Tatiana Maslany is a force of nature. Considering her big break in the show Orphan Black—in which she played upwards of seven different characters—perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but her performance as a series regular on HBO’s new Perry Mason series is nothing short of a miracle. Her character would approve of this description: she plays Sister Alice, a 1930s megachurch televangelist loosely based on the real-life televangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. Her character doesn’t appear in the original Perry Mason books or TV series, so as a die-hard Perry Mason fan, I was skeptical—but having seen the show, I’m a believer.
As far as Maslany’s day-to-day life goes, though, she’s not that different from the rest of us. She’s been staying in, reading, going on bike rides whenever possible, and doing her best to participate in the Black Lives Matter uprising that has been sweeping the nation. (The other week, for example, she passed the mic on her Instagram account to young activist Kanyinsola Oye.) I caught up with Maslany over Zoom to talk plant care, representation in media, and the activity she does to stay sane. (Hint: dance church.)
I’m not well-versed enough to know what plant you have behind you, but it’s gorgeous.
You and me both. I have no idea. It was living at my friend’s house for a while and she took really good care of him and now he’s got yellowed leaves again. I just manage to kill them, it’s just what I do. It’s shockingly difficult! The others are still at her house and they’re all thriving, to such a degree that we can’t drive them over to my place. We need a bigger car. But I assume once they get here they’re gonna be like, “Meh.”
Where do you live? Are you in L.A.?
Yeah. And I don’t have a car, so I only bike everywhere, and some of those streets just go up, almost vertical. I was on roller blades the other day, and I was like, “This will be fine, I’ve done it before,” and there were many times I had to walk uphill with my feet splayed because you can’t blade upwards.
How long have you lived in L.A.?
It’s been a year this week, actually. I love it so much.
It must be fun to be on Perry Mason because it’s such a love letter to old L.A., down to your character, who is based on Sister Aimee Semple McPherson.
Her church is right there! I’m so close to Angelus Temple, her huge, still-standing coliseum. It’s maybe a five-minute bike ride from me. I was unfamiliar with her before the show, which is also wild because she’s Canadian, and her church is right there—I’ve passed it thousands of times—so it was interesting to dig into that. I’m not a huge history buff, but L.A. is just laden with it. It’s so fascinating.
I have to confess something, which is that I’m a huge Perry Mason fan. I own probably 40 of the original books.
No way! How did that happen?
I remember years ago I was visiting my grandparents, and someone had left one in the locker room of their gym, and I just picked it up and started reading. And then I started hunting for them in used bookstores.
No! I love that. I love, first off, the idea of getting a book addiction from going to your grandparents’ gym. It makes so much sense that that’s how you got it. Did you have a high bar for the show?
A little bit, yeah! But I thought it was absolutely amazing. You all did a terrific job.
I’m really proud of it. Even outside of the themes that it’s dealing with and how prescient it is, I also selfishly love being part of a cast of such characters. It’s the kind of show that would get me excited to watch, because what keeps me interested is the characters were so beautiful to read, and you could just see them, like they were physical. And Sister Alice specifically, I was so thrilled by her.
She’s a really amazing character, because I feel like whenever you have an intensely religious environment in fiction, and you have a messiah figure, 90% of the time that character is going to be either purely good or a villain, and Sister Alice is neither of those things.
I think it’s also strangely always been what I’m really interested in, is public versus private, and the icon or the image versus who a person is. I’m so fascinated with aesthetic or presentation or performance, and then peeling back what’s actually going on underneath, and I think that because of her perceived power and her influence and all of that, she could have gone one way, but you do get all of these contradictions in her and this sort of duality of being like a child and a woman at the same time, in control and totally controlled.
I’m sorry, I’m still just so excited about the fact that there’s a Perry Mason show. I think it’s a really interesting time for the show to be coming out, because it was never a political franchise, but it’s still something incredibly rare, which is a detective procedural that’s not from the point of view of the police.
Yeah, and the police are not the people you rely on to enact justice. Chris [Chalk, who plays Paul Drake, a Black police officer staring down the barrel of LAPD corruption and racism] also said a really interesting thing: it’s rare that with a character like Drake where you go into their home, and it’s so completely humanizing to enter their home as an acknowledgement of the three-dimensionality of that character. And I definitely as a white woman did not see the relevance of the show to the degree that I do now, in the context of what’s happening now, and in the context of what I’m learning and becoming aware of now. Whereas I think people of color and Black people would have always seen it for what it was, I have the luxury of experiencing it differently in the context of what’s happening.
What is it like, both to be premiering the show in the middle of a pandemic, but also in the middle of a national conversation about police brutality?
In the basest terms, I feel very silly for me to be talking at all, you know what I mean? And I’ve always struggled with promoting things, because I personally love to take in content with zero context—I watched I May Destroy You the other day, and I knew nothing, and I was like, Aaaaaah! But there are so many facets to it. I am grateful that I’m part of a show like this that’s coming out right now, ‘cause I think that a lot of shows would come out and be deeply problematic at this time in this context, as they should be, but also yeah, the world’s changing so massively, it seems strange to be like, so watch my show! [LAUGHS] You know what I mean? It’s bizarre.
I mean, it’s interesting, because you have media that’s obviously made to tell unheard stories or share a certain point of view, and then you have media that’s just supposed to be enjoyed, and I think Perry Mason falls more into that category. But even the stuff that isn’t made with an agenda influences the way that we see the world. I think especially the stuff that’s just supposed to be entertainment, because you let your guard down.
