This article was written by Donna Cromeans, Ellys Cartin, Folie-lex, Giulia Del Buono, and María Sol. The article was edited by Donna Cromeans (DJRiter). The open and close of the article were written by Donna Cromeans. Prepared for publishing by Aimee Hicks.
Larger than life characters can make or break a series. In HBO’s gritty retelling of author Erle Stanley Gardner’s iconic Perry Mason they don’t come any more larger than life than Sister Alice McKeegan, the mesmerizing evangelical head of the Radiant Assembly of God, caught up in the kidnapping and murder of a young child and being investigated by down on his lucky private investigator Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys). It was going to take an actress who can pull off that delicate balancing act of making that larger than life character more of a person than a caricature and in today’s group of talented young actresses who can accomplish that they don’t come any more larger than life than Tatiana Maslany. Maslany first came to fans’ attention playing eight different characters in her Emmy® award-winning turn on Orphan Black, since then she has carefully and skillfully crafted herself a place among the great actresses of our times like Mirren, Dench, Streep, and Adams with a stellar body of work. In a limited amount of screen time, Maslany has turned Sister Alice into one of the must-watch characters of HBO’s Perry Mason. It should come as a surprise to no one that this former SpoilerTV Performer of the Year winner has once again impressed our staff with her mesmerizing work in Chapter Two and was named, in a rare tie vote with her Perry Mason co-star Matthew Rhys, as one of the SpoilerTV’s Staff Choice Performers of the Month for June.
Continue reading below to find out our thoughts regarding her performance. After reading, please leave your thoughts in the comments.
Tatiana Maslany is one of those talented actresses that seem to disappear into a role. She’s becoming known for taking challenging roles, what do you think there was about Sister Alice that attracted her to the part? What are your impressions of her take on the charismatic Sister Alice?
Donna: I’m sure every actress looks for parts that challenge their abilities and allows them to stretch their acting skills. The chance to bring Sister Alice to life certainly provided Maslany with that opportunity. This character is unlike many of the roles she has played and is perhaps one of the most dynamic presented to her on paper. Donning the platinum Jean Harlow style look of the times and embodying every aspect of Sister Alice’s passion and dedication to her flock, from body language to dialogue delivery, Maslany has perfectly nailed every aspect of this enigmatic character.
Ellys: When a fellow writer told me that Maslany was giving one of the year’s best performances in the role of Sister Alice, I was skeptical. First, another eerie television show this year had a similar character. Second, how likely was it that anyone (even a celebrated artist) could do something fresh and exciting with this type of character? When I caught up on Perry Mason, however, Maslany’s performance brought undeniable chills. She executes the role in a way that brings Sister Alice to life. She’s a tornado of power plowing through a landscape of other characters hiding and searching. Amidst a dark, gruesome mystery, Sister Alice is the illuminating force that promises to somehow expose everything to the light, even just as a side consequence of some larger mission. At first, she doesn’t quite belong, but with every episode, Maslany grafts Sister Alice onto another part of the story until it becomes apparent that she is the show’s life force.
Folie-lex: I’m just finding myself in awe watching Maslany bring yet another so distinct and original character to life. I find myself looking for familiar mannerisms and there are none. That is my main impression. That Sister Alice is new and different and has no remains of other characters Maslany has played before. And I would assume that is probably what was attractive about the character to her. After all, that kind of charismatic and enchanting personality a preacher like Sister Alice must exhume is not something I have ever seen her play before.
Giulia: Maslany is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. When I first started watching Orphan Black, I was in awe of her talent. I think that her main feature is her empathy. She always brings so much pathos to every character she plays. I’m sure that playing such a mysterious and interesting character was a treat for her, so she had the chance to disappear entirely into Sister Alice.
María: Just the first moment we see Sister Alice is enough to know that she’s quite an interesting and intriguing character that has a very wide range of emotions. We’re able to notice that in just a few scenes of her first episode in Perry Mason, which could be one of the main reasons she accepted this role.
Characters like Sister Alice are often portrayed as con artists or unstable fanatics. How does Maslany’s performance acknowledge those tropes while circumventing them?
Donna: Sister Alice is not only a larger than life character, but she is also a larger than life female religious leader set in the 1930s at a time when religious charlatans were predominant in society. Playing the role too far over the top would have made the character extremely less effective and a laughing stock or comic relief for the story. Instead, in Maslany’s talented hands she knows just how far to go to show Sister Alice’s devotion and religious fervor. During the character’s passionate sermons, she shows Sister Alice to be a woman on the edge of insanity while restraining her enough to make her heard and revered instead of a buffoon and laughing stock.
