By Olivia Popp
Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, Emmy Award-winning star of “Orphan Black” — which just ended its critically-acclaimed five-season run — was honored with the Maverick Spirit Award at the Cinequest Film and VR Festival last Thursday.
In an interview with Cinequest president and co-founder Kathleen Powell, Maslany described “Orphan Black,” a science fiction series known for its collection of clones (all played by Maslany), as a fascinating experience with not a single genre — rather, the series is comprised of both surrealism of farce, filled with characters that twist reality. On playing so many characters, Maslany stated that she enjoyed playing Helena, one of the clones, because the character “loves food,” joking that Helena was also a “domesticated serial killer.”
Maslany started acting and performing at a young age, beginning in dance and improv. She credits her improvisation background of building foundations of endowing characters to herself, especially having to dive so deeply into an incredible range of characters on “Orphan Black.” Yet the hardest characters were the ones that were so separate from her actual personality — those that were different or like an “ice queen” and filled with “entitlement,” as Maslany said.
Maslany’s preference for playing more relatable, generous characters seemed to extend to her outlook on performance as an art as well. She spoke highly of her acting double, Kathryn Alexandre, who played opposite of her before Maslany’s likeness was digitally pasted in post-production to give the effect of multiple clones. Maslany described Alexandre as the “epitome of generosity” — having to play with full strength, only to be edited out in the end. Similarly, Maslany spoke of her experiences acting in films with her partner, Tom Cullen. “It’s such a privilege to work with a partner,” Maslany said. “There’s a certain intimacy with someone who knows you best.”
Maslany conversed casually throughout the entire interview, preferring to end her sentences with an enthusiastic “totally!” and speaking about trying to break into the industry at a young age, feeling insecure about herself when she “didn’t look like anyone who should be on TV.” The hardest transition for her while moving from Canada to LA for the American television industry was that you “had to own who you are,” which made it — at this moment, she spoke in Helena’s signature Slavic accent, to the audience’s delight — “a little better.” Maslany prefers to look up to people who don’t conform — “contrarians or those who are themselves,” mentioning that she feels “lucky to play so many weirdos,” stating endearingly that she associates and empathizes most heavily with these characters and individuals, being a self-described weirdo herself at heart.
After the brief interview, Maslany’s new film, “Souls of Totality,” was screened. Maslany acted alongside Cullen in the short 19-minute film. Filmed partially in real-time during the eclipse last summer, the producer, director and screenwriter of the film also spoke after the screening. The film was ultimately an incredibly collaborative process, with much of the crew playing various characters in the film and having to drive U-Hauls full of equipment up to Oregon. Richard Raymond described how he pitched the idea of going up to Oregon to watch the eclipse, but while Maslany just assumed that it would be a vacation, Raymond instead proposed to create a film. The filmmakers only had one opportunity to take a crucial shot of Maslany running down the road as the sun reached totality ahead — a true cinematographic experience in itself in “Souls of Totality.”
“Souls of Totality” follows a man (Cullen) and woman (Maslany) who are forbidden lovers in a mysterious cult, their lives unfolding onscreen as viewers discover the nature of the group. The film pays tribute to the creators staying on a low budget without sacrificing aesthetics — filming on a friend’s farm, using a gray tracksuit as the cult’s costuming. As Maslany’s character is “chosen,” viewers slowly discover what this means for her fate in comparison to the fate of Cullen’s character. Yet, the audience is unaware what this truly means until the end as the eclipse reaches totality and the two lovers are separated. In a short film under 30 minutes, “Souls of Totality” is able to actively capture viewers’ attention and present a cohesive narrative and three-act structure versus simply existing as a musing of the filmmaker’s imagination with no true plot.
Ben Bolea and Kate Trefry, two husband and wife writers that have never collaborated on a project before, wrote “Souls of Totality.” Bolea, along with Raymond and producer James Mitchell, spoke at a post-screening panel with Maslany. In creating “Souls of Totality,” Raymond asked Bolea to write a short script, but Bolea admitted he never had any real ideas until the eclipse was almost too close, and then he was forced to scramble to write a script. The scrappy nature of this film — the collaborative nature, the artistic nature — ultimately epitomizes independent filmmaking in the current day. Building projects with friends and collaborators — the group was even able to find the cinematographer of “The Witch,” a film Bolea greatly admired, and they recruited him for the film. Nevertheless, sometimes time constraints are the best ways to come up with a narrative and story — and “Souls of Totality” certainly proves itself to be one.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.