A new top secret experiment is under way. And considering it is taking place on the Toronto set of Orphan Black — a show known for cloning, genetic patenting, and human augmentation in the form of enhancements such as a fully functioning (and fully freaky) tail — the importance of said experiment cannot be underestimated. Everything depends on it. The man conducting the test holds his instrument steady in his right hand while monitoring the subject on the table below. The instrument: a blow dryer. The subject: blue cheese. The blow dryer kicks on, blasting hot air onto the small chunks of cheese. Announces the crew member proudly, “I’m making bird poo!”
But this isn’t just any bird poo. This particular prop is needed for an upcoming scene on a set that’s been affectionately dubbed the Hoarder House — it’s stuffed floor to ceiling with puzzles, rotary phones, ancient IBM computers, books such as King of Infinite Space, a Strawberry Shortcake Christmas album, and, yes, lots and lots of birdcages. In between takes, star Tatiana Maslany can be heard talking to one of the feathered occupants. “Ohhhhhhh, hello. Hello, there,” she coos to the cockatoo, the one that’s guilty of not pooping enough. It’s a unique solution, the blow-dried blue cheese, but apparently that’s the sort of crap you have to deal with when making a groundbreaking TV show like Orphan Black.
You may be wondering, What the hell is Orphan Black? Or maybe you asked yourself that question at some point over the past year as your friends started delivering social-media sermons about the show, praising it for its addictive storytelling, its How did they do that??? visuals, and a tour de force performance by a little-known actress named Tatiana Maslany. Well, the stripped-down answer that won’t make your head hurt is this: Orphan Black is a BBC America drama about a grifter, Sarah, who discovers she is merely one in a group of clones developed and monitored as part of some mysterious scientific experiment. As she and her fellow clones — police detective Beth, ailing German Katja, Ukrainian clone-killer Helena, wound-up soccer mom Alison, dread-head scientist Cosima, and corporate “proclone” Rachel — learn about one another and try to determine why they were made, not all of them survive, and none of them are ever safe. It seems the clones are caught in the crosshairs of two nefarious warring factions — the Neolutionists of the Dyad Institute, who have been monitoring Sarah & Co. in their quest for evolutionary perfection, and the ultrareligious Proletheans, who view the clones as an abomination against God. (Excedrin alert!)
The ratings as the season unfolded weren’t particularly impressive (averaging 661,000 viewers), but the buzz was often deafening, especially when it came to Maslany, who not only played seven different characters in season 1 but sometimes had to portray as many as three in the same scene. People who stumbled onto the show and her performance simply couldn’t stop talking about it, leading others to see what all the fuss was about even after the season was already over. In fact, 5.2 million people all told would watch season 1 on demand. So how did a tiny sci-fi series out of Canada build one of the most passionate TV fan bases around? And what does Black — which returns on April 19 at 9 p.m. — need to do to break through to mainstream audiences in season 2? This is the story of how the cult of Orphan Black was born.
Stage 1: Cultivating the Concept
The genesis of Orphan Black extends back to a 2001 Canadian TV movie titled Lucky Girl, starring Elisha Cuthbert. The script needed work, so the film’s director, John Fawcett, suggested a guy he had met by the name of Graeme Manson to punch it up. “He did this wicked three-week rewrite,” recalls Fawcett. “And he really impressed me with that. At that point we realized, ‘You know what? We work really well together. We should come up with something to do.'” Fawcett’s original vision was for a movie…and truth be told, the vision was pretty bare-bones at the time. Fawcett didn’t have a story, but he did have an opening scene. “I pitched him a concept that there would be this girl that shows up on a subway platform in rush-hour traffic, and in that moment she sees her identical [twin]. And then — boom! — she jumps in front of the train. All that stuff was in the first idea I pitched Graeme. But I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if it was a parallel universe, if it was an alien conspiracy, no idea. I just said, ‘This is a good idea for an opening scene.'”