Ellys: As with the real-life figure who inspired Sister Alice, Maslany is playing a rare role: a woman in a position of spiritual leadership. Her first appearance on the show was everything one would expect from such a character, based on typical television convention. We met Sister Alice giving a dramatic performance, a scene that Maslany filled with larger-than-life charisma, the religious qualities she’s exhorting forming an unmissable contrast to the tawdry theatrical setting. It’s a loud and gaudy scene, and Maslany leans into it with Sister Alice’s roaring energy. It is exactly the sort of setup for someone who would be deluded or deceitful, a setup that bears a resemblance to the mechanisms of televangelists. Sister Alice ought to be a con artist, but she isn’t, at least not in intent. In the funeral message scene, Maslany shows us exactly who Sister Alice is, a passionate crusader, one who delivers a thundering demand for truth and justice that unsettles every person in attendance. Maslany envelopes this speech in righteous fury, pouring out the admonishments and exhortations with such force that we feel every bit as chastened and thrilled as Sister Alice’s congregation.
Folie-lex: Well I still think we’re a little early in the show’s run to make an assessment of where Sister Alice stands in the long haul or how her performance reflects a “leaning on the tropes” or subversion of them. I can say my first impressions of her is that of a good-hearted woman, with good intentions, that has unshaken belief in her faith and the good that it offers. However, I’m also not entirely sure there’s not more to her schtick.
Giulia: I think Maslany wants us to feel what someone like Sister Alice feels in her situation and in her position as a charismatic religious leader. She acknowledges the trope of the understanding religious person, but she maintains a certain distance.
María: For now, I think that Sister Alice truly believes in what she does and she may not think she’s faking her role or at least that’s what was somehow hinted in her first appearances. What I like about her is that, even when she does have all those classic mannerisms that we usually see in a character like this, she also has this other side that makes her look more like a normal person. Maslany can handle both angles of her character very well and moves so easily between them.
This is not the first time Maslany has played a character inspired by a real person, (Woman in Gold). When actors portray characters based on real people, they often give a more restrained performance as though they don’t have the freedom to create an original work. Do you think Maslany avoids that with her work in Perry Mason?
Donna: My first thoughts when seeing Maslany as Sister Alice was, she was close to channeling the magnificent performance of the late Jean Simmons as Sister Ruth in the award-winning film Elmer Gantry based on the life of noted evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. In that film, Simmons was the sincere evangelical challenged by the con artist style of Burt Lancaster as the lead character. Truthfully, I think Maslany is giving us a bit of both characters. Giving us Simmons’ passion and heartfelt devotion counterbalanced by Lancaster’s bombastic style, which many believe was true of McPherson. If anything, I don’t think she feels restrained but emboldened to make Sister Alice as passionate and out there as she can, taking her right up to the edge of sanity.
Ellys: Television shows and movies incorporate real people or versions of real people quite frequently when the story takes place in a historical or bygone setting. In my experience, these characters can come across as more distant, more ambiguous than completely fictional characters. This quality tends to appear when characters based on actual people are supporting or guest players. Aimee Semple McPherson, the inspiration for Sister Alice, was a massively influential phenomenon in her day, yet history has swept her nearly out of memory. Maslany’s portrayal of Sister Alice, while only a loose rendering of McPherson, is perhaps the closest to capturing the essence of McPherson that any film or TV show has come. It’s too early in the series to assess how well Alice fits into the narrative, but Maslany brings Alice to life in glorious Technicolor with a natural delivery of humor and sincere empathy.
Folie-lex: I think the context of the character allows her to “go big”. It is simply to her credit as an actor that it doesn’t look gimmicky.
Giulia: Playing a character that existed/exists is tricky. I had no doubt that Maslany would nail this part. She plays Sister Alice with the right amount of freedom from the original inspiration, but by masterfully keeping in her performance the authenticity of what it actually meant to be what she was in that particular time in that particular town.
María: I’m not very familiar with the person in which her character is based on, but I do think Maslany does achieve avoiding that lack of independence since I don’t think her acting looks restrained. On the contrary, I feel like she’s had the freedom to give Sister Alice some distinctive characteristics that help her to own her, especially what happens in the “behind the scenes” of the church. I think there might not be many insights on the private life of a person that was so theatrical, so I think there is where Maslany has more room to contribute to the character.
