Working with your paramour can be a tricky thing. Not for Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen. Partners since 2011, the “Orphan Black” and “Downton Abbey” alum finally got to share the screen in “The Other Half,” an indie in which she plays a woman with bipolar disorder and he a violent drifter mourning the disappearance of his brother. The two become an item, even as problems arise.
Does being a couple off-screen make playing an intense couple onscreen easier or harder?
Tatiana Maslany:Because we know each other really well we have a shorthand and immense love and support. There’s a huge amount of safety, and we won’t settle for dishonesty. As artists that’s a great place to work from. I can’t trick Tom. He knows who I am; he knows when I’m lying. I think that opens those emotional territories in an easier way, and it’s quite joyful to go there.
What was it like playing a character with bipolar disorder? What steps did you take to avoid cliches?
Maslany: Joey [Klein, the filmmaker] did an amazing amount of research drawing from life experience as well as clinical studies. He wanted to make sure we were telling it honestly. We didn’t want Emily’s illness to be a romantic thing. It’s who she is, and it’s something she deals with every day in different forms. And you don’t want to demonize it. It was about making sure we got it right clinically and then allowing for the impulses on the day.
What are some favorite performances or films you looked to for inspiration?
Tom Cullen: I’m inspired by actors who surprise me and try to scare themselves in their work. People like Marlon Brando.
Maslany: Joey cited “A Woman Under the Influence” as a big inspiration. He showed it to us and it’s amazing. I kept going back to it when I felt stuck. The work is so free and complicated and bizarre.
You both act on television. What are some of the differences going from television to film?
Maslany: It’s dependent on the project. For this one we had a lot of freedom. There wasn’t a separation between us and the crew; it was a very communal experience. I don’t know that you always get that on television.
Cullen: Television’s restrictive because you’re often playing in the style of the show. You’re in service to so many other things, and making something that appeals to a bigger demographic. With film, you have a lot more space and freedom to make something personal.
I was wondering about Nickie’s tattoos. One of them reveals a major plot point, but he also has a unicorn neck tattoo that stands out.
Cullen: I felt that he was somebody who was very violent on the page, but the root of that is deep pain and grief. I looked at a lot of animals. There’s a kind of fish that disguises itself as a predator in order to not be attacked. I felt that’s what Nickie does. He hangs a big “f— you” sign around his neck to ward off anyone who might attack him. His look is aggressive.
Maslany: There’s pain in getting that neck tattoo…
Cullen: And the absurdity of it. I had the sense that he just walked past the shop and thought, “I’ll just get a unicorn tattoo on my neck, because you’re not supposed to.” I wanted a My Little Pony, but it’s trademarked.
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