‘Orphan Black’ Postmortem: Kristian Bruun on Donnie’s Highland Dance

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Beneath Her Heart” episode of Orphan Black.

It’s not a season of Orphan Black without poor Donnie Hendrix being humiliated in grand fashion. Since being tied up and interrogated in his wife Alison’s craft closet way back in Season 1, Donnie —and Kristian Bruun, the actor who has played him for five years — has experienced a world of physical and emotional hurt. But Bruun says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Donnie is a character people love to see bad things happen to,” the actor tells Yahoo TV. “I challenge the writers every season to try and top the madness they’ve done to Donnie previously, and every year they step up to the plate. It’s a joy to act that.”

In “Beneath Her Heart,” that madness takes the form of a highland dance that Donnie performs at a church fun fair as a prelude to Team Hendrix’s planned duet. Unfortunately, he’s performing after accidentally imbibing a bottle of iced tea laced with pills, a cocktail that topples him mid-dance, while his wife, and an entire audience, looks on. As embarrassing as that is, an even bigger blow comes later when Alison informs Donnie that she needs some “me time,” and the two go their separate ways after a private performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” accompanied by Donnie on the mandolin. Bruun tells us all about that (temporary, we hope) farewell, and his secret history as a highland dancer.

I always look forward to the annual “Alison & Donnie” episode because it usually means wacky suburban hijinks.
Yeah, every year we get that “madness in the suburbs” episode and its fun to run with. Donnie and Alison are a very relatable couple to a lot of people watching compared to the other clones. I think they help people in the world of Orphan Black, and the writers saw that and decided to really run with it, throwing a lot of dark humor into the mix as well.

This episode is particularly interesting, because we get to see pre-Season 1 versions of Alison and Donnie through flashbacks back to a night when Alison tripped on some magic mushrooms. Was it difficult to put yourself in the mindset of Donnie’s earlier self?
It was weird for all of us because we also had Chad and Aynsley [Eric Johnson and Natalie Lisinska] in there, and we had never done a regular scene with all four of us. So it was neat to do that with all the knowledge we now have of both couples, and show the audience a happier time in their lives. It may not have been happier under the surface, because there was a lot of stuff going on, obviously. But the characters are clueless to everything, so it was fun to be Alison and Donnie before all the madness blew up in our faces. Because in just a few months time [from the flashbacks] they’re going to be in a completely different world. Right now, the wild thing for them as a couple is taking mushrooms; flash-forward six months later, and they’re going to be burying bodies and selling drugs!

Was there a version of the episode where Donnie ate the mushrooms along with Alison?
That would be insane! I would love to have shot a version like that. We kept him as the designated driver for the night. That goes towards the suburban nature of their relationship where it’s like, “Let’s play it safe and do this responsibly.” It’s great to see how different they are the rest of this season when their life gets insane and they have to fly by the seat of their pants. You also gotta remember that Donnie is still a monitor at this point, so he’s got to remain sober so he can report to Dr. Leekie [Matt Frewer] about what happens when Alison is under the influence [of drugs]. So there’s this dark edge to their suburban life at the time.

The episode also reminds us that Alison and Chad had a tryst back in the first season. Do you think Donnie will ever find out?
When all of that went down, their relationship was in the dumps with all this monitor information coming out, and Alison and Donnie fighting constantly. I think it was one of those things that Donnie knew about, but didn’t really want to admit. Now, their relationship is solid. He obviously questions that at the end of this episode when Alison goes off to find herself, and get away from all the madness going on. But for the most part, the rocky portion they went through is over, and they’re just trying to survive. They know they need each other, and I think that’s when they’re more solid than they’ve been before. They’ve spent seasons trying to get back to their [previous lives], and they realize that’s never going to happen.

Speaking to their relatability, that’s a challenge married couples often face: growing together in the face of adversity.
Yeah, sometimes you accidentally kill someone and you have to step up as a couple and bury a body in the garage. That’s normal! [Laughs.]

I gasped when Art and Maddie started digging in the Hendrix garage to find Dr. Leekie. That body has been buried for so long!
I was jealous when they were shooting that. I said to Kevin [Hanchard], “You are so lucky. It’s a bunch of dirty days in that terrible garage of death.” But I was so jealous. I wanted to be back in those holes! I also warned them how dirty they were going to get and how there’d be dirt under their nails for days.

Let’s talk about Donnie’s big kilt dancing moment…
I believe it’s called highland dancing. C’mon! [Laughs.]