Fawcett did have one thing besides his opening scene. He had a title: Orphan Black. “I didn’t know what that meant, either,” he laughs. “It just sounded like a cool title.” (Well, Sarah did become an orphan, so at least it half makes sense!) Fawcett and Manson started brainstorming. “It’s funny, because clone is the first idea that pops into your head and you think, ‘That’s too dumb. We’ve got to come up with something else.’ But we kept coming back to clones. And eventually you get comfortable with that, and we started to try to work out the story in a two-and-a-half-hour format, which proved to be pretty difficult.” So the duo put the project on the shelf, where it sat for two years until 2007, when Manson was about to attend a showrunner workshop and called Fawcett with a question: “What do you think of Orphan Black being a TV series?” Manson then wrote the pilot and an outline that was filled with action, intrigue, and mystery while also tackling more profound topics such as the debate between science and religion, especially in matters of “self-directed evolution.” Fawcett and Manson finally had more than just a title and an opening scene — they had a show.
Stage 2: Finding their Sarah… and Alison… and Cosima… and…
Casting the right actress to play one character is tricky enough. Now imagine casting the right actress to play seven different women. As bold as the conceit was, without the right person to carry it off, Orphan Black ran the risk of becoming a punchline similar to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact. Or Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Maximum Risk. (Yes, in a mystery deeper than anything you will find on Orphan Black, Jean-Claude Van Damme made two different twin movies.) “We knew that even one weak spot in a character who plays many roles would stick out and that the premise could collapse if we didn’t have the strongest performer,” says Manson.
To find that performer, the creators auditioned “every Canadian female in North America,” according to Fawcett. Among them was Evelyne Brochu (later cast as Cosima’s monitor-turned-lover, Delphine), as well as a familiar face from the director’s past. Back in 2003, Fawcett cast a teenager named Tatiana Maslany in a werewolf film called Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed — and she made an impression. “I was very aware of the girl’s skills,” says Fawcett. “Not only was she highly gifted, even when she was young, but there was this offbeat quirk to her. She wasn’t off the TV babe farm,” he says. “She’s beautiful, but there’s something about her that makes her a little out of the ordinary.”
Maslany’s tryout called for her to play five different clones, and at times she seemed to know things about the characters that even the creators didn’t. “When she came in to play Cosima, she had glasses on,” recalls Fawcett. “Those glasses just stuck. From that point on, Cosima was definitely going to wear glasses.” What was even more remarkable about the youthful-looking Maslany’s ability to channel the characters was that the 28-year-old actress had never played an adult before. “I’ve always played 10 years my junior,” she explains. “This is definitely the most adult role I’ve ever gotten to play. I think that’s why I was so afraid of Alison. Because she has two kids who are…you know, kids! And just that knowledge of what it is to be a mother is something I have never tackled on screen.”
But Maslany knew that even if she was perfect, there were plenty of other places for everything to go completely wrong — including intricate technology like the programmable Technodolly camera crane (which the crew not-so-affectionately dubbed the time vampire) needed for scenes featuring multiple clones. “I think for all of us, there was a feeling of pressure,” she says. “Like, I don’t know how this is going to turn out and I don’t know if it’s going to fall on its face. The gimmick of the show could really fall flat if the effects weren’t what they were. If any component was lacking, it could’ve been s—. It was such a big risk.”
Stage 3: Building the #CloneClub
Orphan Black finally debuted on March 30, 2013, pulling in 927,000 million viewers in its first showing. Those were decent numbers for BBC America — a small cable network that had only recently jumped into the original-programming game — but they weren’t exactly earth-shattering. The viewers didn’t just watch Orphan Black, however. They started talking about it. A lot. And the chatter only intensified as the season went on and more clones were introduced. Fervent fan groups like #CloneClub (which comes from a line on the show) formed online, with tributes popping up all over social media. As a result, Black‘s season finale had more tweets than bigger shows such as Homeland, Nashville, and The Good Wife had in any week in 2013, while on Tumblr — where devoted viewers expressed their admiration through GIFs and clever photos of themselves posing as various clones — activity increased 300 percent in the 10 weeks after the finale, thanks to the July DVD release and on-demand viewing. (It’s also now streaming on Amazon Prime.)
The level of fandom became clear to the cast and creators when they arrived at San Diego’s Comic-Con last summer. “That was my first real look at our fans,” says Fawcett. “It’s a lot of young women.” Indeed, the crowd at Orphan Black‘s panel — for which hundreds of wannabe Helenas and Cosimas were turned away at the door — was overwhelmingly female. “To me, that kind of response from young women is really exciting,” says Maslany, “because I don’t know that they’re represented on screen in this way very often, with this kind of multidimensional exploration of what it is to be a woman.”
