Photo by Mercedes Grundy
Rising star Tatiana Maslany has developed a true specialty: females caught between their teens and full-on womanhood.
In 2009's Grown Up Movie Star, her performance as Ruby, a young Newfoundland girl discovering her sexuality, scored her the breakout performance award at Sundance.
In this year's TIFF entry Picture Day, she's Claire, who's repeating grade 12 - her victory lap, Claire calls it. She's sexually precocious in ways that scare her contemporaries, yet not entirely willing to take the leap into the world of adults.
"I'm at the transition place myself," she allows during a pre-TIFF interview, "still playing high school girls but moving to a stage when I'm playing older roles and going to the places of stillness and wisdom and knowledge and weight. It's exciting and scary."
Sitting with her in a T.O. condo, I can almost see the transition taking place before my eyes. There's the nervous energy of a teenager, fingernails painted all different colours that twinkle when she taps her hands together. But at 27, she's also impressively articulate, demonstrating the profound intelligence that comes through in her work. She's smart and sexy, a compelling combination that has her turning important heads in the business.
She talks about sex frankly - she kinda has to, given the characters she's been playing.
"Sexuality is vibrating at an insane level when you're a teenager," she says intensely, leaning in. "The difference between Ruby and Claire is that Ruby's just finding it. It's like a weapon she doesn't know how to use. Claire? I liken it to having a conversation, and Claire has a lot of conversations. Sex isn't hard, but intimacy is terrifying."
Born in Regina, Maslany started out as a dancer. You can tell, director Kate Melville says later. Her movements are so precise; you can do five takes of a scene involving a glass of water and she'll have that glass in exactly the same place every time.
The kind of child who forced her parents to watch her and her brother's homemade plays, she then got into community theatre as a kid. Until she moved to Toronto, acting was fun. But she did some TV in Winnipeg (Incredible Story Studio), a small film in Edmonton, got a break with a role in Ginger Snaps: Unleashed and broke out in Grown Up Movie Star.
"I played a load of frumpsters," she laughs as she recalls her early career. "There were a lot of dorks. Ruby changed that. She was so young and innocent. It was like discovering that sexual quality in myself onscreen."
The Sundance experience was exhilarating and completely unexpected.
"We were out there for 11 days and so excited that this indie film shot in Newfoundland was being seen by more than 12 people. I didn't even know there was a performance [award] possibility at awards night. I had a big cold - my nose was bright red - and I just sat there when they announced the prize. I vaguely remember somebody telling me I had to say something, so I went up, burbled garbage and then vibrated offstage."
Melville, who'd met her while writing for Being Erica, in which Maslany had a semi-regular role, approached her with Picture Day right after that.
Inevitably, though, Maslany made the trip to L.A., where she engaged in that soul-crushing experience of trying to get noticed. Problem is, she wasn't being herself while selling herself.
"I didn't know what I was. I was very self-conscious, a fish out of water. I never felt like myself. If I'd had any calmness about me, I would have talked about films I love and actors I like and not the weather and driving. How do you make an impression in five minutes anyway?"
Turns out she doesn't necessarily need Hollywood. What keeps her growing as an artist is her ability to make the most of small situations. In the indie pic Defendor, she had all of three lines as a Russian prostitute.
"It was just three lines, but I got to work with Elias Koteas, one of the most fascinating actors. It was a two-second scene, but I learned so much."
Now she's shooting Cas & Dylan in Sudbury with Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss - not bad for someone who had trouble getting noticed when she was making the rounds in Tinseltown.
"Before I met Richard, I was terrified, but he's open, warm and makes me feel completely safe. I can make a mistake and feel like an idiot and it's all good because it's all about finding the characters. He's humble, and loves the craft."
It's a huge shift after working on Picture Day with relative unknown Spencer Van Wyck, who plays Harry, the boy Claire used to babysit and with whom she forges a tentative friendship. That evocation of the uneasy connection between a teen boy and girl is one of the movie's main strengths.
"Everything's so tense," Maslany agrees. "Friendship is a daring thing. That's why it's so terrifying for Claire. Being friends is more intimate than having sex."
In Cas & Dylan, she's finally feeling like she may say goodbye to the kid roles. The film is Jason Priestley's first directing feature, Canadian (Dreyfuss loves it up here) and a road movie in which Dreyfuss plays a doctor taking a long car journey with Maslany's character, a writer and, yes, a mature one. No teen sensations here.
"I feel like I'm at a new stage when I'm learning everything again. You can get comfortable and feel safe, but then you realize that you can go to a deeper level.
"I just want to soak up every moment."