Tatiana Maslany on Visibility, Perry Mason, and Provocative Women

Tatiana Maslany on Visibility, Perry Mason, and Provocative Women

Emmy Award-winning actress Tatiana Maslany doesn’t back down from a challenge. It was her portrayal of over a dozen roles in Orphan Black that won her the prestigious award, showcasing a range of talent on screen unlike many had ever seen. Moving on from her shapeshifting groundbreaking role on Orphan Black, Tatiana is now portraying the fiery impassioned evangelist, Sister Alice McKeegan, on HBO’s captivating new series, Perry Mason. Our culture editor, Alexandra Julienne, caught up with Tatiana earlier this summer to discuss the importance of representation, performing on Broadway, and what it takes to be a provocative woman.

AJ: I guess I should start off by saying, how are you? And how are you dealing with everything going on? Are you in California for the duration of this whole thing that we’re going through or are you getting out of town sometimes?

TM: Yeah. I mean, I was in Canada when everything happened, and so I stayed there for a couple of months and then came back to LA. Yeah, I don’t know how I’m doing. I feel like this time is going to be something that we reflect back on and see the effects of more so later than presently. It feels kind of without context, so it’s really hard to actually get a sense of anything, honestly. I feel like it’s a hard question, and it’s definitely like the question that my therapist asks me every week. I’m not sure.

AJ: It’s definitely hard to say how you’re doing now; it’s just such a surreal thing. Take it a day at a time.

TM: Totally.

AJ: Well certainly one of the things that I’ve been doing through quarantine is watching a lot of television –– a little more than I would like to admit to –– and one of the shows that I’ve been watching, of course, is Perry Mason. And I’ve just been gobsmacked by how amazing the show is, how fascinating of a take it is on a show that –– particularly for baby boomers like my parents –– is a landmark program. They have very preconceived notions on what that show is about; it’s so exciting to see HBO take it back and totally bust it open and make you think about the time period and the original show completely differently. I have to say, and I’m not just trying to compliment you, that my favorite character is definitely Sister Alice. I cannot look away when she’s on the screen, whether it’s the costuming or the big sermons. There’s just something about it that really gets me going.

TM: That’s awesome, I love that. Thank you.

AJ: You’re welcome. But I was going to say that it’s such a well done period piece. When you’re doing one like this that’s so particular, do you learn a lot about the period, or is it more of a secondary thing?

TM: No, I definitely kind of specifically focused on the reference point for Sister Alice, which was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, who was kind of a celebrity preacher at the time that Sister Alice would have been preaching. So I guess the kind of research that I did around the time was really through the lens of the church that she was building, and her sermons, and her writing, and watching clips of her… that kind of thing. And then I did some work on the period as well. It’s a luxury as an actor to get to walk into the costume room when you’re trying stuff on, to feel the pieces and have the costume designer there who was so diligent and so specific. It really teaches you about that period; through their research you get so much. And hair and makeup similarly… there’s so much that you get from that. Then we got to shoot on locations in LA that were kind of still preserved from that period. Yeah, it’s just really easy to get transported.

AJ: Oh, I definitely believe you there. I mean, the costuming is so sumptuous and so exact. I’m actually personally a very big fan of 1930s noir and Barbara Stanwyck films, and so I’m really enjoying the time period. All of the production crew has done an amazing job. I would say though, what do you think of bringing back the show now? I mean, why do you think that something from the 1930s would appeal in 2020? Is there anything that we can learn from that time period, or relate back to?

TM: I mean, I think that there’s a massive… well, obviously the depression and the economic upheaval that was happening, as well as so many things changing. I think that it was a time of massive change and massive rebirth in terms of what LA was. And I think that we are sadly seeing echoes of the same racial tensions, obviously the same social dynamics, the same issue of police corruption. I think that as much as the show is entertaining and all of that, it’s sort of sadly still prescient. And I think there’s so much that religion and that sort of leadership from somebody like Alice, who doesn’t necessarily see every aspect of what she should be seeing and sort of single-mindedly goes after what she wants, and ends up pulling her whole congregation along with her… that’s still around today. It’s just an interesting echo for sure.

