“Orphan Black” has never been the kind of show you could call ordinary, and its initial immense vision has only gotten more complex since its premiere 3 years ago. Dictated by its characteristic organized chaos, the show’s sprawling labyrinth of genetic experiments, shifting loyalties and of course, clones, coalesce into a show that is as unique as it is beloved.
Tatiana Maslany stars as Sarah Manning, a spunky young orphan whose chance encounter at a train station with a girl who looks identical to her sets in motion a life-changing series of events. But what makes “Orphan Black” so defiantly unique is its treatment of its characters — and the actress who plays most of them. Maslany also stars as Allison, a Type-A pony-tailed soccer mom, Cosima, a hip neuroscientist and Helena, a fast-eating and slow-talking killing machine (among others). But when they each find their lives threatened by a shadowy corporation, they must quickly establish connections with each other in order to stay alive and to unravel the mystery of their existence.
While the wait for Season 4 stretches out into the spring of 2016, the Clone Club reconvened this weekend as co-creator and writer Graeme Manson and stars Kristian Bruun, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jordan Gavaris and Tatiana Maslany took a break from their intensive shooting schedule to stop by the Paley Center for Media to talk about the upcoming season, that iconic clone dance party and how the origins of the show were a lot simpler than you might think.
Some Season 3 spoilers lie ahead.
Season 4 Will Start with Some Big Changes
After “Orphan Black’s” shocking season three finale, Manson shared that Season 4 will feature a “two-month time jump,” returning to Sarah a few weeks after her tumble in the tundra with Kira. Manson made sure to stay vague about the themes of the upcoming season, but promised that “We are going back to the beginning. Sarah’s going to have to go back to where this all started.”
And what does that mean for Project Castor? “We certainly murdered a few of the Castor Project clones,” Manson said. “But Castor is not down and out. Mark is out there and I have seen Ari Millen on the call sheet, so we will be getting our Ari on.”
Though tight-lipped about most things, when asked about Delphine’s shocking death at the end of the third season, Manson was a bit vague. “Where did she get hit? In the liver? I’m not sure that’s fatal…” the creator trailed off with a smile.
It’s a Writer’s Show
Because the show is known for its twisting plot lines and labyrinthine clues, the actors often want to know what’s in store for their characters in advance. “They keep things under wraps for the most part. We’ll find out a few weeks in advance if we’re lucky,” explained Jordan Gavaris, who plays Felix on the show. “If they want, sometimes they’ll tell us day of. I’ve been surprised with bondage the day of.”
Manson explained that their tight lips aren’t always due to their propensity to hide plot points. “The cast thinks we’re trying to keep things secret, but we’re really just trying to get our act together. [laughs] Things come together in the writers room, but we have a very complex story that we have to work out in advance and then we work on it in chunks and each chunk develops and informs the next thing. We can’t get too far ahead.”
Kristian Bruun, whose lovable Donnie has gained more and more traction over the course of the show, explained, “That’s what makes it so terribly exciting for us. When the email comes in at 1 AM when you’re about to go to bed and you see the new script in your inbox and you think, ‘I can’t go to sleep, oh my god, what’s going to happen?’ And that’s really great for us. It’s a real writer’s show. There’s respect for the writers. After the shoot, the director will turn to the writer and ask them if that’s what they had envisioned and if it’s not they’ll reset and do it again. I’ve never seen that before.”
Manson was quick to add that there’s always been a defined endpoint for the show, but insisted that they’re always open to discovery. “Ari was originally supposed to be killed, but we just decided to keep him on because we loved him. We always knew we’d have a male clone, but we had no idea that it would grow into this.”
There’s a Real Cosima
Because “Orphan Black” is so based in science and cutting-edge technology, it’s a must that the writers have a devoted story consultant. But what you might not know is that her name is Cosima Herter, and the similarly intelligent clone of the same name is named after her. “We look for what we call ‘Cosima Goosebump Moments’,” Manson explained. “We’ll be rambling on and on in the writers room about fart jokes or whatever and then we’ll hear something that hits the zeitgeist and Cosima goes, ‘Oh it gives me goosebumps.’ She’s good at keeping our concepts in and at the forefront.”
Orphan Black Wasn’t Always About Clones
Manson, who wrote the 1997 cult film “Cube,” is no stranger to science fiction. “I’ve always loved sci-fi and the kind of sci-fi I like is the kind that comments on the society that it’s in,” Manson told Indiewire. “That being said, we didn’t really set out to make a show about clones. We had a cool opening scene that seemed like a great idea: A girl gets off a train and sees someone who looks exactly like her and in the moment that their eyes meet, she steps in front of a train and kills herself. We had to unravel the mystery from there.”
