Variety invited Emmy Rossum and Tatiana Maslany to the Petit Hermitage in West Hollywood for a conversation about their careers — and as luck would have it, there just happened to be a piano in the lounge. Before long, the actresses were serenading all assembled with “Someone to Watch Over Me.” “Everyone’s going to think this was my idea,” Rossum joked — but no, it was Maslany who first sat down at the keys. No, she doesn’t know how to play — but she’s a very good actress.
Variety: You both have been performing since you were young. What motivated you to start?
Tatiana Maslany: I’ve been dancing since I was a kid. It was the biggest part of my personality. I forced my parents to sit and watch me do plays with my brothers. There was always something in me that needed to have attention.
Emmy Rossum: I was always creating noise, be it banging on a table or playing piano, so my mom sent me to music school. When I went to real school they heard me sing and they sent me over to the opera. Even though I loved music and being on stage, it was more feeling I didn’t feel at home in my own body in school. I felt immediately more at home in an opera and in a creative environment. Even at a young age, that escapism was more safe for me somehow.
Variety: Do you still feel that now? What still motivates you to perform?
Rossum: I feel most comfortable when somebody gives me my lines. I’ve learned how to fake it quite well.
Maslany: As a kid the attention I got from acting was the reason I loved doing it. People told me I was good at it. So I went, OK, I must be good at it. Eight years ago, I had to reevaluate it as an adult. I had to shed a lot of habits that I had as a kid and claim it as my own, instead of this thing that I sort of fell into and didn’t know why I was in it. Now I have a better understanding of why it is that I love it.
Rossum: You have to make the choice again as an adult. You know that you love it as a kid. It’s playing pretend and then when you grow up you realize this is a job, there are lots of other jobs I could do. Why do I love this? Why do I keep coming back to this?
Variety: What’s the most important factor in choosing your roles?
Rossum: Being scared. … The fear of failing pushes me really hard. So if I think it’s something really easy and I’ll make a nice paycheck, I tend not to do it. Things that make me shake and make my heart beat, I don’t know if I can do that, but I really want to prove to myself that I can.
Maslany: Something that inspires my dreams as well. With “Orphan Black,” I read it, and I dreamt about it. I found it seeping it into my subconscious. I was playing it out in my head. And that was a good indicator for me that it was resonating for me.
Variety: Emmy, so Fiona Gallagher scared you?
Rossum: I was very princessy before that show. But I knew I had that kind of grit in me. I knew I had the nurturing capacity and I knew had abandonment issues, too. So I knew I could throw that all into one big soup pot and keep exploring it. There was enough depth with that character that if it went for years and years, I would have enough to explore. This year really scared me, because they sent her down the rabbit hole with drugs and guilt and going to jail. Whereas in the past they challenged me with dealing with all these kids and nudity, this year it was really stripping me down emotionally and taking me as low as I could go. And finding the humor in that, too. So it was fun.
Variety: Fun’s an interesting word for it.
Rossum: It was, because there’s something about being on set and knowing that you are too tired at the end of your 18 hours of emoting to even drive yourself home. You literally, physically cannot eat. You just want to lay in a bathtub. You are spent. You have given everything. And knowing that you’ve left it all there, knowing that you’ve given 100%, more than that, that day fills me with relief and pride in a way that feels good.
Variety: How much input do you have in the direction of your shows? Or do you want any at all?
Maslany: I have some input as far as new characters that are coming up because I have to play them so it’s nice to have a little bit of buffer and some prep time. We don’t want anybody to not be integral to the show. Nobody’s a one-off. (But) I think I might make too safe a choice if I dictate what happens too far in the future so I’m up for what they throw at me.
Rossum: I have little to no say. But I’m fine with that. I think the incredible thing about doing a character on television is that you get to live so much longer of a life with this person so you get to go so much deeper into it. You don’t spend the time as you would in a film, the first 30 minutes explaining everything about the intricacies of the person. The audience, if they’ve already watched the first three or four seasons, they know all those things in that person’s history. So if you react in a certain way, it doesn’t need to be justified. People understand their backstory. I trust John Wells to take that in the right direction. He says are you happy, what do you want to do. And I say, just keep challenging me, just keep scaring me, and I’ll keep wanting to do it.
Variety: What moment in your shows are you proudest of?
Maslany: The Peabody Award was exciting because it was a communal thing. It was less of a one actor being singled out, more of a collaboration.
Rossum: Our sixth episode this year, where my character went to prison, and there was a strip search scene. You know when you read the description of the scene and it says, “She bends over and her face is lined with humiliation. She breaks. Everything this moment has been leading up to pours out of her soul.” I was just thinking, How the hell am I going to do that? We shot it in a women’s prison that was not functioning for the last couple of years and the smell in there. It had been infested with rats and it was dark and dank. I just went to the worst place that was scary and miserable and I thought in that moment, this better be worth it. Because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stand up after this. …You just get to that point where you’re raw. I am a crazy person, I should have been an attorney. I should have been a first-grade teacher.
Variety: What was the toughest experience in your career, and how did you get past it?
Rossum: I think that there were a couple years after “Phantom of the Opera” that people saw me as someone that can only be that. So for me, I don’t think I was as confident as I was now. I don’t think I was able to push back against that in the right way. So for me, it was overcoming everyone else’s perception of what I had been up to that point.
Maslany: I’d say the hardest thing for me was the initial steps into L.A. and maintaining my sense of who I was. Not trying to fit into the role of something else. I had this idea of, I’d better put on a blazer, and not going into auditions as myself. That was a really hard time. And I didn’t work. I didn’t book anything. Everything felt very antagonistic. But it was just my own view of the industry here. I had to get over that. I had to remember who I was.
Variety: Have you experienced sexism in Hollywood? How have you handled it?
Rossum: I can’t tell you how many producers have made wink-and-nudge overtures at me. I’ve just been, Is this happening right now? Do they think that’s going to work? I may use bad language, but I know who I am, and I know what I’m willing to do to get a part, and it’s not that. I think that’s really hard for people who are here without a support group, without a family.
Maslany: For me it’s about the parts that are out there. I think it’s changing. That’s where I feel the sexism the most. The stories that we tell are male stories and often male-centric and the women are accessories, but it is changing. It’s changing so rapidly.
Rossum: TV is changing that.
Maslany: Absolutely. Like “Orange Is the New Black,” it’s all women. Our voices are getting louder. People are realizing that our stories are just as universal and just as relatable as male stories.
Rossum: And that there is a huge female audience out there that is hungry for female stories, and we are seeing that more and more.
Variety: What advice would you offer to an actor starting out now?
Rossum: Take every time somebody says no to you as your fuel. Don’t let it feel like no. Just keep pushing. I can’t tell you how many times I heard no. No, we don’t want to see you. No, we don’t want to audition you. You’re too this. You’re too that. You’re not enough this. You’re not enough that. Every time, it was just like, just send me the sides. I’ll put myself on tape. I’ll do whatever it takes. Even for “Shameless.” They said no initially. They think you’re too Upper East Side. They want a real hood girl. Who says I don’t have that in me? I’m more comfortable having to prove myself. So take every no as just one more foot closer to yes.
Maslany: For me it’s staying with that sense of play. Enjoying it. Taking Meisner, dance classes, singing, everything that can fill you up and inform your art from a different perspective. Writing with your friends. Creating parts for yourself. Just continue to push yourself, and enjoy that struggle.
Rossum: You’re saying something really interesting, too, which is something I like to do, which is surround yourself by people that inspire you, that challenge you, that see the positive in you and push you to that next level. Not that this person can get me this job, but somebody that can actually make you a better actor. That’s really important. This town can be so lonely and it can be so hard on you. You need people around you that are really nurturing and watering your plant.
Maslany: That comes down to you, too, to know to go with your gut and trust yourself, because you are going to be told no.
Rossum: I’m going to make a total fool of myself trying to be that.
Maslany: Which is the best thing. You have to be prepared to make a total fool of yourself. Repeatedly.
Rossum: Dare to suck, that’s my motto.