Exclusive Interview: Orphan Black‘s Jordan Gavaris talks acting and the magic of his craft

March 21, 2013

Jordan Gavaris is one insightful young actor. The Canadian plays the role of Felix in BBC America’s new sci-fi thriller Orphan Black—and if he treats his character with the energy and passion he conveyed during our interview, we sure are in for a treat. Gavaris stars opposite Tatiana Maslany’s character Sarah, a hustler who finds herself tangled in a deadly mystery after witnessing a suicide of a stranger who looks just like her. Felix is not only Sarah’s foster brother and confidante, but also a struggling artist with a penchant for the dramatic.

In this refreshingly candid interview, Gavaris revealed how he got the role, his dedication to the Method, and his reverence for Maslany. Got a weakness for the theatrical? You’ll get a kick out of the actor telling like it is.

Don’t miss the premiere of Orphan Black on Saturday, March 30, at 9/8c on BBC America (Ch. 264).

DIRECTV: What did you think when you first read the script?
JG: As a 23-year-old, the kind of roles that you’d normally be going out for would be playing high school, where the scope of the character is very small and you’re dealing with somewhat superficial problems in the standard high school setting. So to have this script lying in my email box; to read it and see a character written like this for an actor so young, it was a dream. That doesn’t happen. Roles like that don’t come along for 23-year-olds—not unless you’re Jennifer Lawrence or Nicholas Hoult, or any of the top-line celebrities. So my first reaction was “I have to get this part.” And I was fascinated with the story because multiplicity is always something that has interested me. I think that Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, the creators, understand the rules of narrative so clearly, and understand the rules of the genre that they have no problem even breaking all of them. And that’s exactly what it was: kind of a gateway series for anybody who thinks they don’t like sci-fi. It completely knocked my socks off.

What was the process like to get the role?
JG: The audition process was quite rigorous and a little intense. There were a lot of preliminary audition rounds before we finally went to network test. And the network test was also a chemistry read with Tatiana Maslany. My process for the character actually began with an animal exercise, since my background is in method acting. Born out of Strasberg’s teachings, one of their common exercises is to pretend your character’s an animal and figure out what kind of animal would they be. You sort of physicalize that animal, use the body language, and bring the way that animal moves through the world into the character. I used the feline for Felix, and the irony is the character, Felix the cat. I couldn’t see it any other way. So when I finally got it in the network testing room, it was one of those lovely moments where you forget that you’re in an audition setting. I connected with Tat, who is a phenomenal actress. She just completely grounded me, rooted the performance, and made the test better. I feel like I owe a chunk of the part to her. Part of the reason why I got the role is because I was given the opportunity to test opposite such an incredible actress.

If somebody were to play you in a film tomorrow, what animal would they use as inspiration for you as a character?
JG: Oh my word. [laughs] I feel like I’m a dog, I’m kind of dumb and happy all the time.

And loyal.
JG: And loyal, yes, fiercely loyal. That’s something Felix and I have in common. I think I probably would be a dog, though. My disposition is very passive, generally very happy. But I guess I’m a bit of a thinker too. By myself, I’m very internally reflective so I’d have to be probably a Schnauzer, maybe a Golden Retriever or something.

What was your biggest challenge in bringing Felix to life?
JG:Walking the line of not turning him into a caricature. He’s a very over-the-top, theatrical person. That’s part of the cat persona where everything is slightly sexualized and he’s very territorial. He’s sort of the proverbial showman. I was concerned throughout the entire process that I might be going overboard. I never wanted to showboat because I find that it’s very selfish. You should never enter a scene with the intention to steal it. I didn’t want to either, because the other actors I was working off of, they were so wonderful and so giving. I was very conscientious of keeping the character honest, always keeping in mind that there’s a real person under the hair and makeup and clothing.