Of course, that’s not the only perspective represented on the show: One of the clones, Cosima, is gay, as is Sarah’s foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris). The fact that both characters do not hide their sexuality — nor make it their defining characteristic — has brought accolades from the LGBT community, especially the cleverly named Clonesbians. “That one means a lot to Jordan and me both,” says Maslany of the support. “I’m honored in any way to speak to that community and to be playing a role.”
The message was clear: When it came to #CloneClub, everyone was invited. But would anyone from the mainstream choose to attend this underground party?
Stage 4: Getting A Little Respect
If the heretofore unknown cast and crew were surprised to get such overwhelming positive feedback from fans, imagine their shock when celebrities started weighing in. “I was pretty stoked about Sarah Silverman,” says Manson of one particular endorsement. “Damon Lindelof from Lost,” says Fawcett. “I got very excited about that.” For Joss Whedon worshipper Gavaris, it was a trio of actresses: “To hear that Amy Acker, Emma Caulfield, and Alyson Hannigan are watching and tweeting about it — that is quite a coup.” Suits‘ Patrick J. Adams was such a believer, he came up to Toronto to guest-star in season 2, while the folks from NBC’s Parks and Recreation booked Maslany for a guest arc. And then there is Patton Oswalt, he of the massive geek cred who tweeted incessantly to his 1.6 million Twitter followers about the show and proclaimed Maslany nothing less than the “best actress alive.”
All that word of mouth has kept Orphan Black buzzy even though it has been off the air since June. Maslany nabbed the Best Actress in a Drama Series trophy at the Critic’s Choice Awards that month, and later earned People’s Choice and Golden Globe nominations as well. “The whole night was really surreal,” says Maslany of mingling with Hollywood’s starriest at the Globes. “It felt so much bigger than me. Not something I ever expected to be a part of. There were moments, like when I pulled my chair out to let Meryl Streep pass by and I was like, ‘What? Why am I here?’ It didn’t make any sense to me. I felt like I got to be an observer in this very bizarre world.”
Stage 5: Avoiding the Sophomore Slump
It seems the only thing harder than becoming a fan favorite is staying a fan favorite. The pop culture landscape is littered with out-of-the-gate sensations that crashed and burned when faced with heightened season 2 expectations. (Heroes, anyone?) So how does Orphan Black avoid becoming another one-season wonder? And how do you top yourself when you have already shown a dude getting his tail chopped off? “We tried to shoot above our own expectations,” says Manson.
While the creators want to keep the basic DNA of the show intact — that’s some clone humor for you there — they also plan to offer something new to keep fans’ interest piqued. “We want to expand the world,” says Fawcett. “We want to make the show a little bigger, make the show a little badder, make the show a little more off-center. There are more rabbit holes to go into.”
What rabbit holes, you ask? The Neolutionist versus Prolethean battle will take a turn with a new branch of the latter — led by Henrik Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge) — that embraces elements of science in their religious beliefs. And answers will slowly unspool about that mysterious Project LEDA photo from 1977 that Sarah’s birth mother gave her just before dying at the end of season 1. “In order to move forward, Sarah has to look back,” says Manson. “She has to look to the origins of the experiment, as do they all. People might want to check out their Greek mythology — there’s some clues there.”
Other open threads from season 1 include the search for Sarah’s daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), who may or may not have been kidnapped by Rachel, and the perilous condition of Cosima, who is in the early stages of the same respiratory illness that plagued Katja. “Cosima is going to have to make a few deals with the devil to get to the bottom of her own biology and illness,” teases Manson. Hmm, could that mean taking Neolutionist leader Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer) up on his offer to provide a lab where she can study her sickness? Wherever it takes place, Cosima’s research will lead to the introduction of — drumroll, please — a new clone! Meet Jennifer Fitzsimmons, a teacher and swim coach at Shelton High…at least she used to be, before she too started getting sick. According to Fawcett, Cosima’s discovery of Jennifer’s haunting video diaries will be a “ticking clock on the entire season.”
