NEW YORK (AP) — A half-century ago, teen star Patty Duke wowed viewers playing dual roles (identical cousins!) on her hit sitcom.
These days on "Orphan Black," BBC America's sci-fi clone-fest, Tatiana Maslany has lost count of the roles she plays.
"More than seven, I think," she says, adding that, in a single scene, she has played as many as four distinct characters interacting seamlessly. She's a crowd all by herself.
Now in its third season (airing Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT), the series began with con artist Sarah (played by Maslany) witnessing the subway suicide of Beth (played by Maslany), who, to Sarah's shock, was her spitting image. Always out to find an angle, Sarah claimed for herself Beth's much-cushier identity, only to learn that she and Beth were clones along with a growing number of other lab-created "sisters" (played by Maslany) — and that all of them are in serious peril.
The highly acclaimed series has won the 29-year-old Maslany a special brand of cult adulation, even something bordering on celebrity.
"A girl recognized me at the airport," says Maslany, though adding hastily, "I was wearing my 'Orphan Black' backpack. It's such a good backpack!"
Animated and candid with a luminous smile, Maslany is a woman blessed with rather specific features who, nonetheless, on-camera can marshal them in seemingly countless variations. As she slips into her repertory company of roles, it is hard, then downright jarring, for the audience to realize they all are one woman's handiwork.
"This show is an incredible training ground for an actor in terms of sparking my imagination and keeping me present," she says. "It's so stimulating, to switch up characters twice a day, and jump into each role without fear or embarrassment."
Besides Sarah, who serves as the clones' de facto leader, they include Alison, the soccer mom; Helena, a maniacal Ukrainian; Cosima, a brilliant scientist, and more.
But this season, Maslany's clone posse has been met with an opposing team. A new cloning initiative named Project Castor has loosed a gang of male clones on the world. They all are played by Ari Millen, whom Maslany describes as "super-trained and super-awesome."
She laughs at the notion voiced by some disgruntled fans that introducing male clones somehow threatens the series' supposedly feminist agenda — and even upstages Maslany's bravura display.
"That's so funny," she says, "as if feminism can be explored only if women are in positions of power. Do people think the female clones will instantly become the men's girlfriends and just cook for them?
"This doesn't change the fabric of the show, it reinforces the story we're already telling. It's about autonomy, and the lack of it; about ownership of your body and image. It's about gender stereotypes, which we explore and bust open. This is all still very relevant to women — and to men, too."
While Maslany savors serving up her smorgasbord of characters, she takes pains to praise her fellow cast members — who include Kristian Bruun, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Hanchard and Maria Doyle Kennedy — "for their amazing character work."
She also points out the achievements of her colleagues in wardrobe, lighting and hair and makeup.
"To have me as a default, and then change me up in so many different ways, is a real challenge for them, and exciting," she says.
Maslany, who began acting as a child in community theater in her hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, has a long list of credits in Canadian TV and in films including "The Vow," ''Picture Day" and the current feature "Woman in Gold," playing a young version of the character played by its star, Helen Mirren.
But she cites her early experiences as a dancer, then as a member of an improv troupe, as invaluable training for "Orphan Black."
"Having to be precise and systematic as a dancer really helps me with the technical side of things" — particularly ministering to the Technodolly, a device that repeats a camera's movement as it shoots a scene multiple times, allowing Maslany to appear in each take as a different character who often has to play against herself.
"But I need the improv stuff, too," she adds, "or else those scenes wouldn't feel alive or real. Improv helps me access my imagination and pretend that there's another person there. This is a bizarre, supertechnical process that you have to bring breath and life to."
And now, as she awaits the start of filming season four, her feeling is: the more the merrier.
"I'm so up for more characters," says Maslany, for whom "Orphan Black" is a growing demo reel of her remarkable range.
"No one can pigeonhole me now," she declares. Or can they? "Now I get offers to do twin sisters and multiples. And clones."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore