‘Orphan Black’ Season 3: Tatiana Maslany on Male Clones, ‘Strong Female Characters’

orphan black tatiana maslany season 3
Image courtesy of BBC America

Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany makes the hardest job on television look effortless — portraying multiple clones on the BBC America drama with such verisimilitude, it’s easy to forget that she’s one actress instead of four.

In season three of the sci-fi hit, premiering Saturday, April 18 at 9 p.m. on BBC America (and across sibling networks AMC, IFC, SundanceTV and We TV) Maslany’s quartet of sisters — Sarah, Alison, Cosima and Helena — are beset by enemies old and new, including a cadre of male clones who were raised by the military in a program called “Project Castor,” all aware of their origins — a marked contrast to Maslany’s “Project Leda” clones.

Ahead of the new season, Variety spoke to Maslany about the impact of the Castor clones, the evolution of her many characters, and the pros and cons of being dubbed a standard-bearer for “strong female characters” on television.

Aside from the obvious inclusion of the Castor clones, how does season three differ from the previous two?

The clones start out separate and we see them in very different circumstances, all of them. They’re not in a unit at the moment, and there’s this breaking up of all of them which is counter to how we finished off the season where there was a dance party and this unity as a sisterhood, and this kind of coming together. Now they’re all forced apart, so it’s about that and about how if the sisterhood can handle this separation.

Can you give a preview of our four core clones’ individual arcs this season? Obviously Sarah’s driving the investigation into Castor and Topside, but where do we find each sister as we kick off?

Tthe last time we saw Helena, she was kidnapped and taken somewhere that seemed to be some sort of a military base, and so she winds up waking up in a box somewhere, somewhere hot, and we’re not sure exactly what’s going on there. And Alison and Donnie (Kristian Bruun) have come back together as a unit and we see them as a team for the first time in the series and kind of understand why they are a couple, why they love each other, and they’re on to new adventures. I won’t say exactly what, but they’re definitely unified in that. And Sarah’s facing some really difficult decisions… she doesn’t know what Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) did [handing Helena over to the military] and when she discovers that, there’s a lot of betrayal, obviously, and she has to recalibrate her life and what she’s going to do now. And Cosima had this near death experience, it appears at the end of the second season, and so she’s continuing to face her mortality and the betrayal of her body — getting sick, and the science being her, now. It’s not something she can look at from the outside anymore, she’s actually living it, so it’s a different perspective for her.

Did you have any advice for Ari Millen on tackling his multiple boy clones this season?

He was so keen to get a handle on the clone scenes and the challenge of it. I know he came and watched the clone dance party to get a sense of how we do the technical dolly stuff because… I think he knew around that time that it was going to happen and it wasn’t like he had a lot of prep time, so he had to really just dive in. I didn’t really give him any advice except to just make it his own process and enjoy it. It’s such an absolute treat as an actor to get to do this kind of work, so it’s just about enjoying it and not killing yourself over it — just having the most fun you can with it.

I talked to your co-stars recently, and for Evelyne Brochu (Delphine) and Dylan Bruce (Paul) especially, in past seasons they all had one main clone that they interacted with most — but those pairings are being shaken up a bit in season three, so they were talking about the different energy you bring to each clone, and how it really does feel like they’re acting with a whole new person. I was curious whether you feel the same when you’re playing Helena opposite Dylan, as opposed to Sarah, for example — whether the dynamic between you as actors feels different because you’re playing someone new, even with an actor you’ve worked with a lot?

Oh my God, absolutely. The cool thing about our show is that as much as I’m doing the shifting of the characters, they’re all shifting how they speak to me. They’re shifting how their energy is to me. Maria treats Rachel completely differently than she treats Sarah, so it’s like half my work is done for me just by their response to me and by them taking me in differently and responding to me differently, and Evelyn and I have had a lot of fun with those dynamics because obviously she’s got an attraction and a love for Cosima, but then what is that when she’s dealing with Rachel and what is that when she’s dealing with Sarah? Is that attraction still there? Is there something inherent about the women that’s what she fell in love with or is it uniquely Cosima? There’s this kind of fun thing to play with. And Jordan (Gavaris) and I have been doing this now for three seasons; he’s had the most interaction with all the clones and he’s amazing at just putting me in my place, in terms of treating Alison completely differently from Sarah, and that’s between takes too. He doesn’t let up.

There’s going to be a lot more interaction between Felix (Gavaris) and Cosima this season, too — what’s unique about that relationship compared to his interactions with the other clones?

I think Cosima and Felix had, weirdly, the least chemistry, in terms of being a little suspicious of each other… they weren’t super on board with each other for some reason, but they both have this unapologetic command of their sexuality and no qualms about that kind of thing. I think there’s something inherently that is a shared experience and a shared knowledge, and so that’s a fun thing — that they’re both lonely characters. We don’t get to see a lot of Felix’s heart, because he’s always this sounding board for the clones, but we definitely get to see that a bit more this season and that’s really interesting territory to mine.

