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An Oral History of ORPHAN BLACK from the Women Who Brought It to Life

An Oral History of ORPHAN BLACK from the Women Who Brought It to Life

Orphan Black was no TV Themyscira, having been brought to life like most things in show business: with two guys at the helm and a smattering of women populating a more traditional sea of men. Sure, it told the story of a sisterhood of clones upon that life-altering realization, but for all the representation happening in front of the camera thanks to Tatiana Maslany‘s riveting work, there was only one woman director ever in the series’ history, and the writers’ room was largely men until season five. But in creating a series about a sisterhood like no other, Orphan Black‘s men developed a space for the women that worked on it to bring their own stories and ideas and visions to life, and to make a more diversely characterized and nuanced show with women at the front of it.

Orphan Black, over the course of its five seasons, has told the story of a series of clones who’ve recently come to the realization that they are part of a shady science experiment with dire consequences. Through the plight of deadbeat Sarah, science genius Cosima, soccer mom Alison, angry vigilante Helena, and self-aware boss Rachel (and so many more, all played deftly by Maslany and her clone double, Kathryn Alexandre), the myriad shades of femininity and female personhood are put on display to tell a story of bodily autonomy, the struggles of women, nature vs. nurture, and so much more—all wrapped up in a thrilling sci-fi conspiracy package.

“There’s been such a fire in all of our bellies to tell a story that means something and is actually saying something.” – Tatiana Maslany

And by making space for the women in their orbit, series co-creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett ostensibly became feminist allies, allowing their women equal space in the conversation and creation of the series’ stories and ideas. The rising tide that lifted these women’s boats. So we knew, in honor of the series’ end, that we had to lift up these women’s voices the same way Orphan Black lifted up its female fans.

Because, as Maslany put it, “Women deserve basic rights and ownership of our bodies, and the show has always been about that. Whether it was aware of it or not, it was always about that.”

Finding Its Feminism Through Science

“The future is female!” P.T. Westmoreland asserts, subverting a phrase of empowerment into one of pure villainy in the hands of religiously fanatical sciencecult Neolution’s leader. It is a phrase he utters often throughout the series’ fifth and final season, a nod to the show’s feminist leanings. Coupled with its link to the science at the heart of the show, it’s a phrase that becomes all the more sinister. Much like Henrietta Lacks in real life, the clones’ biology is used to advance science in an unprecedented manner, with no say or consent on the matter. And out of science, a story is born.

While all the science you see on Orphan Black is “based on things actually going on in the world today and throughout history,” the series molds it to their advantage to “build a creative and exciting narrative … We have always used the science to buttress other kinds of commentaries,” explained Cosima Herter, a science and story consultant on the series. “Like the assumptions we make about how and why we value (and legislate) particular kinds of bodies more than others, or the role of biotechnology and bioengineering in our lives, or why we accept some kinds of technologies and technological interventions and not others … the kinds of assumptions so many of us seem to make about hierarchies of life. We can use the science to mobilize questions about who benefits, who is harmed, and what kinds of gendered and class related beliefs are actually deeply written into those kinds of techno-science.”

In many ways, Orphan Black would be nothing without Herter—not to be confused with her clone namesake: the scientific backbone of the sestras’ plight, PhD student Cosima Niehaus. “Real Cosima helps us with the science and the larger picture of where the science fits into society and the themes that we might be working with that we’re not even aware of—that’s a big part of the process,” explained Graeme Manson.

Herter’s been that big a part of the process since before day one, as a friend of Manson’s with whom he would wax philosophical about science and its power in storytelling. And it is clear in talking to Herter that hers is a voice instrumental to the larger themes that drive the larger story, or—as she dubs it—”The Conversation” the show is having with its audience.

“When Graeme first came to me with the idea, he and I’d already spent a lot of time discussing all the different ways one could conceive of what a clone is—not simply a human clone, but all the ways clones occur naturally in other organisms,” Herter told us. “We spoke about literal clones, allegorical clones, the ways we could draw metaphor from the idea of clones, etc. At the time I was struggling through my Masters degree, and preparing to go on to work on a PhD. So many of the ideas that Graeme, as a writer, was trying to explore were ideas and issues I had long been interested in and was already working on during my time in academia.”