From what we’ve seen, Tatiana plays a lot of different characters on the show. Did you ever have a hard time keeping all of these characters straight?
JG:You know what? Never. And that’s a testament to Tat’s ability. We both bonded over the fact that we played with movement when we were developing our characters. When she works, she plays a lot with the idea of how characters receive people and how they move through the world. She has little tricks that she’ll use before getting into each different character. I could be having a scene with Sarah, who’s Felix’s foster sister, and then she walks into the makeup trailer to transition to one of the other clones. What walks out of the makeup trailer is not Sarah. It is another person entirely who receives me differently, who I receive differently. Sometimes I don’t always trust them. Sometimes they irritate me. I like to make fun of one in particular. Well, Felix likes to make fun of her.

And which character is this?
JG: That would be—am I allowed to say that? You know what? We’ve seen pictures and everything. That would be the soccer Mom character, Allison. She represents suburbia, and Felix is really put off by that. I had a lot of fun when she was playing that character. Just teasing her a little bit and watching her get defensive. Playing as the character, improving behind the scenes is really an effective tactic to try and loosen you up. You establish chemistry that way. It’s really beautiful, and Tat is so lovely and so receptive to that.

So you talked about Tatiana going into the trailer, changing, and walking out as a completely different person. What do you think about Tatiana’s process?
JG: It’s spooky for the rest of us, because we actually have to interact with all these different people. While we try to keep in the back of our minds that it is Tatiana, it’s not really her. As an actor, to be given the opportunity to work opposite someone like this, so closely, who’s had nearly 20 years in the business. Someone who takes the work so seriously, but doesn’t take herself too seriously. It was a dream. I learned more in the last six months than I probably will ever learn in my entire life. She really helped to make me a little more secure about my work and my process. That it’s OK to have a process and think of yourself as an artist or a craft person. That you’re not pretentious when you say that. It is part of a job and it’s all OK. She’s a remarkable woman.

I really like her, I don’t know if you could tell [laughs].

You said that you’ve been in the business for about five years now. Can you tell us how you got into it?
JG: I was always interested in acting and I did my first community stage production at age 11. I played Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web. It was just a little thing in my town. Then I stopped acting after that. I didn’t act all through high school. I did open drama and I had a really nasty drama teacher who told me that I shouldn’t act. I just kind of lost interest in it for a little while. Then in my senior year of high school, I thought about drama and directing. I enrolled at a local acting studio where I took an introduction to the Method. It was a course being offered at this little studio in Toronto. I had the instructor approach me after class and ask me why I was taking the class. I said I really want to be a director. She said, I really think you should get yourself an agent because I think you’re an actor. I thought, “Whoa!” Of course, at the time, I was 17 and didn’t want to be told what to do. But I thought, “OK, alright, I’ll give it a try.” And about six months later I was working on my first feature film.

That’s amazing!
JG: I didn’t really fall in love with acting until I was on set of this film. I’ll never forget it I was shooting in Regina, Saskatchewan and I was typecasting. They wanted a scared, naive, ducky-looking kid, being 17 years old, that’s exactly what I was. [One day] we had been working 15 hours. It was a night shoot and it was cold. The sun was starting to crest over this very tall hill in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, which unlike the rest of Saskatchewan is quite massive. The sun crested over this hill and the whole crew started to scramble because they kept talking about something called Magic Hour. It’s this 57-minute window where filmmakers are given the opportunity to shoot outdoors against this beautiful backdrop awash in gold hues from the sunrise. Everything comes to life again just before the sun really wakes up and the world starts moving, and they wanted this one shot.

I stood at the base of this hill, and I could feel the sun against my arms. I was transported back to a Victoria Day weekend when I was a kid standing in my back yard. It was around sunset where the sun does exactly the same thing just before it goes to sleep. Everything wakes up to say hello again, awash in this beautiful hue of gold. And I thought, “Oh, I’m not really in Saskatchewan. I’m not really shooting this movie. I’m just in my back yard.” I know this sensation. I know this person. It’s not a different person; it’s just a different side of me. That’s where all the lessons I learned in that little Method class started to make sense. It all clicked in a breath. And I thought, “that’s what all this means.” You’re not putting on another skin. You’re more sort of turning the mirror to face a different way. I sort of liken everybody to a mirror ball. When you turn the mirror ball slightly you get a different reflection of light off one of the little panels. We all experience the same 360 degrees of emotion. We just manifest it differently.