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Maslany, seen as grifter Sarah, says her background in improv helped prepare her for the demands of slipping into so many different roles.

I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Who is Tatiana Maslany wearing today?

"Good question," says the actress, glancing down at the knee-length, black-on-white print dress she has on. She laughs, and angles her face upward, a shining moonbeam. "I don't know. Who am I? Who am I in?"

This is usually a banal query, albeit one laced with casual sexism and cant. It is asked of every actress on every red carpet, a way to simultaneously glorify (ah! what a gorgeous Tom Ford!) and limit them (ah! Tom Ford! … Alright, who's next?).

But with Maslany, the question froths with potential. As the star and jet fuel of Orphan Black, the head-swirling sci-fi series about a group of cloned women searching for the truth about their origin, Maslany regularly dons half a dozen characters; when you sit down with her, you may find yourself looking for flashes of each. Who is she wearing today, you wonder: The Brixton grifter Sarah, suburban soccer mom Alison, corporate ice-queen Rachel, Ukrainian meathead assassin Helena?

It can sometimes be a bit much to keep straight. When I mention to Maslany that we had met briefly a few months earlier, during a location shoot at Toronto's Cameron House, when she was playing the hippie genetics student Cosima, she can recall the day but not much about the scene or what else happens during that episode. "I struggle to retain the plot," Maslany admits, laughing. "Which is fine, because all of the characters are sort of in a state of, like, not knowing – you know, discovering it in the moment. I have to rewatch the episodes-slash-read-synopses before I do interviews, or else I have no idea what I'm talking about."

So, there's that. And then there are the other roles Maslany wears, the ones that are thrust upon her and the show by an outside world whose love can sometimes be smothering. Since premiering in the spring of 2013 on the cable channel Space, where its third season kicks off April 18, Orphan Black has been hailed as a landmark advance for women on TV, an empowering meditation on the many faces of femininity (not to mention a kick-ass hour of pure entertainment).

But it is also Canada's buzziest TV export in years – it likely has the most fervent foreign following for a homegrown show since Degrassi got a passport – and its success comes as the country's television producers are in a state of high anxiety over wrenching upheaval across the viewing landscape. So some are pointing to Orphan Black as proof that Canada can create critically acclaimed and slick, addictively original programs for grown-ups that are devoured by audiences at home and around the world.

Which is a lot for pint-sized Maslany to have to wear.

If you want to be literal, today, in the sterile confines of the Bell Media headquarters in downtown Toronto, she is wearing a Canada Goose parka atop that print dress, and Uggs. For even though it is a temperate morning in late March, Maslany has just flown back from frigid Timmins, where she was shooting Two Lovers and a Bear, the new film from director Kim Nguyen (Rebelle); within 24 hours, she will be leaving again for the movie's next location in Iqaluit.

Maslany doesn't have to wait for work any more; it comes calling. During the show's hiatus last year, she filmed the drama Woman in Gold, playing a young Viennese newlywed who flees the Nazis after the 1938 Anschluss (she speaks mainly in German). The Two Lovers and a Bear shoot began shortly after Orphan Black wrapped its third season in early March.

"The luckiest people in the world are the producers of Orphan Black," Woman in Gold director Simon Curtis says in an interview. "That's not one of those parts which just anyone could have done, you know what I mean?

"She is going all the way," he adds. "I think she's a phenomenon. I think she's staggeringly talented, beautiful – and has the most brilliant attitude as well. Just the hunger to commit to the part, her instinct for it, her technique."

At 29, Maslany has been acting for two decades already. Gifted with an ear for accents and a facility for languages, she learned French as an immersion student in Regina and picked up German, she says, "by osmosis" from her parents; her grandparents are from Germany and Ukraine. She didn't much care for high school, and spent time with an improv troupe out of Regina. At 20, she moved to Toronto, where she did yeoman's work, frequently playing teenagers in low-budget Canadian features and TV series such as Being Erica.

