Wwhen Tatiana Maslany was 20, she wondered if acting was really for her. The Canadian was already 11 years into his career, having started working as a child, and had recently moved from Regina, Saskatchewan, to Toronto to be where the jobs were. “I suddenly had this urge to rethink why I was doing it,” she says. “Did I just do it because it was this thing I did as a kid?” But then she saw John Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, in which Gena Rowlands’ suburban housewife reaches breaking point. And I thought, ‘Yes, it is! That’s what I want!’” she exclaims. “I wanted that level of freedom and inventiveness and presence and connection. It was so powerful to watch. That movie showed me what was possible.”
Maslany is now 36, and in the intervening years she has rarely stopped. Her career has taken her from Orphan Black, the sci-fi series about a group of clones in which she played 11 roles at once (and received an Emmy for her efforts), to the Broadway production of Lee Hall’s Network, alongside Bryan Cranston, to the neo-noir film Destroyer, where she was kidnapped by Nicole Kidman’s burnt-out detective.
Now she stars in Marvel’s new Disney+ series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Such is the secrecy surrounding the project that, at the time of writing, no pre-episodes have been made available. Maslany tells me that even she is limited in what she can reveal: “But I like it because, as viewers, we all love a surprise, right?”
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, where she has lived since 2017, Maslany sits next to an open window, sheer white curtains billowing behind her. Her usually dark hair is a mass of red-blonde curls. What she can say about She-Hulk is that her character, Jennifer Walters, is a lawyer in the early stages of her career when “something happens that makes her superhuman, and the story follows her struggle with this thing.” As opposed to being empowered by this idea of being a superhero, it feels distracting and alien. “What drew me to the role is how human and how unheroic she is, and how little interest she has in pursuing all of this.”
She also had a lot of fun smashing things with her co-star Mark Ruffalo, who spent 10 years playing Bruce Banner (he’s Jennifer’s cousin) and mentored her in the ways of the Hulk. “He’s such a special guy, and he has a childlike wonder about everything. But as the Hulk, he has this physical dexterity and precision of character that’s really something to witness.” The pair linked their high-tech but distinctly strange costumes that track their movements and facial expressions so they can appear altered, and yet themselves, on screen. “Everybody else gets these really cool superhero outfits,” she says sadly, “and there we were in these little gray suits.”
Maslany’s She-Hulk aesthetic is a far cry from the green goddess spilling out of her clothes as depicted in the early comics. Back then, the few female superheroes that existed seemed to be there to titillate the mostly male readership. Marvel Studios has been slow to redress the balance; it took Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, 11 years to get her own movie. Maslany says the She-Hulk script, which was written by Jessica Gao (Rick and Morty), includes nods to the treatment of female Marvel characters in the past. “She suddenly has this value when it comes to optics. She is becoming known for her superheroism… But I think there has been a paradigm shift. It takes time and it’s about finding new ways to tell stories. What made me say, “Okay, this feels fresh and surprising,” is that it feels deeply—if I can use a binary term—feminine. There is a girliness to it. That word is often used as a derogatory term, but to me it’s a celebration of female friendship in She-Hulk that’s really fun.”
She adds that she looks forward to the day when a woman playing a superhero isn’t so dangerous. “I am very interested in when these [marginalised] Voices are going to speak without it being like, ‘Oh my God, it’s all women’ or, ‘Oh my God, this is a story about a queer couple,’ and those stories become as innately expected as they are now special.” She has long found the ‘strong female lead’ archetype irritating – ‘because it’s reductive. It’s as much a shave of all the nuances, and as much a trope. It’s a box that no one fits into. Even the expression is frustrating. It is as if we should be grateful that we get to be.”
Maslany can hardly remember a time when she wasn’t performing. She studied tap dancing from the age of four and quickly progressed to theater and improvisation: “My mother said, ‘Well, you’re clearly not a sports kid. This seems like the thing you want to do.’” Her early work was mostly in local theater and children’s television in Canada; she made her film debut in 2004 as the comic-obsessed Ghost in Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed.
Maslany points out that she is not the product of ambitious stage parents: “They had no connection to that world. It was never forced on me.” Still, going back and forth between school and television sets was difficult, especially as she entered her teens. “I don’t know how you go from working 10-hour days with a bunch of adults where there’s an expectation to perform to going to school and sitting at desks with other kids. My peers all started going out drinking and I was like, ‘Huh? What is it about? I couldn’t quite understand any of the worlds, in a way.”
She recently read former child actress Sarah Polley’s book Run Towards the Danger, in which Polley recalls the crushingly long hours and dangerous conditions working on the set of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. “I don’t think that’s unusual,” says Maslany. “A lot of it resonated with me, even though Sarah was going through different things that I was, and she was working at a different level of visibility. But still, that book hit me really hard.”
Maslany sure knows about working long hours. Her role in the critically beloved Orphan Black launched her career, although it also almost broke her. Taking on the role of 11 clones, all with different personalities (and wigs), she was in almost every scene, often multiple times. As she embraced the creative challenge — “To play all these characters at once, no actor can pull that off” — she has never felt such exhaustion before or since. “It took a toll on my body,” she says. “My heart rate didn’t drop for years afterwards. And I didn’t learn to sleep again for a long time. You’re on all the time, starting at 5am on Monday and then packing at six in the morning on Saturday morning and getting up at 5am on Monday to do it all over again. It is tough.”
When the series ended in 2017 after five seasons, she found herself making a comeback. “I was, like, ‘Who the hell am I? What do I have left to give? How do I rebuild now?’ She also thought hard about what would satisfy her creatively. “Like, what would the next thing feel important?” And it ended up being smaller projects, like a cartoon [voicing Mia McKibbin in BoJack Horseman] and do a year and a half of theatre [playing Diana Christensen in Network]and it was just as exciting.”
Although she is grateful for the success of Orphan Black, and all it has brought, the fame has been confusing. “There’s this whole other world that you’re expected to engage with, which adds to the heartbreaking feeling. I’m a super private person, so I’ve always been a bit on edge with the expectation that an actor is also a public figure. I love to transform and I love to fall into a character and let people join me as I do it. But this thing that is layered on top of it which is red carpets and cameras everywhere? It’s weird to me.” At the same time, Maslany knows there are advantages to her job. “The beautiful part is that I get to go into spaces that I would never otherwise, and get more opportunities to work and collaborate. All in all That’s a pretty good gain.”
She-Hulk: Lawyer is on Disney+ from 18 August.