Perry Mason is shot and directed in distinct film noir style, a style that’s marked by most characters having deep dark secrets. What do you see from Maslany that tells us Sister Alice has a secret and what do you think it is? Is she somehow more involved in the kidnapping and murder than we know? And who is really in charge at the church, Sister Alice, or her mother (Lili Taylor)?
Donna: This is what make’s Maslany’s performance so special in Perry Mason. While Sister Alice appears flamboyant and outspoken, it’s those tiny unguarded moments that show us that there’s much more to her than meets the eye. Maslany will give a line delivery a drop in speed and tone, or she will get this haunted look in her eyes, those little touches that tell us that perhaps as characteristic in film noir, Sister Alice has a secret too. At first, I thought she and her mother might be involved in the kidnapping and murder, but now I am having second thoughts about that and think the secret has more to do with her life before her fame as Sister Alice. Driven by her mother (who WAS in charge at the church but has since lost control to the elders) perhaps Sister Alice was born as repentance of some egregious act in her youth. Sister Alice’s seemingly wild claims such as resurrecting the child and lashing out at city leaders at his funeral should have been her mother’s first clues that her daughter is taking her role more seriously than they first intended.
Ellys: We have a show where nearly everyone carries the burden of someone else’s darkness or their own, but Sister Alice doesn’t exist on the same plane. Maslany carries her character with a weightless strength that makes Sister Alice not quite superhuman but not quite terrestrial either. In a less experienced artist’s hands, she would come across as flighty or detached, but Maslany’s Sister Alice hasn’t lost her grasp on reality. She’s firmly rooted in her faith, ensconced in the setting of the Radiant Assembly of God but she doesn’t draw strength from the pageantry that has attracted some less ethical people to her ministry. Her position and the glorious spectacle she creates are merely tools to fulfill her higher calling. Sister Alice’s singular zeal, as later episodes have shown, does give her a blind spot in that she doesn’t fully grasp the darker agendas of the men who have attached themselves like leeches to her and her mother. The stage is set for a battle between Sister Alice’s truth and the version of facts these men want her to call truth.
Folie-lex: My money is on that her mother and the elders call the shots, and they are using Sister Alice as more of “the face of the operation”. My speculation is that they are keeping her drugged and subdued. I also think the church probably organized the kidnapping (why exactly I don’t know… maybe to stage a miracle?) and that Sister Alice may have killed Charlie while being in a fugue state.
Giulia: I haven’t really understood her motives and her presence because I think she’s way more important than the story lets us know. I’m sure she’s involved in the murder, but I’m not sure how. And her Mother is in charge of the church, even though Alice is a very charismatic presence and her preaching skills are enormously powerful.
María: I do think that Sister Alice keeps a few secrets that will be discovered in the upcoming episodes. What I find the most intriguing right now is to know if she does believe that she has a real gift, since, in a couple of scenes of Chapter Two, Maslany transmitted through her eyes a weird vibe, as if she was seeing something beyond our comprehension. First, when she was holding the hand of Emily Dodson, the baby’s mom, and later when she crossed looks with Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys). Something is going on there and I want to know what it is. I’m not sure if I could tell right now to which extent she is involved in the kidnapping. What I could say is that apparently the church is run by both, though Alice is the face and seems more involved with the spiritual side of it, while her mother is clearly the one that handles the political and operative aspects; we would just have to determine which one of those two parts is the most important.
What was your favorite moment or scene from Chapter Two that illustrates Maslany bringing Sister Alice most vividly to life? With which performer or character does she share her most powerful work in the series?
Donna: Sister Alice was at her bombastic best at the funeral. Here she released all the fire and brimstone befitting her character. She was a force of nature chastising city leaders and law enforcement for failure to protect the child. Yet, just before she began lashing out, she had been sticking to a carefully crafted script. You see her stop for just a moment as if considering what she was about to do in going off script was wise, and with a defiant look at her mother, went for it. This is a point where Sister Alice took a firm grasp of her power and ran with it. In subsequent episodes, it appears she is made to pay for that defiance, yet she remains a woman of her convictions. My favorite moment with another character didn’t come in the episode for which she is receiving this honor, it comes in Chapter Three when Sister Alice pays a jailhouse visit to Emily (Gayle Rankin). As she is comforting the distraught Emily and surrounded by other female prisoners, the matron (Alison White) comes up and tries to force her to leave. In one instant Maslany has Sister Alice go from calmly comforting and encouraging Emily not to give up hope, to lashing out at the matron with the growling street-wise fury of a tigress protecting her cub, and then in the next moment she turned back to Emily with calm, soothing tones. This was a masterful exchange between Maslany and White.
