There’s a wit to BBC America’s Orphan Black that makes you think you’re in good hands while you watch it — it’s an important quality in a twisty genre series that’s liable to attract an audience scalded by falling for the wrong show time after time. As we head into the seventh episode of its first season (out of 10), Orphan Black (Saturday nights at 9 p.m.) has thrilled, with true surprises, warmth, and laughs. Its structure is admirable and disciplined.
Its excellence is all about its lead actor, Tatiana Maslany, who plays multiple roles, often talking with herself twice or three times in scenes. Oh, yes, did I mention? Orphan Black is about clones: a particular set of young female clones, scattered throughout the world, a few of whom have banded together to figure out who and what they are. Sarah (Maslany), a former foster kid from the U.K. who is trying to get her life together with the help of her gay foster brother (Felix — the gifted Jordan Gavaris), is the main character, who finds herself entwined in the show’s opening scene when she sees her doppelganger Beth (Maslany) jump in front of a train. There’s also Alison (Maslany), a suburban soccer mom; Cosima (Maslany), a science grad student trying to root out the mystery; and Helena (Maslany), a hollow-eyed, self-mutilating Ukrainian. There are more. But you get it.
I love this show. It was recently renewed for a second season. This week, I spoke with Maslany — just one of her — and Orphan Black’s co-creators, writer Graeme Manson and director John Fawcett.
I keep waiting for this show to fall apart. It’s so crazy every week. And it has not. How did you go about planning Season 1?
John Fawcett: We put a lot of thought and a lot of energy in the direction the show was going to go, and what was going to be revealed when. And kind of made it a priority that we were going to not just ask questions all the time, but give out answers. I don’t know what shows you’ve followed that are maybe similar to this, but as a viewer, I can get frustrated when I’m constantly getting questions and not seeing answers.
Tatiana, what was the audition process like?
Tatiana Maslany: I just was obsessed with it from the start. I was completely enamored by Sarah as her own character — there was so much complexity, and so much to mine there — and then at the same time, this challenge I couldn’t even have conceived of, playing multiple roles and seeing how well-written each and every one of these women was. I think I auditioned twice for you, John? Three times? And then there was two days of screen tests where I played about five of the characters. It was a really wonderful, terrifying audition process because I was so hungry for the part. And didn’t want to mess it up.
Graeme and John, it seems to me that the worst thing would be to cast the wrong lead here. Every single thing depends on her. Tell me what you saw in Tatiana.
Fawcett: Graeme and I both knew that because we had this sci-fi series that had kind of an absurd premise, any mistake in casting would be death. We kind of knew the series would either really suck or be really great. Obviously, we were going to be very clever about the writing, and we were going to carry it off to the best of our abilities. But a lot of the success of the show was going to be reliant on the actor who played Sarah and plays all the clones. So that process was a very strange process — essentially, you’re casting all the female leads at the same time. We saw lots of people because you want to be certain that you’re making the right choice. You kind of go, “Well, that person was a really great Sarah, but you just didn’t buy the cop part of her playing Beth.” Or, “I really, really loved her as Alison, but she just couldn’t pull off the British accent.” So it was this crazy process of going through actors to find a person who had the skills we needed to employ this character to the degree we needed her. And that’s how Tatiana came to be with us.
How did the idea come about? What’s the origins story of the show itself?
Graeme Manson: John and I have known each other for a long time, and it goes back almost 10 years, when John and I were still largely in the feature world. John had a concept for an opening scene, and he pitched it to me: What if a girl stepped off a train and she saw herself, and in that moment their eyes met, and her other self committed suicide? I said, “And then what?” He was, like, “Well, that’s your job.” We started with this intriguing opening scene, and asked questions from there. Twins seemed to run out of story really quickly. And since we’re both genre lovers, we thought clones would be really terrific territory — for John as a director, for all the visual, technical challenges, and the fun stuff we do visually with our clone switcheroos and that kind of stuff. And then for me, it was incredibly rich psychological territory. I think the thing we do differently with our clones is we really put the nature/nurture question in the fore. And that’s where I found amazing character potential in clones.
The show’s been compared to lots of other shows, some of which worked better than others. What shows or movies are the three of you inspired by?
GM: At the time, we were really into things like Memento. So that kind of pace of storytelling affected it. TV-wise, Alias was around at the time, and X-Files for the conspiracy side.
JF: There was also lots of great clone shenanigans on Battlestar Galactica that I loved. We both loved the tone and the humor of Six Feet Under as a serialized show. If you’re going to make a show that has an absurd premise like clones, you may as well have fun with it, right? You may as well enjoy it and allow the audience to laugh.
TM: For me, watching United States of Tara — even though she’s struggling with a mental, you know, disorder — there’s a great deal of humor in that exploration of multiple identifies, and one woman playing a lot of different roles, because of her full commitment to those different personalities.
Tatiana, you’re doing so many different dialects and accents and voices. What was your technical process?