Certainly a bit of an oddball premise for a show, but “Orphan Black’s” propensity for the strange is one of the reasons it’s so popular. “We were just trying to get one season. We just wanted to go to Comic-Con,” Manson added. “It’s grown to something we’ve never expected: We’ve got comic books in the works. We’ve even discussed a video game.”
Felix is the Odd Man Out
While much of the show’s propulsion relies on the interactions between Maslany’s clones, the show also has a wealth of other important characters, none so close to Sarah as Gavaris’ Felix. “The role came to me when I was 22,” he told Indiewire. “When I was entering what I’ll call the disenchanting moments of your 20s, when you realize the world isn’t quite as great as you thought it would be. It was just wild that this show, thematically, is all about that. It’s given me the opportunity to explore characters that I’d never really interacted with, ones that I might have had a lot of judgment about. It’s been liberating in that way.”
As for Felix? Well, everyone’s hoping he spends a lot of time at the Hendricks’. “I want a Felix/Donnie bromance,” said Bruun. “I want Felix to take me shopping.”
Gavaris excitedly added, “Yeah, we don’t get to do many scenes together. And we have fun improving. There’s something inherently hilarious about Felix and a suburban father. Can we put Donnie in skinny jeans?”
On a more serious note, Gavaris mentioned that season 4 will find Felix in new territory. “I think it’s going to be cool this season to explore the idea of blood ties and biology and how much that bond connects people. Because Sarah’s not an orphan anymore and Felix is the odd man out. It’s a bit weird being the only foster child.”
Maslany Loves the Challenge of the Show
When talking to Indiewire prior to the panel about her role in story development, Maslany divulged that she enjoys being surprised with ideas for new clones. “If I were to pick it, it would be within my comfort zone and would be less fun. I get to play characters that I wouldn’t otherwise get cast as like Crystal and Rachel. I’d never get cast as either of them, and I get to play them on this show.”
Ever humble, Maslany was quick to place the credit on her writers and co-stars. “The writing informs so much in terms of the voice and the way I walk and everything else. My co-stars also treat me differently depending on who I am and that informs the scene, so it’s a very collaborative process.”
Sarah Manning, Maslany’s first and perhaps most true-to-life iteration on the show, offers her some important grounding. “Because she is the heartbeat of the show, there’s a lot that I refer back to her with. Then the other characters get to be wackier and I get to stretch myself for that.”
But Maslany was sure to mention that even Sarah has her own quirks that make her uniquely fun and challenging to play. “Sarah to me is way hard. She is so tough and brave and she’s a street punk, which is so not my background. I’ve learned so much from her in terms of how to be unrelentingly brave. It’s so nice to play a character who’s so grounded in her body and sexual and unapologetic. She makes so many mistakes and it’s okay.”
Though Maslany’s largely gotten used to the strange process of acting in scenes alone or against tennis balls, to allow the show to layer a few of the clones in the same shot, the iconic clone dance party of Season 2 and the clone dinner party at the end of Season 3 were uniquely challenging. “We’re going to just have to keep topping ourselves,” laughed Manson.
The Characters Inform the Story
“When the show is working best, we are propelled by the characters,” explained the co-creator. “The characters allow for the difference in genres. Allison’s world can be hilarious and have a ’90s soundtrack, Helena’s world is very dark, Sarah’s world is very frenetic. And we’ve had so much character development. Everyone is asking about Donnie, but no one liked Donnie in the first season. He was a bad guy at the end of Season 1. And Mrs. S too, in the first season, she didn’t really have much to do and now she’s just as important as everyone else, she’s a badass. And then there’s the development of all of Tatiana’s characters — especially Helena, who’s gone from a psychopathic killer to a lovable psychopathic killer,” Manson joked.
“I’m interested this season to see the character’s development apart from their significant others,” added Maslany. “To see Cosima single is kind of great because she’s so cool. There’s so much to her.”
The Show’s Meaning Had to be Uncovered
“I feel like our viewers enlightened things for me,” Maslany admitted. “I think I knew somewhere that we were talking about body autonomy, ownership over your own story, not being owned by a corporation and issues of your image being taken from you. But it was in reading essays from fans and students, it was like ‘Oh yeah, that is what we’re talking about,’ and it’s exciting because we get to do it in this entertaining, subversive way. What I love about it is the writing doesn’t feel preachy. It feels like we put women at the center, they’re the default and who cares. It’s not exceptional, it’s the way the story is and that’s why it’s so awesome to me. I feel like we have an obligation to tell these stories. Reproductive rights, feminism and LGBT rights are at the forefront and we get to reflect that. Your biology isn’t your destiny.”
Bruun agreed about the creatively progressive tone of the show and added, “When we meet people who are fans of the show, they connect to the show saying things that need to be said. We’re just showing what the world could be.”
“Orphan Black” will return for Season 4 in spring 2016 on BBC America.
READ MORE: Watch: ‘Orphan Black’ Season 3 Blooper Reel is Full of Giggles