There is a moment in The Other Half, a Canadian indie drama from 2016, where you will realise that Tatiana Maslany has scorched the actor’s rule book. In fits of manic rage and unbridled sorrow, she forces you into a world of two minds waging war over a single soul, split in two, at the centre. One can see moments where director Joey Klein and co-star Tom Cullen must have simply stepped back and let profound genius play out. Extended scenes of Maslany acting out a tortured existence could have made up the entire film.
The Canadian Screen Awards handed Maslany an award for best leading actress for her effort. If acting weren't a gendered competition she would have trounced Stephen James, who was awarded the male equivalent award for his depiction of Jesse Owens in Race. If The Other Half and its star were American, with the full force of a Hollywood awards campaign machine behind it, Emma Stone would have watched her pick up the Oscar. It’s not that Stone and James didn’t deserve their hardware, it’s just that on an even playing field there would simply be no competition whatsoever.
Maslany is the best actor alive. It’s a fact that sci-fi geeks already know because of Orphan Black. On the night she was recognised for The Other Half, she spent most of it walking back and forth to the stage collecting awards for both. The sci-fi thriller capped off its final season after accomplishing a feat with very few historical precedents: it existed as a Canadian show that found audience outside of Canada. This was largely off the back of Maslany who played 14 characters, all distinct clones, throughout its five seasons.
If you were too distracted by Game of Thrones these last few years to know what Orphan Black is all about, you’re not alone. A Canadian drama is still a Canadian drama. And while American productions afford the durability and reach of lavish Netflix deals or big-brand American networks like HBO, Orphan Black was broadcast through Space and BBC America largely out of the reach of the show's target audience, millennials. And while her work has brought her both critical distinction and shelves full statuettes to affirm it, the Canadian base her work has primarily come from has prevented her from becoming a household name north and south of the border.
It’s a classic Canadianism. While the Goslings and the Reynolds of our national acting class have managed to carve out a chunk of the big show, it’s almost always because of their embrace of American work. It’s a sad truth to really make it in Hollywood – or even the international indie circuit – as a Canadian you’ve got to pack up and leave Toronto behind at some point, preferably early on. What’s startling and telling is how far into the highest echelons Maslany has gone without fully making the leap.
Maslany was born in Regina, the daughter of a woodworker and a translator. Her acting career kicked off at a Catholic secondary school on the south end of the city which counts only athletes among its other noted alumni. She threw herself into the school's productions before finding acting work across the country. She would cut and carve time between acting and school before landing in Toronto at age 20.
From there, she began to climb to the top of Canada’s entertainment ecosystem. She picked up acting credits in The Messengers, Heartland, Instant Star and Flashpoint. In 2010, she starred as the high-school aged daughter of a disgraced former professional hockey player in Canadian indie Grown Up Movie Star, which won her a special jury award at Sundance. In 2013, she’d land on the set of Orphan Black before launching the show and her career into a new stratosphere.
Much has been said about Maslany’s work on Orphan Black. It’s difficult however to truly define the grasp of her artistic accomplishment. While most actors need to focus internally and completely on their character in order to deliver, Maslany was tasked with splintering her energy across a mosaic of 14. While at once she would need to wrap her head around the street-slick mannerisms of the shows lead, Sarah Manning, she would instantly need to flip her psychology to deliver lines of homicidal and addictive skittishness from one of her characters clones.
The end result is a show so immensely successful in spite of its unapologetic Canadiana that our national institutions don’t quite seem to know what to make of it. While the New York Times granted Maslany a much deserved profile, our national arts media seems to only take note of her around award season. After half a decade, Orphan Black stands as a brilliant take on femininity and identity in 2017. It hammered Maslany the cult following she now has and earned her the first ever Emmy for a Canadian actress in a Canadian role.
At TIFF this year, Stronger, a film depicting one couples aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, debuted to critical acclaim. Maslany stars across Jake Gyllenhaal in a film where both leads have spent their careers thus far cutting their teeth in physically and artistically challenging work that refines and sometimes distracts from their mainstream success. The actors chemistry works to boil down what could have ended up as a run-of-the mill patriotic and inspirational screenplay into a meditation on the emotional consequences of physical trauma.
It’s the first step in what can only be Maslany’s eventual domination of the American market. The actor, now based out of Los Angeles, is on a crash course to going from cult fascination to mainstream. What’s different about this classic story on "Canadian export makes it big in Tinsel Town" is that we’ve never exported an actor as good as Maslany. While most may be taken by surprise when a Canadian actor begins to spark rumours about taking home the Oscar in the next few years, I won’t be among them. I’m not as interested as many will be in the when, but instead in the how many, and what it will mean for Canada’s acting community if we’ve produced not just another success story, but someone more than that - that once in a lifetime kind of actor who can push the whole form forward.