere. Having replaced her own English accent with Beth's Canadian one by watching home videos at the apartment Beth shares with her pectacular boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce), she fools everyone at Beth's work. Oh yeah, Beth is a police officer under internal investigation for shooting an innocent woman she thought had a gun.
"That's one of Sarah's weapons against the world," said Maslany, who grew up in Regina in the far reaches of Saskatchewan. "It always has been that she's a good mimic. She's adaptable. She's gotten by on her smarts and that kind of thing and her ability to read people."
"Orphan Black" creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson are smart enough to have Sarah, as Beth, pretend the trauma of the event has messed with her memories. And Maslany, who has done improv for 15 years, certainly makes Sarah's winging it believable.
But Sarah also convinces Paul that she's Beth, even though he mentions her hair is longer and they have crazy kitchen island sex. And bedroom sex. Clone or not, I kind of think he'd notice a difference.
Those issues troubled me after seeing the episode, but quickly melted away when I kept watching the other three episodes sent for review. You may be thinking this is just another identity swap drama like the recent Sarah Michelle Gellar dud "Ringer" instead of the sci-fi conspiracy thriller advertised. It's not. As Sarah makes one shocking discovery after another, "Orphan Black" weaves an increasingly intricate, suspenseful tale.
Maslany and I talked more about Sarah, her relationships and Maslany's experience on the show. Read after the video below, but again, much of this is spoilery stuff, which is why I waited to post until after the premiere. (New episodes air at 8 p.m. Fridays.)
You've done a lot of improv. I was wondering if you've tapped into that training for Sarah when she has to improv her way out of a lot of sticky Beth situations.
That's a great question! I've not had that one yet. Yeah, I think it's all about being adaptable, right? ... So for me, I guess, as an improviser I know it's all about listening. The rules are saying "yes," and Sarah definitely does all those things. She says "yes" to a situation that most people would say "no" to. She sees it as an opportunity and yeah, there's kind of a fearlessness in that that which I think is ideal as an improviser that you need. You know what I mean?
Yes, I guess maybe I inadvertently drew from that. I never thought of that. That's a really cool question.
There's not much of a chance for you to do improv comedy in this show, but...
Yeah, I know. [Laughs.] Not really; it's pretty dark. There's--not a levity--but there's room for comedy. And the cool thing about the show is that it's got this kind of unique sense of humor that's not really like "Wacka-wacka." It's not a wacky sense of humor, you know what I mean? It's very character driven. It's sort of like more situational; I don't mean sitcomy, but it's more in the interactions between these women who are so polar opposite that there's comedy there. There's surrealism, all those kinds of things.
When Sarah decides that she's going to take Beth's identity, do you feel she's really thinking about the sort of long-range ramifications of that or is she just thinking, "Hey, I can take this women's money?"
I think Sarah in that moment is living in that moment. You know what I mean? I think a lot of Sarah's life has been living in the moment and doing things that maybe at the time seem like the easiest way out or the most effective way out and probably not morally sound. But I think that's how Sarah knows she's kind of an animal--sort of living in the present.
I think it's so interesting that she sees Beth's life as this kind of "out" for her, a way to close the door on her past and open the door on this new future, this new opportunity. She sort of sees it as this idealized version of a life. Beth has money, she's got a beautiful house. She used to have all of her ducks in a row, but really the more Sarah gets to know Beth's life and falls deeper and deeper into it, the more she regrets it. But also she kind of empathizes with that and gets to know herself through that empathy.
She gets thrown by all the police stuff that she has to deal with, but Beth has a hot boyfriend so that's OK, right?
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] She's got some eye candy to work with.
Was it hard to get used to playing all of these women at the same time?
The multiple roles are definitely the thing that was so intriguing about this script. And not for the fact that it was just multiple roles, but each of the characters had a very specific voice, a very specific world view and a very specific point of view.
