Why Patton Oswalt Thinks “Orphan Black’s” Tatiana Maslany Is The “Best Actress Alive”

If it were up to professional geeks like Oswalt and Damon Lindelof, Maslany would win all the Emmys. “I don’t even know what it means,” Maslany says about the groundswell of support for her and the BBC America show. posted on

Tatiana Maslany as Sarah on Orphan Black. BBC America

When you get Patton Oswalt going on the subject of Orphan Black and its star, Tatiana Maslany, he gets a little shouty.

“She absolutely deserves an Emmy,” he said recently on the phone at an escalating volume. “There’s just no argument to it. Not a nomination. AN EMMY. An. EMMY.”

The actor has been touting Maslany and the BBC America sci-fi drama, which finished its 10-episode first season this month, on his Twitter feed, where an Oswalt endorsement can bring both instant geek credibility and wider exposure. Like many fans of the show, Oswalt first heard about Orphan Black though social media from a small group of TV viewers — including critics and reporters. What is now a torrential downpour of praise began with good reviews, then great word of mouth, and then eventually grew into the kind of obsessive love that causes people to proselytize. Its overall audience is still relatively tiny, with 5 million viewers having tuned in overall, according to BBC America. (It continues to be the channel’s No. 1 show on demand; new viewers are starting to watch the show daily, and BBCAmerica.com features a “Where to Watch Orphan Black guide.)

Maslany plays clones on Orphan Black — multiple characters with different accents, hair, ways of walking and holding themselves, and approaches to being in the world. The main character, Sarah, is a scrappy ex-foster kid, a British ex-pat (living in an unidentified city that sure seems like Toronto) twentysomething who at the beginning of the season is trying to get her life together by reuniting with her young daughter when she sees her doppelgänger committing suicide by jumping in front of a train. With little to lose, Sarah takes the dead stranger’s stuff. She winds up entrenched in an expansive scientific mystery. The show, created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, is exciting, funny, and fantastic.

And it would be a total disaster without Maslany, who seemingly can do anything Manson and Fawcett throw at her. One clone is a suburban soccer mom with a sadistic streak; another is a Sapphic academic hell-bent on figuring out the clones’ DNA profile; a third is a Medusa-haired lunatic from Ukraine. There have been seven in total so far, and definitely more to be revealed as the show keeps going. Maslany often has scenes with herself: sometimes thrice. When I interviewed Fawcett and Manson last month — for “If You Are Not Watching ‘Orphan Black,’ You Are Crazy” — Fawcett said: “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.”

The creators and Oswalt are not alone in marveling at Maslany. Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, said in an interview, “It’s really impressive how she’s able to embody each one of them. I watch the scenes where there are like three of them in the room together and I wonder how they’re doing that, and how she’s doing that.”

And Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost, said during a stream of effusive praise about Maslany: “You could stick an episode in front of somebody who was uninitiated and say, ‘This role is actually performed by these triplets.’ And they would believe you. It’s easier to believe they’re super talented triplets than it is that it’s just one person.”

Maslany as Cosima.

Season 2 of Orphan Black will begin to film in Toronto, where Maslany lives, in September. In the meantime, she has a new role: as a relentless, if charmingly clueless, Emmy campaigner. BBC America has mounted a formidable For Your Consideration assault in order to try to crack into the generally conservative TV Academy picks. Here she is doing a chat for the Los Angeles Times’ Emmys site; there she is in The Hollywood Reporter as Hollywood’s Next Big Thing; here she is in TVLine’s “Eye on Emmy” feature talking in depth about the differences among the clones. And so on. If it’s a tilting-at-windmills proposition for both Maslany and the show, for fans — especially ones in the TV industry — it’s a battle worth fighting.

Lindelof put it this way: “I think just for the sheer audacity of the accomplishment, let alone the fact that she pulled it off so brilliantly, I think it will make a lot of noise. If she can actually crack into the nominations, then I think she has a chance of winning. Because people will be, like, ‘Who’s this? What is this?’ I can’t think of anybody male or female who impressed me as much this past year.”

When I sat down with Maslany, 27, recently in Santa Monica, she had won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama the night before. She looked like an exhausted college student — not in a bad way: It had been quite a night. She had even met Oswalt at the ceremony. “We just kind of hugged,” she said. “It was so lovely.” She complimented our server for his bow tie, which he then revealed he hates wearing.

In her Critics’ Choice category, she had beaten out Claire Danes for Homeland, Vera Farmiga for Bates Motel, Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife, Elisabeth Moss for Mad Men, and Keri Russell for The Americans — all of whom are likely Emmy nominees. It was an upset.

“I was, like, the one weirdo,” Maslany said. “The people at the next table were, like, ‘Who?’”

Maslany grew up in Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her father is a woodworker and cabinetmaker; her mother is a French/English translator — wait! That explains the accents she does on Orphan Black. “My mom taught me German before I knew English,” she said. “And I went to French immersion school. It’s been around me. I think because I learned it at a young age, your brain understands how languages are structured.” (Her natural accent is one of mild Canadiana.)

She began dancing at age 4, and then started doing community theater. At 9, she “fell ass-backwards into film and TV,” then a growing industry in Regina and all of Canada (it’s not anymore). She got paying jobs, and traveled to Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver for work. Her parents were wary, but she told them she loved acting — so they let her do her thing. “They were really protective of me in that way,” Maslany said, “and gave me a really good work ethic and a really good reality — grounding. Because this industry is so fucked.”

After working for a few months at a time, she would come back to regular school. It wasn’t an easy transition. Maslany said: “You’re working with adults and you’re being paid to do a job. And you’re a kid. Then you go back to high school, and everybody’s partying and they’re doing math. I always felt a little bit outside of it. Outside of both experiences, really.”

