It takes a lot of thought to play the honorary member of Orphan Black’s “Clone Club,” with all the versions of Tatiana Maslany that an actor has to keep straight in his head. Luckily, Jordan Gavaris is just that kind of guy. His Felix Dawkins is the foster brother of the “main clone,” Sarah Manning. But he’s become the shoulder to cry on for all of the clones Maslany plays, from the uptight Alison Hendrix to the hippie scientist Cosima Niehaus, to the feral, untamed Helena — along with his adopted mother, S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) — and it takes a lot of effort for the 25-year-old Canadian actor to keep them straight.
In a candid talk with Playboy, Gavaris reveals his hopes for Felix and for the show when it goes into its fourth season in 2016, elaborates on the passionate remarks he made about stereotyping at the Nerd HQ conference two years ago, why he didn’t fit in as a kid, and how he developed Felix’s super-authentic British accent.
You’ve mentioned that Felix is going to go in a bit of a darker direction this season. Before the season did creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett sit you down and say, “We really want to do something more with Felix than just him be support for Tatiana’s characters?”
There wasn’t a conversation about that. I think that was something that I was hoping for, in all honesty I think that because the Leda [female clone] and Castor [male clone] storylines were so heavy this season, Felix probably didn’t assert his autonomy maybe as much as I’d have liked. I think that for the purpose of the plot and for the purpose of the story he was still functioning more as an ancillary character and as a support beam [for the female clones].
But I tried to find ways within the given parameters of this season to give him a bit of a personal arc. I wanted to show the wear and the weathering of the last two years. I feel like TV and movie logic are such that we often don’t take into account the psychological ramifications of really traumatic events, unless they’re written, unless it’s on the page and you’re dealing with PTSD or trauma or recovery. We just sort of gloss over it and we don’t take into account the fact that he’s had guns pointed at his head. There have been a lot of identity crises. Not in a sense of his sexuality or in a sense of who he is but I think just where he fits in Sarah’s life.
I think there’s been a lot of confusion and to be honest, I showed up at the [Toronto] set my first day; I’d left LA, it was cold already because we started later this year, I think I was having a bit of a temper tantrum, privately not publicly, but privately having a bit of a temper tantrum and sometimes there’s no way to fight against that feeling. Sometimes you have to let it rule you and you have to decide that that’s where the character’s at and if that’s your only place of authenticity that you can play from, then that’s where the character is going to be playing from.
Where do we see Felix’s weariness in these first group of episodes?
It’s in his behavior. It’s in his tone. He lost a chunk of his flair. He’s lost some of those theatrics. He’s lost some of his mask and I just remember even the scene with Sarah and Felix down by the docks [in the first episode] when they’re sipping beer after S has revealed that she sold Helena out to the military, there was this sort of… I don’t know, it was just a little bit more real to me the way that we see him as much more of a human being and less of a caricature.
It’s not like it’s just the traumas, it’s also having all these new people in his life and they all look the same but they’re all different and they’re all difficult.
Well, everybody needs something from him, right? He’s giving a lot and there’s a responsibility; there’s this demand for his attention and his time and efforts and nobody’s really giving him anything back in return. Like if you really think about it, he’s the crisis counselor, the therapist, the best friend, the babysitter. He’s who everybody seems to need, who everybody calls at three in the morning when they have a problem, but he doesn’t really have anybody to call. And nobody’s very interested in how he’s doing either. I can’t think of a single time he’s ever been asked how he was.
So for me — and I get so passionate about it because he’s like a real person — I wanted to take some of that and put it into the emotional life of the character. So it’s not even necessarily what he says or maybe it’s in his body language, in his behavior, but I just wanted to have that playing in the back of my brain to see what that did. What it did to the character, what it did to how he moved across a room, how he greeted people, what he chose to wear. It was so silly. I was attracted to much, much, much darker colors this year, less revealing things, more kind of just…I don’t know, kind of like a melancholia. That’s a really great word.
At a certain point, like this season and last season, do you go to Graeme and John and go, “Hey, is anyone going to ask Felix how he’s doing?”
We’ve talked about it. I think that what I can say is that again, this season was so much about Leda and Castor, and answering so many questions that we had raised in season two. I feel like the plot sort of spider-webbed out. It wasn’t myopic. It was very expansive. Now I think what I think everyone wants to see — and we do get some of this near the end of season three — is for it to become a little more focused, and I think we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re starting to see what the show is all about, what this project is all about, these women are all about, what it all means and where we’re going and that’s where we get to.
This season feels like, and I’ve seen fans talking about it, they’re seeing all of Tatiana’s characters spread out a little bit.