Orphan Black‘s non-clone characters will provide their share of story too. Felix begins “forging relationships with people outside of Sarah,” says Gavaris, and more answers will be coming about Sarah’s foster mom, Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy). “In season 2 you get to see more of what she was like 20 years ago,” says Kennedy, “and what she was as a fighter, as an activist.” Police detectives Art (Kevin Hanchard) and Angie (Inga Cadranel) will still be trying to unravel the mystery, while monitors — that’d be the people charged with watching the look-alikes — Paul (Dylan Bruce) and Delphine will continue to juggle their duty to the Dyad Institute with their personal devotion to the clones. Nashville‘s Michiel Huisman joins the show as Cal Morrison, a lover from Sarah’s past, and The Killing‘s Michelle Forbes shows up as Marion Bowles, whom Fawcett describes as “Rachel’s creepy boss.”
The increased emphasis on the supporting cast is necessary, as the hardest-working woman in showbiz might have gotten just a wee bit burned-out last season. “I was in, like, 99 percent of the scenes,” says Maslany while relaxing in Felix’s loft during a break in filming. “And sometimes twice or three times in the same scene. And that makes it exhausting. What’s so great about this year is that we have all these incredible actors coming to our show and these new story lines that are expanding, so I don’t have to carry the whole thing.”
The cast and crew all feel confident they have the goods to avoid a letdown in season 2. If they’re right, Orphan Black may take that next step from beloved under-the-radar gem to full-on mainstream hit. #CloneClub is now accepting new members.
If you can’t tell your Katjas from your Cosimas, follow our handy guide to Orphan‘s split personalities.
Sarah Our punky protagonist begins season 2 searching for her missing daughter, Kira, who may hold the key to the other clones’ infertility. But she’ll also find herself on the run, teaming up with an unlikely ally and turning to a former lover (Nashville‘s Michiel Huisman) for help.
[Dead] Beth The police detective set Sarah’s journey in motion when she stepped in front of a moving train to end her own life. Sarah then claimed Beth’s identity — and Beth’s boyfriend/monitor, Paul — in the hopes of draining her bank account, only to discover the vast clone conspiracy she never knew existed.
[Dead] Katja A German with red hair and a nasty cough, Katja was on the receiving end of a sniper bullet courtesy of clone-killer Helena while in the back of Sarah’s car. However, her briefcase full of files and blood samples helped the clones in their genetic investigation.
Alison The gun-toting, pill-popping suburban soccer mom stood and watched as her monitor Aynsley choked to death. Just one problem: That wasn’t her monitor. Alison will struggle with that decision in season 2. On the bright side, she got Aynsley’s part in the community-theater musical!
Cosima The evolutionary developmental biology student fell in love with her female monitor, Delphine, and made the startling discovery that the clones were patented by their creators. But she needs their help to study her own genetic code and combat the same respiratory illness that afflicted Katja.
[Dead] Helena Sarah’s self-mutilating twin was raised in a Ukrainian convent and trained by the Proletheans to kill other clones. After stabbing their birth mom to death, Helena choked Sarah before stopping and saying they were incapable of killing each other. Not true! Sarah shot Helena, leaving her to die.
Rachel Raised by Neolutionists, Rachel implied harm would come to Kira if Sarah didn’t cooperate. Sarah’s response: “Up yours, proclone.” Now Kira is missing. Is Rachel behind it? Either way, the war between Sarah and Rachel will rage in season 2, with casualties on both sides.
[New Clone] Jennifer This clone, a high school teacher and swim coach, will be introduced when Cosima comes across her video diaries. Jennifer also suffers from respiratory problems, and the footage, which shows her deteriorating condition, will be yet another clue in Cosima’s battle to stay alive.
Orphan Black‘s Secret Weapon
Tatiana Maslany is not the only woman behind the clones on Orphan Black. Kathryn Alexandre has one of the most unusual job titles in entertainment: performance double. She’s the one during filming who plays opposite Maslany when two clone characters interact. The process goes like this: Maslany plays the scene all the way through as one clone while Alexandre portrays the other. Then — after extensive hair, makeup, and wardrobe changes — they switch places and do it the other way, with the final product featuring two Maslanys. Though the 24-year-old Alexandre remains unseen by audiences, she does her best to act as Maslany would. “I try to mimic how she does it as well as I can,” she says. “And as time goes on, I’ve gotten better at anticipating how she’ll play each character.” Maslany views her double’s contribution and input as essential to the process. “If she weren’t there, there would be nothing,” says Maslany. “There would be no performance. She’s totally integral.” The producers showed their appreciation for Alexandre’s work by casting the actress in her first onscreen Orphan Black role. Look for her cameo — and her face, for once — in episode 9.