When school ended, she took some time to do theater and travel. Maslany then moved to Toronto at age 20. “The first three months are lonely, breaking into a big city, compared to where I grew up,” she said. “It’s fast and it’s chaotic and you’re anonymous. You don’t smile at everyone on the street because they’ll think you’re a nut.” She’s worked steadily, though, with small parts in movies (Eastern Promises), TV movies (The Robber Bride), and television (Canada’s Being Erica, BBC One’s 2010 Biblical miniseries The Nativity).

Maslany and Shawn Doyle in Grown Up Movie Star. Mongrel Media

Most notably before Orphan Black, she co-starred with Big Love’s Shawn Doyle (he played Joey) in an indie movie called Grown Up Movie Star and won the World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Breakout Performance at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. She cited the experience of that movie, which was written and directed by Adriana Maggs, as her ideal.

“He’s ridiculous,” she said of Doyle, who played the father of her teenaged character. “He just doesn’t let you fall asleep. He keeps you alive. He taught me so much about being present, and about generosity as an actor and about challenging the other actor. And really listening. I learned so much from him. I feel like that kind of an actor is the kind of actor I want to be. And those kinds of projects turn me on so much: character-based indie films. We were lucky we went to Sundance with it, but it could have been seen by nobody. But it still would have had the same resonance for me.”

Hold up — is Maslany slagging Orphan Black? It may be a cult show, but it’s not an edgy independent movie. No, she’s not: “Orphan Black has been one of the greatest things I’ve ever had because of the challenge of it, and because of the crazy work that it requires,” she said. “The specificity, and the stretching of who I think I could be — and who I never thought I could be.”

Anyway, she’s found a way to meld the two. On the set of Orphan Black, when she was exhausted and felt like there was a scene she couldn’t do, she would watch a scene of Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk arguing from John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and think, “OK, that’s what acting is,” Maslany said. “She’s all pissed off, and she’s all hurt. She’s doing all these things — little weird shit. I’m, like, ‘I’m so in love with you.’ She’s such a weird woman, and she was a leading lady, and she’s so beautiful. Again, transcendent of gender, and transcendent of what a woman needs to be. That’s the career. That’s the kind of person I want to emulate.”

A Woman Under the Influence.

Maslany chats enthusiastically and descriptively when the topic is acting and the business around acting. When discussing what she does during her time off, she slows down. What does she like to do? “That’s a good question. A great question!” She looked blank. “For me, honestly, it’s taking classes. Studying with different acting teachers. Stretching myself in that way. Taking dance classes. Chilling. Seeing friends. Traveling — I love traveling.” What else? “Good question. Again! Great question.” She couldn’t think of anything else.

During her acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice ceremony, she had thanked “Tom, for coming all the way across the world to be here tonight.” Who is Tom?

Maslany: “That’s my man. That’s my man.”

Would that be Tom Cullen, star of the movie Weekend, and soon to appear on Season 4 of Downton Abbey? (I had discovered this information by Googling “Tatiana Maslany” AND “Tom,” which led to red-carpet pictures of the two of them at various events.)

Maslany: “I don’t know, is it?”

Me: “You’re blushing. What is going on? Is this a secret? Do you not want to talk about this?”

Maslany: “I don’t know! I don’t know what to do! I don’t know, I don’t know if I do want to talk about it. I’m so red; I can feel myself sweating.”

OK, OK. Back to talking about work it is. Maslany recently signed with the U.S. talent agency Resolution, which was founded by Jeff Berg, formerly of ICM. She’d had little luck breaking into American film and television before, but after Orphan Black, things have changed. “The visibility, and the range of the role — it’s one of those kinds of roles, a transformative kind of thing,” she said. She thinks she will probably move to Los Angeles soon. “It depends on getting a visa, and getting the guts to do it. And jumping, like I did when I went to Toronto.”

Maslany as Helena on Orphan Black. BBC America

Maslany is tied to Orphan Black for years, so she can’t be on another television show unless she’s a guest star. And that’s fine with her. “Film has always been where my heart is,” she said. “I never wanted to do TV, really, before this came along. And then I was like, ‘I would sign my life away for this.’ I just feel like I would never get bored doing this kind of a show. And I would never exhaust the possibilities.”

As Lindelof said, “She should be getting paid six salaries instead of one. Those guys have the greatest deal going on television.”

Whatever comes next, Maslany won’t have trouble finding work. Shawn Ryan — who, in addition to The Shield, created ABC’s Last Resort and Fox’s Chicago Code among other credits — said that when he first immersed himself in Orphan Black, “I immediately started thinking back and wondering if I’d ever seen her in any auditions for my stuff — whether I’d ever let her slip through my fingers or not.” He added, “I’m sure everyone in Hollywood’s wondering when her contract is up on that show.”

And then there’s that Emmy campaign; ballots are due on June 28, and the nominations will be announced July 18. How did this swirl around her begin? Maslany said: “Suddenly, my friends Facebooked me, and they said, ‘You’re on a plane.’ I was, like, ‘What?’ There was a plane flying over L.A. with ‘For Your Consideration’ and four clones on it. I was, like, ‘Buh!’ No idea this was happening. It’s just crazy. I don’t even know what it means; I don’t know what a campaign means.”

Patton Oswalt, however, does know what a campaign means. “In terms of the Emmys, if you want to create some buzz and some excitement, nominate this brilliant actress from this little science fiction show,” he said. “If the Emmys want to create some true conversation —”

Oswalt then interrupted himself. “I’m not saying she should be nominated because of that. She should be nominated because she’s the best actress ALIVE right now.”

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