After juggling the nuances of numerous clones on TV’s “Orphan Black,” Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany tried to strike a different balance for the Boston Marathon bombing drama “Stronger.”
The Regina-raised actress plays Erin Hurley, a real person who helped her boyfriend Jeff Bauman through physical therapy and drinking problems after he lost his legs in the explosion more than four years ago.
Preparing for the part left her confronting the “emotional tricky territory” of Hurley’s actual life, she said, and deciding how to navigate between truth and interpretation. Lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Bauman in the film, was experiencing similar apprehension about his role.
“Jake often talks about this fraudulent feeling because we’re only interpreting a story that somebody actually went through,” she said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
“(But) I wasn’t seeking to do an impression of her … There’s a point where it’s about the script as opposed to paying homage to the real people.”
“Stronger” is based on Bauman’s 2014 memoir, which recounts the battle with his own demons while the public is painting him as a hero. Hurley is present throughout much of the tumult, often serving as Bauman’s emotional support or a staggering dose of reality.
Many of the film’s most intense moments play out between Gyllenhaal and Maslany as she pressures him to focus on his recovery, while he spirals into alcoholism and ignores his post-traumatic stress disorder. Gyllenhaal spent considerable time in Boston studying Bauman’s physical movements, but trying to accurately capture his physical pain wasn’t easy.
“Every time I think about the preparation for this role I sort of knew I was set out to fail,” the actor said.
“I would never be able to get close to the pain or understand it really … There’s no pretending that would touch the real thing.”
Oscar prognosticators, however, seem convinced that Gyllenhaal pulled it off. He’s been widely touted as one of the contenders for this year’s best actor race. Maslany smiles when asked about the awards buzz. She says she can’t help but draw parallels with the movie, where the word “hero” is tossed around by outsiders who knew little about what happened when the spotlight turned off.
“The film we’re doing talks about all that noise on the outside,” she said. “There’s this weird duality to the two things.”
“Stronger” opens in theatres on Friday.
Press: How Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany ran as close to ‘the real thing’ as possible in Stronger
When Tatiana Maslany first learned she’d been cast opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in the biopic Stronger, she started running. She still hasn’t stopped.
The Canadian actress, famous for five seasons of Orphan Black, stars in Stronger as Erin Hurley, who was running the Boston Marathon in 2013 when terrorists detonated two bombs near the finish line. Hurley wasn’t hurt, but her boyfriend, Jeff Bauman (played by Gyllenhaal), lost both legs in the attack.
Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Stronger had its world premiere, Maslany says she was able to spend time with Hurley, and also credits a strong screenplay by John Pollono, itself based on a book by Bauman. But running was a big part of getting into the part.
“I ran every morning, and that was this meditative time that I could just be in that character and daydream and imagine,” she says. “Every time I do, she invariably pops into my head – the character and real Erin.”
She continues to run today. “It would be cool to be able to be at the point where I wasn’t fighting being in my body,” she says. “Because right now it’s just coming up against the limits of what I’m able to do.”
Gyllenhaal faced his own challenges, playing an able-bodied man who becomes a double-amputee. “The pain I knew I would never be able to get close to,” he says. “Every time I think about the preparation for this role, I sort of knew I was set out to fail. There’s nothing I could get at by pretending that was going to touch the real thing.”
Even so, he studied not just the consequences of amputation, but all the procedures and processes around it. “I could understand the effects on the body,” he says. “I could understand the effects of the painkillers on the body, even the pallor of one’s skin and what those drugs do to you during recovery.”
Humour helped, both on the set and in the finished film. (In a laugh-out-loud moment drawn from real life, Bauman’s first statement in hospital, after asking “Is Erin OK?” is a reference to Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan character in Forrest Gump, who also loses both legs.)
Maslany also remembers the day she had a throwaway scene that involved asking a waitress if she could settle her bill. Director David Gordon Green decided not to make it easy.
“He just kept giving her these weird-ass lines to say to me. It was the simplest scene and she was a day player – he didn’t have to do that. But I think he’s so intrigued by what any moment could open up, and what any off-kilter thing could do to the performance. He keeps you off-kilter all the time. It’s a really great way to work. You never know what’s going to come at you and you never know how you’re going to react to it.”
If you love Tatiana Maslany’s work on Orphan Black, then you have something in common with filmmaker David Gordon Green.
Green — who raves about the show — cast Maslany, 31, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in the film Stronger.
It opens Friday.
Stronger tells the true story of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. Jeff Bauman (played by Gyllenhaal) was waiting at the finish line for his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley, to finish running the Boston Marathon in 2013. When the terrorist bombs went off, Bauman’s legs were destroyed and had to be amputated at the knee. Hurley (played by Maslany) then came back into Bauman’s life to help him recover, and their relationship was renewed.
The film is a study in courage. Maslany is a Canadian treasure. An actor since she was a schoolgirl, the Regina native has appeared in such films as Picture Day, Cas & Dylan, Woman In Gold, The Other Half and Two Lovers and a Bear; besides Orphan Black, Maslany has also appeared in such TV series as Heartland, Captain Canuck and Being Erica.