The joke has been that the show’s like a running atom bomb. So the first season is really exciting because we’ve never seen this atom bomb before and we know it’s a time bomb. You can’t take your eyes off of it. You know it’s going to blow and then in season two it does. It blows and there’s a giant mushroom cloud and there’s a big hole in the Earth. You can’t see it yet and season three is the dust and we’re trying to wade through the dust cloud until finally it begins to settle near the end of season three and we get to see what’s left over. We get to see what’s actually underneath.
I hope I’m not talking out of turn, but I think I can speak to this: I think that’s going to be more of the focus of season four. So what we’re going to get is not necessarily another atom bomb but I think we’re going to go back to the show’s roots. I keep coming back to the word myopic. We get a sense of that nearing the latter half of season three, where the show does begin to narrow just a little bit more and we find our train again.
I think what that means for Felix is that I think there’s just been so much talk, everybody wants a storyline for the character and something I’ve always been in defense of is that a storyline is great, but only if it makes sense. I would hate the idea of them creating yet another train instead of just laying more track that makes sense.
It needs to be organic.
Yeah. I hate movie logic. I hate TV logic, I hate when things are done for the sake of them being done. Those are the kind of stories that I like to watch but they’re also not the kind that I would ever want to tell.
Thus far through the season, we’re not seeing that many more sides of Felix. Does that frustrate you?
We may not discover as much about him this season as maybe people were expecting we would. He gets to do some really interesting things on his own, which in essence, do reveal parts of him to the audience. They reveal new parts of him to me; I was very surprised about his strength and his resolve. He’s a very strong character and I think probably less noble than people would like him to be. That really interested me because we delude ourselves into thinking that our characters have to be good or they work toward a place where they’re becoming innately good or intrinsically good and that in some way being bad or just human is intrinsically deficient — I think it’s bullshit to be perfectly honest. That’s part of why I think we’ve got this fascination right now with these antiheroes — Walter White, Frank Underwood — they’re fascinating people because they’re teaching us that humanity is not good or bad, it just is, and that the truth of humanity is not good or bad, it just is.
You’ve said that sometimes it’s hard for you to remember which of Tatiana’s characters you’re acting with in a scene. Is it easier for you then to have less interaction with all of the clones at once?
I think easier might be the wrong word. It’s maybe a little less technically challenging, because there’s less to think about. You just get to focus on your relationship with one person in a scene and what that reveals about you and what you’re revealing about yourself. It tends to be a more linear story if you’ve just got two characters but then if you throw in an Alison with a Cosima and then pop a Sarah in there too then, from a technical standpoint, you just have a little bit more to focus on. Sometimes maybe you miss out on opportunities for the scene.
Tat’s great about this; she maintains a sense of play even under very tight constraints. She’s still very good at finding spontaneity. I’m still learning, but sometimes some of the hardest scenes I’ve ever done, some of the ones that just really kicked my ass and were… I was resisting. I was resisting impulses, The majority of those scenes have always been just me and another person because there’s just so much focus on you. You don’t have the technology or the other Tatianas to lean on. You are essentially carrying the scene with your scene partner and there’s a responsibility there to show up. You can’t phone it in. You can’t just say, “Oh, well it’s a plot heavy scene and there’s three Tatianas and a Felix and that’s going to be what’s interesting.” You are the focus of the scene.
When you’re playing against Tatiana as Cosima or Tatiana as Helena or Tatiana as Sarah, do you look at her and you’re like, “Okay, that’s Sarah. I know in my mind how to react to Sarah.” Is it second nature to you now?
Yeah and you know what’s funny? You’d think it’d be the opposite, that the more and more I’m on the show the more I’m able to see Tat through the characters because I’ve gotten to know her so well. But the opposite has happened: She has settled so readily into these characters and I feel like she even breaks character a little more now.
She is so protective of the illusion and in defense of her characters there are no vanities with her. She is never focused on looking beautiful. She is never focused on not looking silly. She is fully willing to embarrass herself all the time and you know, it’s not embarrassing to us watching it. We’re fascinated by it. She transitions and becomes these women and you’re having a conversation with her as Rachel or as Alison and there’s just no performing going on. You’re having a conversation with those women. When she looks like Rachel, she’s dressed like Rachel, she is Rachel, and Rachel’s not a very nice person to have a conversation with, she’s kind of a bitch.
How did you develop Felix’s British accent?