AJ: I absolutely agree, and particularly with Sister Alice. Even though this is taking place nearly a hundred years ago, we’ve definitely had religious, spiritual, and even wellness personalities on television in the 80s and 90s, specifically with televangelists. I know that you’re Canadian, but that was particularly big here in the United States. And it definitely still exists, even on social media and Instagram now. What do you think it is about these kinds of cults of personalities or religious types that appeals to people in times of crisis?

TM: Well, I know I’m feeling this weird thing right now, and I keep articulating it as… and it sounds so base, but like I wish there was a mommy and daddy who would tell me when this was over. Do you know what I mean?

AJ: Absolutely, yeah.

TM: I wish that there was some ultimate adult in this situation who felt like they were taking care of their children. That’s what it feels like to me. I think that when people are lost and feel unsafe, or feel unled, it can be very seductive to look to somebody who is kind of saying the things that you want to believe, that is reinforcing something in you that needs to hear it. I think that’s a lot of what people respond to. Even what they read is like, “Oh, this reinforces what I already think, and so I believe this.” Do you know what I mean?

AJ: Absolutely. I think that people want to believe that things are simple and that also there’s a clean sort of finish, just that if you do A, B, and C, then you’ve succeeded. I think that sometimes these religious personalities can really attract people to that, and it exists in every time period. So it’s just something that’s really interesting to see on television in this form, because it somehow is still very relatable, regardless of what your religious background is.

TM: Totally.

Tatiana Maslany on Visibility, Perry Mason, and Provocative Women

AJ: But it’s interesting. Of course, some people reach for religion, and then others would maybe reach for science. Something that really fascinates me about your career, particularly across this role and then Orphan Black, is that you’ve sort of now played in both spheres. It’s a fascinating thing to think about. And I have to say, I was a huge Orphan Black fan in college –– a religious viewer –– so I would thank you for the show existing. I was living actually in Scotland at the time, and it was one of those shows that kind of brought all kinds of different kinds of people together. Canadians loved it, Americans loved it, the British loved it.

TM: Oh, I love that. Thank you.

AJ: Yeah. And really in that moment, you’re playing these women who are the product of scientific experimentation, but who also are finding community, and they’re kind of activists for their own independence and for their right to live their lives as they choose without the control of the government, or without the control of their so-called creators. So it was a show that was having very difficult conversations –– particularly that women have, particularly that queer people have –– about privacy rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive health. What is it about Orphan Black that you think that really broke through, and how has your sort of relationship to the show changed over the years?

TM: Well, I don’t know that I knew exactly what we were talking about until the second season or third season. I think the response, especially from our LGBTQ audience, made me realize what we were doing and how important it was to talk about. And I mean, I think I inherently understood that there was something about my gender or whatever that created a sense of someone else owning me, and I think that as an actor, I had felt that. So I’m just really drawn to those. And I think that it’s strangely connected to Sister Alice as well… that there’s powerful voice that is being controlled by someone else, and there’s a deep firing of need to be free, but in that freedom, there’s part of that freedom that is owned by someone else, or that’s controlled or sort of dictated by somebody else. And I’m just really interested in that dynamic. And for me, Orphan Black has only continued to be relevant in terms of… well, I mean, we’re still fighting for reproductive rights, survivors’ rights, trans rights, gay rights. It’s still a thing. I did a panel the other day about LGBTQ representation, and I stupidly looked at the comments underneath, and it was like only these religious…

AJ: That’s the worst thing to do.

TM: Yeah. And I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was like three religious assholes who were like, “Get these people off TV.” And I was like, “Oh, we’re still here.” But you see things like Disclosure, that documentary about trans representation in TV and film, and you’re like, “Fuck, everything I grew up with was just mired in this hatred, and these tropes that are just violent and aggressive and so insidious.” And I think that I’m quite media literate, and even I was blown away by that documentary.

AJ: I agree! I watched it a few weekends ago. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen The Celluloid Closet, which is a HBO documentary from the mid 90s, but it’s actually a similar sort of thing, because it was about representations of gay people on screen, mostly from the silent era all the way through to the early 90s; I think the last movie included was Philadelphia with Tom Hanks. And people had never thought about the homophobia that was permeating film culture and film as an expression; it’s just such good work that those documentaries do. And shows like Orphan Black definitely raised those questions, and even just the act of raising the questions can have a lot of power, I think.