Maslany added, “I think Cosima’s got such an incredible perspective on [the show’s themes] in terms of the science.”

“We spoke about literal clones, allegorical clones, the ways we could draw metaphor from the idea of clones…” – Cosima Herter

Though she didn’t foresee a place for herself in the series beyond those initial chats, after the series was picked up Herter was given a title—several, in fact, both as a Science and Story Consultant—and quickly moved beyond “simply checking the facts of the ‘hard’ science.” Though as she asserts, “certainly this is an essential part of what I do.” Still, for Herter, the focus of her time was far bigger than that: “I spent much of my time researching and bringing timely issues and ideas in the biological sciences to the table that could be spun into an interesting and active narrative.”

But for all its science, Orphan Black is also about power: who has it, who controls it, how do you get it, and what does it look like in the hands of a woman. And it was something that evolved as the series went on, doubling down as fan reaction and critical—and academic! and scientific!—dissection continued.

“Within all of us there is Juliet and there is Lady Macbeth,” explained director Helen Shaver (helmer of the episodes “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est,” “Certain Agony of the Battlefield,” and “Ease for Idle Millionaires”). “All aspects of humanity are within each of us. Character is our choice of which aspects we move from, that we act from. And I don’t mean acting as in theatrical, I mean as in we take action from certain aspects of ourselves. And so if you took all the clones, really, where each of the women individually are complete, but together they are also one woman, which is literally what they are—they are Tatiana Maslany. This woman contains all of these characters, as all women contain all of these aspects. And circumstance and choice bring us in our individual lives to what aspects we live from and make our journey from.”

The Maslany Factor

The breadth of the show has always been embodied in the multi-adjective-able performance of its star, Tatiana Maslany. Within each clone, a different facet of femininity is explored and challenged, with its effect on the self and society transmuted by the clone in which it was embodied. (The possibilities are endless! As is the number of clones in the experiment, it seems.) No wonder the praise for Maslany from her colleagues, to say nothing of critics, has been unending, poignant, and comprehensive when discussed in the context of this piece and every other story about the series before and after it.

It’s not just because she’s passionate — it’s because she backs it up and is allowed to bring it.

“Tatiana is incredibly intelligent, curious, and conscientious woman,” noted Herter. “And she really does her research too! If there were ever anything related to the science that was unclear to her, we would talk it through so that she felt confident she understood what she needed to embody those ideas. But—and let’s be clear about this—while she and I would have many conversations about some of the hard technical aspects of some of the science, she is brilliant and hardworking and that extends to her learning much of these things on her own and bringing ideas to the table herself. Certainly we’d talk, and I did my best to give her all the information she needed and introduce certain concepts she wasn’t familiar with, but she also helped me learn through different ideas as well. The teaching and learning went both ways.”

So, too, is Maslany quick to compliment the myriad women with whom she worked. Because it’s true: behind her clone façade is a cavalcade of women who’ve helped bring the series to life. In addition to someone like Kathryn Alexandre—Maslany’s clone double who actually started out as an audition reader before even being considered for the part—there were the immeasurable additions of actresses like Skyler Wexler (Kira), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Mrs S.), Evelyne Brochu (Delphine), Rosemary Dunsmore (Susan Duncan), and Kyra Harper (Virginia Coady); there were producers and writers like Kerry Appleyard, Claire Welland, Mackenzie Donaldson, Andrea Boyd, Renée St. Cyr, Jenn Engels, Aubrey Nealon, Anika Johnson, Alexandra Mircheff, and many many more members of the production team (and beyond) who helped create and shape these characters with their input, teamwork, and existence in the fold.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Carving Out a Space for Its (Many) Other Women

It’s important to remember: Orphan Black didn’t have to operate the way it did. Most other shows on air don’t, frankly, and up until this point in pop culture, no one would’ve questioned it or batted an eye. “It would have been easy for them to really stick to their guns,” explained Alexandre, who was critical in helping Maslany shape the clones in multi-clone scenes. “I know especially the last season, it felt like they were really taking extra measures to change the scripts based on what they were hearing from the women who work on the show.”

“We didn’t have that many female writers on the show [at first],” explained Donaldson, an integral member of the Orphan Black team who started as Manson and Fawcett’s assistant before ending her tenure on the series as a co-producer. “Season five we had the most we’d ever had before, but if Graeme and John hadn’t been open to hearing from myself, from Tat, and the other women that are producing their show for them or starring in it, I don’t think that the story wouldn’t have been told exactly as well as it was.”

And Donaldson’s talents and rise through the Orphan Black machine are indicative of how, when women are treated as equals by their male colleagues, they can not only survive but thrive in this environment. Donaldson’s talents could have easily gone unnoticed had things gone a different way. But, as she put it, “the coolest thing about John and Graeme is that they are so open to the best ideas coming from whoever. So even though I was their assistant that year, if I had a story idea or an opinion about wardrobe or casting, they were always open to hearing it. And they really let the best ideas come to the surface no matter where they came from.”

“Within all of us there is Juliet and there is Lady Macbeth—all aspects of humanity are within each of us. Character is our choice of which aspects we move from, that we act from.” – Helen Shaver

Where some sets can be filled with ego, Manson and Fawcett permitted none, allowing the women to assert their place and their authority over the topic of the story they were telling. “John and Graeme really populated their show with a lot of strong females voices that really wanted to say something,” said Maslany. “To their credit, they were really open to hearing notes and adapting things to what we were feeling, what we were thinking. Especially this last season with the election happening and the world kind of imploding on itself. There’s been such a fire in all of our bellies to tell a story that means something and is actually saying something.”

Added Maslany, “It really felt like it was a joint effort on all of our parts.”

A group effort that strengthened not only the way the women’s stories were told, but also how they were shown on screening, giving rise to a new look at female power. And for all the positive ways in which the series lifted up women, it may surprise you to know that there was only ONE female director on the series the entire time: Helen Shaver.

The Female Gaze

Helen Shaver, in only three episodes, left a huge mark on the series’ approach to the female gaze, and its vitalness to telling stories—especially those about power. Filming some of the most iconic, character-defining moments for Cosima, Rachel, and Helena, Shaver’s presence looms large in several conversations about the show (particularly with Maslany). And it felt equally as thrilling for Shaver. It may not feel radical to some, but for women who so frequently have to fight for equity in these situations, Manson and Fawcett’s treatment of them as equals from the jump (and without patting themselves on the back for it) provided a more level playing field than most.

“They totally gave me my head, in terms of, ‘okay, come back with your ideas,'” explained Shaver.

This was vitally important to one scene in particular: a tense and commanding sex scene, between Rachel Duncan and her then-monitor/security dude Paul Dierden, that ultimately wasn’t about sex at all. While most sex scenes are informed by their relation to male pleasure, Shaver knew this was about so much more for Rachel and the scene itself: it was about female-dominant sex where control and her selfish pleasure is the only objective.

“It really wasn’t until I was involved in Orphan Black and the broader conversation it created … that I really started to realize how ingrained in our culture these kind of gender roles are.” – Kathryn Alexandre

“They’d written that in the script—it said that she pushes him back on the bed and gets on top of him,” explained Shaver. “And I said, ‘let me play with this for a little while, because pushing somebody on the bed and sitting on top of them, well, whatever. It’s not radical.'”

The dynamics of the scene had to change from the description on the page, both in location and execution, because simply having Rachel straddle Paul was not enough to imply what’s really going on for the character. “For me, it became like, ‘What does Rachel want? Rachel doesn’t care—she is doing nothing for Paul’s pleasure. This is all about her. He is an instrument.’ So how do we show that? How do we visualize that he is chattel to her?” said Shaver, whose inspiration came from a maybe the least sexy place imaginable: the dentist.

“I had just been to the dentist, and to me the dentist is the worst,” she continued. “The idea of somebody sticking their hand and a machine in my mouth is like, what?! No. At the same time the idea of looking a gift horse in the mouth and how you examine the horse’s mouth popped into my mind and I thought, ‘Okay, all right, in here is something.’ So I started working on this image of her opening his mouth and putting her hand in and not allowing him to touch her. All of those aspects. I just started playing with all those ideas, and brought them to Graeme, and then to Tat, and they both were excited by the concept. And so that scene evolved, which I think is remarkable. I think it’s a really cool thing.”