We spoke to the actress when she attended TIFF to support Stronger.
What sort of additional pressure is on you when you play a real person, such as Erin Hurley?
I met Erin, and had interaction with her, and discussed things with her and got her perspective, but with any part you have to approach it with a sense of ownership over the story. And ownership over who this character is to you. For me, it was about understanding her energy, strength and stamina, but also interpreting it my way, and sort of, putting the questions in my mind: ‘What would I do? How would I cope? Would I be able to do this? What would my doubts be?’
Did you actually take up running to play Erin?
I started running as soon as I got the part … I got nowhere near to being able to run the distance Erin is able to run, but it was a great lesson in my body’s limits and what it takes to be able run a marathon. The mental and physical stamina of that informed me a lot about her, and who she is. She ran the marathon again when we were there filming, not on a whim, obviously, but she decided on a Friday to run it on a Monday, where most people decide a year before and train. There’s some strength in her, some spirit, that’s so powerful she was able to finish this enormous feat. She wasn’t even sweating at the end and she wasn’t sore the next day. There’s something unbelievable about that.
How do you prepare for such a hugely emotional role?
When you have scene partners like Miranda [Richardson] and Jake [Gyllenhaal], it’s not to say easy, but it’s a joyful exploration. It’s effortless in the sense that it’s all about listening and reacting, and just being there.
Did you take anything away from playing Erin?
I continued to run, and continued to use that as a meditative thing. It’s the only time I’ll let my head get semi-quiet, and it always reminds me of Erin. I think of her every time I run.
Something about that is always going to be connected to her.
In September of 2016, Tatiana Maslany won an Emmy. To those unfamiliar with the actor or her show, Orphan Black, this might not have seemed like a particularly huge deal. But for everyone who’d spent the last several years watching Maslany deliver work stellar enough to label her, often, “the best actress on TV,” the Emmy felt like a symbol: finally, finally, she was getting the kind of love and recognition her fans had always known she deserved. Perhaps after this awards night, we thought, everyone would realize how good an actor she is, and be drawn to movies and TV shows simply because she is in them — except that’s not actually what Maslany really wants.
“That you can forget that this is even an actor… that is what I seek to do,” she says, sitting down in Bustle’s studio on a mid-September day. If Maslany sounds, well, actorly, don’t be surprised; although it’s no secret that she has a comedic side, as shown by her scene-stealing turn on Parks & Rec and her friendship with funny people like Amy Schumer, the 32-year-old typically has the kind of serious, introspective demeanor that goes hand-in-hand with the dark sci-fi show she’s best known for.
That attitude is certainly fitting for Maslany’s new movie, Stronger, a powerful, often-heartbreaking drama about Jeff Bauman, the Boston Marathon survivor who lost both his legs in the 2013 terrorist attacks. In the film, Maslany plays Erin Hurley, Jeff’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, and the actor talks about Erin with a kind of quiet awe. Maslany felt a “huge responsibility” to do Erin right, she says; as soon as she learned she got the part, she began running, hoping to connect with her character on a deeper level. Whether audiences watching Stronger will sense that commitment is out of her hands, of course, but talking to Maslany, one gets the sense that if she could tell every viewer about what she’s learned from Erin and why this story matters, she would. “I don’t think I’ll ever let go of this film,” she says, gravity in her voice.
The afternoon we talk, Maslany is dressed for a photoshoot — her hair is styled, her outfit is precise, and her Nike sneakers are in a bag waiting for her after she’s done with her impressively tall heels. I’ve interviewed her before, so I know what the actor’s personality (at least with reporters) is like, but that doesn’t mean her constant intensity doesn’t still throw me off, at least a bit. She seems comfortable around journalists — doing press for five seasons of Orphan Black likely trained her well — but that comedic side, those easy laughs? Until she tells me a funny story at the end of our interview involving a chance hotel encounter, confused Hollywood agents, and Schumer naming her dog after her, that can’t help but make both of us crack up, Maslany is all seriousness, all the time.
For her acting, at least, this is a good thing. In order to give the kind of performances so great, and so deep, that fans forget they’re even watching her on-screen, Maslany can’t mess around. What she wants, she tells me, is “where your work speaks for itself, and the awards stuff doesn’t matter — it’s more about, ‘holy sh*t, this person took me on a ride and I didn’t even realize they were doing that to me.'” But for her regular life, that intensity acts a bit as a wall, at least from reporter to subject. Every time I ask her a question, she takes a few moments to think things through, and then she provides an answer that, even if natural, sounds practiced and formal. You can see that she is determined to get things right, even if it means that she sometimes comes off as enigmatic as some of the clones on Orphan Black.
For some actors, that Emmy and years worth of glowing reviews would be enough to soothe their anxiety or get them to loosen up in front of press; not Maslany, though. It goes hand-in-hand with her feelings about the way audiences perceive her on-screen, or rather, the way they don’t. Maslany, she makes clear, doesn’t want you to go to movies or watch television shows to see her — if she had her way, you probably wouldn’t even notice she was in a piece of work until the credits rolled. During our conversation, she points to her co-star in the new movie Stronger, Jake Gyllenhaal, whose portrayal of Jeff is impressively convincing, as an example. “That commitment to one character, and so completely believing that that’s him… that’d be amazing,” Maslany says with relish.