It’s always so great to watch one of the clones having to play another clone — it’s like the acting equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. Is your preparation for those scenes different from just playing a clone as herself, since you have two layers to consider?

It’s the same approach, but it’s just with just a few things added and there’s a lot more freedom in terms of [that] the mistakes can kind of live and be. The more slip-ups that exist, the more fun we have with it… There’s so much freedom there to to make-believe and to play with the levels of it. Alison as Sarah can be broad, or it can be nuanced, or it can be totally off, or it can be really spot on, or whatever. Some of them are better actors than others, so it’s fun to play with all those levels and let the characters dictate what happens, and not try to pre-plan it or control it in any way.

You and the show have earned this label of being purveyors of the “strong female character,” which has become such a ubiquitous phrase in entertainment journalism, and it’s starting to drive me crazy, because it feels so condescending, like a backhanded compliment. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of using it in the past, but now it’s become this catch-all descriptor by which we lazily define women on television, and it doesn’t leave room for characters to just be people instead of archetypes. As someone who has been unofficially dubbed the standard-bearer for that kind of role, I was curious about your take on the phrase itself and the kind of roles women are being offered on TV right now.

I’m well up for the conversation. I love having that conversation because I think we do need to keep talking about it. I don’t think that it’s, by any means, solved and I don’t think it will be solved until, like you say, it’s just a given. To me [what’s] more interesting is when a woman’s story becomes the default and we don’t overanalyze her vulnerabilities versus her strengths, or her aesthetic versus her internal workings; that there’s not this compartmentalized breaking down of every character, and value assigned to her degree of strength. It’s so boring, but I do appreciate that it’s a discussion that’s happening and I think that we’re in the kind of growing stages of it, like the growing pains, and that’s why it’s a little awkward and maybe overused and maybe a little annoying at this point. But eventually my dream is that we won’t even notice if a woman is leading a show. It’ll just be like, “I love that show.” It’s not like, “I love that show because it’s blah blah blah and this and that political reason.” I can’t wait for the day when it’s just, like you say, people. And that’s across the board, whether that’s sexual orientation or gender identity or whatever. There’s so many ways to break it down. It’s like, “Is this person woman enough? Is this person male enough? It’s just a strong female character. It’s just a weak female character.” I don’t know. It could go on forever, that discussion.

I think that’s why Helena and Alison are my favorite clones — because on any other show, neither of those characters would be the star; they’re both too prickly and damaged and “unsympathetic” in places, but the show does such an amazing job of exploding those archetypes.

Yes, totally. It’s so much fun too, to have those two characters in the same show, because they’re almost from different movies. When we do an Alison day, it’s like we’re shooting a different movie than when there’s a Helena day, and yet, it’s really fun to see those two characters interact with each other at the end of season two. It’s kind of genre-bending.

I love that the show, at its core, is about the family we create for ourselves and the lives we forge despite other people’s expectations; everything is constantly evolving, just like life. Does it feel the same to you, or have you found your comfort zone in playing these characters yet?

It’s a constant process and that’s why I love this show … I don’t feel like we ever get to stage where the characters are satisfied and where I know them so well that I can do them in my sleep. The writers are great and they continually challenge all of us as characters. You see Donnie’s character this season take on a whole new life and that’s down to Kristian’s continual probing of his character and never getting settled in one way of being Donnie, and then with Maria’s character with Mrs. S, and with Felix. I think it’s cool, it has this ever-growing thing as we continue to unravel the mystery of it all.

The producers have said that we’ll get far more insight into Paul this season — what can you preview about his evolution?

I won’t speak too much to that, because it’s a nice mystery and Paul has remained this enigma in the show — we don’t know where exactly he stands and he seems to have alliances to totally opposite sides of the game. We get some amazing storylines that revolve around Paul, and Dylan just really ripped it up this season. His work is so exciting, and yeah, I’m just excited for people to see it.

Creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have said that it’s a very collaborative process between you guys when you introduce a new clone, and Tony in particular was a great addition last season. So what goes into creating a new clone in terms of what you bring versus what the producers introduce?

It depends. We’ve had quite a few different ways of coming at it, whether it’s something starting as just a little discussion between John, Graeme and I, or they have an interest in taking somebody in a new direction, or Tony came from hair and makeup, really. Stephen [Lynch], Sandy [Sokolowski], and I had been discussing what a trans clone would look like, what that would be, and musing on that idea because of this sort of sense of identity exploration that we do in the show and the breaking down of what it is to be any one individual, so it depends. From all kinds of angles, but yeah, Graeme and John are so awesome about keeping me in the loop and keeping me an integral voice in the creation of those characters, so it’s kind of a dream in that way.

“Orphan Black” season three premieres Saturday, April 18 at 9 p.m. on BBC America.

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