Call them the small screen’s masters of disguise. Tatiana Maslany has played 11 unique characters, and counting, on the sci-fi thriller “Orphan Black,” and Matthew Rhys has donned well over a dozen alternate identities as undercover KGB spy Philip Jennings on “The Americans.” And yet despite significant critical acclaim for their work from the very beginning, it took Emmy voters awhile to catch on. Maslany earned her first nom last year in her third season, while Rhys finally broke through this year in season four. Variety introduced the Canadian-born actress and Welsh-born actor by phone, while she was in Prague and he was in Brooklyn. Together they reflect on what it’s like to play roles within roles, prepare for their respective final seasons, and be “snubbed.”
Congratulations on the Emmy nominations this year. Both of you had a few years of people saying you were “snubbed.” And how does actually getting nominated compare?
Maslany: I didn’t feel snubbed by any means. The category for female perfor-
mances right now is so strong and what’s happening in television is so exciting, I didn’t feel like I’d been snubbed. But it’s so nice that people cared about it like that, and to know that the fans were upset. But by no means was it my intention to be nominated for something. I don’t know how you felt Matthew?
Rhys: I felt completely snubbed and outraged that we were being overlooked in such a way. I was just willing “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” to fail miserably so we might have a shot at a nomination [laughs]. No. I think we’re both in similar situations whereby the amount of time we’ve put in now has accumulated a very strong backstory. All the foundation work you plant in the early seasons pay off in stronger storylines deep into our seasons. I think that only aids in performance. It all just helps.
Maslany: Do you find your character has shifted over the years? I see so much growth in him and change.
Rhys: Absolutely, we’re fortunate to have these massive arcs that make for more potent storylines. Would you say the same?
Maslany: Yeah, definitely. I feel like also because people have responded positively, and we have an audience, there’s more space for us to take risks and test the characters a bit. We have trust from the audience and they’re willing to go on more complex stories. At the beginning I feel like it’s about trying to establish an audience, and make sure people are watching. When you get to settle into it and fit in those moments it’s different.
Rhys: I think both shows ask a lot of the audience. We ask the audience to make big leaps of faith to come with us. By now we both have a very strong, very unique fanbase. You can push their limits and boundaries, which is exciting and a great opportunity.
Did you get the feeling that industry awareness of your shows grew as the seasons went on?
Maslany: You know, our show’s Canadian, and that doesn’t always translate over the border. We’re really lucky we had a few things that gave us the visibility. Whether that was fans forcing people to watch the show or critics taking note of it and being interested and putting it out there. But I feel like we happened into it, we’re quite fortunate to have the viewership we do. And this recognition, it’s kind of surreal to us being a Canadian show.
Rhys: I’m never sure what planets need to align for any of these things to happen. We certainly don’t have a very big audience, but we’ve been fortunate in the critics that have liked us. That’s aided us over the years. And a small amount of press pressure has helped our cause. But with the kind of shows we have, once you have a fan they’re quite loyal. We’ve been fortunate that some of those are present in the press.
Looking back to when you first got these roles, did you have any sense they might change your life and career?
Maslany: No. Not at all [laughs].
Rhys: Did the creators give you an idea of the amount of characters you’d be playing?
Maslany: They sort of grew as the seasons went on. Even the first season, I auditioned three or four of the characters, by the fourth episode they’d already added another and by the end of the season another. It was a total surprise to me. I don’t know how far in advance you know what the storyline is? Do you know from the beginning of the season or are they writing as they shoot?
Rhys: Last year was the first year whereby they had the entire season mapped out very meticulously and this season will be the same again. The first three seasons — the first one and two especially — were done on the hoof, finding it as we were making it. There was no real plan as to the amount of characters we would play, that all came on a weekly basis. How much did they ask you to define the different characters? How much was it yours and how much was theirs?
Maslany: It’s always been a collaboration. The first five characters were pretty solid and kind of already defined, but they always had an open-door policy. I fought hard to have certain characters be from a different place, to give them a class distinction or something like that. I try to work in those details. It’s always been a very open-door policy. Do you have any say in where your character is heading or the choices he makes?
Rhys: No, very little. There’s a very specific mandate in the intelligence world, especially from Joe Weisberg, the creator, who is a former CIA operative himself. The great temptation for me, as an actor, is to be as transformative or chameleon-like as possible. But in the intelligence world you’re trying to stay as close to the truth as possible. Characterization shouldn’t veer far from who you are. You don’t want to stand out, you don’t want people to see that you’re playacting. Any lie should be as close to the truth as possible. They’re always encouraging you to not go for any exaggeration, it should always remain incredibly close to who you are so you don’t stand out. It seems like it’s the opposite for you, the range and scope is far more open.
Maslany: For sure in finding the differences and exaggerating the differences. But I find that has also fallen away as we’ve been able to be more still in the storyline, when it boils down to more character interactions.