You also have to adopt the culture. That’s the tricky thing that nobody tells you about accents. You can do all the work you want on manipulating the muscles in your mouth to speak a different way but if you don’t also adopt the culture of the region it’s not going to work. I watched loads and loads of interviews of Brits from the region that I was working with, which was Esturary, which wasn’t decided upon in the initial auditions. I did a Northern accent first, which I was familiar with because my mom’s a really big fan of Coronation Street. I think I had a good handle on their culture; it’s a little punky and Felix is described as a punk similar to Sarah. He wasn’t quite as flamboyant or alive on the page as I think we later found him.
So my initial audition, I went in, I was doing very much like a Manchester accent and then we changed it to be Cockney, but that didn’t really work because Sarah wasn’t quite Cockney, she was a bit more London street, which is very, very different. Depending on where you’re from your sense of humor will be quite different. If you’re from a low class area your sense of humor might be kind of crass. If you were educated in Oxford it’s going to be much more highbrow. So again, it’s not just the accent, it’s the culture, it’s the humor, it’s the type of conversation, it’s the quickness of speech. I tried to incorporate as much of that as possible to make the character as…to protect the illusion of the character as much as I could.
Any sense of pride that the Brits on the set said, “Oh my god, you’re not from England?”
I take that as the highest compliment by far.
You don’t turn off Felix’s accent when the cameras go off until you leave for the day. Is that because you just want to be in that mode?
Totally. I think when you surrender to it — and not just the accent or the physicality — but when you surrender to the character you’re more willing to make choices in defense of the character. You’re more willing to allow things to happen in the scene that are in defense of Felix, not in defense of Jordan because Felix doesn’t always come out on top. He doesn’t always win. Well, Jordan likes to win and it’s embarrassing for me to reveal something about losing. So it’s easier to do that when I’m still in character.
He’s so feminine and so sexual. I love listening to Goldfrapp. There’s a song called “Strict Machine” by Goldfrapp that’s just kind of makes me feel very feminine and very sexual and it’s just a great access point for the character. I hate it when people reduce this character to his sexuality, and it’s not at all that he is his sexuality. He’s not just gay but a big part of who he is is his comfort in his sexuality and his comfort in his body.
That answers that question that arose at the Nerd HQ panel a couple of years ago that went all over the web. You mentioned that you had to do some research to give an informed answer to questions about Felix.
Yeah, I think it started when people started describing the character as the gay brother and that pissed me off. It pissed me off because nobody was describing Cosima as the lesbian scientist, you know what I mean? You’d never describe a black actor as, “He’s the black brother,” because we learned socially and culturally that we cannot reduce people to their skin color. That’s not only inappropriate, it’s socially idiotic and it’s illogical and it’s reductive.
It’s silly and some of the articles I was reading were just incredibly reductive and I was frustrated because I thought, these are journalists. These are people with access to a public forum, these are people that are helping to shape the zeitgeist, are helping to shape pop culture, and there just needs to be more accountability. It’s not enough to just include the minority. It’s not enough just to write, “the gay brother.” It’s not enough to be gay affirmative. We have to take the next step as purveyors of media, as smart people with access to an audience, and say, “He’s the brother; he may be gay, he’s also an artist, he is this, this, and this.” Start to teach.
What were you like in high school?
Oh, I just had no idea who I was. I tried so hard. Every week I would come to school kind of following a new trend. I thought I would dress up as a skater. That didn’t work because I didn’t skateboard. I think I was just very uncomfortable being myself which was an ardent film geek and I loved to cook. I found, and this is, I’m sure, another byproduct of school and me not feeling totally comfortable in my own skin. I just sort of felt intrinsically deficient somehow and that I had to make up for it. That I had to be something better than just myself to fit in because everybody else seemed to have a thing. Everybody seemed to have a thing. I didn’t really have a thing.
And so you never fit in?
I think to be honest it’s always just come from my painful identification with the underdog, because you’re right, I was one and I didn’t have… I found it very difficult to reduce myself down to anything and when you don’t do that you really struggle, because the hierarchy in schools and youth culture, it’s so dependent on reduction, it’s so dependent on identifying with one thing that if you don’t then you just find yourself very lonely. So I think I have a real soft spot for any minority at all, any minority who has ever felt depressed or reduced. I’m very passionate about it and I just thought that if I was going to play somebody like this, if the show was going to be popular, if I was going to have access to an audience who were willing to listen then I figured I should probably have something kind of important to say.
Joel Keller is one of the cofounders of the site Antenna Free TV and cohosts the weekly AFT Podcast. He was editor-in-chief of the now-defunct TV Squad, and since those heady days, he’s written about TV and other topics for The New York Times, The A.V. Club, TheAtlantic.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create, Vulture, Parade, Indiewire and elsewhere.