TM: I’m really lucky to have a dialect coach who helps me to be really specific and who kind of takes care of watching me from the outside while I’m doing the scene work. But it’s a matter of staying within the accent all day when I’m playing Sarah, or then I’m playing Helena and I’m speaking with Ukrainian sounds. Just to kind of keep it flowing all day, and just stay in it. Technically, the vocal placement of each character is different, and culturally it says something about who they are and where they come from — like, Graeme was saying that whole nature/nurture idea. It’s just all really fascinating. As much as it’s technical and dialect and all that, it’s less so about getting that super right and more so about exploring these different aspects of humanity.
JF: Plus, Tatiana dances.
TM: My Alison dance? Is that what you meant?
JF: You do an Alison dance. You do a Cosima dance. I’ve seen a Helena dance.
What is this? What are you talking about?
TM: Just to kind of physically change the way that I’m moving. Like, Alison is a ballet dancer. On set between takes, I’ll be doing — whatever — port de bras, and things that are very rigid, very specific, very elegant and feminine uptight movement. For Cosima, she’s, like, this rave dancer. If she had glow sticks, she’d be, like, vibing out on them. Helena’s dance happens privately in my trailer.
JF: I don’t know if this is too much of a spoiler or not, but you may get to see Helena dance in upcoming Episode 7.
TM: That’s right!
And how would we characterize the Helena dance?
GM: Young Frankenstein! Young Frankenstein!
TM: It’s surprisingly sexual.
Yikes! This all gets to another question, which is that the part is also physically demanding. Did you know how to kick people and fight?
TM: No, I still don’t. At all. Obviously, I don’t know what I’m doing. Likely Alison doesn’t know what she’s doing, and likely Sarah, as much as she might be scrappy and from the streets, she’s also just a human. I never thought these people are superheroes. None of them can fight like martial artists. Helena’s probably the closest, but the rest of them are just people. So that’s my lazy way of getting away with being a wimp.
I have no such excuse. In the scenes in which Tatiana is talking to herself — those, I imagine, are not easy to do. What is the secret of making those scenes not look terrible, like, say, Ringer did?
JF: The secret to that, first of all, is to have a good actor.
JF: I don’t mean to slam anybody. But Tatiana is a great actor. And she inhabits these characters so well that you completely forget about the fact that you’re watching the same actor play both parts. I made the show, and I get sucked into these characters and forget about the fact that Tat’s in every frame of the show. My feeling about doing clone work is that I didn’t want to go, “Hey, look, we’re doing a big visual-effects clone show!” I wanted the visual effects to be invisible. All of our work — in terms of the camera work, the blocking, and the acting — is about making us believe these characters are interacting in the same frame.
And Tatiana, what’s it like for you? It seems so hard.
TM: It’s insane. It’s, like, the craziest process ever. It’s super fun when I get to finally see it because, like John said, the editing and everything doesn’t draw attention to the fact that we’re doing a clone scene. It looks so real. For me, it’s technically specific. I have to hit this mark, I have to look at this eyeline; I can’t look down by an inch or else the eyeline’s off, and I’m looking at my nose, or I’ve put a glass of water through my face — or whatever. It’s specific, technical things that I’m keeping track of. And that I have to be present the same way that I would be if there was an actor next to me. Except now I have to imagine the actor next to me.
The show’s been renewed for a second season. What’s happening now?
GM: Right now, John and I are holed up in a cabin in the Caribou in British Columbia. We’re basically on day one of really putting our heads together on Season 2. We’ve had a big-picture plan for awhile, so we have a good, loose arc for our second and even third seasons. And we’re getting down to it here. Within about a week, we’ll start the initial room with the writers.
And how long can the show run, realistically? You’re dealing with an audience that has post-traumatic stress from so many that have gone before.
GM: Eight and a movie.
Oh god. Please say you have a plan!
GM: We have a plan. We have a style and an appreciation of the conspiracy-type mysteries. We sort of stem from The X-Files school of it: We like asking questions and left turns in storytelling. But we know we’ve got to provide satisfying answers as well.
Unlike The X-Files.
GM: The hope is just going to be to make Season 2 even better and just try to keep loving these characters.
Tatiana, are you in on the plan?
TM: Oh man, I know all about the plan. I know every part of it. I have no clue what’s going to happen! And I love that. It’s awesome.
JF: A lot of the time, because Tatiana is so in the fabric of the characters and is in the cells and the bodies of them, her opinions of the directions the characters might go in really helps inform the writing. Tat’s got her head full, full, full. So we don’t like to burden her too much with the big, big picture. But we keep you pretty informed, don’t we?
TM: Totally. And that’s the thing, I don’t want to know everything. A lot of these characters don’t know what’s going on. It’s more fun for me to be in a place of being in the present. Instead of being, like, “Oh, well, I know in six episodes, I’ll be doing this.” Because then you run the risk of playing that already. Because I trust all of the writers, and John and Graeme so implicitly, I’m never, like, terrified of what’s coming up. I’m just salivating to find out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.