Flare — In the pilot of cultishly loved Canadian sci-fi series Orphan Black, a mouthy street thief in a leather jacket and combat boots stands on a train platform. She sees another woman in a prim bun and a power suit, weeping. As she approaches, the crying one slips out of her heels, neatly folds her blazer and slowly turns to face her onlooker. They’re identical, though one is hardened, the other hopeless. Their split second of recognition ends when the sorrowful lady steps off the platform and into an oncoming train. Both characters are played by the mesmerizing 29‑year-old Tatiana Maslany, who, over the course of the show’s two-season run (season three premieres April 18 on Space), plays six other clones bioengineered by a sinister corporation that plants them in vastly different environments as a twisted nature-versus-nurture experiment.
The street tough is Sarah, a cockney-accented con artist who can lie or seduce her way out of any bind; the train jumper is Beth, a Toronto cop with depression issues. Then there’s Cosima, a raver‑ish queer grad student from Berkeley; Rachel, an icy British exec; Katja, a Eurotrash German spy type; Allison, a tightly wound suburban soccer mom; Helena, an animalistic Ukrainian psycho-killer; and, finally, Tony, a transgender ex-con with a mullet and a soul patch. If all that doesn’t sound bonkers enough, Maslany also frequently plays one clone pretending to be another. (“Playing Sarah playing Cosima was a brain f‑ck,” she says.) And, through digital razzle-dazzle, she plays opposite herself in many scenes in which the clones bond, brawl and scheme. Even more impressive is the depth Maslany brings to each character. Her clones are never cartoonish sci-fi/fantasy heroines (hey, Buffy) or broad stereotypes, though they easily could be: a soccer mom, a boss bitch, a granola lesbian. All eight have inner lives and contradictions; all eight are completely believable women. Her prodigious performance has turned the Toronto-made production, which may otherwise have been dismissed as sci-fi CanCon nerdery for teenage boys, into one of the most wildly entertaining and feminist shows on television. Think of current hits like How to Get Away With Murder, The Good Wife and Girls, which are routinely lauded for their complex female leads, then multiply those characters by eight, and you have some sense of the show’s—and Maslany’s—achievement.
Since its premiere in 2013, Orphan Black has become one of the rare Canadian shows to net a massive international audience: it airs in over 170 countries, and more than three million viewers (not to mention countless downloaders) tuned into season two. But a more visceral measure of the show’s success is the fervency of its fans, who call themselves #Clonebians or #CloneClub. They live-tweet every episode, craft clone dolls, manicure the characters onto their fingernails and queue up by the hundreds to see Maslany, like when the Orphan Black cast appeared last year at Comic‑Con, the international gathering of genre fanatics in San Diego—one admirer even wept while thanking her and co-star Jordan Gavaris (who plays Sarah’s gay foster brother) for representing fully rounded LGBTQ characters on television.
Critics and TV insiders, too, uncustomarily lose their minds over Maslany. In 2013, when the Emmy nominees were announced and her name wasn’t on the list, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly decried the oversight, which is now known among fans as the snub heard round the Internet. Twitter erupted in a campaign to nominate her (#EmmyForMaslany), turning her name into a global trending topic. Since then, the actor has been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, won two consecutive Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Actress in a Drama Series and taken the Best Actress in a Drama Series prize at the Canadian Screen Awards twice. She’s also landed her first major movie role in the drama Woman in Gold (April 1), with Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren.
Part of Maslany’s magnetism lies in the fact that she disappears so thoroughly into her characters’ wigs and accents that it’s hard to get a handle on the woman behind them. And, unlike her contemporaries, she hasn’t leveraged her personality as part of her brand—there’s no Lena Dunham–style tell-all or blog about what she buys à la Mindy Kaling. The bio line on her rarely updated Twitter profile simply reads “Acting. Brisket.” The most personal pic she’s ever posted is of her and her boyfriend, dashing Downton Abbey actor Tom Cullen, looking googly-eyed at each other on the SAG red carpet this year. She’s one of the few young actresses today known entirely for her work, not her celebrity.