“Orphan Black” might first call to mind the incredible blend of special effects and finely honed acting that allow Tatiana Maslany to play over a half-dozen “sestras” — identical yet very different clones caught up in a massive conspiracy that threatens their very survival.
But Maslany also credits the unpredicable art of improv, which she’s been doing since she was in elementary school, for her Emmy-nominated performance(s). “You learn how to trust each other and learn to take cues from each other and develop a story in the moment. It’s very addictive,” she told IndieWire.
Maslany said she’s inspired by improvisers like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele — “I think they’re both incredible actors. Not only are they hilarious, but just their characters are so believable” — as well as the cast of “Transparent.”
“That show would, I guess, be deemed a comedy,” she said. “But there are some absolutely heart-wrenching scenes. I cried so much watching the second season of ‘Transparent,’ I just thought it was a masterpiece and it sort of treads that amazing line of comedy and drama at the same time, so that we always believe it.”
In order to capture that same energy, Maslany, her acting double Kathryn Alexandre and showrunners John Fawcett and Graeme Mason have found ways to incorporate improv into BBC America’s complex sci-fi drama. Maslany shared some of those secrets with IndieWire.
At this point in your process, when you get asked to play a different clone, how do you go about creating that character?
It’s kind of the same as any process, in terms of how I approach other projects. In terms of breaking down the character and discovering where they’re from and how that contributes to who they are — it’s no different from how I prep any other character. It’s just, oftentimes, with limited time, because it’s often midway through a season that we decide to have a new clone, and it’s a little bit more frantic than I would like.
But it’s always a very creative process, collaborating with the showrunners and Kathryn Alexandre, who plays my clone double. She’s always heavily involved in the creation process. There’s lots of improv, lots of rehearsals, lots of discussions of voice and mannerisms and physicality and all that.
Has it gotten more collaborative over the years?
The more comfortable I’ve gotten with approaching John and Graeme with questions or ideas or thoughts, yeah — it has definitely become more collaborative. But they’ve always had that openness. in terms of wanting to hear from me.
You mentioned improv — in prepping for this interview, I saw that you have years of improvisational experience.
There’s an awesome organization in Canada called the Canadian Improv Games. It’s a high school tournament, it takes place in every province of Canada and kids in high school compete for the chance to go to Ottawa and perform at the national tournament. It was something I did when I was in high school, something that was one of the biggest joys of my high school experience and definitely something I stuck with afterwards.
What initially drew you to improv?
I started doing it when I was a kid in elementary school. I just always liked creating and playing and imagination. It was the rush of getting to create in the moment and make people laugh and tell stories. You learn how to trust each other and learn to take cues from each other and develop a story in the moment. It’s very addictive.
Ken Woroner/BBC AMERICA
It sounds like great acting training, when you describe it that way.
Yeah! Absolutely. I think that’s the most important lesson to learn from improv, from going out on stage with no plan and sort of in front of people creating something. It’s quite a scary concept for some people, but yeah, you learn so much doing it.
Going back a little bit, you were saying that’s actually part of the process in terms of when you guys sit down to actually start working on the show.
Yeah. With M.K. and Beth this season [one new clone and one clone who hadn’t been seen that often since Season 1], Kathryn Alexandre, John Fawcett, Graeme Mason and I got into a room and sat down with some of the scenes that were written for Beth and M.K. and we just sort of reworked them. They allowed us — me and Kathryn — to improvise different things and play through things and try different options out to sort of discover the voices of these characters. Because when you do create all these characters on one show, you want to find unique voices, unique ways to show what their drive is. And improv allows for that kind of unconscious stuff to come up. You can find the voice of a character a little, if you let it go free a bit.
How much of that ended up in the scripts?
Quite a bit. I don’t even remember what was improv and what wasn’t in what ended up on the page. But it was really helpful in carving out these people.
Is this a regular part of the process?
It’s part of the process. We never really have that much time to do that sort of stuff, but like, with Alison and Donnie, Kristian Bruun and I improvise constantly with those characters during the shooting. Jordan Gavaris and I improvise a lot as well. On set, it definitely is a part of our process. Trying to just play around.
So it’s a luxury when you get to be able to actually do clone improv?
Oh, yeah, for sure. Clone improv is tough because it’s often quite a rigid process. In a clone scene, you have to stick to the same thing. But in the dinner scene in Season 3, there’s some improv at the end of that scene that somehow made it in [laughs]. The improv between Donnie, Alison, Helena and Felix. And we somehow made it work. I don’t know how exactly, but yeah, it’s pretty wild to see that. It’s really fun to see.
Improv is of course associated with comedy, but the show always has this nice line of being between both genres from time to time. Is improv something that you apply to the dramatic stuff as well?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s exclusive to comedy. I think that a lot of the improv I did when I was growing up would also move into the dramatic. The company that I was part of, they all were actors. And so, it was, like you said, such a great learning experience in terms of acting and honing our skills. And that was dramatic and comedic. There was no rule that it had to be laugh out loud constantly. There’s lots of space on set to do that, which is really nice.
Were there any situations where you’d start a scene thinking it was going to take a comedic turn, and then you ended up actually really hitting a hard, heartfelt moment?
I think you always try to stay open to stuff like that and not sort of go, “Okay, this is a comedy scene so it has to be one thing.” Any of the comedians that I adore play that fine line of both drama and comedy. As long as they’re fully committed, then it could be a funny moment, it could be a dramatic moment. You sort of just stay open to that possibility. That’s when it’s really fun.
“Orphan Black” Season 4 can now be seen Thursdays at 10pm on BBC America.
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