Over the course of Orphan Black’s run—the sci-fi hit’s fourth season premieres Thursday—star Tatiana Maslany has been tasked with, well, a lot.
She’s played over a dozen different characters: a desperate German girl on the run, an earthy lesbian scientist, a tightly wound housewife, a British vagabond with a heart of gold, a feral Ukrainian assassin, and a dizzying array of clones all with their own accents, mannerisms, backstories, and distinct personalities.
She’s shot scores of—what’s the word—WTF scenes in which one of the characters she plays interacts—even fistfights—with another. In the show’s biggest mind-melt and possibly the greatest of Maslany’s numerous feats of acting, she’s even played clones pretending to be other clones.
It’s undoubtedly the greatest performance on television, in that Maslany, with each episode, delivers about seven or eight great performances.
When the series, about a group of women who discover they are clones and that their lives are in danger, returns Thursday, the season will be structured around a provocative theme: “The only way forward is to go back.”
With that theme in mind and with Season Four on the horizon, we asked Maslany herself to go back. Way back. All the way to the beginning, when she was auditioning for Orphan Black and about to take on the most arduous acting challenge on TV. Did she have any idea what was going to be asked of her? What she was about to get into?
“Not. At. All,” Maslany laughs. “Not remotely.”
Orphan Black, at this point in the game, has a DNA double helix of a plot that only the show’s most obsessive fans can untangle. The web of character relationships and Russian nesting doll of secret organizations, double agents, and covert scheming comprise a rat’s net of storylines to unscramble. A rat’s nest that, as it turns out, is a surprisingly hospitable home for viewers tantalized by the show’s addictive twists, rich mythology, and Maslany’s chameleonic acting abilities.
Funnily enough, Maslany herself has a hard time keeping track of the storylines while flitting in and out of the myriad characters she plays on the show, often calling herself “not a plotty person.”
“I did not tell them that in the audition, or I would not have gotten this part,” she says laughing, again.
That’s the thing about Tatiana Maslany. She may be on one of the darkest, most intense shows on television, and deep into not just one but a dozen characters affected by that intensity and that darkness. But, my god, she laughs a lot.
She laughs throughout our entire interview, exuding a warmth and erstwhile chillness that counteracts any assumption you might make about a thespian on a show that demands so much and is so moody and psychologically aggressive.
Season Four picks up by, as that tagline suggests, going back.
As teasers and the first four minutes that have been posted alone hint, we travel back to before the events that kick off the series, when a clone named Beth jumps in front of a train in front of our heroine, Sarah. We learn who Beth is, what she knew about the clone project, and what drove her to to take her life.
For a person who’s “not plotty,” like Maslany, the creative twist couldn’t be more welcome.
“I think there’s so many questions that the show’s posed and left unanswered,” she says. “And I think that it’s really satisfying to get to answer some of those questions and get back to that sort of internal struggle of identity and all that. I think what was so cool about the first season was that it was kind of pure in that way. There are now so many storylines and questions and unanswered things, so I think it is nice for the audience to get a little more info and have their feet on the ground a little more firmly.”
After the first season of the show wrapped, Maslany concedes, she did have to go into what she jokingly calls a seclusion of sorts. “I couldn’t remember what I had been talking about an hour prior,” she says. “My brain was, like, shut off. I just spent a lot of time sleeping and eating. I was just really depleted after the first season.”In her breaks between recent seasons, Maslany has been able to rebound more quickly, using the time not to recharge but to shoot movies. When we speak, she had just wrapped filming on Season Four of Orphan Black and had been in Boston for three weeks prepping to shoot Stronger, the upcoming drama centered on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Between past seasons she’s shot the film The Woman in Gold, in which she played a younger version of Helen Mirren’s character, and the upcoming indie Two Lovers and a Bear opposite Dane DeHaan. And what else does being the most respected actress in a TV drama get you? On the short list to be the female lead in a Star Wars spin-off, a role that eventually went to Felicity Jones in this winter’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Traditionally, being so closely associated with a TV series that has run for as many seasons as Orphan Black has—and with as many impassioned fans as the show boasts—can be a liability for an actor, who risks being typecast as a particular character. Luckily, when you play 12 or so characters in one show, people have a hard time thinking of you as just one of them when you’re walking down the street (or into casting rooms).
“I think people like certain characters and so they think their favorite one is more who I am or something,” Maslany says. “It’s funny. ‘You’re so much like Cosima!’”
But while it might be impossible to brand Maslany as one character type, she laughs that she’s encountered a different kind of typecasting: that she’d only be interested in playing multiple characters. “That’s what I get a lot!” she says. “‘How can you be happy playing just one character?’”
It comes with the territory that fans of Orphan Black are going to have their favorite clone characters. Maybe you’re more into the housewife-gone-bad hilarity of Allison. Or perhaps you’re enamored by Helena’s transformation from monstrous antagonist to adorable “sestra.”
And perhaps it also comes with the territory that there’s rabid curiosity for which of the characters is Maslany’s own favorite. It’s the question she’s been asked the most—interview after interview—for four years now, barely edging out the routine follow-up inquiry: How do you keep track of all the clones?
Maslany laughs—as she does—at the obsessive questioning, stopping short of saying she’s exhausted by it.
“I just don’t feel like I have a particularly interesting answer for either of them!” she says. “I get asked those two questions so many times and it never gets more interesting. My answer is so boring. But as long as people are still interested in finding out this very boring answer I have to give, then ask away!”
More frequently than she’s grilled about her favorite characters, Maslany is showered with praise. Deserved praise, of course. Praise that began as word of mouth from fans of the show and TV critics and that has finally bubbled up to the “mainstream,” with Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations now under her belt after seasons of fan campaigning and outcry over snubs.
She’s been admirably humble and gracious about all of the accolades. But does she ever give herself a moment to internalize and digest it? Or at least give herself credit for the crazy acting feats she’s pulling off?
After all, she is, truly, the best freaking actress on TV.
“It’s just a bizarre thing to do,” she says, again humbly, about the Orphan Black acting challenge. “This isn’t done really in drama. This kind of multi-character work, one actor in a show.”
She gets the best of both worlds: She’s always wanted to be a character actor, and she gets to be just that—and the lead on a TV series. On a drama series to boot.
It’s interesting to think about—what it says about what Maslany, for all this talk of typecasting, is capable of. Her work as multiple characters on Orphan Black is a singular accomplishment in drama. But it’s something we’re quite used to seeing in comedy.
It’s a hyper-intense version of what someone like Eddie Murphy does in his movies. Really, for all the high-stakes drama of Orphan Black, Maslany’s work should indicate that she’d be perfect for a character-driven, single-actor comedy. Her own version of The Nutty Professor.
“I would love to do that,” Maslany says, giggling at the very idea. “Or have you seen this show on Netflix called The Characters? All these awesome comedians do their characters. That’s so fun for me to watch, somebody transform like that and create an entire new sense of humor and timing through a character. We don’t get to do that a lot in drama.”
The Nutty Professor 3: Meet the Clones. Your move, Hollywood.