Sorry, highland dancing moment. How did that come about?
OK, this is what happened: I was at a kitchen party at Maria Doyle Kennedy’s house. Every once in awhile, she’d host these great kitchen parties where everybody would bring wine and food. She also knows musicians all around the world from all the touring she’s done, so when Maria’s having a party, you know these random musicians will show up. It’s always a laid-back, fun, and very Irish sing-songy get together; everyone brings guitars and instruments and stars jamming.

So for this one particular party, I was at Maria’s house in Toronto, and Graeme [Manson, the show’s co-creator] was there along with a whole bunch of people from the cast and crew. A bunch of well-known musicians were also there, so the guitars came out. I brought my mandolin just to shake things up, so we wouldn’t have too many guitars. I’m sitting next to a Canadian singer, and I’m playing my mandolin just trying to keep up. We passed around instruments, singing songs and taking turns, and Graeme’s watching all of this with a fire in his eye.

At one point, after many glasses of wine, they launch into this Irish fiddle tune, and I got up and started highland dancing. People were like, “What the hell is going on?” and it came out that I used to highland dance in university. It was a social thing; I was part of the Queen’s Bands at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. We’d go to all the football games, party our faces off and have a great time. There was a marching band, color guard, drummers, and fifers, and I chose highland dancing because I just wanted to jump around a bunch, and the girls were really cute. I just wanted to hang out and flirt. So I did that for a few years in university, and figured it was a skill I’d never use again.

Then it comes out at this party, and Graeme is like, “This is a gold mine! I’m going to use this.” I told him, “There’s no way you’re going to be able to use highland dancing and mandolin in an Orphan Black episode.” And then a couple of months later, here comes “Beneath Her Heart,” where he put both of them into one episode! That came out of that rollicking kitchen party at Maria’s house, so I blame her. [Laughs.]

But that’s what Graeme and the writers do. They watch us, and discover different skills every person has that they can exploit for comedic gold or just interesting things about our characters. All that crazy stuff that seems to come out of left field is actually mined from our lives, which is a great way to find creativity for the characters. You don’t’ get that personality in a lot of shows, and all of that is because John [Fawcett, Orphan Black‘s other creator] and Graeme watch and listen, and they use it. For example, the same thing happened with the scene where Alison and Donnie were twerking on a bed full of money. No, they did not see me twerking on a bed full of money in my underwear! But they did see us dancing at Comic-Con one of the years we were there. We were ripping it up on the dance floor, and they were able to use that.

Now that we know how musically proficient the cast is, it’s even more tragic that
we never got a musical episode.
We talked about it! Tat really wanted to do a musical episode. We couldn’t because there’s just so much plot going on. The pace of Orphan Black is way too fast; it’s a thriller with so many storylines to cover, so throwing a musical episode into that world is hard. We do find ways to plug music into episodes from time to time, like in the ending of this episode where Donnie and Alison sing to each other before she leaves.

Can you tease how long they’re going to be apart?
They are apart for awhile, I will say that. In the moment, you see the fear of her leaving register on his face a bit. So they sing this little song together, and it’s a sweet moment between the two of them. That was a song they were going to do at the fall fun fair before Donnie took his faceplant. By the way, that was fun to film — flashing an audience of many people! But instead it’s part of this really nice tender moment between the two of them. Don’t worry too much that she’s going to leave him, but there’s a risk of where is she going and why.

Since you brought the flashing moment up, it must be known: Did you go commando under your kilt?
I am a traditionalist when it comes to wearing a kilt, so for much of the day I did, in fact, where it traditionally. But when you’re up on a raised stage above a lot of people and there are children in the audience, and you’re flipping your kilt and whatnot, we took steps to make sure I was covered properly. I had a flesh-colored dance belt on that matches my skin tone and turns me into a Ken doll. It’s not a great look, but that’s basically what they were looking at every time I flipped my legs back. When they dragged me offstage [after my faceplant] in the episode, you’ll see that my head is bouncing. That only happened in one take when my head was down at the right angle. So that’s the actual sound of my head pounding on the stage. [Laughs.]

I do remember getting very self-conscious all of a sudden [during that scene]. I had this huge orb for a package, and I had to flash this whole audience. It was mortifying. When you’re doing nudity and sex scenes, you have to shut that off and focus on other things. Then you need to unlock maybe 20 percent of your flasher side! That side of you that revels in doing something wrong or bad. That’s the only way you can get through that. So after awhile, you’re just stripping your way through a huge crowd of people. I think I have a future as a stripper, I must say.

When they reboot The Fully Monty in a few years, you can take the Mark Addy role.
I’m so in! Perfect casting.

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on BBC America.

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