Ellys: Sister Alice has a shadow to her, a haunting loneliness that seems to stem from an unacknowledged realization that who she is deprives her of the chance to have ordinary friendships and relationships. People look at her, both with kindness and malevolence, as someone who can give them something. Maslany’s scenes with other performers thus reflect Alice’s reality, and there’s an obstacle between Alice and almost everyone else that can’t be overcome. Maslany hits exactly the right notes for this impact to leave an impression of isolation on us. In one of the early episodes, during a speech to her congregation, Alice locks eyes with Perry Mason, who is watching her with complete astonishment, more disturbed than moved. Her expression only slightly changes; Maslany is swift with the transition, but we see something more serious in Alice’s face. It’s as if for one second, she’s stepped outside her own body and is seeing and hearing herself differently. She wears a gaze that could mean a million different things about who Alice is and what she will do next.
Folie-lex: I think her eulogy at the funeral was the pinnacle of her performance in the episode. It perfectly encapsulated the character and her involvement in the story. As for shared screen time, I don’t think she interacted much with anyone to make that kind of assessment in Chapter Two. Chapter Three however, had more of that and in that episode, I found that the Sister Alice/Emily Dodson scenes were the strongest.
Giulia: Strongest for me was when she talks to Charlie’s parents and expresses her sympathies. As an audience member, I felt a little manipulated because I couldn’t understand whether she was being honest or not, and that’s why I’m loving her portrayal of Sister Alice so much.
María: The scene that stayed with me was the first time we saw Sister Alice in action. First, she was this lively and energetic preacher motivating her parishioners, then, at the first moment she was out of the crowd’s eyes, she changed her demeanor to an exhausted and sweaty woman as if the character she was portraying one minute earlier would’ve drained her energy, and finally regaining her posture as a church leader, but this time serving a more serene role to comfort Charlie’s parents for their grief. I found remarkably interesting how, in a single scene, Maslany was able to do all these transitions in a very natural way. Also, for me, the scene with her mother was the most meaningful in this episode, since it gave us some clues of how the relationship is between these two characters. They seem to be close and caring for each other, but it was made clear too that Sister Alice seems extremely interested in her mother’s opinion, and her mother may have the final word in some respects.
What are your final thoughts on her winning this recognition?
Donna: Perry Mason had been on my low-key radar since learning Maslany would be on the show. Following an exciting one-on-one Zoom call with her during the recent virtual con, HOMECON, and hearing, first hand, her excitement, and eagerness for everyone to meet Sister Alice, just made me more excited to watch. She did not disappoint! Maslany is one of those rare performers who command your attention anytime she is on screen, her work as Sister Alice is a certain testament to that and it came as no surprise that she earned this honor.
Ellys: My prior viewing resume of Tatiana Maslany included An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving and half of an Orphan Black episode. Her performance in this episode is nothing short of exhilarating and makes me eager to track down more of her projects.
Folie-lex: I mean… have you seen Orphan Black? Were we to expect anything less…?
Giulia: Tatiana Maslany’s ability to disappear into her characters is incredible. Getting this recognition is once again proof of her amazing acting skills and her capacity to always get to the audience with a direct and honest take on her characters is something that needs to be celebrated
María: I’m glad that just a few scenes have had enough impact to make her get this recognition. I have to say that this is the first time I have seen Tatiana Maslany’s work, though I had heard incredibly good reviews about her previous projects and now I can see why. She really deserves this win and I can’t wait to keep watching the development of this character.
Fans of Tatiana Maslany know that when she takes a part, she will give her all to the role often skillfully and masterfully disappearing into the character. Now, they are enjoying watching her vividly bring Sister Alice to life. She first made her stamp as a dominant character in Perry Mason with a dynamic performance in Chapter Two, which has earned her the much-deserved honor of one of SpoilerTV’s Staff Choice Performers of the Month for June in a rare tie with her castmate, Matthew Rhys.
Please use the comments to discuss all your favorite parts of Tatiana Maslany’s performance in Chapter Two.