TM: Yeah. Where we sort of did not succeed in those things is by not having any out queer directors. You know what I mean? We had one female director for all of the seasons of our feminist show.

AJ: That’s surprising. I mean, when you say that, that surprises me even though I knew that, I guess.

TM: Yeah. No, it’s a real thing. And I think that’s another aspect of Disclosure that was really interesting. It was just like, who’s behind the camera? Who’s behind the lens? Who’s holding the lens? I think that’s all really important stuff to look at as well.

AJ: Absolutely. And I mean, certainly in terms of the lesbian representation on Orphan Black, that was a big reason that I, certainly as a queer person, would watch the show as a lesbian viewer, with Cosima and Delphine. I’m going to give you another compliment. It was one of the best depictions of a queer female relationship at the time, because usually you get these really sort of simplistic, very afterschool special kind of takes, even especially as recent as 5 or 10 years ago. But they were very complex… they had these struggles that were based out of the central plot and not just contrivances around their sexuality. So I was going to ask, what is it that you think made that couple so popular? Because of course all people loved the couple, but especially lesbians loved this couple. What do you think was the appeal at the time?

TM: Well, I think that Cosima says it in season two or something… she says, “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me,” and that’s still one of my favorite lines from that show, because I think it’s so true. And I feel like there are so many aspects to being a human being, and of course that is so central, but what about her fascination with humans and her brain, or her ability to do this or that? I think that queer characters become the queer character, and that’s their huge defining trait, and that so takes for granted that straight is the default. Do you know what I mean?

AJ: Absolutely.

TM: It’s like center’s straightness, or cisgender-ness, and then queer is the marker of, “Oh, that person’s different from this person.” Do you know what I mean?

AJ: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve talked about Disclosure. I was going to ask you, do you think that the landscape has changed? Are there any sort of queer shows or queer characters, certainly Disclosure as a film, that you really love right now that are doing the right thing or going in the right direction?

TM: Yeah. I think that I May Destroy You is doing some really interesting by especially digging into the queer male experience… queer black male experience, and what sex and abuse is and the gray area, all of that interesting shit… and the police system, all of it. Like the way… have you seen it?

AJ: I have. I’ve actually just started it. It was the next one up on my list.

TM: Okay, I can’t wait for you to see the rest of it.

AJ: I’m obsessed with it thus far. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it on TV, maybe ever. It’s just rare to say that with all of the options that we have, so I’m very excited about it.

TM: No, I totally agree, and I think what it does so frustratingly well, because it’s so real, is that once you think you feel one way about something that happens in it, the next second you suddenly feel the exact opposite. It plays with that contradiction and that humanity in such a visceral way; it’s so amazing. But that show was really incredible, and then I was obsessed with We’re Here, because I felt like not only did all three of those queens just hold so much space for real shit and sit in uncomfortable conversations with people and conversations that… well, Bob is sitting opposite someone who is saying basically, “I went back to the church because I don’t want to be gay, and I want to do right by God,” and blah, blah, blah. And Bob is listening to this young man and hearing him and not contradicting him, but also not saying, “I believe that as well.” I thought it was really surprisingly deep for something that could have just been also just really fun.

AJ: Yeah. I think that the interplay between playfulness and seriousness –– the idea that we have to do this work to improve people’s lives –– is something that’s becoming more well-balanced in queer media, where we can have fun, but we can also be addressing the serious issues. And then also just sort of shooting the shit and inside jokes, and all of those things together. I think that we’re getting closer to media that addresses the complexity of queer life and queer friendship.

Tatiana Maslany on Visibility, Perry Mason, and Provocative Women

“I think a provocative woman is someone who is all aspects of who she is without apology for any of it.”

TM: I think that just comes from more content, like less preciousness. And I think that’s what we were always thinking in terms of Cosima and Delphine too –– we didn’t want to put a glass case around them because they were the queer characters. We wanted them to have the same life and the same difficulties and complexities as we allowed all of the other characters. We didn’t want them to have to uphold some idea of what it is to be queer for everybody. You know what I mean? Or any of that.