Yes, you just take it in, you let it wash over you, right? And people might not necessarily be coming to it with the openness of being aware that I’m watching something about an important topic, and I’m aware what that means in the context of the world and that history and all of that—there’s an awareness when you watch something like that. But when you’re in your living room binge-watching a TV show, it’s telling you about the world subconsciously. You know, it’s telling you what’s funny, it’s telling you what characters are worthy of being followed and are interesting. I watched Disclosure when it came out and have spoken to so many friends about it, and we’re pretty media literate and super up on trans representation—so we think, we talk about it all the time—and we were shocked by how many things as kids we watched that were, you know, Ace Ventura being one of the biggest influences on what I found funny growing up. And the shock of how deeply destructive that film is, and violent and all of it, it’s just like, yeah, it's just wild. It’s so eye-opening.
Yeah, that sort of thing affects not just psyches of the people who are portrayed harmfully but also how others view those people. And the thing with casting cis people in trans roles is that people claim there are no “good” trans actors, which, first of all, isn’t true. But, second, the reason it’s so hard to find “good” trans actors is because trans actors don’t have any opportunities to get better. It’s the same with disabled characters being played by able-bodied actors.
It’s opportunity entirely. Like, my god, of course, of course. Auditions are the most unnatural, disastrous way for an actor to have to show what they can do, and if you have one fucking audition every six months and it’s to play the same kind of trans person, the same version, which so many—as Disclosure made so clear, so many trans people get sidelined into these very specific kind of parts that aren’t whole human beings—it’s like, of course, it’s a disaster. And it’s like, across the board, you have to have an award to walk into a certain room. It’s horseshit.
It is. It kind of gets to the question of diversity versus equity. Like, it’s not enough to get people in the room; you have to keep them there.
Right, and I think it comes down so much to the behind-the-camera stuff. Like, I worked on a very, by all accounts feminist show with Orphan Black, where I play so many women in front of the camera. However, behind the camera, mostly dudes. And that affects the way things are shot, it affects the perspective that we take. We never have the point of view of the person who is trans, or the person who is disabled; we’re always looking from the outside. And if you’re outside of everything, then you aren’t inside of that internal experience, and you aren’t empathetic. I’m so curious about those ways that we can explore internal experience through camera, because a camera’s just a fucking machine, you know what I mean? Like, let’s do something interesting with it.
Now onto the usual questions. For starters, what does your day-to-day life look like these days? What do you do all day?
It’s a great question. I have so many hours in the day, and I don’t know where they go. I’ve been reading a lot, or trying to read. My brain is so unfocused. I do dance classes online. I literally clean my house two to three times a day. I don’t know what my routine is. [LAUGHS] Right now it just feels like a lot of reading and learning.
What are you reading?
I just finished How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s so good. It was such a good intro into all of it for me. And it took me a long time to read it because focus has been difficult, but also because there’s such a density to the ideas, and at the same time they’re so clear, simple, direct, but it’s like, letting these new ideas and this new way of seeing the world—when you’ve been looking at something from one direction, me thinking I’m progressive, liberal, open-minded, all of it, inclusive, and then realizing how much I’m inside the system and a certain way of thinking—it took me a long time to read. I was really digesting it.
What was your routine like before the pandemic?
Right before, my brother was in town, and we were going to comedy shows and seeing live music. I was always going to dance classes. I did dance church, which is like 50 people in a sweaty room.
Did you say “dance church”?
Dance church, yeah. It’s on Sunday mornings, and it’s the greatest thing on the planet. It’s not religious, it just happens during church time, and it’s kind of dance as worship or whatever. But my life was very much in big groups of people. I’m quite introverted, but I love being in the presence of people, and I do that a lot. There were two weeks recently when I was going to the protests quite often, and I sort of stepped back because I found that I was getting quite lax with my corona regimen.
What are you doing to take care of your mental health in isolation?
Therapy is a big one for me, and I’m very lucky to be able to do that. And dancing. And I get on my bike as much as I can. But dance has been the big thing for me, really, and I also find it is cathartic in terms of moving stuck emotions and tension or whatever it is out of my body.
I think people underestimate how connected the mind and the body are.
Entirely. I just read this book before quarantine called A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, and it’s a series of essays about art, sex, and the mind, and it’s all about the mind-body divide or lack thereof and the way we chop those things into pieces and the masculine versus the feminine and what is hard versus what is soft. It’s dense. It took me a year to get through it.
I feel like that’s why skincare has been such a comfort for a lot of people in this time, that mind-body connection and the idea of physically taking care of yourself. What does your beauty routine look like?
Oh, gosh, I’m bad at this stuff. I use this Acure Seriously Soothing Cleansing Balm. Oh, and this is my favorite guy, my Dr. Hauschka eye balm. My routine is just: in the morning, in the shower, I cleanse, I put on moisturizer, I do my little eye guy, and then I walk out the door.
What else are you doing for self-care?
I’ve been journaling and just trying to remind myself that this time is such a—this time is so unprecedented, and I have to write it down. Even stuff I wrote at the beginning of quarantine, I look back and I’m like “What? I was thinking that? I was doing that?” I think connection right now is the big thing that’s actually healing me, because it’s so isolating and we’re so far apart in so many ways. Anywhere I can find connection, anywhere I can find a real, meaningful, like both of us see each other, we both feel safe, all of that, I feel joy there, I feel humor there, that’s what I need. I find that I don’t have the bandwidth for everybody, but if I find that connection is really strong, it’s just so evident to me that that’s a person that’s gonna fuel me. Part of being at the protests that was so great was the feeling of hope that you feel in a mobilized group of people like that—at the same time as everything is deeply hopeless, there is stuff happening. Things are happening.
Photographer: Elyse Levesque