After making one hell of an entrance in last week’s premiere episode, ORPHAN BLACK has lured viewers into the mysterious world of Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), who find herself suddenly amongst a world of clones. Coming face-to-face with someone who looks to be your identical twin is disconcerting, but imagine if you suddenly found yourself popping up everywhere you go. Sarah had leapt at the chance to assume her twin clone’s life as Beth, but that soon proved to be an even more dangerous world that the one she was desperate to leave behind. Beth as a cop was under investigation for a shooting and had begun to piece together the puzzle of all the clones. Stepping into and assuming Beth’s life proved hazardous and intriguing all at once. In a recent press conference call, star Tatiana Maslany and creator/executive producer John Fawcett talked about the challenges of bringing this series of multiple clones to life and where the “rabbit hole” shall take Sarah this season.
What kind of storylines will be explored in the first season?
JOHN: ORPHAN BLACK for us is basically a mystery kind of thriller with a kind of a sci-fi angle. And of course, the big question is: Who am I? It’s about identity and so that’s kind of the overarching mystery of the series. And really, because of the rabbit hole/mystery/thriller aspect of the show, the deeper you go into the rabbit hole, the more questions you get. You get answers along the way, but more questions start to arise. That is kind of the biggest storyline that we’re following through the course of the series. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there may be some more clones. Those characters have their own storylines and contribute to the larger picture and the larger mystery.
What was your first impression when you read the script and what attracted you to the role of Sarah?
TATIANA: I was obsessed with this part as soon as I read it. I was obsessed with the material. It’s so unique and it’s so compelling. It’s also a world that I’d never seen on television before. The wonderful thing about this show is that each of the clones has their own voice. They’re not just cannon fodder. They’re not just expendable. They’re completely their own human being. So, for me, it was like I’m salivating at the challenge to get to play all these characters and define each of these women — because each of them are so well written; like you could have a series about each of them. They’re so complex and human and funny and dark and everything. Then of course Sarah was the initial pull for me because she’s the lead of this series and she’s an extremely human character. She’s very flawed, she’s very manipulative, she’s very much an animal of instinct and of spontaneity and she adapts. There were so many possibilities; I was so excited to play her. She’s working class from London, so she has a very specific life experience that was far from mine, but really enticing to me.
How do you keep all the clones straight and how do you prepare to play so many characters so well that it seems like you’re a completely different person that happens to look the same?
TATIANA: I don’t know. It was extremely daunting. I mean, I was just hungry for the part so I just went full into it. When I got it, I was like, “Oh God, now I have to do this extremely big challenge.” I mean, keeping them all straight in my head was a bit of a brain — I can’t think of the word. But it was confusing and difficult. But the cool thing is they’re all so well written and they’re all so unique on the page that a lot of that kind of specific differentiating work was already done for me. For me, it was a matter of committing fully to them and not being afraid to find something in me in each of these women and really explore what that seed was, and just play with it. It was going back to the thing of being a kid and being able to switch between being a dinosaur and being a dog and being a police officer in the same breath. Like you can do that when you’re a kid and we’re kind of socialized not to do that as adults because it’s crazy but as an actor you have to do that. And so that’s really how I approached it.
Sarah’s DNA obviously is being used for these clones. Can you give us any hints if there might be other DNA templates for other sets of clones that may show up throughout the series?
JOHN: We don’t know if Sarah is the original or not. We don’t know where this DNA is from. It is one of the mysteries for us, as Sarah discovers she’s a clone, it really is a story of: Who am I? And where did I come from? And it is an identity thriller in some sense of that feeling of like, “I thought I knew who I was and suddenly my world is upside down, there are copies of me and am I the original? And if I’m not the original, who is?” I think that that’s a really sort of a fantastic, massive bewildering dilemma to put a character in — to put the main character of Sarah in and throw her down this sort of rabbit hole, which is ORPHAN BLACK. Beyond that my creative partner and co-creator Graeme Manson, we’ve had many discussions about where the show will ultimately go and what will occur in further seasons. I wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility of other clones, but I can’t say exactly right at this point. I think we’re all very fascinated with Sarah and we’re fascinated with her clone sisters at this point and their journey. I think that we’re hoping that people will find that journey as attractive and as exciting as we do.
This role like this must be an actor’s dream and an actor’s nightmare at the same time. Is there something in each character that you can relate to or is there one particularly that you can go, “oh, that’s a lot like me”?
TATIANA: They each have a seed of me inside them. That sounds so gross. They each have a bit of me in them. Each of these women. I think what I did was figured out what it was that I could relate to in each of them and then expanded on that and elaborated on that and let that be kind of the nut of the character because obviously I feel like I can relate to all of them. They’re all very human and I think there’s aspects of me in each of them but there’s definitely certain ones that were easier to identify with than others. Their actions maybe are more in line with how I respond in real life. But there’s not one of them that wasn’t like challenging or super exciting to play. None of them were like, “oh yes, I can do this.”
