In conversation

Tatiana Maslany on saying goodbye to Orphan Black

The Canadian star of Orphan Black discusses feminism, Canadian TV, improv, and why the last episode isn't the most important

"Orphan Black" star Tatiana Maslany, "Schitt's Creek" leads Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and Daniel Levy, and "Sons of Anarchy" alumnus Kim Coates will be among the presenters at this year's Canadian Screen Awards. Tatiana Maslany poses on the set of Orphan Black in Toronto in a November 23, 2015, file photo. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

“Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany in a November 23, 2015, file photo. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Given that she’s made her name acting as a slew of clones, the master class in character work accomplished weekly by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany on Space/BBC America’s Orphan Black is, ironically enough, profoundly unique. But it all comes to an end this summer, after a five-season run that has been generally lauded by critics and that won Maslany a hard-earned Emmy award in 2016.

The final season of the dark, complex sci-fi series—which begins on June 10 and continues every Saturday on Space and BBC America until the final episode on Aug. 12—will be one final spin for Maslany’s deep roster of clone characters as they continue to unspool the Neolution conspiracy. In an interview with Maclean’s, the Regina-born actress talks about what it’s like to say goodbye to a show (and, since she plays so many characters, saying goodbye so many times), the value and trickiness of on-screen representation, her controversial portrayal of a trans clone, and coming to terms with the idea that she deserves her Emmy award. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: I interviewed Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner just before his show’s series finale, and he talked about how “the journey is the point,” and that the destination comes second—despite the typically extreme focus from fans on that last episode, on how a given show ends. Between the fervour around Orphan Black‘s last season and the various “death watches” to see who survives, do you feel like that idea of the journey gets lost?

A: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think it’s a lot of pressure put on the show, as you know, because there’s so many people who want to see it done a certain way, or have expectations of how it should look. But I mean, I think we just tried to be as true to the characters and kind of defend all those people that we’ve kind of built over the last few seasons, and just not have that outside pressure of it having to be this or that—to make sure that it stays personal and about the human relationships and the human experiences in this sci-fi world.

Q: Showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett reportedly called an audible on the series finale from what was initially planned, pretty late in this last season. That’s a pretty rare thing; lots of TV shows, even long-running ones, have generally sorted out how they’ll end as part of the first-season process. 

A: Yeah. I mean, I think—I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it just sort of was about keeping it kind of personal, going back to what drew me to the project and what drew I think a lot of us to it was that even though it’s this kind of high-concept piece about clones and about corporations and all of that, it’s really about what makes us an individual, and how do we survive our upbringing, how do we thrive in our upbringing, what makes us the person that we are today, how we make decisions, and how we grow and accept our voices. So I think it just kind of came down to bringing it back to that – that sort of simple, personal thing.

Q: So without getting into the ending—since you should rightly not tell me any details about it—practically, what is that like to be a part of, being on set as the writers figure out a new way forward?

A: I think the cool thing about the show is that it has always had that mentality. The writers’ room has always been very flexible. And John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, who created the show, have always had this kind of very almost spontaneous way of working and writing. And you know, there were characters who popped up in season one who were supposed to be literally a one-scene character, and who then have become some of the staples on the show. I think Kristian Bruun’s character, Donnie, was supposed to have a very small part in the show, and by the end of it he’s a murderer who has killed one of the biggest villains on the show. And he’s, you know, twerked in his underwear and all this stuff, like, that I don’t think they ever planned. You know, that scene was, like, thrown into an episode because of something that happened on set. You know what I mean? So I think they’re really great at sort of seeing what’s working and what’s kind of exciting to them, and running with it, as opposed to sticking to some kind of plan, you know?

Q: So even though it’s this high-pressure thing, this ending that you know people are all focused on, that late being-in-flux experience felt of a piece of your time on the show?

A: Yeah. It’s not the most important episode, for some reason. You know, I think it is important and also I hope people enjoy it or are moved by it, but I don’t think that’s the ultimate goal, that it’s this perfect piece, but that it’s all part of the same thing.

Q: When people who’ve been associated with a show for a long time, they can look to others who have been through that for advice. Matthew Weiner, for instance, talked to Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan, just as Jon Hamm got advice from Bryan Cranston. Have you talked to other actors, actresses about how to move on from a show and, I suppose, many characters that have defined you?

A: Absolutely. I mean, people have been so supportive in it because I think it is a weird end of a chapter that meant so much and that really defined me in a lot of ways. And you know, since I was a kid, characters have always been, like, a huge, really defining part in my personality and my life. You know, so saying goodbye to one that felt so connected to me and that I had such a stake in it will be very bizarre. And I have been, you know, approached by people who have finished shows and sort of—not given advice, but given support in it, you know, which is really cool.

Q: And it must be particularly odd to say goodbye to not just one character you’ve played for a long time, but what’s the count at this point, like six or eight?

