I really believe in the power of asking. Want that job? Ask. Want a better price on that rad vintage bar cart? Ask. Want to go to happy hour with the woman who inspired one of your favorite characters on one of your favorite television shows ever? Yeah, I totally asked.
I invited Cosima Herter out for a drink, never expecting an answer. To my delight and surprise, she was lovely and obliged me. For those who need an education, she’s the science consultant for Orphan Black, which returns this Saturday on BBC America. In addition, she serves as the inspiration for a character who shares her name. And while I definitely asked her about the fictional Cosima, I was most amazed by the real person. A professor at the University of Minnesota, we shared many of the same passions. Finding ways to get girls interested in science. A mutual love of British television. And most importantly, a desire to show a more diverse and real set of women on television. With her role in Orphan Black, it’s clear she’s having an influence.
Q. When Graeme first came to you with Orphan Black, what struck you about it?
A. When Graeme first talked to me about the story he’d been working on, it was still in a really conceptual stage. Interesting and exciting, to be sure – but really only a concept. Graeme is an extraordinary thinker, with such remarkable wit, and this story was all the more exciting to me because some of the ideas that he was pondering were pretty in-line with both my own research at school at the time, and ideas that I love thinking about more generally. It was fascinating to observe how we thought about some of the very same issues, but in such different ways. Graeme has such a dark, hilariously distorted take on things! So I was really happy about the fact that we had this unlikely convergence of interests because we’d been friends for a long time, but it was the first time our respective work crossed intellectual-paths. And since we have both always been very busy with our own different projects, a lot of time could pass between moments when might be able to have conversations about it – just passing around and musing about ideas… like: Darwin, evolution, biotechnology, genetic engineering, and all manner of social, political, historical, and philosophically related issues. I think, in an oblique sense, the most striking thing is that Orphan Black became a vehicle for all kinds of interesting conversations between Graeme and I over the longue durée. I love nothing more than to have conversations about ideas!
Q. It’s exciting that the show runners wanted the science to be accurate - why is that important to you and how do you ensure it’s narratively interesting while still being representative of reality?
A. You’re right, it IS important to me (to all of us, I think). But it’s also a fictional narrative, not a documentary. So I don’t get stringently protective about the exactness or accuracy when there’s a reason to make some of the science far more elastic than it realistically could be (like, for example… oh, I don’t know… human clones running around!). That being said, we are quite conscientious about trying to represent the issues around cloning, evolution, eugenics, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, patenting, etc in a way that does map onto real life. Most of these issues truly are current, and actually functional realities to some degree. They are already profoundly provocative in their own right without needing to be fictionalized! Bio-scientific experimentation, for example – even if it fails – is still science (we’re not saying it’s always good science, however!). It’s important to keep in mind that most of the discoveries in biology we depend on regularly – not least insofar as medicine is concerned – have found success only after a long history of, sometimes bizarre, experimentation. And they also need to be understood in their historical context. One of the things that is most important to me is to represent the philosophical issues by showing just how complex they are, that there are no easy ways to analyze them. And they need to be represented in unusual and thought-provoking ways that actually speak to how multi-dimensional they are. I’m not capable of solving any of these issues, but I do want to put a little bee in viewers’ bonnet’s so that they’ll be stimulated enough to think and talk about them in ways they may not have done otherwise.
Q. The clones are all strong women and yet are all deeply different. In your view, how much of it is their “shared nature” and how much is nurture?
A. Well, insofar as clones (or twins for that matter) are concerned, no two organisms, despite having the same genes, would be exactly identical – not physically, and certainly not psychologically. Development, for example – embryonically and throughout one’s life – plays a very important role as well. So the question can’t really be boiled down to nature/nurture. It’s a common trope to reduce, especially humans, to this simple dichotomy, and while we do play on this somewhat, we also want to show just how complicated that idea is. The women of Orphan Black are complex characters – they develop, grow, love, learn, evolve – just like ‘real’ people do. I am an unapologetic feminist, and there are LOTS of different kinds of women – this can’t be boiled down to biology alone. If we are left with only the formula of nature/nurture, then we’d be stripped of all personal agency. I’m also an unapologetic existentialist. So, certainly we are subject to the machinations of our bodies, subject to our physical & psychic environments, but I like to believe that we also have some measure of agency to make choices, effect change in the world, and assert a kind of selfhood and subjectivity that derives from a rich-inner life and our experiences in the world. The idea that we are fully determined by factors we can’t control makes me feel stripped of that agency. The female characters of Orphan Black have a lot of strength, courage, creativity, and willfulness that is often denied women in media portrayals – that’s really exciting to me.
Q. If you found out you were a clone, what would you do? Would you react like Cosima and try to get to the bottom of the science? Or would you be more like Sarah and go undercover? Or do you think you’d be more like Allison and become suspicious of everyone?
A. If I met a clone of myself – or of anyone, for that matter – I probably would react most like Cosima. I think that yes, I would be interested in the physical science of her creation, but more likely I’d be curious as to the psychology of why someone created clones in the first place. I’m more of a curious than paranoid person. And unless someone was actually trying to assassinate me, I can’t see any reason why I’d run away from her!
Q. Who is your favorite clone and why?
A. Allison! Most definitely Allison. She and I couldn’t be more different, but I love how difficult, multifaceted, unpredictable, and unprecedented of a character she is. I think that while Tatiana’s portrayal of her is brilliant for how hilarious Allison is, it’s even more so because it’s very, very sensitive and nuanced. She’s not a cartoon, she’s no joke. She’s fierce and capable and competent, and richly unique.
Q. Cosima is loosely based on you, so what qualities do you and Cosima share?
A. The hand-wavey, pacing around, going off on tangents about all kinds of weird things while she talks, is a similar characteristic (one that my friends often tease me about). She’s cheeky, mischievous, curious about everything, and sincere – I think that’s pretty true-to-life. And, the “I’m kind of always late, so I’m kind of always sorry” is embarrassingly accurate. She definitely has a better wardrobe, and much nicer apartment than I do! I’ve never had dreadlocks (although I did consider it many, many years ago). Cosima and I do listen to similar music, but I’m a child of the ‘70’s and I love most dancing to more disco, funky, bass-driven, hip-grindy type music.
Q. When you see Tatiana Maslany playing Cosima, do you recognize anything she may have directly picked up from your personality? If you feel comfortable sharing, what are those little easter eggs for viewers?
A. That’s really difficult for me to say. When I see Cosima I don’t think about her as some kind of iteration of me – she’s a fictional character that Tatiana plays beautifully. I really try not to think about it too much, it’s just too surreal. More than once I’ve turned to Graeme after seeing/hearing Cosima do or say something, and laughed “that really does sound like something I would say!” to which he’d respond, “well, that’s because you actually did say that!” But, if I think about it too much, I begin feeling strangely self-conscious about it, so I have to remain pretty detached. She’s the most difficult character for me to form an unbiased opinion about (not that I’m really unbiased about any of them – I love them all). I try not to look for similarities because it kind of makes me feel a bit weird. Instead I just admire how remarkable the writers and Tatiana are at bringing her to life.
Q. What can people look forward to in Season 2?
A. Pure awesomeness!