Did you take any of the clones’ personas home with you?
TATIANA: I took them all. They’re all still bouncing around in my head and I’m having trouble sleeping or shutting my brain off. Even during shooting I’d be sleeping and like tossing back and forth between characters in my sleep. So I think it’ll be with me for a while.
How did you come to cast Tatiana?
JOHN: Tatiana and I had actually crossed paths many, many years earlier. I directed and created a feature film called “Ginger Snaps” and after that we made two sequels to it that I executive produced, and we were casting this really cool young spooky girl part in the sequel to it and that’s when I came across Tatiana. And you know what? The funny thing is when I was casting that part, there were two people up for that part at the end of the day and it was Tatiana versus Ellen Page. And of course I went for Tatiana because Tatiana’s a Tatiana’s a better actor. So she and I were aware of each other and knew each other and had worked together prior to this and I was well aware of the girl’s mad skills. And we’re we get along great and we were just lucky to have such a great collaboration between us.
Watching the scene where all the clones are talking to each other, what’s it like to stage that? Can you do all of that in one day or does it take a few days to go through all the different personalities and reacting to what the other one says?
JOHN:Just a little bit from the technical point of view — and then Tat can fill in from her point of view — that particular episode (assuming you’re talking about episode 3) wasn’t actually directed by me. I directed episodes 1 and 2. That episode, episode 3 which is the first time we get three girls in one room talking really was done by a director by the name of David Frazee. It’s extremely complicated and we had some rehearsal ahead of time. We block out the scene like a regular scene except it’s Tat and her acting double Katherine and then add another acting double because there’s three of them in the same room. The scene gets shot in layers. So it’s a very time consuming process. It’s a head scratcher for the director and for Tatiana because it’s really about working out all the details of each of the characters. So with a bit of rehearsal time it’s helpful because at least Tat has the time then to play each of the parts and figure out exactly what she wants to do physically and how she would respond. As we went deeper into the season time became a little bit more of a premium. It became a little more complicated. But we got better at it too as we went along. So it’s very time consuming. That particular day was an extremely long day for all of us and especially for Tatiana who gets there early in the morning and then doesn’t get to leave till like it’s the end of the last scene of the day. And she’s having to play multiple characters and is going home with her head spinning, I’m sure. What do you think about that, Tat? What do you have to say?
TATIANA: Yes, those scenes were always long days. Like I have to kind of keep all the impulses straight in my head and predetermine what I want my interactions to be, what I want the responses to be. Then remember what I did on the other side so I can respond to it. So it’s a struggle. I mean, technically it’s a struggle because my eye lines have to shift – I’m looking at an X over here and then I’m looking at an X over here. I’m trying not to if I put my hand on my other clone like I’m trying not to put my hand through her face. Little technical details. But again it’s kind of like being on stage and having to imagine your set being on stage in an improv show or something where you don’t have the set but you endow the empty space with that set. So I had to endow the empty space with my clone, who I’m speaking to. And luckily we have an incredible technology with the techno-dolly which is this camera that basically memorizes its internal movement so it can reproduce every time. So we have movement during the scene and it just sells it. It’s insane.
What was behind the decision to make the setting London and to make Sarah a working class Londoner?
JOHN: The show originated with my partner and I, Graeme Manson, and we’re Canadian. Of course we wanted a show that we could shoot here. Essentially when I say “here” I mean North America. And as we were looking for partners we started getting a lot of love from BBC America who were really into the project, which was exciting to us, well of course being BBC America they they want to hear a little bit of British. So it was an interesting creative conversation to have because up front they said, “Can the lead character speak with a British accent?” And I had never thought of that, that had never occurred to me before. Sarah in our original version of the story was not British. But the more I thought about that the more I realized that in fact that was a really cool thing for the character and really one of the main reasons was to differentiate her from everyone else. Like I worried a little bit about the audience being able to follow who was who. And certainly on paper before you begin to shoot, I kind of went if Sarah speaks with a British accent and she steps into the role of Beth and Beth is not British — Beth is American or North Generican — it’ll be really cool to see this British accent turn into an American accent. I thought that that was just a neat way to watch her become Beth and a nice way to differentiate Sarah from everyone else. Plus I have to say for me it opened up the world of the clones. It suddenly became a much bigger story. Potentially there are clones in Germany, there are clones in Europe, there are clones in North America. This isn’t all just happening in our backyard conveniently. And I think that that’s good for the overarching mystery of the show.