A: Yeah. I don’t know how many we’ve said bye to, but yeah, it was kind of a two-week process of saying good-bye to a lot of the cast. So every day somebody would wrap, or we would wrap a set, or we would wrap a clone or a character, and it was so emotional. Every time was kind of a different grief. And it’s just bizarre that that can happen, and it was just a nice testament to how much it meant to all of us, I think, to be part of it.

Q: And you see shows do their series wraps for actors as they do the last scenes of characters, and I imagine that would’ve been even harder just on account of the sheer number of series wraps you would’ve had to endure, on the final season as an actress playing clones.

A: Yeah. Totally. I mean, yeah, it was gross. I think my nose bled at one point because I was crying so hard and it, like, ruined a scene that we were shooting. The last Alison scene is like, if you pay close attention, maybe you’ll see my blood.

Q: When you first started, there weren’t a lot of powerful female lead role characters on TV, and then there you were, playing a clutch of them, basically. Have you seen things change over the last five years?

A: Yeah, and I think that we were kind of coming out at the same time of a few different shows that have these characters. You know, like House of Cards, Robin Wright’s character is so amazing. And Orange is the New Black had so many amazing female characters at the centre of it. Now I’m obsessed with Handmaid’s Tale, and there’s just so many—it just feels like a movement towards more storytelling that is female-centric and that is not just through men’s eyes. Like, we’ve seen that already so much, and it’s really refreshing to see so much emphasis put on women right now.

Q: You bring up Handmaid’s Tale, which is another Canadian co-production, much like Orphan Black is, right?

A: Yeah. Shot in Toronto.

Q: And it strikes me that the idea of Canada in these productions is interesting. There are, after all, a lot of shows being shot in Canada, and there’s a thrill in being Canadian and seeing your city represented, but also this strange kind of sadness when the show has Canada masquerading as another place altogether, that it’s not actually set there. Does that speak ill, in a way, of our civic cinematic identity, such as it is?

A: I don’t know. That’s such an intense phrase! Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if it is like a shying away from it looking too Toronto or something. But I think our show started out like that. Maybe there was, like, a bit of fear of it looking like Canada. But then by the end, we were referencing Scarborough or whatever, and we kind of had gotten over that. I don’t know. I think there’s a weird thing in terms of, like, marketing a show, where you kind of have to make everything feel like it’s in the States.

Q: And you’re sticking around in Toronto after the show wraps, instead of heading to L.A., as might be the typical path forward. What do you see in the future of the Canadian TV and movie scene?

A: I’m so excited about so many of the young filmmakers that are coming up. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers here in Canada, and I continue to want to, and out of, like, any kind of patriotism, but just out of that’s where the interesting stories are. These are the scripts that I read that make me say, ‘This is amazing, this is so different, this is such a unique voice, and this director is so exciting and visually interesting. So I see a lot of things I’m so excited and hopeful about film and TV in Canada. There’s just a huge movement, I think, in seeking an identity as Canadians, and really forging it and really embracing all the parts of us as Canadians that come from such varied experiences and such varied cultures. And I think there are strong voices that come out.

Q: Going back to the idea of powerful female roles, it seems to me like sci-fi has a greater capacity than other genres for feminism. It’s a full subgenre; there are prominent feminist sci-fi authors like Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler. Is that your sense, that sci-fi has this potential to present a feminist vision of the future?

A: Yeah, I don’t know why that is—if feminism is a bit of a subversive movement as it is, putting it in a context of a dystopian society or something like that makes sense. I think the sci-fi world allows for exploration of that that isn’t on the nose and that isn’t preachy, but it’s kind of artful and explores it differently. I think you watch our show and we use the cloning thing as kind of a metaphor for exploring autonomy and individuality, the idea that we aren’t all homogenous and we don’t all fit into boxes; I think there’s more imagination in sci-fi. There’s more chance to kind of explore perspective and not have it so grounded in this world that we live in, which is so stuck in a patriarchal kind of system.

BBC America

BBC America

Q: You got your start doing improv, and you’ve spoken a lot about how that has helped you in this role. Do you still get to do improv around town, you know, like ‘Hi, I’m Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany, I’m here to do some improv?’

A: Well, if I walked in like that, I mean, I would kick myself out if I walked in like that. Like, ‘Get out of here, you douche.’ [Laughs] No, I’ve done improv recently. I did a couple of shows in the States, which was really fun and at UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade], which was like a total dream for me. I love performing. I love doing improv. It’s a totally terrifying experience, but it’s something that I’ve always felt so strongly about and that I’m kind of obsessed with. And just as an actor, it’s a great exercise. It’s a great playground, you know, to try things out and to work on your skills. Because the mandate of improv is kind of the same as acting: It’s all about your scene partner, it’s all about being present and in the moment and exploring together as a team, a collaboration.

