By now, it's become crystal clear that when it comes to movies and TV shows, Tatiana Maslany is pretty much fearless. The actor plays no less than six characters on any given episode of her clone-themed show Orphan Black, and when she's not picking up Emmys for her work on the series, she's showing off her comedic chops on shows like Robot Chicken or delving into history in movies like Woman in Gold. Maslany, it seems, has no qualms about diving into any material, no matter how complicated or varied — so it's a bit surprising to hear that her newest film, the romantic drama The Other Half, had her seriously worried.
"I had a lot of anxiety about it," Maslany says, sitting across from her co-star (and real-life partner) Tom Cullen in New York's Crosby Street Hotel a week before the film's Mar. 10 premiere. "Just because the material was so intimate and we have a relationship and then you have the work... I was afraid of what we were gonna give away of ourselves, or of our privacy."
Maslany's referring, of course, to the fact that she and Cullen have been in a relationship since they met in 2011 on set of the miniseries World Without End. In the years since, the two have both found significant success — Maslany's due primarily to Orphan Black, Cullen's to the acclaimed film Weekend and the show Downton Abbey — but they've kept their work separate, choosing not to mix business with pleasure. Yet in The Other Half, about the love affair between a bipolar woman (Maslany) and a grief-stricken man (Cullen), they're not only sharing the screen, but doing so in the most intimate, draining way possible.
So it's no wonder Maslany was worried going into the movie — although Cullen, for his part, couldn't have been more thrilled.
"As an artist, rather than a friend and a partner of Tat, I was really excited to work opposite somebody who’s just on fire and making amazing work," he says, looking lovingly at his girlfriend, before adding with a laugh, "...unfortunately, she was terrible. I was really let down. My expectations were shattered."
Clearly, Cullen is joking; anyone who's seen one episode of Orphan Black or caught Maslany hamming it up on Parks & Rec knows she's one of the most talented actors working today. As Emily in The Other Half, a vivacious teacher struggling with a vicious form of bipolar disorder, her skills are on full display; Cullen, too, is seriously impressive, playing Nicky, whose years-old grief over his brother's disappearance causes him to lash out violently. The movie is a compelling showcase for both actors, but still, any project in which a real-life couple play partners on-screen is bound to elicit a few eye rolls. Both Maslany and Cullen are fully aware of the "vanity project" label the film might receive.
"I think that’s always the challenge with a piece where you’re working with your partner, and I don’t know how you avoid that, really," Maslany says, Cullen nodding his agreement. But, she adds, the possibility of getting that label didn't bother her. "I was like, no, I want to make a movie with my friends and kind of screw what people think, you know?" she says. "People will have their opinions about why we did it or whatever, but for me, selfishly, it’s just about getting to do great material with artists who inspire me. And they just happen to be my best friends and my partner."
The Other Half is directed by Joey Klein, a close pal to both actors; he reached out to Maslany long ago about the script, and she soon became one of the film's producers. Later, she brought on Cullen for the part of Nicky and to co-produce; over the years, the actors read and critiqued every new iteration of the film. Maslany spent that time educating herself on bipolar disorder, working with Klein to ensure that Emily's condition felt accurate, but also that it wasn't her only defining trait.
"I really wanted to avoid the sort of thing that people name as the manic pixie dream girl," Maslany says now. "Her illness isn’t romanticized and it’s not a cute facet of her personality that makes her quirky. It’s a deep truth of who she is, and it impacts the way people perceive her, it impacts the way she can move through the world, it impacts her relationships, how close she gets, how much she reveals of herself. She doesn’t think it’s a cute, wonderful thing. She struggles with it."
Adds Cullen, "We worked very hard, and Joey worked very hard, at making the story as honest as possible, and not to try and fall into patterns or cliches or something we’ve seen before."
In this, The Other Half certainly succeeds; neither Emily nor Nicky feel like caricatures of people struggling with their mental health, but fully-realized human beings who are drawn to each other's strengths and flaws alike. An accomplished writer already, Cullen tells me how he hopes to bring more "underrepresented" characters like Nicky to the screen in future projects; Maslany, meanwhile, has been a producer on Orphan Black since 2015, and is passionate about continuing to work behind the scenes.
"I feel, at this point, ready to start telling stories in a way that is less taking on material and then interpreting it and more offering material," she explains. "I’m terrified to do that, because it is a new level of revealing. I know how critical I am of scripts, too, and my god, to put yourself out there."
But, she adds, that fear won't stop her, and she'd "love, love, love" to direct someday — especially projects highlighting the complexity of women. "I’m just interested in the things we don’t allow, especially in female characters the way we label women onscreen, the biases I have about women onscreen, the competition between artists," Maslany says with fervor. "I’m interested in breaking those things down and talking about the things that are embarrassing or shameful. I find it really fascinating."
If that means more characters like Emily — or Orphan Black's many clones, or Parks and Rec's Nadia, or Woman in Gold's Maria — get brought to the screen, then I, for one, can't wait for more movies with Maslany behind the scenes.