This past September, Regina-born actress Tatiana Maslany got another chance to finesse her red carpet skills when she made the rounds to promote her dramatic film Two Lovers and a Bear at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Walking the red carpet should be second nature to the star of Orphan Black, yet she describes the experience as jarring and, in some cases, “downright f*cking scary.” “Let’s just say [doing awards shows] feels like being at a cool person’s party and being one of the nerds,” she says. “Seeing Jennifer Lawrence walk by on the [Golden Globes] carpet, I’m like, ‘She’s cool. She gets it. She knows how to do this.’ I think of it as just another performance, but I’m still trying to figure it out.”
It’s a surprising admission from someone who has tackled more than eight roles on Orphan Black—including a tough-as-nails CEO named Rachel, a soccer mom named Allison, a psychotic murderer named Helena and a transgender ex-con named Tony. Her herculean efforts on the popular Space network series earned her two Emmy nominations and favourable reviews. The Guardian complimented her for “Olympic-level endurance acting,” and ThoughtCatalog.com wrote that she was so good at fooling people that perhaps “for the first year of his presidency, Obama was played by Tatiana Maslany.”
To inhabit these characters, Maslany says she leans on wardrobe and styling to help her understand her many personas. “When I first saw myself dressed as Helena in the mirror—I had these red eyes and I was wearing a huge Twisted Sister wig—I knew immediately who she was,” says Maslany. “There’s something so ‘othered’ about her—so not part of conventional society. I needed to tap into what it’s like to feel that.”
For her latest role, however, she only had to focus on one character. In Two Lovers and a Bear, she plays a young woman named Lucy who lives in Apex, a remote town in Nunavut. Like her partner, she has a troubled and abusive past that she is struggling to escape.
To prepare for the part, Maslany read about survivors of sexual abuse who flourished in spite of their history. There’s one pivotal moment in the film when Lucy goes through a cathartic breakdown in an abandoned military base. In the wrong hands, the scene could have read as pure melodrama, yet Maslany’s performance is compellingly authentic. “I wasn’t worried about getting it right so much as understanding it,” she says.
Maslany brings the same nuanced approach to her performance in Stronger—a film about the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. In the movie, which will be released next year, she plays Erin Hurley, a participant in the marathon and the girlfriend of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs while waiting at the finish line. To understand what Hurley experienced, Maslany spent time getting to know her over Pilates classes and lunches. Although she didn’t run in the marathon with Hurley this year, Maslany did cheer her on as she crossed the finish line.
While filming the marathon scene, Maslany recalls being incredibly touched by the extras who were running with her. “Some of them told me, ‘The movie means so much to the city.’ I obviously internalized that…I’ve never been afraid to feel big things.”
Maslany—who proudly identifies as a feminist—is not afraid to rebel against the “normal” expectations of young actresses either. “[When I first went to L.A.], I was drawn into this thing where I thought that I should lose weight, curl my hair, tweeze my moustache, whiten my teeth and wear more makeup [to get more parts],” she says. “My pride stopped me from all that. I realized I’ve always loved that I don’t look like everyone I see on television. I also don’t want to play perfect people or a conventional-looking person.”
“I realized I’ve always loved that I don’t look like everyone I see on television. I also don’t want to play perfect people or a conventional-looking person.”
— Tatiana Maslany
This sense of defiance came at an early age. “As a girl, you’re seen as silly and weak,” she says. “I didn’t want to be associated with that.” But with time, Maslany has tempered her view. “I’ve recognized so much internalized misogyny in my life [through] what I’ve done…especially in terms of how I look at other girls and at myself, and the way [I used to] consider feminine qualities to be lesser than masculine ones.”
She also acknowledges that living in Canada has positively shaped her world view. “There’s something about our politics and our lack of extremism that has contributed to a gentler society,” she says. “This resonates with me. I feel like [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau has done such great work in setting a tone for the country just by being who he is.” Maslany applauds Trudeau for not only his feminist sentiments but also speaking openly about mental illness in his family. “It’s this kind of vulnerability that makes him an amazing prime minister,” she says. “He can be vulnerable and a leader. Who’s doing that nowadays? Nobody. What he’s doing in terms of advocating for indigenous women who have gone missing [is also important]. He’s tackling things that have needed to be tackled for a long time.”
Another man who has positively influenced Maslany is her boyfriend, actor Tom Cullen (a.k.a. Lady Mary’s love interest on Downton Abbey). The pair met when the Welsh actor starred with Maslany in a miniseries called World Without End; they later co-starred in a film called The Other Half. “At the beginning, I was terrified at the prospect of working with him [on The Other Half]. I was just self-conscious,” she says. “When you’re opposite somebody who respects you as an artist, knows you deeply and wants to play with you…that’s all you can ask for. He’s someone whose bullshit meter is so high that you can’t lie to him.”
“When you’re opposite somebody who respects you as an artist, knows you deeply and wants to play with you…that’s all you can ask for.”
— Tatiana Maslany
There have also been several important women in her life who shared insights that she cherishes. Helen Mirren (with whom she starred in Woman in Gold) taught Maslany about “maintaining a quiet elegance and total confidence” with characters. Amy Poehler, with whom Maslany worked on Parks and Recreation, showed her how to be a powerhouse. “Since I was a kid, I’ve watched Amy on SNL,” she says. “She did the weirdest characters and was this tiny little thing that was so bold and brave and hilarious. She’s my hero [because of that and because] she fosters a community of young women. She’s the reason Broad City is around!” Maslany also had the opportunity to work alongside Quebec’s Suzanne Clément in The Other Half. “I’ve always felt that [Suzanne] has this huge lack of vanity, which can be rare for an actor,” she says. “She was on set every day with her full heart, open, going, ‘This is so fun! Oh, my God, I love working!’ It was like she’d never done it before. She has this beginner’s openness. It’s something I want to make sure I never lose either.”
With Maslany’s dramatic range and unabashed curiosity, it’s hard to fathom that this actor will lose herself to the superficial—or traditional—side of Hollywood. Instead, her chameleonic ways and her empathetic process could mark the beginning of a new rising force in film.