AJ: It was refreshing at the time, and it’s still refreshing. I think we’re getting closer. But I mean, it strikes me that you’ve done so much within that space, within film and television, but I always forget that you’ve also done theater now. So you were on Broadway in a production of Network, and my question for you on that would be, did you watch the film and did you pay close attention to what Faye Dunaway was doing?

TM: Yeah. I mean, I watched the film when I got this audition, but then I needed to forget what I saw, because she’s such an iconic role and I knew that I would always be compared to her. I’m very comfortable in myself, but I definitely had to work really hard to make this character my own. And it honestly was a struggle till the very end, because there were echoes and there were expectations, there was legend behind this character, and there were just such huge shoes to fill. She was so vilified and she was so hated, she was the biggest villain in cinema or whatever, all these kind of like…

AJ: She really was, and I imagine there’s a lot of opportunity for play there when you go for someone like that, who is this larger than life kind of villain.

TM: Yeah, totally. And also I was sort of like, “Is she a villain, or is she just a woman who is going after whatever the fuck she wants, and is kind of doing it without any regard for anyone?” Which is not a laudable trait to have, but how many men have we afforded that to and they’re our leading men who we want to have sex with? Do you know what I mean?

AJ: Yeah.

TM: I was sort of really interested in the response to all of that. There was one moment that I kind of added to the piece, which was in this sex scene. There’s this notorious scene that she does where she’s just monologizing the whole time about ratings. In the scene, I decided to touch myself while I was fucking this guy, and the response I got from men about that moment was like… oh, I was so interested in it. I was like ––

AJ: Was it like a lightning rod that was a polarizing moment for the men in the audience?

TM: Yeah. So the response was either like, “Oh, so what kind of films have you done? Porn?” Or it was sort of like they were threatened by it. Like it was a threatening gesture, because it somehow meant that the penis wasn’t enough, or something like that. It was truly the core of who I felt she was, which was like she was about getting what she wanted, and she was going to do whatever she needed to do to get that.

AJ: I agree with that choice and I’m sure that it shocked people, particularly on stage. I mean, even whether it’s a scene like that or just the whole show, when you’re preparing to go on stage, is there extra anxiety? Do you do anything special to kind of prepare for a role like that, versus film?

TM: Yeah. I mean, that one was a special one because the director, Ivo van Hove, had us on stage warming up. So as the audience was coming in, we were all on stage stretching out or chatting or dancing, or whatever we needed to do. But we did it publicly, so it was a really interesting exposure of the process. But for me, there’s always nerves. I don’t think that I went up on stage once in the over 200 shows that we did when I wasn’t nervous, or I wasn’t nervous at a certain point, or I didn’t feel a thrill or whatever. It was just always there.

AJ: Well, it seems to me that you would always be nervous or a little bit anxious when you’re doing something that really kind of matters, and certainly being on stage is part of that. But even if it’s a film or if it’s activism, you’re always going to have nerves when it really is important to you, when you really sort of stand behind what you’re doing. Would you agree with that?

TM: Yeah, absolutely. I did a speech once for the HRC. I got an Ally Award, and speaking publicly about that was like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was so scary. I felt so vulnerable and so exposed. And it was strange, because it was a super warm room, a super warm event. But it just meant so much to me; it felt like my heart was kind of on display.

AJ: Yeah. I’m a terrible public speaker, and so I can relate to that. I always love when actors say that though, because it makes me feel better. I’m like, “Oh, if they had trouble with it, then we all do.”

TM: I feel like it’s a totally different thing to me. It’s completely different. It’s terrifying. I would hate to do a speech at a wedding. No one would ask me to do that.

AJ: Oh, yeah. I have nightmares about that kind of thing.

TM: Yeah.

AJ: But I would say that whenever you’re doing something provocative, you are putting yourself out on the line for it, and that’s why maybe you’d feel nervous, whether it’s performing or it’s speaking. You have definitely played some very provocative women, provocative people, provocative creatures of this planet, even in just those three roles that we’ve spoken about. There’s such variety there. We talked a little bit earlier about what gets you into a character, but is there anything when you read a script that just immediately sucks you in and makes you say, “I want to know more about this person. I want to portray this person.”