It is intriguing to watch some of that now – you can see the talent amid the still-chubby cheeks and sullen teen pouting, even if it is sometimes raw and naturalistic, spirit grasping for form. In 2010, Maslany won a special "breakout performance" jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her turn as a sexually precocious Newfoundland teen in Grown-Up Movie Star.

Still, no one could have anticipated the pure fission that would result when her fierce focus met the surreal storytelling and slick craftsmanship of Orphan Black.

Much has been made of the technological trickery that allows Maslany to act opposite herself, which involves an acting double, green screens, suspended tennis balls to indicate her eye-line, and a computerized camera that can repeatedly perform the same manoeuvre. But there are many times when Maslany will play one character playing another – Sarah stepping in for an indisposed Alison, for example, with the addition of a simple hairband and an altered stance – and viewers will suspend their disbelief, as if watching a live stage show.

"It's for sure helped by the fact that I've trained with improv, and I've worked with amazing acting coaches who just kind of go, 'just do it. And don't be too precious about it, and don't analyze it in any way. Just let your body trust that, as a human being who's lived experiences, you can access something – you can just go,'" she says.

The first 10-hour season is a riveting trip as street urchin Sarah steals the identity of a woman whose suicide she witnesses, then discovers she has a growing number of genetic sisters. (The word "clone," which is freighted with a clinical, non-human affect, seems inappropriate; in Maslany's empathic hands, these are all fully realized women.) They are vastly different, yet united in spirit, a glorious female-oriented spin on the nature-nurture question.

"I don't see them as the same person, but I see them as the potential for any one person to be a multitude of things – depending on our choices or our upbringing, or things that we can't control and things that we can control," Maslany offers. "Volition, autonomy – all these things that contribute to who we are. And there's something interesting to me about breaking that idea, that we are so different, that things that define us at the same time don't define us."

It's a notion fed by the wellspring of modern feminism, which reverberates deeply with Orphan Black's frenzied fan base. Who's to say we aren't each a little bit Ukrainian killer, science geek and minivan princess with a tidy, perfect craft room?

You can see the devotion online, in the bottomless tumblrs of fan art and .gifs and videos of young woman playing multiple Maslanys. She herself sees this at events such as Comic-Con in San Diego, where the Orphan Black cast is greeted by overflowing crowds of quavering fans, many of whom turn up dressed as their favourite clone. At one panel last year, Maslany quietly wiped away tears as a teenaged girl told her during an audience Q&A that Cosima – who, in addition to being a brilliant scientist, is a lesbian – had inspired her to come out to her parents.

"It's incredible to have that feedback, and to see that you are changing people's lives," says Maslany, who hastens to add modestly: "Or so they say."

Maslany frequently speaks about how she didn't see anyone like herself on TV while she was growing up – that she related more to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle known as Raphael (he's the sarcastic one with the hair-trigger temper) than any woman on TV. "Pop culture so strongly dictates and reflects what society is thinking and doing at the time," she says. "But I think what's great about our show is it's busting that norm. Making a woman a default – it's just a given. There's no fanfare, there's no statement. It's just a story through that [female] lens. That makes me so proud."

The same imperative holds for Canadian TV, of course: Like Maslany, who hungered to see someone like herself on screen, some fans here are inspired by Orphan Black's example, even if its setting is never specifically identified as Toronto.

But then, while Maslany calls herself a proud Canadian, she says she doesn't think of herself in those terms. "That feels like a limiting thing. I think that's why I love acting, because it allows you to be sort of a blob that transforms into different things, right? And that fits into different spaces."

She can see herself moving to Los Angeles; it all depends on where the work takes her.

More roles to wear, then. Asked if there is a particular actress whose career she would like to emulate, she practically yelps: "Gena Rowlands!"

"There's a legacy to the work, there's a length of time that she's been still producing incredible work, and still delving and changing herself. But for me, it's the types of roles that she took on, and the creative collaboration that she had with her husband [director John Cassavetes]. The sort of braveness to do things that weren't being done."