Each is very exciting to meet even on the page. Just the prospect of playing such well-written, complex characters was tantalizing. Sarah is not the only character [who is] extremely captivating to me. I loved playing her. I was so excited to play her; I just wanted to embody her so badly. But there were these other women who were just as equally as interesting and so vastly different.
How did you not get each of them mixed up while you were acting?
It was especially difficult as far as switching between them within a day or within a scene because my body remembers the physicality I was doing for the last character. Sometimes it's hard to let go of all the little tics or things that I did for Sarah when I'm playing Katja or something.
But I was very lucky that the directors and even the continuity woman, her name is Donna, was so on top of it as far as helping me through that. She would be like, "You know what? You did a Sarah head scratch there. I think that wasn't very Katja." I had a lot of people who are extremely creative and extremely artistic kind of helping me through that.
You actually have to play opposite yourself. But actors feed off of other actors, I imagine it's kind of hard to just talk to the air.
Totally. It's the shift coming from an improv background where it's all about listening, right? And acting is all about listening. So not to have that person there is like you have to go to another place of imagination. Like an only child playing by themselves. You know what I mean?
What would you do if you came face to face with someone who looked exactly like you?
Oh, my God. I don't know if I would even recognize them. I read this thing that you wouldn't actually know your own face if you saw it because we have this perception of our face that's actually the mirror image and not the actual image. I'd probably be quite threatened by her because there's only room for one of us.
Sarah's funeral in the first episode that was just kind of crushing to me, especially when her mom and her daughter show up. How you reacted as her to that is so touching, and then she basically walks away, gets in the car and there's Katja, who then gets killed. How do you work those transitions, going from profound sadness to "Shit, get me out of here" kind of scared?
Yeah, I don't know. That stuff, I mean the stuff with Kira [her daughter] is kind of the heart and soul of Sarah's character. It's really her drive through the entire series, to me, redeeming herself in the eyes of her daughter and getting her back. That's the main drive for her. So that's stuff that really needed to be important to Sarah and really needed to resonate, and I think be something the audience could relate to and understand.
And then you go to this other scene of watching your clone die. It's like I've never been in a situation like that. I can't even fathom what that would be. So in a way it kind of works because I'm just as lost as Sarah is in that moment. You know what I mean? I'm just as freaked out by the whole thing as she is. So I guess that's kind of where I drew it from.
What I find interesting about Sarah is that she loves her daughter, she wants to redeem herself in her daughter's eyes. Like you said, she's a live-in-the-moment person who's a hustler. What makes her decide to take up the fight with the clones?
I think a lot of it is that question of "Who am I?" And reinventing yourself. The clone thing almost seems like an external manifestation of that conflict. Like who am I? What defines me? All of that. I think it's also, "Could I be someone else?" Could I be better than this? Could I have ended up differently?
I feel like those things are sort of resonant in the whole idea of clones. And as far as Sarah's willingness to go into that mystery, I think in a way it's against her volition. She falls head first into it when she decides to take over Beth's life. I think she's kind of inexorably tied to these women suddenly. She can't not know who they are. She can't not know that because I think so much of Sarah has been--she doesn't know her parents, she doesn't know her family. She's never had that so if this is some key to who she is, I think we all search for that throughout our lives and I think that's something that definitely intrigues her as much as she fights against it.
Do you find her to be basically a good person? You kind of can't help but root for her even though she may do some things that make you go, "Ewh."
Yeah, totally. And I think that's why I fell in love with that character; she wasn't superhuman. She's very human. She's very flawed. She's very complicated. She's very contradictory. She wants to be good and yet the things she does in order to be good are deemed bad or could be deemed bad.
She wants to be a mother to her daughter but I think every part of her upbringing and every part of her sense of self-worth is telling her that she can't do that and that she shouldn't want to do that and that that's not hers to have. So that's why I think, whether she's a good person or a bad person I think she's human, very human. And that's what I think people will connect to more so than if she were just clean and easy and lovely and [laughs] palatable. I think people respond at a human level to people who are actually more flawed than not.
