What Do 13 of the Strongest Women on TV Have in Common? They’re All Tatiana Maslany

Orphan Black's star creates clones with endless individuality

Headshot of T.L. Stanley

A few short years ago, Tatiana Maslany was an up-and-coming actress with improv comedy chops, some TV and small movie roles under her belt and a profile little known outside her native Canada.

Those days are definitely behind her.

Now she's regularly mobbed at fan gatherings like San Diego's Comic-Con and revered by TV critics for her work on BBC America's much-lauded, sci-fi-tinged thriller Orphan Black. In it, the 29-year-old juggles multiple roles—a dizzying number of sister clones, totaling 13 characters by Season 2's end—in a twisty, edge-of-the-seat series that explores nature versus nurture, with the military, a sinister corporation and a religious cult thrown in for added intrigue.

Maslany has won two Critics' Choice awards for her roles as a con artist, suburban soccer mom and more. 

So far, she's racked up two Critics' Choice awards, along with Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, for portraying British con artist Sarah, Toronto cop Beth, psycho assassin Helena, suburban soccer mom Alison and hippie scientist Cosima, among other test-tube twins. Even Meryl Streep's never gone that far.

Shortly after the premiere, a reviewer called Maslany's performance, which sometimes has her playing more than one clone in a single scene, "Olympic-level endurance acting." Beyond Orphan Black, Maslany appears in the just-released drama Woman in Gold, with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, and in the forthcoming indie romance Two Lovers and a Bear. And taking her into blockbuster territory, her name has been connected to the new big-screen Star Wars spinoff. Maslany talked with Adweek about her breakout role, her new "brothers" coming up in Season 3 and her love of Broad City.

Adweek: What was it like to audition for this role?

Maslany: It was pretty intense and kind of crazy, but really fun. I did a two-day marathon of playing four or five of the characters, and I didn't know how it would go, but I was really grateful to get to play these characters for even a brief time. Then I read opposite the Felix character, and Jordan [Gavaris] and I had a lot of fun in there. We felt like we knew each other even though we'd never met before.

Does it get any easier to play multiple roles, multiple clones in a scene or clones impersonating clones?

Kind of—at least the technical side of it—because I'm used to that process now. In each different scene, we try to push and challenge ourselves more, be braver and bolder with the things we can do. So it's always a challenge, but that's definitely why I love the job.

Did your background in improv comedy help?

It's been invaluable because with improv, so often you're acting on a blank canvas. You have no costumes or props, and you go where the impulse of the moment takes you. You're doing imagination exercises, and it makes you more comfortable being alone on stage. That's helped me immeasurably in creating this character.

How do you think Orphan Black busts stereotypes for strong female characters?

The characters all have a complexity to them, an unapologetic individuality. They're not physically superhuman and emotionless and without flaws. Having a strong female character doesn't mean she's beyond suffering and fragility. There's a fearlessness. That to me is strong writing for women. It defies gender.

The show has such a devoted, involved fan base. Any recent encounters?

We're lucky to have this kind of contact with the fans because it really lessens the gap between the show and the viewers. It's exciting and fulfilling to hear stories from young women coming out, young men coming out as trans. The other day on set, an awesome girl came to visit with her beautiful fan art of the show. She'd done these gorgeous pictures of the characters. That's always really exciting to know that the work we do inspires other people's imagination and art.

What has playing this role done for you professionally?

It was a big learning curve for me, and I've learned a lot about the responsibility of leading a series. It's given me the chance to stretch. It's challenged my stamina and imagination. And it's opened doors for me on who I get to collaborate with next.

Do you see the show as a feminist piece?

I think so, though I don't think that was the motive from the start. It was intended to be this exploration of nature/nurture, and a lead role like that may not normally go to a woman. Women aren't often the default in movies, TV, media—there's often very limited space for them. But it's exciting to mine these stories and see a show that puts women at the center of it.

Since there are male clones coming in Season 3, do you think that may affect the balance of power going forward?

The show is definitely done from a woman's perspective, and that's something we defend. That will continue. But we will get a lot of Ari's character [Ari Millen, playing multiple male clones] who takes on major storylines. And we have guest stars in recurring roles like James Frain. We're expanding the world.

What goes through your head when critics go nuts when you're not included on the Emmy nomination list?

It's really the furthest thing from my mind. It's awesome to be supported and fought for like that, but it's not why I do it. It's more exciting to know that we have fans in the media and among TV viewers.

What do you like to watch on TV?

I love Broad City. It's that unapologetic approach where the characters are not defined by their gender. It's all about their personalities, sense of humor, flaws and friendship.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.