Tatiana Maslany: ‘Strong female lead? It’s a box no one fits in’

When Tatiana Maslany was 20, she wondered whether acting was really for her. The Canadian was already 11 years into her career, having begun working as a child, and had recently relocated from Regina in Saskatchewan to Toronto in order to be where the jobs were. “I suddenly had this urge to re-evaluate why I was doing it,” she says. “Was I just doing it because it was this thing I did as a kid?” But then she watched John Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, in which Gena Rowlands’ suburban housewife reaches breaking point. “And I thought: ‘Yes, that’s it! 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 where 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, in which she was kidnapped by Nicole Kidman’s burnt-out detective.

Now she has the starring role in Marvel’s new Disney+ series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Such is the secrecy around the project that, at the time of writing, advance episodes have not been made available. Maslany tells me even she is limited in what she can reveal: “But I kind of like that because, as viewers, we all love a surprise, right?”

Talking from her home in Los Angeles, where she has lived since 2017, Maslany is sitting next to an open window, gauzy white curtains billowing behind her. Her usually dark hair is a mass of reddish-blond 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 turns 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 that.”

She also had a lot of fun smashing things up with her co-star Mark Ruffalo, who has spent 10 years playing Bruce Banner (he is Jennifer’s cousin), and who tutored her in the ways of the Hulk. “He’s such a special guy, and he’s got this childlike wonder about everything. But as Hulk, he’s got this physical dexterity and character precision that really is something to witness.” The pair bonded over their hi-tech but distinctly odd-looking costumes that track their movements and facial expressions, allowing them to appear altered, and yet still themselves, on screen. “Everyone else gets these very cool superhero outfits,” she says sadly, “and there we were in these little grey suits.”

Related: Goodbye to Orphan Black, the feminist utopia 2017 needs

Maslany’s She-Hulk aesthetic is far removed from the green goddess spilling out of her clothes, as depicted in the early comics. Back then, what few female superheroes existed appeared 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, a full 11 years to get her own film. Maslany says the She-Hulk script, which was written by Jessica Gao (Rick and Morty), contains nods to the treatment of female Marvel characters in the past. “She suddenly has this value in terms of optics. She becomes tokenised for her superhero-ness … But I do think there’s been this paradigm shift. It takes time and it’s about finding new ways to tell stories. What made me go: ‘Oh OK, this feels fresh and surprising,’ is that it feels deeply – if I can use a binary term – feminine. There’s a girliness to it. That word is often used as a derisive term, but to me there’s a celebration of female friendship in She-Hulk that’s really fun.”

Green zone … Tatiana Maslany in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.
Green zone … Tatiana Maslany in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Photograph: Disney

She adds that she is looking forward to the day when a woman playing a superhero is no big deal. “I’m really interested in when these [marginalised] voices get 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 just as much a shaving off of all the nuances, and just as much of a trope. It’s a box that nobody fits into. Even the phrase is frustrating. It’s as if we’re supposed to be grateful that we get to be that.”

Maslany can barely remember a time when she wasn’t performing. She studied tap dance from the age of four and quickly moved on to theatre and improv: “My mom was, like: ‘Well, you’re obviously not a sports kid. This seems to be the thing that you want to do.’” Her early jobs were mostly in local theatre and children’s TV in Canada; she made her film debut in 2004 as the comics-obsessed Ghost in Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed.

There’s a girliness to She-Hulk, a celebration of female friendship

Maslany points out that she is not the product of ambitious stage parents: “They had no connection to that world. It was never forced upon me.” Still, the back and forth between school and TV sets was difficult, especially when she hit 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 were all starting to go out drinking and I was, like: ‘Huh? What is that all about?’ I couldn’t quite understand either world, in a way.”

She recently read the former child actor Sarah Polley’s book Run Towards the Danger, in which Polley recalls the crushingly long hours and hazardous conditions working on the set of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. “I don’t think it’s unusual,” Maslany says. “A lot of that resonated with me, even though Sarah went through different things that I did, and she was working at a different level of visibility. But still, that book hit me really hard.”

Maslany certainly knows about working long hours. Her role in the critically adored Orphan Black sent her career into orbit though it also nearly broke her. In taking the role of 11 clones, all with different personalities (and wigs), she was in nearly every scene, often multiple times. While she embraced the creative challenge – “To play all those characters at once, no actor gets to do that” – she has never felt such exhaustion before or since. “It cost my body a lot,” she says. “My heart rate didn’t come down for years afterwards. And I didn’t learn how to sleep again for a long time. You’re on all the time, from 5am on Monday and then wrapping at six in the morning on Saturday morning, and then getting up at 5am on Monday to do it all over again. It’s tough.”

When the series ended in 2017 after five seasons, she found herself taking stock once more. “I was, like: ‘Who the fuck am I? What do I have left to give? How do I rebuild myself now?’ She also thought hard about what would satisfy her creatively. “Like, what next thing would feel vital?’ And it ended up being smaller projects, such as a cartoon [voicing Mia McKibbin in BoJack Horseman] and doing a year and a half of theatre [playing Diana Christensen in Network], and that was just as thrilling.”

While she is grateful for the success of Orphan Black, and all it has afforded, the fame has been discombobulating. “There’s this whole other world you’re expected to engage with, which contributes to that heart-racing feeling. I’m a super-private person, so I’ve always been a bit at odds with the expectation that an actor is also a public figure. I love transforming and I love falling into a character and allowing people to come with me as I do that. But this thing put on top of it that’s all red carpets and cameras everywhere? That to me is strange.” At the same time, Maslany knows there are upsides to her job. “The beautiful part is that I get to go into rooms that I never would otherwise and get more opportunities to work and collaborate. All in all, that’s a pretty good payoff.”

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is on Disney+ from 18 August.