It's happened to all of us before: you see someone on the street you swear you know. But what if you recognized that person not because they look like a friend, but because they look just like you? That's the mind-bending premise of "Orphan Black," the new sci-fi series premiering on Space and BBC America on March 30.
And while good science-fiction always grounds its more out-there elements in something familiar, like a shared personal experience or universal theme, "Orphan Black" takes the idea of identity crisis and multiplies it. That's because the series star Tatiana Maslany doesn't just play one leading role in the new show, she plays enough to necessitate the use of a cheat sheet.
It all starts when Sarah (Maslany) witnesses a woman who looks just like her, Beth (also Maslany), jump in front of a train. And looking for a way out of her own less-than-perfect life, Sarah assumes her dead doppelganger's identity. But what was supposed to be an easy score becomes a lot more complicated when Sarah discovers a deeper mystery, and even more women who bare an eerie resemblance to her. And we're not talking long-lost twins.
With clones, secret identities and dangerous conspiracies, the buzz is building around "Orphan Black" as the next breakout sci-fi hit. HuffPost TV visited the show's set in Toronto while they were wrapping up filming for their initial 10-episode season. And while everyone was careful not to spoil any surprises, here are 10 things you need to know about the highly anticipated series. Think of it as your "Orphan Black" crib notes.
Everything's A Secret
I showed up to the "Orphan Black" set to watch an afternoon of filming and chat with the show's stars while they were shooting Episode 9 in the lower level of a working hospital. And when I got there, I was warned that I might see and hear a few things I wouldn't be able to write about. Turns out, no one had to worry, because the crew clearly received the "no spoilers" memo.
Even though the clone concept is already out there (following a strong buzz-building panel during the Winter Television Critics Association Tour in January), everyone was careful not to reveal too much about the show's central mystery, which meant even seemingly innocuous questions about prep work were potentially fraught with spoilers.
"I read a lot of books on ... well, I can't even tell you or talk about that either. I am cloaked in secrecy," laughed Dylan Bruce, who plays Paul, the boyfriend who Sarah assumes along with the dead woman's identity. "I think I would be giving away too much if I told you the prep for the role. But there was some serious prep that I took for the role that maybe I'll reveal a little later on in the series." Which means you just know that his initial role as Sarah/Beth's dutiful boyfriend grows significantly more complicated as the story unfolds.
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Including The Scripts
According to Bruce, the cast was kept guessing as well: "I kind of had a basic idea of what my character was gonna do and who he was from the beginning, but I had no idea that they were going to take it to the place that they took it." He continued, saying, "That's why it's so exciting for us to get the scripts when they come out, because we want to know what's gonna happen next."
Maslany explained the process, saying, "We get the scripts like a day before we shoot them, which is ridiculous, but I always trust that it's going somewhere cool."
"They turn me into a fan," said Kevin Hanchard, who plays Art, a homicide detective who's also Beth's (former) partner. "You're going down a certain line and then boom, there's that sharp left turn that no one saw coming."
It's a process that ensures the cast is kept on their toes and more importantly, don't unknowingly telegraph future reveals, according to Jordan Gavaris, who plays Sarah's foster brother Felix. "I know that they always say, 'Don't let them think that you don't know!' But the reality is, and for good reason, part of the magic behind the 'Orphan Black' universe is the fact that we're discovering things all the time," Gavaris explained. "The characters don't know, they are going down the proverbial rabbit hole with everyone else, the audience included."
But John Fawcett, the show's co-creator (along with Graeme Manson), said it was still crucial to make sure the actors weren't completely in the dark. "I found it was important to give them enough coming up that they could be prepared for it," said Fawcett. "A lot of the time, the big ticket item they do know about in advance. Because I think it's important for them to get their head around where the character ultimately is going to go."
The only one he was more judicious with was Maslany, reasoning that she had more than enough on her plate already. "Her head was just swimming with everything," laughed Fawcett. "It's like, you don't want to give her more information. She was just trying to keep so much in her head as it was."
Tatiana Maslany Is Poised To Break Out
Despite all the on-set secrecy, one thing everyone could tell me is how impressed they were with Maslany, and the sheer amount of work that went into not only leading the series, but playing its various clones.
"She's a savant when it comes to doing accents, and altering her mannerisms for each one of her characters. She's pretty wonderful. And I think that the audience is really going to fall in love with this girl," Bruce said of his co-star. From the sounds of it, the rest of the cast already has.
"It's extremely precise and technical, there's a huge amount of marks and stuff to cover," gushed Maria Doyle Kennedy, who plays Sarah's foster mother Mrs. S., and is an award-winning actor herself. "But every time she manages to deliver a performance I'm absolutely gobsmacked. I must say, I'm really, really properly impressed, and I like nothing, so..."
"She puts us all on her back and is basically carrying the show. And without her, the show wouldn't work," agreed Bruce. And Fawcett predicted, "She's going to blow your mind through the course of this season."
