The lights dim and the screen brightens to reveal Tatiana Maslany, expertly portraying a paranoid Alison Hendrix ill-prepared for the neighbourhood pot luck dinner, opposite Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning, who must now take Hendrix’s place at the party after interrogating her husband. Sound strange? Then you have missed out on the critically acclaimed, unabashedly Canadian science fiction drama called Orphan Black and you must remedy this right away! Orphan Black boasts a stellar cast of characters, of which Maslany plays–as of season three–11 of them as she explores the ways identical biological structures can be expressed so differently. Each clone has an entirely unique personality that Maslany brings to life in this often amusing, shocking, tearful character study of the life choices and outside influences that make us who we are.
One of the first questions Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Artistic Director Cameron Bailey asked after welcoming Maslany to the stage for “In Conversation with…” was about how she manages to stay in character when she has so many different characters to play. Maslany explained that, in the original audition for the role, she was given a few props: a cardigan for Alison Hendrix, glasses for Cosima Niehaus, a blazer for Beth. Her training in improvisational theatre came in very handy, allowing her to switch from one character to the next based on a few suggestions and the notion of saying “yes” to whatever is thrown at you and being willing to make an idiot of yourself on stage. Now, with the fourth season already shooting, this essentially remains the same process, as Maslany transitions from one character to another over the period of about an hour and a half, with the addition of unique music and physicality for each persona, and the support of cast and crew to help her stay in character. Maslany’s performance in scenes such as the dance party above is aided by technology–specifically, the motion controlled cameras mounted on dollies and dubbed the “Time Vampire” on set, which allows the filming and piecing together of multiple takes into a single, seamless scene.
Maslany acknowledged the “Clone Club” and how important it is to have such a strong following of fans that makes everyone in the cast and crew take their work so seriously. She noted that it’s easy to get lost within the bubble of being on set, but knowing that fans are so invested, “you can’t not take that love with you on set.” She loves the response from fans and she loves that the show can break hearts with characters like Delphine. For herself, she enjoys shows that make the audience struggle with loving or hating a character or situation and loves being shocked by things that come out of left field. Bailey asked coyly what that might mean for season four, but Maslany could only say that this promises to be an exciting season. Prior to her appearance at TIFF, she’d been shooting episode seven, which she described as a “dark” with lots of challenges for all of the clones. Of course she couldn’t give much more away, but in truth, “I’m so stupid when it comes to plot,” she said, adding that she doesn’t remember much beyond what her characters have to do at any given moment.
While Orphan Black has certainly boosted Maslany’s level of fame, the Regina, Saskatchewan born actress has been earning accolades for many years. She was selected as TIFF’s Rising Star in 2012, and returned this year as part of their Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival. Maslany has been acting since she was nine and developed a love for the art form back when she and her brother would force her parents to watch their performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. The rush and thrill of being on stage is part of it and in spite of the shaky nerves that she said she felt even then chatting with Bailey in front of an audience of a few hundred, she still loves the attention. Now in her twenties, her perspective has tempered. Now she sees it as an art form that both moves and teaches her and she is constantly seeking new opportunities to learn more. Still, she maintains a childlike imagination that she believes is what truly got her into acting in order to perpetuate it.
Bailey presented a clip from Picture Day, where Maslany plays Claire, a cool 13-year old that she described as the exact opposite of who she was in high school. “I was a doink,” she said, adding that her early teens were filled with improv club adventures like re-enacting scenes from Fight Club after school. Claire is the kind of person that Maslany would have judged harshly in the past, but in playing the role, she was able to empathize and find “the truth in people who play at being something.” Similarly, the Orphan Black character of Krystal Goderitch, who spawned from a joke on set, has allowed Maslany to explore an empathize with the kind of person that is often shunned as a stereotypical “dumb blond,” but who has far more depth to them than one might presume.
