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Here’s How Tatiana Maslany Gets Into Character While Shooting Orphan Black

10 minute read

Tatiana Maslany is hungry. “One second, I’m just ordering a sandwich,” the 29-year-old actress says one morning in March, just a few days before wrapping production on the third season of Orphan Black. Coincidentally, she was just explaining how she keeps her energy up while playing half a dozen clones—often onscreen at the same time—as the star of the BBC America cult sci-fi drama. When we resume a few moments later (sandwich successfully acquired), Maslany apologizes profusely, but there’s no need. After all, nobody who’s witnessed Maslany’s masterful (not to mention exhausting) work as she juggles the clones’ distinct personalities would ever stand between the actress and some much-needed fuel.

TIME caught up with the actress to talk about what’s in store for season three (premiering April 18), keeping track of the show’s many plot twists and why she’d “absolutely kill” to see a Broad City and Orphan Black crossover episode.

TIME: I wasn’t sure which clone was going to pick up the phone.

Tatiana Maslany: Yeah, some people aren’t sure what to expect—I’m super Canadian.

None of the clones have your actual voice?

Not really. We play with a lot of different vocal shifts, dialects. It’s really fun to explore that.

Do you ever just pick up the phone as Helena?

When I’m in a bad mood, maybe! Or if I’m hungry.

You went into a bit of seclusion after the first season of Orphan Black because you were so drained, but this time you headed right into production on a movie, Two Lovers and a Bear. How on earth do you survive?

It’s just the fact that this next script is so exciting, I can’t not do it, no matter how exhausted I am. Anything else I might have passed on, but it’s an amazing script that’s so beautiful and imaginative. I just couldn’t turn it down. It’s a director named Kim Nguyen, and I’m working opposite an amazing actor, Dane Dehaan. It’s an amazing opportunity.

With the introduction of the male clones at the end of last season, you must be happy to share the burden a little bit.

I was just happy for Ari [Millen]. It’s such a fun challenge as an actor to do this many parts and stretch yourself in this way. It definitely crossed my mind that I would have a couple days off, which wasn’t a bad thing! But he’s really taking it on and made it his own. It’s been awesome to watch him do it.

Did you give him any advice or tips?

We definitely talked about it. He came to set to watch the clone dance party. We discussed the tracking of it, but he doesn’t need any advice. He’s a trained actor and has done a lot of work! It wasn’t about copying another process or anything like that, and I don’t think he would ever have done that. It was just making sure he had ownership over the role and over the responsibility of it. He’s done such amazing work.

Whenever they add another for you, are you like, “Come on, guys, another one?”

Of course it’s a lot of work, but it’s always fun to introduce somebody new. That’s why I took the job! I love character work. I love exploring that stuff. I’m always thrilled. Daunted, but super thrilled.

Is there a carrying capacity for the number of clones the show can handle?

I think it’s a matter of making sure each is unique and each has a reason to be there. Then I’m good to keep going on and on and on and see how much we can mine from this concept. As long as they’re not popping up to be killed or something to be tossed on the side — as long as they each have their own life — then I think they can go on forever.


Orphan Black Sarah and Helena
TIME Exclusive: Orphan Black clones Helena and Sarah.BBC America /

What rituals do you have to get into the mindset of each character?

It’s different every time. When I first started working on the characters, there was a lot of intellect that went into breaking them down. The physical work has stuck around for me: changing tension in my body, changing rhythms internally or with music or with animals—anything that will inspire me to move in a different way or carry my body differently.

Wait, animals? Like hanging out with dogs?

I walk dogs in my spare time! No, it’s more like using behavior of animals to inform a character. When I first started working with Alison [an uptight soccer mom clone], it was a lot of work with the idea of a bird — the way a bird moves, how a bird might hold their body up. It became something that was then subconscious. I wasn’t thinking about being a bird or whatever, just using that physicality to inspire me differently.

Does each character have their own animal?

Sometimes. For Sarah, there was lion stuff or rat stuff. Music has always been a big one for me — anything allowing for different physicalities to manifest.

What songs do you use for each character?