TATIANA: The identity of a person, for me, like in London, there’s so many different accents that so specifically say so much about you. Like the way you speak tells people how you were educated and what neighborhood you lived in. So I feel like it also comes right back to identity, doesn’t it?
Sarah’s trying so hard to hold on to her own life while pretending to be Beth. How hard is it going to be for her to keep it all together?
JOHN:Well that’s part of the story as the show sort of unreels itself. That’s part of the excitement of the show really. I mean, one of the things that I liked so much about the story was watching somebody thrust into someone else’s life, having to make it up as they go along and respond in the moment, trying to keep all the lives straight. And trying to charade her way through this life that she really knows nothing about. Then not only that, suddenly coming to the realization that the person that she’s inhabiting, the life that’s she’s inhabiting, and trying to fake her way through turns out to be a cop. So that just like suddenly ups the stakes and makes the level of her lies and the volume of this act that she’s having to put on just goes way up on it, and it’s exciting to watch. I love watching it all the sort of the close calls and how is she going to get out of this and how is she going to get though it, the, “Oh my God she’s busted!” and watching her worm her way out of various situations it’s part of the excitement of the show. And it’s kind of hopefully one of the big aspects to the series that will keep the viewers coming back episode after episode.
Things just don’t gets any easier really for Sarah, does it?
JOHN: No, it gets worse. The more questions we’ve answered. the more questions we pose. And I think it’s great too because I think the audience will really relate to her being lost . We will understand because their questions are her questions and so you always have an in with her. You’re on the journey with Sarah, for sure. There were lots of direction where I would give Tatiana the direction of, “Okay, so this is you’re really confused and this is like really in your head you’re going, ‘Well, what the fuck?’ Like you have to like cover it enough to make us believe that you’re not really confused. But there’s just got to be just that right amount of like, ‘I’m fucked, I’m fucked and I’m fucked.’”
When conceiving the idea of ORPHAN BLACK, what were some major inspirations when you were putting it all together?
JOHN: I’m trying to think of films or things that I was watching at the time that I know inspired — at least the storytelling aspect of it — at the time I had just seen “Memento.” And that was a long time ago. It was just about a character who was confused and flying by the seat of their pants in a mystery that was unraveling in real time almost. And the audience was kind of like in that mystery and seeing that mystery from the point of view of the main character, and not ahead of the main character. Just trying to like figure out along with the main character what the hell was going on. So I know “Memento” was definitely an inspiration. Other than the serialized sci-fi mystery aspect to this I think the thing that I was most excited about was the idea of there being multiple versions of this woman. And I got very excited about it, seeing a show, being able to be a part of a show where we could create all these different characters. Even still as we shot the show and we present the show it’s one of the most challenging difficult aspects to the series. But as I see things finished it’s one of the most exciting parts of ORPHAN BLACK. Every time there’s scenes with the clones where Tatiana’s playing multiple versions of herself, they’re always the scenes that you’re so fascinated by and so drawn to. And it’s what got me excited about the concept in the first place.
It seems that a big debate in TV nowadays about how to go about the storytelling process be it standalone or serialized, and seems like ORPHAN BLACK is leaning more towards the serialized. Is that something that you and your partner pushed with the show or are you kind of taking it as the story comes?
JOHN: No, no, it was absolutely part of the show. To me, because the show began life as a feature film. We couldn’t solve it in a 2 1/2 hour format and that was kind of what was a little bit frustrating to us in the first couple of years of developing it and why it sat on the shelf for a while until Graeme came back to me and said, “Hey, maybe we could solve this problem if this was a TV series rather than a feature film.” And at that point in my life I had always thought of myself as a filmmaker but around around 2007/2008 as we picked it up and started to develop it as a series I had been watching honestly more television than I had been watching feature films, and every stitch of television that I was watching was serialized cable shows for the most part other than LOST. Like even BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which I was a huge fan of, was a serialized show. Shows like SIX FEET UNDER, which had this great sense of comedy, this very dark sense of humor to them, which I really gravitated towards. I loved the idea that because this was a mystery each episode was a new chapter in a bigger story, much in the way LOST functioned. I think that one of the difficulties in creating a show — other than the obvious difficulties in terms of the that it’s just become such a complex huge story — is actually selling it. I mean, we had a very difficult time getting ORPHAN BLACK made because nobody wanted to make a serialized show. BBC America was really honestly the first network that came to us and said, “Not only do we love your show, we would make a serialized show with you. We want you to make the show you want to make.” And it was their love and belief in ORPHAN BLACK that allowed us to kick things off. We’re Canadians and we didn’t even have a Canadian distributor or network at the time. We had BBC America. It was really their love and support for it that allowed the show to become a reality.
Do you get to improv anything on set or they keep you pretty close to script?