Was the action difficult, or do you like that?
The action stuff? Yeah. Oh, my God, yeah. I've never done any of that stuff. I never get to like do all the cool stunt stuff. It was wicked. It's so much fun. And it's like in a weird way just like a childhood fantasy to do stuff like that.
What kind of fight training did you do?
The stunt guy, Jamie Jones, took me to his friend's parkhour course. So I had like a nice day of parkhour, learning boxing, all this stuff. And it was less so that I wanted to like look like a cool dude. It was more that I just wanted to have a sense of my physical abilities. Just have more of a sense of my body and what I'm actually capable of doing, which is not a lot. But at least I learned. And just like having a sense of what it is to jump over something or ramp off a wall. I got some cool pictures out of it too. Cool videos.
What particular scene or episode did you love?
The initial scene between Felix and I at the bar was a scene that we did in the audition. It was the scene that Jordan and I did; it was just a really important scene to me and to him because our characters know each other so well but haven't seen each other in a year. They're sort of at this place of tension and conflict even though they want to be there for each other, they want to love each other but they just can't for so many reasons. They're both hurt, they're both guarded, they're both defensive.
Being able to finally do that scene with Jordan was really exciting. I dreamt about the show for so long when I was auditioning for it. So to finally get to sit down opposite him and play that scene was great.
It's a lovely long scene and we kind of really see the establishment of that relationship between the two of them, which is also like the Kira relationship kind of the heart of the story. That was really wonderful. It was like we got to do kind of a little play because it's this beautiful long scene and it's so much about that relationship and it's so little about plot ot craziness. It's just this kind of nice landed and not landed moment between the two of them.
I think it sets up that relationship well.
You have this thing with best friends or with siblings, that even if you've been away from them for a year or two, you get back together and at first it's like, "Is this still the same?" Then it's invariably exactly the same as it's always been. You fall into the same dynamic, the same power imbalance or balance or whatever. I think that's why I love that scene, too, because I think it resonated with me. It was so true to my own experience.
Speaking of the humor, Jordan and Michael are hilarious together.
Yeah, they're amazing. Those two together because it's like the least likely pairing. In no other world would they ever like talk, let alone like have all these intimate moments together. I think it's such cool dynamic. I don't think it's a relationship that you get to see a lot on television. But it's so true and it makes so much sense that the two of them would somehow fall into each other and have to kind of suffer through each other's differences and everything. I just think they're so brilliant. Both of those actors, they're so brilliant.
You also get to work with Maria Doyle Kennedy, who I love. What was that like?
Oh, she's incredible. I've always been a huge fan of her and to get to work with her was like a dream because she's so grounded and so specific. She just brings this entire world with her. She brings all this experience, all this wisdom, all this groundedness and all this life experience to her work. And she's so generous and never makes you feel like you're some doinky girl from Canada. [Laughs.] She respects you like she would any scene partner. I feel like she really elevated the material and really lifted the show up to an even more exciting level.
How was the Toronto Comicon?
It was insane. I mean it was so much fun. I've always wanted to go to a convention and I've never had a chance. But I've always wanted to go as a fan so it was surreal to be there promoting a show. It's cool because nobody's really seen much of ["Orphan Black"] yet. They've seen trailers and stuff and they're still so excited about it and have questions that are so intriguing that I would never have thought of. It's such a great fan group.
Sci-fi fans are the most rabid.
They just watch really intelligently. You know what I mean? Like they watch critically and intelligently and they really get invested in the worlds. They're an awesome audience.
Give me your hard sell for this series. Why should people watch?
I think people should watch because the world created by "Orphan Black" is unlike any other world you see on television right now. It's got its own sense of humor, its own rules, its own darkness and yet it's very relatable. It's a sci-fi show, but it's grounded in real human characters and compelling characters. And that's what I love about the show and I think what people will really relate to. It also doesn't spoon feed you. It's definitely challenging and seems to provoke a lot of questions and a lot of thought. I think that's what quality TV is.
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