‘Orphan Black’ Cast, Crew Reflect on Genre-Bending Show’s Strange Trip

When Tatiana Maslany landed her breakthrough gig as multiple clones on “Orphan Black,” she knew playing so many varied characters would be a challenge. To mentally prepare herself to jump between characters, Maslany asked series creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett to find a spot on set for her to practice yoga.

The producers laughed. “Forget yoga,” Manson recalls telling the actress. “Altogether.”

Turns out there would be no such thing as downtime for Maslany, who has been in nearly every scene of “Orphan Black” throughout the BBC America suspense drama’s run. That dedication paid off — not only did “Orphan Black” help make it OK for TV shows to get a little “weird,” but it ultimately landed Maslany a primetime Emmy last year, for outstanding lead actress in a drama.

Now, as “Orphan Black” prepares to launch its fifth and final season, the series’ cast and producers are on a bit of a farewell tour, giving them a chance to reflect on the show’s status as a cult hit — and its legacy as a program that couldn’t be pigeonholed in any one genre.

The Canadian drama launched in 2013 on BBC America and on Canada’s Space network, immediately earning raves from critics. The show’s passionate following took to its ambitious storytelling, crafty genre mashups and powerful portrayals of gender identity, female empowerment and acceptance of those who are different. It also paved the way for story-bending series like “Mr. Robot,” “The OA,” “Legion” and “Sense8.”

“It put us on the map with its audacity,” says BBC America president Sarah Barnett. “It was the crazy Canadian clone show that could. But it really has become a pop culture-defining show. [It took] big storytelling swings, but it also had an emotional heart and depth to it…. It’s a rather rare mix of serious things, social provocation and wit. There’s something quite unique and brilliant about that.”

Ari Millen (the Castor clones), Evelyne Brochu (Delphine) and Josh Vokey (Scott)
TERENCE PATRICK for Variety

“Orphan Black” was an ambitious show to pull off on a low Canadian drama budget. The producers used a motion-controlled technodolly to shoot realistic scenes of multiple clones that don’t look computer generated. But they soon figured out that it would take too much time shooting more than two clones at once.

“We’ve always been an underdog and pretty proud of punching above our weight class,” Manson says.

Jordan Gavaris, who plays the outspoken Felix, says he believes “Orphan Black” didn’t just legitimize sci-fi for fans who didn’t think they liked that world; it also made TV safe for more offbeat shows regardless of genre.

“It opened the door to some really interesting programming from cable broadcasters,” he says. “Look at shows like ‘Search Party,’ which I love so much. It is the weirdest little show. I don’t know if that would exist if we didn’t have shows like ‘Orphan Black’ making it OK to be weird.”

Manson and Fawcett say they never saw their show as sci-fi but instead focused on its characters. In turn, audiences gravitated to the strong female clones, who each possessed such different personalities.

When Maslany wasn’t in character as Sarah Manning, a con who discovers she’s a clone and is thrust into the middle of the show’s intrigue, she might be playing suburban mom Alison, sickly brainiac Cosima, ice-cold villain Rachel, ditzy Krystal or the unhinged Helena — among others.

All those characters demanded different looks, personalities and backstories. Some were comedic, some tragic and others purely dramatic. If that weren’t enough, the clones would frequently interact and sometimes even impersonate each other. The job required exact precision, and Maslany was up to the task.

“It was the hardest work I’ve ever done but the most rewarding,” she says. “It was a roller coaster of characters in motion, with different genres. Every character had a different film they were in, and we got to shoot that film — whether it was horror, romance or a suburban comedy.”

Kristian Bruun (Donnie) and Kevin Hanchard (Art)
TERENCE PATRICK for Variety

Barnett credits Maslany, of course, for “the sheer bloody hard work she brings to playing all of these roles.”

The actress came along at the right time for Manson and Fawcett, who spent a decade trying to crack “Orphan Black.” The duo came up with the show’s opening conceit — a woman, hiding at a train station, mysteriously witnesses her doppelganger committing suicide on the tracks — but couldn’t figure out where to take it from there.

“Beginnings are easy to do,” Manson says. “This was one of the best openings we had ever thought of, and we couldn’t let it go.”

Fawcett says they shelved the scene but every once in a while would talk about it and advance the story. “We were absolutely stoked about the idea that one actor was going to play all these different characters,” he says, “but at the same time, so terrified of how badly that could go awry.”