For those of you who watched her superb work on Orphan Black, it might seem like she has already accomplished just that. After all, her performances as up to four or five different clones in a single episode were so transformative that forgetting that it was Maslany playing each character became a running joke among fans. So after five years of winning every piece of acclaim imaginable, why wouldn’t Maslany just, well, take a break?
Because, as just one afternoon with Maslany makes perfectly clear, “taking a break” is simply not in her DNA. Even while she was busy playing clone after clone on Orphan Black, she was starring in movies like Woman in Gold, where she spoke German as a young Helen Mirren, and The Other Half, which earned her rave reviews for her portrayal of a bipolar woman. Even now, in her post-Orphan life, she’s not standing still. Maslany has Stronger and a few other films in the works, as well as an indie movie she’s developing with her partner, Tom Cullen.
Clearly, lazy isn’t in Maslany’s vocabulary, even if her constant workload means she’s always making life harder for herself than it probably needs to be. “I’m selfishly drawn to these challenges,” she explains. “That’s kind of what I sign up for in a way… I’ve just never wanted to [take it easy].” Even with Orphan Black, Maslany says she had a hard time accepting the praise, because she was always convinced that she could’ve done something deeper, or sharper, or simply better.
“I don’t think that the noise of Orphan Black or any of that is in any way connected to what we do on a daily basis, which is always full of fear and always full of doubt and contradiction,” she tells me. “I don’t super buy into the noise, because I know myself and I go, ‘OK, yeah but that’s a trick, or that’s something I could’ve dug deeper into.’ It’s a constantly evolving thing — I never feel like, ‘oh yes, now I’m at some level that is different from where I was before.'”
Stronger, though, threw Maslany for a loop. The drama, out Sept. 22, is the biggest film the actor has done to date, and getting to star alongside veterans like Gyllenhaal and Miranda Richardson was “uncharted” territory for her. Maslany may have been up for the challenge — but even for her, the combination of playing a real person who often came to set and whose opinions she valued, and of starring in the film alongside highly respected actors, was overwhelming.
“Stepping onto set with Jake and David [Gordon Green, the director] and Miranda, I was a beginner again,” she says now. “And I’m going, ‘oh sh*t, OK, this is the level. I had major doubts going into that.”
Maslany admits that she knew little about Jeff and Erin’s story before signing onto the movie, and the details of their journey — their commitment to one another during Jeff’s recovery, their struggles with the media’s perception of their relationship and the unwanted fame Jeff’s injuries brought — stayed with her long after she finished filming. The same can be said for Orphan Black. Talking about the series, which came to an end this past August, Maslany can’t help but wax poetic. “Looking back on it now, the amount of roles I was able to play pales in comparison to the impact certain roles had on people,” she tells me. “In terms of Cosima’s resonance with the LGBTQ community, young women and men, people seeing themselves represented… that to me, I think, is the legacy.”
“The show sheds light on people who don’t necessarily always have a voice and gives them a voice that is complex and flawed and human,” she continues. “Especially young women [who are] kind of pitched against each other and made to compete for the small spaces that we’re able to take up.”
Although Orphan Black’s finale might’ve come as a shock to fans, Maslany has been processing the show’s end for years. A critical favorite but not exactly a ratings smash, Orphan Black spent five seasons as a series whose future its stars and creators could never take for granted. Yet for the actor, that constant unpredictability wasn’t an issue; in fact, unsurprisingly, it feeds her. “I’ve never known what was coming down the pipeline — I’ve never known what was next,” she says. “And I kind of love that. I like being surprised and seeing something and being like, ‘oh god, I want that so bad.’ And then fighting for it, somehow.”
Right now, Maslany’s future is actually pretty certain. There’s the producing gig, which she’s clearly excited about; although she’s been a producer in the past, on Orphan Black’s final seasons and The Other Half, this new film will give her more control than ever before. “It’s cool to get to have a bit of say in the development of something, to get to tell the story that we’re excited about,” she says with evident happiness.
And there are all those other films ahead of her, one she’s already signed on for and ones that’ll inevitably come her way soon enough. Maslany may not want anyone to think of her when they watch her movies, but it’ll be hard not to, with so many opportunities coming down the line. But if anyone’s willing to prove people wrong and take on that kind of challenge, it’s Maslany — after all, she’s managed time and time again to earn our love, even while disappearing right in front of our eyes.
I’ve added new photos of Tatiana on the Today show from today promoting Stronger to the gallery and additional press conference photos of Stronger. Thanks so much to my very good friend Mary.
I’ve added many missing Portraits of Tatiana from TIFF, SDCC (2016), S/Style Magazine, and Emmys (2016). I’ve also added some missing scans and over 75 high quality more photos of her from the 2017 Emmy Awards this past weekend. Thanks to my friends Mary and Emily for their donations.
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2017: TIFF Portraits – Screencaps
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2017: S / Style
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