TM: Well, I think it’s that. I think it’s exactly that. It’s like, am I sort of leaning forward while wondering about this character? Do I have more questions than I do answers? Which is very much what it felt like with Alice and with Diana Christensen. I was just like, “I don’t know that I can do this, and I’m so curious to know what her deal is and to continue to investigate.” This character is surprising to me, and this is something that I’ve never done before, sort of like what we’re talking about in terms of public speaking. Sister Alice doing these sermons was something that I was like, “Ooh. I’ve never done that, but I really want to do that, but I’m also terrified and I hate the idea of doing it.” You know? All of that. It was very much like stepping into a place of discomfort.

AJ: Absolutely. And I mean, not to take us to a negative place maybe, but I’m always curious… I have a few friends who are actresses, and when they read scripts, they come across things that are just… well, they’ll share them with me, and they’re just ridiculous things, and you think, “How could anyone ever write this?” Are there any things that immediately you say, “No, I’m not interested in this. This doesn’t appeal to me.”

TM: Yeah. Oh my God, yeah. Honestly, I get turned off when somebody is like, “She’s a super strong female, like really strong. She’s really tough.” I’m just like, “Okay. Cool, great.” I don’t know. It just feels like it just is reductive as anything else. Do you know what I mean? My favorite performance of a woman on screen is Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.

AJ: Oh, yeah. It’s phenomenal.

TM: Yeah, it’s the best, because she just does everything. She is so many things, and she’s so fearless as an actor. To go to places that are deeply vulnerable and deeply embarrassing and revealing and humiliating and all of that, but also hugely powerful and sort of like a storm… she’s all of this stuff. So anything that feels reductive, anything that feels like it’s filling a quota or telling me that I should be so lucky to play this kind of a part, I’m just kind of like, “Not interested.” Do you know what I mean?

AJ: I absolutely agree with you. I think that there was a subsect of writers. I won’t say what kind of writers they may be ––

TM: I wish you would.

AJ: Well they got the newsletter that they only wanted strong women who apparently, I don’t know, are able to lift up buildings or something like that.

TM: Yeah.

AJ: They misinterpreted the task. And it seems to me that those writers really don’t understand what makes a provocative woman, which of course is what we’re in the business of investigating. So I would end on asking you, what do you think makes a provocative woman? What advice would you give to particularly young actors who are trying to find the roles that are going to be fulfilling for them?

TM: I feel like you just continue to follow your curiosity, and don’t let yourself or anybody else tell you that you aren’t fit for some part. I just think that I’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed as something, because I just don’t think that’s interesting, and it’s just not for me at all. I just constantly want to stretch and do something that I’ve never done before, and I think that’s where you grow and learn and where work feels the most exciting.

But I think a provocative woman is someone who is all aspects of who she is without apology for any of it. I think that there’s base stuff that is true of people, that they need each other or that they are emotional or whatever. To me, those aren’t negative traits as long as you embrace them and are the full extent of who you are. I don’t know, that’s a hard question, because I think it’s so individual.

AJ: Absolutely.

TM: And it’s dependent on society, too. What is provocative is often what isn’t being acknowledged as a human condition by society, or is deemed unimportant or unworthy, or whatever. You know, like queer characters on TV at one point was provocative just by their mere existence, just by the fact that they were there.

AJ: Absolutely, and maybe that’s the definition in a way… that we just make space for the existence of different types and people and whole different truths in our heads.

TM: Yeah. I mean, I look at so many interesting people and I’m just fascinated by these beautiful gender warriors who are just changing the face of what we expect from gender and what it even means, and doing it without a roadmap; they’re doing it their own way entirely. And those people are the most inspiring to me, because they really feel like they’re carving a path out for people to follow. But they’re doing this hard digging through uncharted territory and you don’t know what it looks like. You don’t know what’s on the other side. I just think that there’s something so amazing about that.

AJ: I agree. I think that there are some incredible people doing good work right now and you are certainly one of them.

Photography by Sela Shiloni