When Orphan Black debuted in 2013, Tatiana Maslany burst into critical consciousness, like a circus performer leaping through a circle of fire, with her profound creation of a wildly diverse sisterhood of clones. Meanwhile, Tom Cullen, who specializes in bringing to vivid life the emotional vulnerability of brooding men, was continuing to attract increasingly high-profile parts, like a recurring role as one of Lady Mary’s suitors on Downton Abbey.
In The Other Half, a moody romance that opens this Friday, the real-life couple—whose relationship started during the filming of 2012’s World Without End in Budapest—play opposite one another for the first time. The script, which the actors had been discussing for years with writer-director (and close friend) Joey Klein, is about the deep but precarious connection between Cullen’s character, who’s grieving over the loss of his brother, and Maslany’s, a warmhearted, often joyful woman with bipolar disease.
In a sometimes playful, always mutually supportive and openhearted conversation with Slant Magazine at a New York City hotel, Maslany and Cullen discussed the pros and cons of playing a love story with your real-life partner, the freedom and challenges of shooting a film on the fly, and what they’ve learned from each other about acting.
What attracted you to this film?
Tatiana Maslany: The character of Emily was such an incredible challenge for me because of her huge emotional life and what she’s dealing with. Joey and I had been talking about this script for, like, five years, so I’d been able to sit with her on various different versions of the script, to do research and all that. Playing opposite Tom was a scary idea, because he knows me so well, and it was a real chance to go deeper and to keep growing as an artist. So all of it was that wonderful feeling of fear, of unknown and uncharted territory.
Joey Klein, your director, is also an actor, and this is his first film as a director. Did you find it helpful to work with a director who’s acted before?
Tom Cullen: It’s difficult to say, really. Joey’s a very empathetic human being, and his script tells me that he understands human beings on an intrinsic level, so whether he’s an actor or not, I feel that he would be able to direct us. But there’s something about knowing the difficulties and struggles of dropping into something very hard and emotional. There’s a lot of respect and patience there, and love, and nurture, and I think that comes from him being an actor. And because we shot it in 16 days, it wasn’t like we had a lot of time, so we were all flying by the seat of our pants.
Even though you had all those years before of thinking and talking about it?
TC: For sure. But still, it’s not like you can go, “This scene, it’s a difficult one. Let’s take our time with it.” You have a time limit.
TM: [laughs] Two hours.
TC: And you have to get it. Joey was very considerate and kind and really knew how to unlock us.
TM: And I think also, because he’s an actor, he knew that it wasn’t, “Okay, we have no time, so get to this result.” He was like, “We have no time, so…”
TC: “Take your time.”
TM: [laughs] Right! As opposed to going, “We have no time, so we have to see this, we have to see this, we have to hit this.”
TC: Sometimes, directors can do that. But by giving you lots of space is where you get the best performances, so you can get it in one or two takes. It’s a delicate thing. And I think Joey, being an actor, understands.
Visually, this is a very dark movie, so your faces are often hidden or half-hidden by shadows. Did that affect the way you act, maybe make you do more with your body and less with your face?
TM: I don’t think we were even aware.
TC: We weren’t really conscious of how it was being shot.
TM: Bobby Shore, our DP, and Joey had such a specific visual idea of how they wanted to tell the story, but it was never restrictive. So often, it’s like, there’s a light here, so I have to stand here in order to make sure that light’s hitting me. But the scene work was completely unrestrictive, even if something changed on the day completely, so drastically, like it did on that last scene on the bench. Joey and Bobby just said, “We’re switching it. We’re going to switch it on the fly, no prep.”
TC: It was the scene at the end of the film, which is a big break for [Maslany’s character] Emily. It’s a tough scene for the both of us. We’d rehearsed it, and they were setting up the shot for what we’d rehearsed, and I just felt, you know…”
TM: I was struggling.
TC: I don’t want to say that you were struggling. I’d say the scene was difficult, for both of us. So I just got down on my knees and just started talking to Tat, because by this point we were just exhausted. Sometimes when you see where you need to get to, it’s like looking at Everest. So I just started talking to her as the character and it started to become very real. Joey observed that this was happening, and Bobby and Joey decided to completely change the shot that they had just set up for, and shifted the cameras right round, because we originally sat side by side and then I’d come down to my knees, very close. They just shot it on the fly.
You already talked about this a bit, Tatiana, but what’s it like shooting a love story with the person you’re with in real life? I would think it would be harder in some ways and easier in others.
TC: We went through a whole gamut. Before we started shooting, we had no idea what it would be like. And then with the first scene we did, we both got the giggles because it just felt so ridiculous. “What are you doing? Why are you wearing that stupid costume?” And then we just kind of like dropped into it, and…
TM: I think also because we had no time.
TC: Yeah, we had no time. There was no rehearsal. We were just suddenly in front of each other. I’d made quite a bold choice in terms of the look of my character.
TM: [hoots with laughter] High-waisted pants!
TC: Yeah. High-waisted pants and a bright yellow shirt.
TM: It’s like, “Tom! What are you doing?”
TC: When you’re working with another actor, especially in such intense love story, you have to sort of bypass all of the normal social niceties to get somewhere very intense very quickly. But Tat and I, we have, you know, a shorthand which is very deep, so we were able to really challenge ourselves. And Tat knows when I’m lying, and I know when she’s lying, and she knows when I know when she’s lying. So there’s an inherent depth to the work because you just can’t fake it. And that was so scary, because you couldn’t bring your bag of tricks out.
TM: Even when you were struggling.
TC: Yeah, when you were struggling, like you’re looking at somebody, going: “I don’t believe you! I don’t believe you!” [laughs] But it was great. And in terms of our relationship, acting is such a huge part of our lives. It was really great to share that, and it was really great to work with Tat, who I think is utterly extraordinary, an actor at the top of her game. To work with her and learn from her and to share that part of our lives together was really special.
What have you learned from each other about acting?
TM: I go to set often with Tom when he’s filming something and watch him, the difference between each take and the bravery he brings. He has this incredible ability to be the most dangerous person on set and also to be the person that everyone wants to get a drink with afterward. There’s something scary about working with him, because you have to be there, because he’s not going to let you pretend or lie or not show up. He’s very present, and he’s very powerful. It’s so much fun to watch, and soooo fucking fun to play with. About emotionless work and simple work and clear work, I’ve just learned so, so much. And about total bravery in the size of a choice, in going to a big choice and standing behind it.
TC: That’s very nice. [chuckles] Stella Adler said about Brando: “Every door is open for him. He just has to walk through it.” Often you see actors working to access emotions, or see them showing that they’re working, and showing us what we should be feeling. But Tat is like Brando. Every door is open and available. People think that it’s easy, but it’s not, but she does it with ease. She can just go and access places with absolute fearlessness. I’m someone who, if I’m intimidated by a scene, I might dip my toe in and say, “What is this?” But Tat just jumps off the high board every time. We’ve been together for five and a half years, and in that time our careers have—mine’s begun, and her life has changed since Orphan Black. So we’ve been on this journey of exploration together. I feel like we’re constantly pushing each other.
TC: I would be nowhere near the actor I am without watching Tat work, her fearlessness and bravery. I’m still trying to emulate it. On my job right now, before every scene, I go, “What would Tat do?”
TM: That’s exactly what think as well!
TC: So I try to make Tat proud. Be more like Tat.
You should get WWTD bracelets.
TC: [laughs] Yeah.
TM: What would Tom do?