After reading the script for the audition, Maslany says the conceit stuck in her mind — Sarah assumes the identity of the dead woman, a cop, and soon finds herself over her head and the target of someone who wants to eliminate the clones.

“That image of Sarah on the train platform was so ingrained in my head,” she says. “I had no idea where the series was going to go. When I signed on for it, I think I knew about four characters I’d be playing. But I was up for the prospect of it — these infinite possibilities.”

That included some pretty absurd and sometimes humorous twists over the years. “We always thought we better not take ourselves too seriously,” Manson says. The producers didn’t even keep up a show bible, something that’s usually standard practice for serialized shows.

“The bible’s in here,” says Manson, pointing to his head. “We had a bible to sell the show, and then we never touched it or opened it again.”

The plot to “Orphan Black” thrived on a wild ride and shifted between several shadowy corporations and conspiracies over the years. But at its heart, the show was about identity and flipping expectations on their head.

“You think you know everything about yourself, and then you see a woman who looks exactly like you,” Maslany says of the show’s core theme. “Who is she? And what does that say about me?”

Gavaris says he identified with the show’s themes of self-determination. “I’m not interested in you telling me who I am,” he says. “I will tell you who I am. I am multifaceted and I cannot be reduced. I hope that’s the legacy — the idea that individuality is awesome.”

Jordan Gavaris (Felix) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (Mrs. S) credit Maslany with being a welcoming group leader. “She’s just been extraordinary to be around,” Kennedy says.
TERENCE PATRICK for Variety

Kristian Bruun, who plays Alison’s doughy husband, Donnie, says he hoped the show’s themes would resonate more in the current political climate: “I really hope that we have the chance to change a few minds toward inclusion, toward acceptance. It’s mind-boggling that these things are being questioned today.”

The show’s willingness to take on television tropes sometimes got it into trouble with fans, many of whom protested when they didn’t get to see enough of their favorite clone. The die-hard fan base (the “Clone Club”) particularly adored the relationship between Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) and funky scientist Cosima.

When Delphine was apparently murdered in season three, viewers erupted in anger, accusing the show of falling into the “Bury Your Gays” trope of destroying same-sex relationships by killing off one of the characters.

“I knew we were heading into choppy waters,” Manson says. “That relationship was portrayed as natural and not oversexualized and was very important to people in terms of their own
lives being represented. But we still had to honor the show. We still had to go, ‘OK, we’re going to mess up this audience. How do we not lose them? But we knew we wanted that relationship to survive.”

Brochu’s character — spoiler alert — survived, and fans appear to have forgiven the show now that Delphine and Cosima are on the road to reunion.

“The whole idea of having so much interaction with your audience is a fairly new thing that I think creators and casts are trying to navigate,” Gavaris says. “It’s difficult to not start becoming self-conscious of your work when you go back to set. It’s this dance you do.”

Here’s something else fans are dreading: the end. “Orphan Black” wrapped its final scene in late March, and then Manson, Fawcett, Maslany and the rest of the cast flew to Los Angeles for the Paley Center’s annual PaleyFest fan event.

“It was the emotional expulsion of sadness,” Maslany says. On the final day, Bruun says the cast and crew weren’t sure how to react. Maria Doyle Kennedy, who plays foster mother Siobhan (or Mrs. S), led the cast in song.

“This is a show that really had women at its absolute core and cherished women, and they did not have to be 25 either,” Kennedy says. “That’s a huge legacy to leave behind.”

How does it end? No one’s revealing any hints, although as Bruun says, “This is ‘Orphan Black,’ and nothing comes without paying a price. There’s sacrifice in this show, and no
one is safe.” Kevin Hanchard, who plays police investigator Art, says he believes the show “does reward the fans for the five years of investment in us and these characters.”

Manson compares the ending to finishing a novel: “We’re paying off each character relationship — each individual character arc. That’s the job that we set out to do.”

Barnett doesn’t rule out revisiting the “Orphan Black” world, perhaps via a spinoff, and the producers say they’ve kicked around movie ideas for the franchise. But for now, BBC America is set to say farewell. “There aren’t many networks that can really say a show defined them for a period inside of pop culture,” Barnett says.

Thanks to the television aftermarket, Fawcett and Manson say they expect to hear from new fans for years to come as they discover the show.

“It was a small show, and it’s still finding its audience,” Fawcett says. “I’m really excited to see how people keep coming to the show. I hope that it has that kind of legacy — that it will endure.”

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