The Argument: How Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany turned a sci-fi thriller into can’t-miss TV

The Argument: How Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany turned a sci-fi thriller into can’t-miss TV

On the sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany juggles seven distinct characters—a feat of dramatic dexterity that’s made her TV’s biggest breakout star

The Argument: Orphan Black
Tatiana Maslany, about to spot her double in the opening scene of the Space series Orphan Black. Spoiler alert: one of them dies via GO train (Image: courtesy Bell Media)

Tatiana Maslany has the toughest job in television. On the Toronto-shot sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, she plays Sarah, an east London street thief; Alison, a supremely high-strung Scarborough soccer mom; and Helena, a psychotic Ukrainian assassin. Then there’s Cosima, a Berkeley-hippie grad student; Beth, a suicidal cop; and Rachel, an icy CEO. They’re clones, engineered by an evil biotech company for a twisted science experiment. All totalled, Maslany plays seven wildly different characters—a feat of dramatic dexterity that has earned her raves since the show premiered on Space in March 2013.

The 28-year-old actor grew up in Regina and honed her skills with a travelling improv troupe before settling in Toronto in the mid-2000s. Her first few years here, she played bit parts in Toronto-produced films (she was Channing Tatum’s frizzy-haired co-worker in the 2012 romance The Vow), and leads in little-seen Canadian indie flicks like Picture Day and Grown Up Movie Star. When Orphan Black co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson were looking for an actor agile enough to play their clones, they were floored by Maslany’s audition. (Fawcett had previously cast her as an albino ghost in his 2004 B-movie Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed.) “We auditioned a lot of women for Orphan Black,” says Fawcett, “and they’d have a really strong Sarah but they wouldn’t get Helena or Alison. Tat nailed every character every time. Her talent was on another level.”

Orphan Black’s first season initially earned it a small, cultish following. BBC America, the U.S. distributor, tallied five million viewers, though that doesn’t factor in the millions of pirates and streamers who watched the series online. The show’s fans—who call themselves the Clone Club and Clonebians—proselytized fervently on social media. Critics and insiders, like Lost and Star Trek producer Damon Lindelof, deemed the show criminally underrated. The comedian ­Patton Oswalt tweeted to his 1.6 ­million followers, “Why didn’t any of you tell me how fucked-up & wonderful ­@OrphanBlack is? Been binge-watching since Monday.” At last year’s Comic-Con in San Diego, hundreds of people lined up for the panel discussion, chanting “Orphan Black, Orphan Black.

Yet the series remained a niche fixation until the 2013 Emmy nominees were announced in July and Maslany wasn’t on the list. Fans raged online, some calling for a boycott of the awards. The pop culture site BuzzFeed ran a list of eight ways to cope with Maslany’s slight. By day’s end, her name was trending, and a vast new audience was suddenly aware of the obscure Toronto actor. Last December, the snub was corrected with a Golden Globe nomination. Maslany lost out to House of Cards’ Robin Wright, but she walked the red carpet in a slinky silver gown with her hunky boyfriend, actor Tom Cullen (who plays Lord Gillingham on Downton Abbey). It marked her official breakout as a mainstream star.

Maslany’s matryoshka doll of a performance deserves the hype. No other TV series today asks more of its lead actor—imagine Jon Hamm playing all the mad men on Mad Men and you have some idea of the challenge. On set, she races from one character to the next, with as little as an hour between scenes, chased by a makeup artist, a costume designer and a dialect coach, who helps her transition between cockney, Ukrainian, American, German and Canadian accents.

She follows in the tradition of ass-­kicking female characters vacuum-packed into leather pants, which has flourished since Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias in the early 2000s. Yet Buffy and Sydney ­Bristow, with their ripped abs and cute quips, seemed more like a geek’s wet dreams than fully realized women. A decade ago, it was rare to find a show that passed the Bechdel test—that is, featuring two or more women discussing something other than men. Standards have changed in the golden age of TV. Now, with hits like Girls, ­Scandal, Homeland and The Good Wife, prime­time is flush with complicated, funny, flawed women who have plenty to talk about besides chasing or keeping a guy.

Few shows embody the new femme-centric ethos better than Orphan Black, whose creators have built nuanced, multi­layered subplots for each clone: Cosima stars in a fizzy campus romance, Helena in a Soviet thriller, Alison in a suburban satire. The genre mash-up is catnip for the tele-­literate viewer—and its success relies entirely on how Maslany turns each narrative into a riveting character study.

As Sarah, she has the clenched jaw of a mistrustful orphan who does whatever it takes to get by. In the premiere, she’s about to be busted mid-lie, so she distracts her interrogator by stripping naked and mounting him on a kitchen counter. Her expression is determined, without a flicker of pleasure—the look of someone who uses sex for survival. As the uptight suburban mom Alison, she camps it up, with her fingers perpetually clutching at imaginary pearls. Cosima, the dreadlocked lesbian PhD student, has a California lilt and flirtatious awkwardness that elevates her beyond a women’s studies caricature. And for Helena, Maslany pulls her most extreme ­transformation—sallow and covered in scars from self-harm, she’s gone mad after years of abuse wrought by a radical eastern European cult. The character could easily become a comic-book villain, but Maslany balances her feral intensity with tentative movements, as if she lives in fear of being beaten. Each time the women collide, they’re thrown into an identity crisis, forced to recognize their sometimes ­abhorrent similarities.

Like much science fiction, Orphan Black draws its tension from the spectre of de-humanization: a nefarious mega-corp harnessing biotech to manufacture ­people for its own ends. Maslany’s clones live under the illusion of free will: the whole premise is an experiment in nurture over nature. But, like Neo in The Matrix who wakes up goo-covered and umbilically tied to an army of pod people, the clones soon realize they’re just cogs in a sinister plot—corporate-owned property, complete with patent numbers. In a moment of clarity, Allison drunkenly whimpers, “I’m a horrible person. I’m not even a real person.” Maslany’s grandest trick is to convince you otherwise.

Orphan Black
Starring Tatiana Maslany
Saturdays at 9 p.m.