As viewers and consumers, we have a habit of unconsciously associating actors with previous roles they have played, thrusting upon them the baggage of past characters. Recently I saw The Bling Ring, (loved it, by the way) and all I could think of whenever Emma Watson was on screen was, “Holy shit, Hermione Granger is snorting coke and robbing Paris Hilton. What. Is. Happening.” I thought Emma’s performance was hilarious, and if anything, this association with the Harry Potter franchise made it even funnier – but the point still stands. Often times it’s just a fleeting thought, – “Hermione is dancing on a stripper pole,” – but this inability to dislodge actors from the characters they represent can affect how we interpret and absorb current and future performances.
But every now and again comes an actor who – by whatever look in their eye, tone in their voice, or brand of witchcraft – somehow manages to completely transform, to shed those layers, and to appear new and unaffected each time we see them. Actors like Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kevin Spacey. They’re hard to come by, that’s for sure, but they delightfully surprise us each and every time, from film to film and from series to series.
Tatiana Maslany is one of those actors. You’ve probably never heard her name before, but I’ll bet some money that you will when the Emmys roll around. She’s the protagonist – actually, seven of the protagonists – in a new BBC America series titled Orphan Black. Just last week, Maslany won the Critic’s Choice Award for her performance(s), and with Emmy nominations due today, it seems pretty likely that she might slip onto the ballot with the likes of Juliana Margulies, Elizabeth Moss, and Claire Danes. And if there’s any justice in the entertainment industry, she will.
The show revolves around a woman named Sarah Manning: a British, punk-rocker and orphan raised in foster care who is trying to scam her abusive, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend so that she and her daughter can make a fresh start. Sarah’s plans take a turn, however, when she witnesses a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide on the train platform, and in a moment of panic and haste, Sarah takes the woman’s purse and, thinking the mystery woman may have been a long-lost sister, assumes her identity. Eventually, Sarah discovers that the woman she is impersonating, Beth, is a cop – and under investigation for shooting a civilian. While trying to con Beth’s bank, Beth’s boyfriend, Beth’s partner, and the entire police department, Sarah learns through a series of mysterious phone calls, impromptu confrontations, and a collection of random birth certificates that she and Beth don’t just look alike – they are genetic identical. She is someone’s science experiment. Along with Beth, Sarah discovers that there are more clones: Alison the fierce soccer mom; Cosima the pot-smoking, dreadlock-donning, lesbian PhD student; Helena the religious radical; Katja the eccentric German and more. (If it doesn’t already sound appealing, Sarah’s brother is sassy, gay, and British).
Maslany not only effortlessly juggles all seven characters she plays, but possesses an innate ability to actually appear like a completely new person whenever she changes shoes. Often (and I mean often) she has to portray one clone impersonating another, and it’s the farthest thing from confusing: it’s absolutely magnetic. Maslany’s acting is a tour de force, but she’s also joined by a cast of phenomenally hilarious and talented actors. Jordan Gavaris plays Sarah’s dramatic, struggling-artist foster brother, Felix, who boasts an amusing fear of suburbia and clever lines to match: “Tiny little suburban stress zits emerging in direct proximity to bad architecture.” The show successfully harmonizes the science fiction and crime-solving genres, and never fails to keep the viewers guessing. The nature of the narrative presents intense ethical questions without being completely inaccessible or overly-pretentious. The writing is classic BBC wit with a dash of snark and sass; it neither condescends nor bores; it creates a depth of character that extends far beyond Maslany’s acting. Aesthetically, Orphan Black looks a lot like BBC’s Sherlock. If you enjoy Sherlock, Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse or Firefly, or Chris Nolan’s Memento – you’ll probably love Orphan Black. Seriously, though. Watch Orphan Black.