The conversation moved to acting and how Maslany perfects her art. She noted that “you have to be careful of acting when you’re an actor,” which is advice she’s received over time. She loves taking acting classes and is always learning on the job. Her childhood dance training has given her a desire for perfection and precision, a need to always get it right, but her acting teachers have stressed that this is something she must let go of. Working with seasoned actors like Elias Koteas has taught her the same and she gushed about how incredible it was to act opposite someone who is so in the moment and who is willing to explore a character well beyond what is scripted on a page. It’s about “not pre-planning the outcome, surrendering to the moment, not creating the performance, but letting the performance charge and flow through you.” All of this can occur, despite the very specific technical aspects required of television and film. “Finding the breath and spontaneity within the structure is so liberating.”
In Woman in Gold, Maslany plays the young Maria Altmann, a role which required her to act completely in another language. Although her background is German and Maslany’s mother is a translator, the dialect spoken in the film was much different from the German she learned as a child. Language and how people communicate with each other is something Maslany finds fascinating. When acting in English, Maslany explained, she is always listening to herself and how she sounds, especially when doing a different accent such as that of Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning, but Woman in Gold allowed her a freedom from that hyper awareness, and being able to speak German constantly gave her a sense of connection to her family and its history.
The majority of Maslany’s work falls into the drama category, but she has appeared in two episodes of Parks and Recreation where she played a doctor who Aziz Ansari’s character was interested in. Though she makes everything look effortless on screen, when Bailey asked how she could manage to communicate so much with her micro gestures and inflections, Maslany replied, “that was me being totally scared because I am such a fan [of the show].” Bailey asked if she would consider doing more comedy. Maslany was hesitant despite her reverence for the genre. The acting tools one brings to comedy and drama are the same, but, she said, seemingly as much to herself as to the audience, “I have to trust them and bring the same commitment [to the performance] as you do with drama.”
If not comedy next, what about Hollywood, Bailey inquired. In regard to the fame aspect, Maslany finds it all “bizarre.” She loves it, but is still “navigating the visibility and trying to find my privacy within it.” She quickly squashed the rumour that she was up for a role in the next Star Wars film, though she loves the movie as much as almost everyone else in the world. Maslany’s resume has largely involved Canadian-based films and, while she said she would not turn down a good script from Hollywood, she believes that Canada has such amazing filmmakers–more than enough to satisfy her desire for scripts that thrill her, turn her on, and involve people that she’d love to work with, such as her good friends Joey Klein and Tom Cullen. The Other Half is in post production now, as is Two Lovers and a Bear in which she plays Lucy opposite Dane DeHaan’s Roman.
The audience was treated to an exclusive trailer forTwo Lovers and a Bear, which was filmed in Iqaluit, Nunavut over the period of one month. Maslany described the experience as magical and spoke about the beauty of the oppressive cold and seclusion and the tight knit community that forms within such a vast, harsh environment. She spoke passionately about the fortitude of the people, “the founders of our country,” who are too often neglected or forgotten, despite their rich culture and history.
There was a lot going on in the trailer, many elements of which could not easily be explained without seeing the film. One moment featured a love scene where Maslany was nude, prompting a question from the audience later regarding her feelings on the subject of nudity. She stressed that there is nothing wrong with a woman’s body and any choice an actress wishes to make in terms of revealing themselves onscreen, however, “Everything is giffable and easily taken out of context, so nudity is precious. […] Pulling [the images] out of context is vile and takes away from the artistry” That, she explained, is her issue with the concept of nudity in film, “otherwise, it’s just boobs.” She was terrified of the nudity required of this particular scene, though everything about the process was safe and respectable. As the scene progressed, the nudity became a non-issue as the raw emotions of the moment took over.
Other questions from the audience ranged from “Who’s the better kisser?” to favourite music to feminism and queer representation in Orphan Black (something, Maslany said, the cast and crew are very proud of) to advice for young actors to which clone is her favourite. “I can’t pick,” she said, but noted that Helena is very fun to play as she explores all the socially improper things the character does, and her base, animal instincts. She is intrigued by how her dark and violent nature has become a sort of comedy, especially now that Helena has to interact more with the character of Donnie.
Finally, when asked how she felt about being an inspiration for women, Maslany said that she considered this a responsibility that she does not seem to shy away from though she doesn’t see herself as a role model. She is a woman that makes decisions with her gut and navigates life as she sees fit. “You can’t let anyone else dictate your morals, your principles, your private lines.”