No, she didn’t get an Emmy nomination. But at last weekend’s Comic-Con, and over the past few months in other pockets of niche fandom, Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany has been treated like the second coming of Meryl. She has been the subject of more than a few stories declaring her the people’s lead actress. Patton Oswalt became her walking, talking “For Your Consideration” ad. And as she walked on to the Comic-Con stage Saturday night, an enthusiastic fan’s cry of “You deserve an Emmy!” caused the crowd to roar in approval.
Maslany probably would have scored a nomination if such things were decided entirely by the degree of difficulty involved. On the stealth hit BBC America sci-fi thriller — about a tough British woman named Sarah who becomes engulfed in a conspiracy after randomly watching her doppelgänger commit suicide and then stealing the stranger’s identity — the 27-year-old actress shape-shifts into seven different characters, clones hailing from different parts of the globe, with different agendas and quirks. Maslany told Vulture during an interview last month at a Los Angeles coffee shop that, after production on the show’s first season wrapped, she went into seclusion. “I was exhausted,” she said.
Dressed in black shorts and boots, with her naturally curly hair worn down, Maslany explained how dance helped her get into character — all seven of them. To play tightly wound soccer mom Alison, the Canadian actress drew on the flamenco training she’s received since age 4. “It had to be something very rigid, everything held tight,” said Maslany. “Stomach in, bum in, very precise motions, very feminine.” She made Berkeley biology student Cosima more fluid, “like she’s at a rave.” To nail Sarah, the tough Brit who is Orphan Black’s central character, Maslany grooved to a lot of Prodigy and the Clash. And then there’s Helena, the feral, peroxide-blonde killer. Maslany opted to keep that character’s unique dance to herself. “It happens in my trailer,” whispered the actress. “There’s something deeply violent and deeply sexual about her. She’s an animal.”
Emmy nomination or not, the actress did her own whirlwind dance around Southern California in the weeks leading up to Comic-Con, taking meetings for projects she might take on during her hiatus, reeling with the news that she’d edged out actresses Claire Danes and Julianna Margulies to win a Critics Choice Award, and logging countless media interviews. (“How many?” she asked. “Um, I don’t even know. I have no idea!”) But all the running around is easy compared to Maslany’s rigorous shooting schedule on Orphan Black; if you clocked her onscreen appearances in any one episode, it would almost certainly exceed the episode’s running time, as she’s in nearly every scene and two or more of the characters she plays on the show also frequently appear in the same scene together. Maslany shrugged off the workload. “I think being idle is quite hard for me to do,” she said.
That statement helps explain her busy upbringing. At age 7, Maslany began putting on for-pay performances with her brother to entertain their parents. (“It was our art!” she laughed.) At age 9, she auditioned for theater for the first time, going for a role in the musical Oliver. During elementary school, she fell in love with improv, which she continued to perform throughout high school while also taking on series and TV movie projects; she also toured North America with a professional comedy improv troupe.
Being Canadian and hugely into improv is why, when she met her Orphan co-star Matt Frewer, she quizzed him not about Max Headroom but about his work with Rick Moranis on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. “I was so excited,” said Maslany. “I asked him, ‘What’s Rick Moranis like? Is he really attractive in real life as well?’ Matt was just like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I think generally people are not really sure about my crush, but I stand behind it.” (Maslany has since watched Max Headroom and compares it to Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! because, as she put it, “both are totally weird.”) She’s still a big comedy fan, too, and managed to squeeze in a visit to the set of Comedy Central’s The Kroll Show, where Jenny Slate, one of her current favorite comedians, was performing stand-up. “I ran away after,” Maslany said. “If I had tried to talk to her, I would have been trying to be funny, and it would have been really bad. I’m too obsessed with her.”
Maslany said her improv training has made her game for anything, including surprises to her clone portfolio, such as when producers added Helena as a curveball early last season. “Oh, that was really easy,” she joked. “Kind of a classic character: the Eastern-European religious nut serial killer.” Then there’s acting opposite herself — or, in reality, acting opposite empty space. The first time Maslany saw herself sharing the screen with herself, the thought that came to her mind was that her eyes visibly bugged out in the scene. “I think I was trying too hard to get it right,” she said. “Nobody’s there when you’re shooting these things, so you overcompensate. I had to learn to chill out.”
She was especially fearless when it came time to disrobe in the first episode, when Sarah, while pretending to be Beth, distracts Beth’s boyfriend, Paul, by having sex with him on the kitchen counter. “So many butts on our show,” Maslany laughed. “It never struck me as too much. Sex for Sarah is a weapon. This is what she’s doing to stay safe. It’s also how people have sex. They’re naked. They’re not in a bandeau.” It was also her first day shooting with Dylan Bruce, who plays Paul. She tried to put him at ease. “‘How’s it going? Take off your pants. Put on this cock sock. Don’t feel embarrassed.’”
Series showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have said they trust Maslany’s instincts. For next season, they’re consulting with her as they write more clones into the story. “They ask me, ‘What about this? Do you like this?’” she said. “But I’m always like, ‘Yeah. Sure. Do it. Awesome. I’d love to.’” Until shooting begins, she’s looking for a bit of a break — but only a bit. One role in one film would do. “Something like Rust and Bone would be a dream. Very pared down,” said Maslany. “Orphan Black is such a challenge. I just need something that isn’t as full-on intense as that.”