Q: You’ve talked about the importance of improv’s “yes-and” rule, the idea of being accepting of whatever comes, in these demanding roles on Orphan Black. But I think maybe more interesting for your own work is the improv rule of “make statements”—it feels like the show absolutely works to do that. Was that always the goal for the show, to make statements about diversity and representation?

A: I don’t think so, actually. I think John and Graeme were just kind of turned on by the ideas, and I don’t think, from what I’ve heard them talk about, it wasn’t like it was an accident that they started talking about these things and that it all kind of became about what our show’s about. But I don’t think they were setting out to do that. I think it was just naturally born of the kind of story we were telling and the themes. And we’ve got an amazing science consultant, Cosima Herter—she’s who Cosima’s based on in the show—and she’s just got such an incredible perspective not only on where we’re at historically in terms of science and the personal and political and all of that, but she really helped keep the show progressive and in line with what was happening in the world. So I think there were a lot of people kind of steering it in that direction.

Q: And speaking, perhaps, of feminism: You recently met Justin Trudeau on the set of Ryan and Kelly in Niagara Falls. What was it like to meet the Prime Minister?

A: He was lovely. He was, like, just as nice as you hope he is. He was very sweet.

Q: There are those who feel like his feminism isn’t particularly hard-earned, and that it represents a kind of political tactic. As someone who is an outspoken feminist, what is your sense of him, based on that meeting but also the news?

A: I mean, I’m not one to decide, you know, whose feminism is correct or not. I think there’s a lot of that happening as well. But I hope that this is just the beginning of a conversation and that politics continue to embrace different perspectives. It is very male-dominated, and so I’m excited to see that continue to change and grow. And if labelling it feminism helps that in some way, then that’s great. But I’m by no means saying, you know, that he isn’t a feminist. I think what he said in terms of representation in the House has been awesome.

Q: And there is an aspect to which, as you say, people look for perfection when there’s still work to be done. 

A: Totally. And like, the idea that it’s finished—it’s done now, now we’ve succeeded. And it’s definitely not, and it’s very pervasive. It’s going to be a lot of work and – and kind of societal changing, but still I think we’re at least talking about it now.

Q: You’ve also been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ communities, and so I was interested about mini-controversy that came out a couple of seasons ago, when you portrayed a trans clone, Tony. What was it like to see well-intentioned efforts to write a trans character that, for a lot of people, wasn’t received well?

A: I mean, I think that we were aware that that could have happened, and what we were excited about with Tony was just exploring identity in another way, which was gender identity, which is something we hadn’t kind of explored yet, and totally aware, you know, that it’s problematic for a cis gendered actor to play a trans character. And I definitely see that and I feel that, for sure. But by no means were we expecting to represent all of the trans community or even really speak about that. It was more so about identity and about individuals. And yeah, I mean, there are so many amazing trans actors now who have careers and that’s a very new thing that they’re able to be out and successful, and it’s awesome. Like, I’m such a huge fan of Trace Lysette and Laverne Cox, and I love what they’re doing for the trans community in terms of visibility and playing incredible characters.

Q: It must have been a tricky thing for you insofar that, you know, you kind of had to play that character as a woman—it is, after all, a show about clones. But then also, simultaneously, you’re trapped by the fact that there just hasn’t been a lot of transgender characters visible on TV, and trapped by the idea that, well, if there’s one, then this has to reflect all, because it’s such a rare opportunity.

A: Totally. And I think that’s why it’s difficult also for women when they watch TV and we see one version of a woman who is attached at the hip to a guy, and that’s kind of her whole thing. You kind of go, ‘I don’t relate to this, I don’t feel this.’ You know? Maybe somebody does, but not everyone. That’s the other thing about storytelling, is you can’t represent everybody. You know, you can’t seek to do that. You have to tell stories that you’re interested in talking about and characters that intrigue you, like Helena is nobody I’ve ever seen, and yet somehow I relate to her. Like, she’s a very specific character that is nothing like anybody I know but somehow she’s resonant to me.

Actress Tatiana Maslany holds her award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series for "Orphan Black" as she mingles at the Governors Ball after the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California U.S., September 18, 2016. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Actress Tatiana Maslany holds her award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series for “Orphan Black” as she mingles at the Governors Ball after the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California U.S., September 18, 2016. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Q: You’ve talked about keeping your Emmy in a box under a pot of flowers because your mom has stashed it away, but also you demurred on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert about feeling like you didn’t deserve it, somehow. One: is it still in the box? And two: that just sounds like the most terrifying instance of impostor syndrome I’ve ever heard of, maybe.

A: [Laughs] Yeah. I mean, it’s – it’s in the box. It was great. It’s having a nice time. It’s very cozy in there. Yeah. I still don’t – don’t totally take it on as my own, but it was a wonderful honour and a very fun night.

Q: But what hope do we all have if – if you won’t accept that you totally deserved that Emmy?

A: [Laughs] I accept it. I accept it. It’s all good. I’ve got it.