And for Maslany, it gave her a deeper understanding of the character. “I think that was what was so cool about opening up that side of Rachel and seeing her dom: In that sex scene with Paul, we see a side of this character that I’d never seen, that I’d never explored, and doing it with Helen, again … thank God I got to do it with her because she just understood it and was really willing to go to a deeper place than just sex and sexiness. It was about power dynamics and pleasure as power and it was really exciting to do and very vulnerable making and very empowering at the same time.”

Shaver’s understanding of the women on the show didn’t end with the clones, however. And it fundamentally changed the way the actors thought about themselves in a scene. “She’s so great,” added Kennedy, who complimented her ability to hone in on a essence or—when need be—distract an actor from themselves in particular. “She said, ‘it’s about feeling thoughts rather than thinking feelings.’ And I just thought that was such a perfect way to describe it, and I really held onto that and kept it with me ever since.”

How It’s Changed Them and the Future

I sometimes have a hard time writing about Orphan Black. It’s a challenge to find a way to synthesize what the show is and means to me as a woman and a fan. So, too, do the women who worked on it in front of and behind the scenes. Throughout several conversations with myriad women who’ve worked on the series, the point remained the same—Orphan Black was lightning in a bottle, an opportunity for women to create a thrilling, allegorical story ushered in by two very supportive allies in co-creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett. The duo took chances not just on their story, but on hiring women who were passionate about the work, giving them the opportunity to contribute, thrive, and grow within the parameters of the show…but also in themselves.

“I think that I was kind of naïve to how women were represented in media before my involvement with the show,” explained Alexandre. “It’s kind of so ingrained in us, the stereotypes of how women have been portrayed, and because you’re so accustomed to seeing it, I never really thought about it in a broader sense and how that representation has affected my view of traditionally male and traditionally female roles and all of that. It really wasn’t until I was involved in Orphan Black and the broader conversation it created—about how it opened up all of those questions and the commentary on how these female characters were kind of challenging the norm—that I really started to realize how ingrained in our culture these kind of gender roles are, and how we represent both genders in media, and how that affects people’s development and views of the world and all of that. It’s played a bigger part in how I read scripts or look at other roles that are offered to me and think about projects that I’m creating myself and making sure that we’re moving forward in that discussion as opposed to falling back into these accepted boxes that we put female characters into. It was a really, really special thing.”

“Being a woman working with a woman is very different than being a woman working with a man. It’s like there’s a truth shared by women, children, and artists that men will never know.” – Helen Shaver

Through being allies, listening, engaging, collaborating, and taking a chance on the women that made up the series, Orphan Black created a family—not just among the cast but also its fans, one as diverse and multi-faceted as the series itself.

“It really was this microcosm for opening up my mind to the bigger issue that we have with portrayal in media—and even talking to fans,” Alexandre said.

“I’m not saying that we were by any means perfect, but we were trying to work towards something that was always interesting and provocative,” added Kennedy. “And that left some kind of residue of just a thought, even.”

“Being a woman working with a woman is very different than being a woman working with a man. It’s like there’s a truth shared by women, children, and artists that men will never know,” Shaver stated, matter of factly. “I mean certainly men who are artists are in touch with their feminine side, and so on and so forth, but there is just a place that [we] found—didn’t find, but just exists for us—that was a great place to work.”

“I’m so nervous about the next show I’m gonna work on—everyone has told me, ‘You don’t always get a cast and crew like this. You don’t always get a show like this. You don’t always get a group of women like this that are such serious fighters behind the scenes to make sure that we’re steering our show in the right direction, to represent women properly on screen.’ I’m gonna take all those lessons I’ve learned and try to emulate them no matter where I go,” explained Donaldson.

“I don’t think I’ll ever really process how much that means to me,” admitted Maslany. “It’s just, it’s just beyond. It’s beyond. It’ll be very hard to follow this feeling of collaboratively telling stories that meant something to us. It will be hard to follow it up.”

Images + GIFs: IDW Publishing; BBC America; Giphy

Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of Nerdist, host of Fangirling!, resident TV obsessive, and President of the Nerdist chapter of Clone Club. Find her on Twitter!

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