The versatile young Canadian actress inhabits seven distinctly unique characters — more if you count when one “sister” impersonates another — and often plays opposite multiple versions of herself.
It’s an impressive feat that has rightfully earned Maslany many kudos, including a Critics Choice TV Award for Best Actress in a Drama and a Television Critics Association Award nomination. And if the Emmys truly appreciate quantity coupled with quality, it could land her on the list of lead drama actress nominees next month.
TVLINE | Have you recovered yet from filming Season 1?
I like to think I have, but I keep getting sick, so I don’t think I have exactly. [Laughs] It was pretty intense. It was the most intense shooting schedule of my life. Just very demanding as far as my creativity went and my imagination and physically how far I was able to push myself. It was definitely a test of endurance, let me tell you. I learned a lot about myself as an actor and just what it takes to lead a show. I’ve never led a show before like this. Not to mention, being the five leads on the show, it was an insane learning experience. But ultimately, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever gotten to work on.
TVLINE | How did you keep up your stamina?
All of the changing into a new character actually gave me a new rush. Every time I switched characters, I was like, “Oh, awesome, it’s a new day!” I felt like starting again. [Laughs] It was obviously extremely difficult, as well, and exhausting. I felt like I was just running on adrenaline for a good chunk of the four months, because there was no time really to be like, “Oh, I’m tired. I don’t feel like it.” It was just like, “Go, go, go!” It was just adrenaline that kept me going.
TVLINE | How did you keep each character’s arc and motivations straight? Did you have a crazy bunker with flow charts somewhere?
[Laughs] I was like, “I’m going to have charts on the wall for each character’s timeline and what they know, what they don’t know.” And it ended up being that I just had to really play instinctively because we were moving so quickly and I had very little time to prep between things. So I spent a lot of it just being in the moment and just committing very fully to each shift in the characters, using music to get me there, using the amazing costumes that inspire me. The writing is such that the voices are very clear, as well, so it wasn’t like I really had to push anything. It was there in the writing.
TVLINE | Each clone has little quirks and mannerisms of her own. How much of that was written into the script? And how much of it was you putting your own interpretation on things to help differentiate them?
The mannerisms were a combination of working with the creators, Graeme [Manson] and John [Fawcett], but also that’s where my input came in, with specific embodiments of those people. Alison’s frigidity and her little tics and things came with just spending time with the character and playing with her, with her music and looking at where she comes from, which is also the writing. But then it was me specifically manifesting it. So a lot of those quirks came from me and were my way of differentiating the characters.
TVLINE | Alison walks like she’s really tightly wound up.
Yeah. I wanted to play with the idea that she was heavily trained in ballet as a young girl and was never good enough to do it on a professional level, but that she’s maintained all of that posture and all of that tightness and holding your butt [and] stomach in. And she breathes up higher because she’s panicking a lot of the time. Her breath is up in her chest as opposed to kind of there down into her crotch.
TVLINE | Helena’s posture is very hunched over and almost monster-like. How did you develop that?
I wanted to play with this idea that Helena’s idea of herself is light and saintly. Her hair and everything is reaching to heaven, but that she’s double-faced and she’s kind of an animal. She’s almost very masculine, very sexual — masculinely sexual? Sexually masculine? [Laughs] But trying for this lightness, dreaming of being light.
TVLINE | Sarah says “yeah” a lot at the end of her sentences. Was that part of the script?
I don’t think that was really scripted, but I’ve got a lot friends from the UK. I might be generalizing when I say that that’s a tic that some of them have. So it was just something that I started to do when I was watching films and stuff based on that world that they’re from. It maybe became a bit much. [Laughs] But it was my thing for her, my little tic.
TVLINE | And what sets Cosima apart from the others? Aside from the hair, obviously.
Cosima’s brain is working 100,000 miles a minute faster than everybody else’s. She’s very intellectual. Everything’s happening really quickly in her brain. So for her, she’s trying to explain things to people on a base level which they’ll understand, but she’s operating way faster than they are. So her mannerisms are a lot of hand gestures trying to make you understand, trying to paint pictures with her hands. And [there's] also a lightness and a cute quirkiness. Cosima thinks she’s quite cute, and so she plays that up a bit, which is cool because she’s super intellectual, too. So it’s not like she’s just getting by on her cuteness. She’s a mix.
TVLINE | The clones also impersonate one another often. What’s the trick to blending two characters together?
I don’t try to play the other character until I’ve settled into the character that I actually am. I really try to make them as strong as possible and then let them play that other person. So when I’m Alison playing Sarah, I’m Alison first and I go vocally from where Alison speaks. I go physically from where Alison walks, but then try to drop in little hints of her idea of Sarah. That’s the other thing – it’s not that she’s really good at Sarah. She’s playing the version of Sarah that she imagines. She’s stereotyping Sarah and then playing her. It’s not intricate, and it’s not detailed, necessarily, or a full, complex version of who that person is. If I were to impersonate you, I wouldn’t know all of the intricacies of your life, but I could take the outside that I see and then play with it. That’s the most fun. I love doing that.
TVLINE | Are those your favorites to play? When one clone is pretending to be the other?
Yeah. I mean, it’s a bit of a mind-F. It’s a bit screwy in my head, but it’s definitely the most fun because there are so many layers to it, it’s ridiculous.
TVLINE | Which one is the most difficult to play?
They all have their own challenges. Helena is quite difficult because of how animal she is. I really can’t get into my head at all. I really can’t let the accent make me self-conscious. I can’t let the animal-ness make me self-conscious, so she was scary.
TVLINE | Sci-fi shows and their casts usually have a tough time gaining traction when it comes to the Emmys. Why do you think voters should take notice?
As much as it is a sci-fi, I feel like it’s very much a character piece and very grounded. It’s very much based in real characters and real reality and real responses to the world. It’s human beings existing in a fantastical world.
TVLINE | And you should get seven nominations, one for every character.
[Laughs] I don’t know about that. What if three of them were nominated, but one of them wasn’t?
TVLINE | It would probably be Alison that wasn’t nominated, and then she’d be really upset about it.
Yeah, she’d be so pissed off. This was her big break. [Laughs]
A version of this interview first appeared in the pages of TVLine’s print sibling Awards|Line. The specialty Awards|Line editions canvass various facets of the Emmy and motion pictures awards season and include deep coverage, analysis and interviews with the leading contenders and industry players.Follow @VladaGelman