"If nothing else, even if you go, 'Well, I don't know, this show kinda went off the rails,' she will blow your mind, I promise," continued Fawcett. "She is the one that will make you come back and keep watching."
The Part Almost Went To Ellen Page Instead
Still, Fawcett told me that "Orphan Black" came close to starring another young Canadian actress instead: "When it came down to casting that character, you know who my two choices to cast that character were? It was between Tat and Ellen Page."
They had a similar style, and a similar background, but even though Page is the bigger name, Fawcett just kept coming back to Maslany, who the director had previously cast in "Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed," the follow-up to his cult classic Canadian werewolf movie. Still, he wasn't ready to just hand her the role outright. He wanted to make sure she worked for it first.
"This is not a role that you can just offer to somebody. I refused to do that," Fawcett said. "Not to badmouth anybody, but then it's going to turn into "Ringer," right? You're gonna just offer it to somebody, you're not gonna know whether they have the capability to pull this off or not. You know, we're talking about multiple different accents, multiple characters."
So he and his producing partner Manson embarked on an arduous audition process. "It took me a long, long time. And even though I knew pretty early on about Tat, I knew that I wasn't gonna stop until I had basically seen everything and proved to myself 100 percent that this was the person."
Multiple clones meant each hopeful had to audition for multiple roles at once, and the trick was finding someone capable of playing them all equally well. "It was really hard, finding someone who you'd say, 'Oh wow, this person did it all, all of it.' Just across the board, all the different characters," explained Fawcett.
"And in the end, she annihilated everybody," Fawcett said of Maslany. "There really was no choice."
Mick Jagger Helped Get Jordan Gavaris the Job
As Felix, Jordan Gavaris is an integral part of the supporting cast. He's Sarah's confidante and a character who becomes embroiled in the series' central mystery along with her. But if it weren't for a certain Rolling Stones frontman, the role of Felix might have also gone to a different actor.
Gavaris explained that on the eve of his third audition, a friend of his called with some bad news. He remembers being told, "I've got to be honest with you, you're not going to get this role. They think you're way too young, and when you go in for the test tomorrow, just be prepared, it's not gonna happen."
But instead of resigning himself to defeat, Gavaris dug deeper. "I stayed up all night, I re-read the script, I kept looking for more," he said. "I thought, it can't just be a repeat of my two other auditions. I need to give them something more."
And he found his inspiration in an old music video. "I found this video of Mick Jagger and David Bowie doing 'Dancing in the Street.' And I thought, this was it! Mick Jagger had this wonderful, loose, sexually-ambiguous attitude," explained Gavaris. "I found this power for this character, who was sort of leading with his pelvis. And it worked!" he laughed.
But much like Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow, Gavaris didn't stop at the Stones, mixing in a cartoon character for good measure. "I was reading it and rehearsing it with a friend and I was like, 'Felix the Cat, Felix the Cat, why can't I stop thinking about a cat?' And then I was like, 'Oh! A cat! ...You know, he is only nice about half the time. And he's kind of a bitch the other half,' " laughed Gavaris.
The Show is a Group Effort
As "Orphan Black" progressed, Fawcett and Manson began to see Maslany as more then just their main star, but also as a creative partner. "I just feel very, very, very fortunate to have her in this show with me," said Fawcett. "She's kind of become a collaborator of Graeme and I's."
"I've never led a series before," Maslany said. "I've never been in the prep stages of a series either, so I've never gotten to develop characters with directors and producers, and the hair and makeup team." But it's obvious from even the few hours I spent on set just how quickly she took to it, and how much input is encouraged from her and the rest of the actors.
Watching the cast and crew run through a particularly complicated scene involving clones and stand-ins, Maslany jumped from chair to chair, working through multiple angles at once, and offering suggestions for how the scene could play out for both of her characters.
When I sat down with Gavaris afterwards, he raved about the working environment, saying, "You saw the vibe in there, it's so collaborative, it's so inclusive. And even down to the finest details, we are making creative decisions, down to body positions."
And while you might think opening the floor up to all those different opinions would slow the production down, it actually seems to help speed things up. Every clone scene takes extra time, extra prep work and extra attention to detail before they can even think about filming. Which means detailed rehearsal and blocking saves valuable time later on.
"On a TV schedule, it's really not easy," explained Fawcett. "Because you're basically shooting a scene in layers, with costume changes. You have to have something that you're gonna do with your crew while there's a big costume change going on."
And according to Fawcett, what I saw was nothing compared to other episodes. "In the finale, I shot a very complex scene with three girls. Three girls and a moving camera," he reminisced, when I spoke to him a few weeks after the season had wrapped. "But it's such a great scene. I knew that I really had to do something exciting in the finale with three clones in a room, for the audience."
But the logistical challenge (some might say nightmare) excited Fawcett too. "I just wanted to do it for myself as well. I wanted to see these three moving around in space and interacting. It's what got me excited about the show," he explained. "The idea that one actor was going to play multiple roles, and that there were going to be these scenes where she was playing various characters within the same scene."
