In the HBO revamp of the classic “Perry Mason” drama series, Tatiana Maslany plays Sister Alice, a character she describes as “an iconic celebrity preacher.” The show is set in the 1930s and Sister Alice is an “enigmatic character who bumps up against Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) in his investigation, so she’s part of the mystery. She has an entire congregation that follows her; she does these very sensational performances of these sermons with props and costumes, so she has people eating out of her hands.”
You could say the same about Maslany’s talents as an actor, which won her an Emmy for her multi-role performance on the TV series “Orphan Black.” Having a background in improv, she said, was especially helpful when she was creating her many distinct characters on that show.
“In improv you’ll get a tiny little nugget and then it’s all about taking that and using your imagination to create an entire world based on that one suggestion. So especially with ‘Orphan Black’ it was like: What is this tiny little nugget of the character that I can expand on and create a whole person out of?”
Despite her long experience as an actor — she’s been at it since age 9 — Maslany has never done Shakespeare. All of that was about to change when she landed a lead role in a film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays. And then … well …
My worst moment …
“As an actor with some visibility sometimes you get offers. So I was offered a Shakespeare film. This was about four months ago. I’m not going to go into too many details, but it was going to be a period piece. I’ve grown up on stage but I’ve never done Shakespeare and I know it’s a whole different thing.
“So I sat down with the director and we talked for a long time, sort of excitedly going over the details of this character and the possibilities of filming. But it was really with the intention of him reiterating: Shakespeare is a very different world. And I was like, ‘Totally.’
“So I had the part. It was offered to me — and for me personally, offers kind of stress me out because I’m like, ‘I didn’t earn this.’ I have this imposter syndrome thing that kicks in.
“So I said, ‘Let’s do a work session so you can feel comfortable with me and see that we’re on the right track, and then I can start to get a taste for what this is.’
“So (laughs) he flew back to Los Angeles so we could do a two-hour session. We ran the scenes together and I was (flipping) loving it! I felt so excited. I felt so jazzed. I was learning so much! I was taking notes! At one point the director offered me coffee and I said, ‘No, no, no — I’m high on Shakespeare right now!’ (Laughs)
“So we finish, I leave the meeting and get on my bike and I was biking away feeling overjoyed.
“Didn’t hear anything back for two weeks.
“And then got a call from my agent saying, ‘So (long pause) they’re basically rescinding the offer because they don’t feel you can do this.’
“And I was like, ‘Whooooaaaa.’ My ego was shattered. Absolutely shattered. Because basically I had the part and then got myself fired (laughs). I had a good two hours where I was like: Well, I guess I’m going to quit acting and I’m the worst and that’s it. That’s the end of the career.
“Now I can find it funny.
“Sometimes I’ll go into an audition and I’ll be sort of disinterested just to protect myself. But I was really guileless with this. Like, saying ‘I’m high on Shakespeare’ is probably the most insane thing a human has said, and then also it’s like, ‘Aaaannnnd you’re terrible at it.’
“But I would much rather know this now than when we’re in Ireland filming and I’m sent home! It just wasn’t meant to be.
“I will go see this movie when it comes out, by the way, just to see how my system responds to it. I’m a masochist.”
Did she consider reaching out to the director to change his mind?
“Um. Uh, you know: No.
“And I have been rejected so many times over the years so there’s no part of me that feels entitled to a part.
“Even when I did ‘Network’ on Broadway, there was a day when I went in and watched the understudy performance. They would run it every week to an empty theater. And I was just so blown away by Nicole Villamil’s performance, she was in my role. I was so moved by it and so inspired by it and I feel like it’s so bizarre to think, ‘There is the only person that’s right for the role.’
“As a perfectionist I’m never satisfied, so I have a pretty strong tendency to cut myself down (laughs). But I for sure have an ego. And I for sure love challenges and conquering challenges. So there’s part of me that’s very equipped to deal with rejection — being an actor and a dork, all of it. But then there’s also an ego that needs coddling.
“So I don’t regret asking for that work session; I really do value the collaborative energy between and actor and a director. Auditions are a weird, unnatural thing and we all really struggle with them because they do feel like a strange sales pitch, which is the antithesis of acting. But I do also kind of get off on them; I love the energy of being nervous and that vibration that happens. It’s such an alive fight-or-flight feeling.”
The takeaway …
“Rejection’s not going to kill you. And no matter what accolades or fanfare are around you, as an actor you’re always going to be learning and coming up against challenges, and that’s why it’s such an enjoyable career.
“Would I want to do Shakespeare now after that experience? I don’t know. There’s a knee jerk reaction of, yeah that’s not for me. But then there’s also the competitive part of me that’s like, I want to get better at it — if only to prove to myself that I’m not just high on Shakespeare, he’s high on me (laughs)! What a nightmare!”