In the first season, for Sarah, it was a lot of U.K. grime rap, the Clash and M.I.A.—anything that felt like it was coming from the U.K. that had that vibe. With Helena, it was a mix of Tom Waits and Antony and the Johnsons. Cosima was kind of electro, like Grimes. Who else do we have? Alison was always show tunes. She’s consistently been show tunes.

What do you do for Rachel?

Rachel was anything that made me feel sexy. It was R&B usually.

Interesting — I think of R&B as being so loose, yet Rachel’s so rigid.

Yeah, totally, but I need to feel powerful when I play her. Anything that makes me as myself feel cool and not awkward is what I’ll use for her.

Do they give you time on your call sheet to transition? Like, “You have 10 minutes to become Cosima.”

We definitely have time between because wardrobe, hair and makeup changes take about an hour and a half for each clone. I take that time to transition between characters, to let the other one go and to start to incorporate the new one. We definitely don’t have the time to go to a dark room and brood for 20 minutes, as much as I’d love to do that!

My favorite parts of Orphan Black are when you play clones pretending to be the other clones. How will season three top the show’s production feats so far?

The more comfortable we get with these clone scenes, the more we’re willing to make ourselves uncomfortable again. We’re pushing the limits of what we’re able to do in those scenes. This season, you’ll definitely see a lot more of that, just us pushing how far we can do these things.

The first scene of the new features all the clones on screen again. How long did that take to film? The final product is only three minutes, I think.

We shot for one full day, and then we had to do pickups of each character. We would come back and shoot Alison’s side or Cosima’s side, so it was quite a process. But it was worth it. It was a fun sequence to make because it was so out of left field and new for our show to have that sort of imagery on screen.

Fans were upset when you weren’t nominated for an Emmy, but others pointed out that quality sci-fi never gets the love it deserves from Emmy voters anyway. What do you think it will take to change that?

I don’t know! Sci-fi is huge now. It’s everywhere, and everyone seems to really dig it it and get into it in a huge way. I don’t know if there’s still a stigma around it. Award stuff is overrated. It’s more exciting to have a rabid fanbase than to be lauded at an event where everyone’s wearing ball gowns. That’s not the viewership that you’re telling stories to. We’re so excited because our show speaks to young women and young men in a way that’s really personal. Whether sci-fi ever gets the recognition that it deserves is besides the point. Fans go so nuts for their sci-fi shows, and that’s way more thrilling than award stuff, you know? That’s who you’re telling the stories for.

Orphan Black is notorious for crazy plot twists: secret clones, government conspiracies, the works. How do you keep track?

I can’t. I’m so stupid when it comes to plot. I just try play in the moment as much as I can. I’m not too concerned about the plot stuff. I try to stay ignorant of it, but really I’m just ignorant.

You could always ask the superfans on Twitter.

Yeah! “Guys, what the hell happened in the last episode? Can somebody explain it to me please?”

How has playing clones changed what you think of actual human cloning?

It’s been interesting to learn and do research about it, but for me, it’s less about the moral ramifications of whether it should happen and more about what this concept means for humanity. When do we stop being people? When do we take control of evolution? When do we cross that line? It’s more interesting for me to ask questions than to have any definitive stance on it. Ownership of a body or autonomy over who you are and your choices in life—I’m more engaged with that debate.

How pumped are you about the season premiere airing across all AMC channels?

It’s crazy. I haven’t really absorbed the fact that it’s going to be on those networks. The size of it seems to be growing and growing. It’s very surreal. We didn’t know in season one if anyone was going to even watch the show, so it’s bizarre to think that it’s now going to be seen by that many people.

Not too long ago I saw a picture of you on Twitter in a Broad City t-shirt. Is that a show you’d like to guest-star on?

Oh man, that would be ridiculous. That would be so awesome. I’m just happy it exists—I love that show.

Can you imagine if Ilana was an undiscovered Orphan Black clone?

Yes, I could totally imagine it. I would absolutely kill for that happen.

Orphan Black Takes New York.

Exactly! I would love that.

A version of this story appears in the April 20 issue of TIME, on newsstands now.

Read next: The Cult of Orphan Black

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com