A Clone By Any Other Name
So, just how many different characters does Maslany play? Well, getting back to that secrecy thing again, I never got an exact number. "We can say three, but there's way more than that," the actress teased.
And if you're having a hard time keeping track at home, just think about the poor actors. "Today, I'm doing three characters," Maslany told me. "So I started the day as so-and-so, and then now I'm this one, and then at the end of the day I'm..." She trailed off, either to avoid risking spoilers, or confusing herself any further.
"It's a very bizarre thing to keep track of, but the thing is, the writing is such that these characters' voices are so clear on the page, I can hear them, I can see them," Maslany explained. Still, this show involves some serious mental gymnastics.
"I have to compartmentalize my brain a bit, and be like, 'OK, where is this person at, and how much do they know? And what do they know that that person doesn't?' And then technically, playing scenes opposite myself is a nightmare-slash-hilarious-slash-the weirdest shit ever," she laughed.
It was tricky for some of the other actors too, at least at first. "It can get confusing," admitted Gavaris. "It was much more confusing in the beginning. Sometimes there were a lot of questions like, 'Who are you in this one right now?' "
"It's absolutely outrageous. I only did my first clone work about a month ago," said Doyle Kennedy. But she credits Maslany for making it work. "She's so good, you're just reacting to another character. You're just thinking about the character that you're with."
Gavaris agreed, "What really amazes me the most is Tat's ability to fall so freely into each person. And they're not just Sarah and the clones. Each clone has its own identity. You take any clone in the show and it could lead the series."
And despite the added confusion, the cloning angle came with one major benefit for the rest of the cast, as far as Bruce was concerned. "With the cloning concept, if someone gets killed, there's always a possibility to bring him back as a clone, right?" he laughed. "So that's good for an actor to know as well. A little bit of job security."
"Orphan Black" Was a Decade in the Making
When "Orphan Black" finally premieres on March 30, it'll have been a long time coming. Fawcett told me he first came up with the initial premise of a woman watching her double jump in front of a train as far back as 2002. But while he'd originally conceived it as a feature film, he and Manson just couldn't crack the story. So instead, it sat on the back-burner while the two went off to other projects, until they hit on the idea of turning the concept into a TV series instead.
"I think because of the nature of the premise of "Orphan Black," we realized that it was such a complicated idea that we couldn't solve it in a two-and-a-half hour format," explained Fawcett. "We sat down and we went, 'OK, if this were a series, do you think we could finally come up with the answer?'"
Fawcett credits shows like "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" for helping show him the way, saying, "It had never really occurred to me to make a television series before. But things changed in the last decade, and I found that a lot of the things that I was being inspired by were television."
You Haven't Seen Anything Like This...
Despite the sci-fi influences, both the cast and crew believe they've hit upon a formula that's unique enough to stand out in the crowded marketplace. "It's so different than anything I've ever come across or seen. I don't think it relies on gimmicks or tricks or anything like that at all," said Hanchard, "There's a lot of really cool shit that happens in this show."
Maslany was drawn to the human drama as much as the sci-fi aspect, saying, "Just the complexity of the characters and the way the script is written, it's entertaining, it's funny, it's dark as hell, and it's bizarre." Fawcett agreed with that sentiment, saying, "I think the thing that people are gonna be surprised by is the sense of humour that our show has."
Gavaris elaborated, saying that in spite of the sci-fi premise, "Orphan Black" is rooted in a gritty realism. "There's drugs, there's sex, there's lying, there's murder, there's cheating, there's death. There are all the recipes for a disaster, and we don't apologize for any of it," he explained. "And you basically either take the characters for who they are and you like them, or you don't. They're not heroes, they're anti-heroes. But in the end, because they're just surviving, there is a sympathy there."
And The Possibilities Are Endless
But for Bruce, the biggest plus of "Orphan Black" is where it can go from here, thanks to its central premise. "It's just like a Pandora's box of great ways that we can take the show," he said. "It's only been opened a little crack, so there's so many different ways that the writers can really explore this theme."
"It's a universe unto itself and the rules are dictated by the writers and the directors and the creators, so it's kind of a cool free-for-all," agreed Maslany.
And Fawcett acknowledged already having worked out with Manson where a second season could go, even if that changed a bit over the course of filming. "We certainly know where Season 2 wants to go, and that is good. But I think that it's a little bit more complicated now. We added some paint to our corner at the end of [Episode] 10 that we need to figure out how to get past."
It's a challenge Fawcett and Manson are up for though, if given the chance. "Obviously, there's also a bigger picture to the whole thing, which is a question of, 'How long are we gonna [run], will we get another season, will there be a Season 3?' " Fawcett said. "It's fun to think about though, because it's a concept that expands rather than contracts."
For his part though, Fawcett is confident in the show's prospects, saying, "I feel the show does have that thing in it that I know makes it exciting. Because I've been excited about it for the last 10 years."
We're about to find out if audiences agree.
"Orphan Black" premieres on Saturday, March 30 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT on Space Channel in Canada and at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on BBC America in the U.S.