This Saturday at 9PM, BBC America debuts its second original series, Orphan Black. A science fiction thriller, Orphan Black follows a young woman named Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), who is returning home after ten months away to try to reclaim custody of her daughter, who is being raised by Sarah’s own foster mother, when she witnesses another young woman, Beth, commit suicide at a train station. If that wasn’t unsettling enough, the other woman shares Sarah’s face. And as Sarah, desperate for cash, appropriates the dead woman’s identity, apartment—and as it turns out, the police department review she’s under for an unjustified shooting of a civilian—she learns that she doesn’t just have a twin: there are a disturbing number of other women wearing Sarah’s face.
I spoke to Maslany about the challenge of playing multiple characters in a single show, how viewers relate to unsympathetic female characters, and how science fiction depicts the near future and handles class. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In Orphan Black, you’ve got a core role playing Sarah, but you have to portray a number of other women as well. Was that one of the things that drew you to the series?
Absolutely…They’re all compelling, they’re all complex, they’re all very different. Sarah was definitely my entry point into the series. What fascianted me about her so much was her extreme flaws that were right out there, her behavior that was completely immoral and self-absorbed, always defending herself. What’s fascinating to me is she’s got that beautiful heart as well. She completely wants to be a mother to her daughter, and every part of her upbringing is saying she can’t do that, and she’s not worthy of that. It’s a really nice tension to play. And to get into all the other characters, each has a different worldview, and that’s how I approached them. How do they see the world? Is it a fearful place? is it fascinating? Do they love people?
Was part of the appeal the opportunity to build audience sympathy for an unlikeable female character? Men get to be anti-heroes far more often.
Yeah, that’s what I love about it. I think, for me, it was unlike any character I’d seen on screeen, any female character especially. She’s not immediately likable. She’s not good or bad. She’s very much an animal of impulse and instinct, of self-preservation and survival. People can relate to that. There’s something glamorous abou people on Breaking Bad or whatever, because I think it tapes into the darker parts of ourselves that we don’t get to experience on a day to day basis, or that society tells us is bad. And I think that’s what’s so compelling about Sarah. We’re all so flawed. we’re all like that. We’re all bad people sometime. It’s a matter of circumstance, it’s a matter of our rsesponse to the world and what it’s told us about who we can be and who we are. She’s really grown up in a world of hostility and violence. I’m happy that she gets to be the protagonist, that her action saren’t condemned.
Do you think that audiences are more comfortable with male anti-heroes because they don’t reflect back on us? None of us are going to cook meth to deal with our own insecurities, but we might be bad friends, or indecisive, or weak, or bad mothers, ways that female characters are often painted as flawed.
It’s way more personal. I think the mother relationship is extremely personal to so many people. I’m not a mother, but I have extreme feelings about it. Whether you’re a mother or not, I think women have an understanding of that relationship. I think, yeah, there’s something interesting in the kind of crone aspects of things, where we see different variations on who I could have been and who I am. It’s an external manifestation of that identity crisis. Whether people can relate to Sarah’s dreams of bein ga mother and not being able to do that, or Alison’s stranglehold on her life, none of it is glamorous, none of it is outside of reality. As much as it’s a sci-fi show, it’s so personal.
What about the role of the foster care system in the show? It’s how Sarah gets close to her foster-brother, and it’s clearly shaped her significantly as a character.
Sarah, also being form the UK and London specifically, and from a working class perspective, you can tell by someone’s accent in the UK where they came form, what school they went to, how they were educated. She was immediately pinopointed as an outsider. To have somebody like that as a protagonist and as someone going through this…She kind of uses that as an entry point….You can relate to the psychology of belonging, or having a place that’s yours. When presented with these other women, there’s a a chance she could belong somewhere, a sense that she could have, in some way, a family. I think she’s resistant to that because she doesn’t have that structure in her life. It’s the reason she can’t stay still with Felix. She has to run away…When she assumes Beth’s life, she sees not as a woman who killed herself, but who had money, a beautiful apartment, a boyfriend, who had her life together on paper…she starts to empathize with Beth. She starts to understand herself better through being Beth and through the complexity of someone else’s life. She could go, she has everything.
But she also learns that money doesn’t protect you. Beth may have her life together on paper, but she also killed someone on duty, and is suicidal.
Exactly. But she never would have known that had she seen that life from the outside. It’s kind of an ease, it comes back to the other women she meets. There’s a way that we see people from the outside that lets us define them and not have to touch them. I don’t have to be vulnerable with you, I don’t have to be intimate with you. Sarah, I don’t think she’s been intimate with everyone in the emotional sense. It’s very much about power. That’s another cool thing, coming to know all these other versions of herself. She actually gets to know them. We start to get to see that.
Tell me about the pace at which the sci-fi elements of the show are going to be revealed. Through the first two episodes I was struck by the way the show uses those elements in service of Sarah’s upbringing and self-image, rather than trying to impress us with flashy mythology.
Yeah, to me, it’s a more human way of going at it. We’re following Sarah, who is not part of that world, who does not have any frame of reference for what the sci-fi side of this world is, for what the scientific implications are. She’s seeing it from the human level, which is: “I’m totally lost, I’m confused, who am I?” To me, that’s what I love about it. I never really thought, as much as it is sci-fi show, I always thought of it as a character piece. Unraveling the character within the context of clones. It’s for me about the personal implications and how it changes the women and how it changes the people around them. We have episodes that get more sci-fi heavy and that are more into that zone. But the cool thing is, it’s always about not-too-far-away potential science. It’s like the present day. Cloning has been happening. It’s not a new phenomenon. What it raises in such an interesting way is where science, religion, humanity, what’s in our control, what is not for us to touch?