You both are often faced with the unique challenge of playing people playing other people. Is that one of the toughest things to do as an actor or is it easier than you’d think?
Rhys: Have you ever seen Anthony Hopkins in “Remains of the Day” where he has such an enormous inner obstacle and he lets the audience see it but no one else? To me that’s one of the greatest challenges. You want to allow the audience in to show the inner monologue that’s going on, without the characters in the scene seeing the inner workings of what’s going on.
Maslany: My favorite stuff is those kind of layered character on character [scenes], but I also find it to be weirdly embarrassing on set. You’re trying to not give anything away, but at the same time there are cracks that show. It always feels quite out of control. There’s a conflict inside you, a duality.
Rhys: That for me is the more interesting and equal parts difficult thing to play. But 99% of the time I’m embarrassed on set. That’s a given.
How much does the technical stuff — costumes, hair — help your performance?
Rhys: Tatiana, do you have a big choice in the physical appearance? Do you work with the hair and makeup people?
Maslany: It’s super collaborative. We often come up with the look together. Or there are certain characters that the creators wanted a certain way, and the hair and makeup team have a total contrary [idea] to what was assigned, and that’s so interesting to me. Every day in the hair and makeup trailer there’s something new we’re working on, changing how a character is growing or bringing a totally new person in. Do you have the same kind of say?
Rhys: Yes and no. There’s a lot of trying on different wigs and looks and glasses and facial hair in the makeup trailer. But ultimately the look always ends with our two creators. If they don’t think it’s right, they’ll say as much and it will change. They are very open, but the say is ultimately with them. What we present to them, that process is very collaborative. There’s a lot of different looks tried and opinions voiced. It’s an army of opinions until you get there.
Maslany: And do you stand there in the new disguise and get picked apart? The execs come in and look at you like a painting or a sketch?
Rhys: Yeah, that’s definitely one part of the embarrassment of it all.
You’re both very funny even though your shows are generally dramatic. Do you ever have the urge to jump into comedy?
Maslany: Didn’t you do an animated voice recently?
Rhys: Oh, “Archer”? That was purely because I was on a bus with a lot of FX people. It was taking a very long time, and I was drunk in the back with the “Archer” creators. They asked me about Wales, and I told them a story that they turned into an episode of “Archer.” That’s how it came about. It was very fortuitous to happen on a drunken bus ride that FX put on. Do you find that you’ll layer in comedy and lightness and then in the final edit it’s taken out?
Maslany: I feel like it’s often the opposite. The creators have such a dark sense of humor. The scene can be so funny that I try to play against it to add some kind of tension. But there are the characters that go so big and I do get carried away, that’s so much fun. On “The Americans” the situations can be so absurd sometimes that there must be that sense of playfulness.
Rhys: In those moments, with both shows, it’s such a heightened reality. Absurd is a good word. You walk this fine line of absurdity at all times, if there’s a moment you can almost acknowledge it I think it lets the audience in a little more. They become part of it, you make them aware of how crazy this all is.
“Orphan Black” has one season left and “The Americans” has two. Is there excitement in bringing the story to a close?
Maslany: I’m super sad to have it finish because it’s been such a dream job, but it’s nice to know there’s a conclusion. We can head toward something and the plug hasn’t been pulled before we were ready to finish the story. I think it’s gonna be a very fun season in terms of wrapping things up and finding answers to questions that we’ve been posing for seasons now. I’m sure it’ll be very emotional for all of us because we’ve really become a family on the show.
Rhys: I love the fact that we have two seasons and we can work very specifically to a determined end. Our sixth season is a shortened season, you hope you’ll go out punchy and not ring the towel dry and peter out slowly. It’s an opportunity to write to a strong end, which is always good.
Do either of you already know storylines for your final seasons?
Maslany: I know nothing.
Rhys: I know even less than nothing. They give us an arc at the beginning of the season, and a strong idea to what will happen. But we have no idea about the next two seasons. I’ve pitched a number of my own ideas but they didn’t take.
Any you can share?
Rhys: They were all rejected. I was of the opinion that ultimately we’d be turned by Stan Beeman next door and become double agents, or even triple agents. But they didn’t go for that.
Tatiana, do the showrunners tell you more at this point?
Maslany: I’m definitely more in the loop than I used to be, but I also feel like the show is quite creatively written. While we’re shooting, things will change and be sort of malleable. This time I think there’s a strong idea of where we’re heading, but they do keep things open to new characters taking bigger parts, or that sort of thing.
What are you most looking forward to at the Emmys?
Rhys: Meeting Liev Schreiber.
Maslany: I’m pretty excited to meet Gaby Hoffmann. That would be cool.
Rhys: The red carpet fills me with dread.
Maslany: Me too. Bring food. That’s what I have to remember this year.
Rhys: Because it’s so long?
Maslany: Yes, and there were like four hamburgers and they got eaten right away.