Point of View

Why Tatiana Maslany's Emmy win is a huge moment for Canadian artists

The Orphan Black star is the first Canadian actor to win an Emmy for a Canadian series. By doing so, she's busted the myth that Canadian actors can't thrive without heading south.

The Orphan Black star is the first Canadian actor to win an Emmy for a Canadian series

Tatiana Maslany accepts the award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series for "Orphan Black" at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake - RTSOCGQ (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Last night, Tatiana Maslany finally won an Emmy for playing Sarah Manning and her many clones on Orphan Black, a series that's earned her widespread acclaim since it debuted in 2013.

The win is a big deal for a few reasons.

For one, it wasn't widely expected by industry pundits. Many had predicted How To Get Away With Murder star Viola Davis to score a repeat win in the category. Robin Wright and Taraji P. Hensen were considered next in line for their work on House of Cards and Empire, respectively. Like Maslany, neither of those actresses had won heading into last night. Instead, it was Maslany's name that was read when her fellow Canuck Kiefer Sutherland opened the Emmy envelope.

Second, the win represents a rare major award for the sci-fi/fantasy television genre. Just ask fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica, who collectively spent a decade protesting the lack of Emmy love for stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mary McDonnell.

But rarer still is the fact that Maslany is a Canadian actor starring on a Canadian show. While she certainly isn't the first Canadian actor to win a major category (Edmonton-born Michael J. Fox has five Emmys for his work on Family Ties, Spin City and Rescue Me, respectively), Maslany is the first to appear in a homegrown production.

This image released by BBC America shows Tatiana Maslany portraying Cosima in a scene from "Orphan Black. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Steve Wilkie/BBC America via AP (Steve Wilkie/BBC America/Canadian Press)

The usual narrative for Canadian artists involves heading south of the border to find "true" success. It's a tradition that's long and complicated, especially for actors. From America's onetime "sweetheart" Mary Pickford to contemporary heartthrob Ryan Gosling, our biggest stars were more-or-less established in the States by the time they became famous.

But even after four years in the American spotlight thanks to Orphan Black, Regina-born Maslany lives and works in Canada. She's based in Toronto, and she uses to her downtime from Black to focus on largely Canadian projects, such as Kim Nguyen's Two Lovers and a Bear (which just screened at TIFF) and Ben Lewis's upcoming short film Apart From Everything.

And that didn't stop her from winning an Emmy last night.

The most obvious comparison to Maslany is perhaps Sarah Polley, who also resisted Hollywood when her fame began to rise. The CBC-TV series Road To Avonlea became popular in the United States after it was picked up by the Disney Channel in 1990. It too was a success story at the Emmy Awards (receiving 16 nominations over its run, though none of them were for Polley herself), and could have easily launched Polley's career in a major way Stateside. But instead, she actively turned down notable roles in American films (most famously the Almost Famous role that won Kate Hudson an Oscar nomination) to work with Canadian directors including Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Don McKellar (Last Night) and Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden).

Like Polley, Maslany is proving you can still garner major international success as an actress — or an artist of any kind — without leaving Canada.- Peter Knegt

Ultimately, Polley earned an Oscar nomination, and it was on her own terms. Her screenplay for Away From Her, adapted from the work of Alice Munro, got a nod at the 2007 Oscars. It's one of the few Canadian films to ever receive major recognition at the Academy Awards.

Like Polley, Maslany is proving you can still garner major international success as an actress — or an artist of any kind — without leaving Canada.

She is conversely sending a message to the film and television industries of this country, who don't always make things easy for actors trying to stay in Canada when they consistently hire non-Canadians to act in their projects. Just look at some of the Canadian productions or co-productions at TIFF this year. Collectively, they starred the likes of Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriquez, Anne Hathaway, Chloe Moretz, Gerald Butler, Willem Dafoe and Alison Brie, hardly a group representative of the Canadian acting community.

Their arguments for doing so surely have something to do with the assumed marketability of American or British names over our own talent. The success of Orphan Black, however, shows this is not necessarily the case — and that was true before Maslany won an Emmy.

But perhaps by winning one, she's busted the dual myths that Canadian productions need non-Canadian actors to thrive, and that Canadian actors can't thrive without heading south.

About the Author

Peter Knegt

Peter Knegt has been CBC Arts' digital producer since way back in 2016. He has been working as a journalist for over a decade, and is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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