TATIANA: Yes, I think the improv for me came in to character development. A lot of my improv experience had been in long form improv so storytelling over a longer form and very character based. So, for me, I think it was in exploring the characters in rehearsal and on my own and with Jordan Gavaris (who plays Felix) is where my improv came out. Because I don’t think if I didn’t have that base I would’ve been able to come up with specific behavior and physicality that was so different for each of the women. I think that’s where it really came in. And as much as it’s a TV show and we do stick to script, it never feels like we’re trying to churn out a product. It feels very alive. It feels very loose on set. Even though we need highly technical scenes where I’m playing opposite a clone of myself and I have to stick to a very specific technical routine or regime it still feels like there’s breath in it and there’s life in it and there’s space to play and be creative and that’s amazing. I mean, the first two episodes we shot with John directing, Jordan and I had these incredible long scenes where we got to just explore the characters together. I mean, the writing is there and it gave us that space. We said, “We feel like we’re doing a play” because we got to do these long takes and really develop that relationship. And I think as much as we stick to the script there’s improv between the moments.
JOHN: I have to say because we’re working on trying to finish episode 9, and there’s a really, really great bit of improvisation between you and Jordan that I kept in the cut.
Can you talk about how do you decide what to reveal and when? How does that evolve?
JOHN: There’s obviously the big picture. There’s the big picture of the series — the major, major questions, which are essentially like: Who am I? Where do I come from? Those are the larger questions, the identity questions in the show. But then there’s of course the season mystery which is, a little bit smaller. The world Sarah has sort of dropped in and catapulted into this world and this sort of rabbit hole sort of opens up for her. It really does truly become, “Do I take the red pill or the blue pill? Do I walk away from this now and just kind of try and ignore it, take the money and run? Take the money, my daughter and get the fuck out of town? Or am I going to stay and try and am I going to take the red pill and try and sort out what this bigger mystery is?” I think that it’s an interesting question because there are so many mysteries. And like right from the get go: Who’s killing the clones? Who is Maggie Chen? What occurred that night between Beth and Maggie Chen? I mean, there are all these questions that kind of beget and they change and morph through the course of the series. The more answers we get, the more we go seeking. As we get some answers, we get a whole bunch more questions. And I think that that’s kind of what’s exciting about it. That’s the thrill ride of this show, I think.
A lot of times in the U.S. the creators have like five-year plan for their shows. Is that something that you have also done for ORPHAN BLACK?
JOHN: Yes, we have that. I’ll tell you what we have. Graeme Manson, my creative partner, who is also the writer, and I’m sort of the director of the two of us and he’s sort of the writer of the two of us and we both sort of created the show together. Obviously knew what we wanted to do with season 1. Well I would say we kind of more or less really know what we want to with season 2, if we had the opportunity to do a season 2 of course. And beyond that I think we have the bigger picture and the end-game. It’s interesting creating a show like this because as much as I want to say, “No, we know exactly what we’re doing,” we don’t really. Like even with season 1, as we began season 1 from the get go we had three finished scripts and seven outlines that took us to the end of season 1. As you get into the show and you start to shoot it things change. Like you hire a guest cast and that cast comes in and you go, “Wow, they’re really great. I want to do more with them.” And as you write on the shows suddenly there’s a piece from episode 8 that you really want to pull up and put in episode 6. And things shift around. There’s structure to it but it is an organic process. As we were kind of coming up on episode 10 Graeme would say, “Do you really want to do that? Isn’t that painting us into a bit of a corner?” And I was always the one going, “Let’s paint ourselves in the corner because I find it creatively exciting to try and figure out how the hell to get out.” I actually like the thrill of not knowing to some degree. And I think that that’s what the audience wants to see too. I think they want to go, “What the hell? How is he going to solve this? How are they going to get themselves out of this? How is Sarah going to get through this and not get busted?” It’s something that I love to watch and I hope the show is a show that just continually keeps pulling the rug out from under the viewers’ feet.
Can you talk about how important it is that Sarah still has Felix (Jordan Gavaris) in her life?
TATIANA: Felix is Sarah’s heart. They’re each other’s everything. I mean, other than Kira in Sarah’s life, Felix is her family and who she wants to be with. They’re very much siblings in the sense that they need each other deeply and yet they use each other and they manipulate each other. And Felix is kind of an incredible sounding board too for all of Sarah’s fears and all of Sarah’s confusion and in a way sort of the calm in the craziness of her life.
What do you think your personal reaction would be if you ran into someone who looked exactly like you on the street?
TATIANA: I’d be like, “There’s only room for one of us.”
To see more of Sarah and her clones as they continue to unravel the bigger mystery, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of ORPHAN BLACK on Saturday nights at 9:00 p.m. on BBC America.
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