The compelling and already very buzzed about new Showtime drama series Masters of Sex tells the story of real-life pioneers of the science of human sexuality, William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). Their research, which combined his brilliant mind and her forward-thinking views of sexuality, not only sparked the sexual revolution, but an eventual romance between them.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actress Lizzy Caplan, who is previously known for her work in comedy and who truly gives a star-making performance here, talked about how she came to the provocative series, how the differences in William Masters and Virginia Johnson complimented each other, how weird it is to go to work and watch people pretending to have sex all day, how Virginia Johnson had such an adventurous spirit at a time when that was almost unheard of for women, how much she adores Michael Sheen, and how excited she is for people to see a new side of her, as an actress. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
LIZZY CAPLAN: I was sent the script by my representatives. I think they were pretty sure that I wouldn’t respond to it because I was gravitating pretty much exclusively to comedy, and an hour-long TV show set in a hospital is just not usually my thing. But, I read it and instantly fell in love with it, and instantly fell in love with the character. From there, I had a meeting with Michelle Ashford, the creator, Sarah Timberman, our producer, and John Madden, the director. It was just a conversation, and I explained to them why I related to her, all of it feeling like a very, very huge longshot that I would ever get to play this part because people generally see me in a certain way and in a certain light. Luckily, John Madden didn’t really know much about my work, so I got to go in as a clean slate person, talking about it. I think they saw me as her, before I even saw myself as her.
Do you see Virginia Johnson as the perfect compliment to everything that William Masters wasn’t, especially when it came to his personality?
CAPLAN: It was her personality, her energy, her people skills and her charisma. That’s what got her to her place in life, professionally. She filled in the blanks in his personality, that he just didn’t have. Together they were able to persuade people to take on some very interesting things. She was also a very intelligent person. She skipped grades in high school. She was a smart girl, but she wasn’t necessarily educated. She never got her degree. But, he saw something in her. It’s so obvious, from early on, that their experiments and their study would have been impossible, if it weren’t for the two of them together, working in tandem.
Did you know much about Virginia Johnson, at all, or how unusual of a woman she was, for this time period?
CAPLAN: I didn’t, no. I didn’t study them in school. I was aware of Kinsey, mostly from the movie. It’s really interesting because now all I do is examine my own views of my own sexuality, as a modern woman. This show forces somebody to do something like that, and to see how much of my world view has been shaped by these two people that, before this show, I had never heard of. It’s very, very strange. The questions that we ask in this show are questions that are definitely still being asked today, some of them louder than they’ve been asked in many, many decades.
CAPLAN: The scripts are really beautifully written. When you do a TV show like this, you don’t have a ton of time to lazily research things. Michael [Sheen] gave a few of us copies of The Joy of Sex as start gifts, so that was in my trailer. When I was in my trailer, I was always flipping through that book and reading stuff about that. You get obsessed with sex and the study of sex. You’re surrounded by it, all the time. You’re surrounded by people who are pretending to copulate and masturbate in front of you, constantly, so it turns you into a bit of a weirdo. But now that the dust has settled, I think I can live a normal life again.
Could you ever have imagined that you’d be going to work and watching people pretending to have sex all day?
CAPLAN: No! It’s weird. It’s refreshing, honestly, to be able to have more intellectual conversations about sex and the meaning of sex, and intimacy and what that means in relationships. As a person in the world, it’s on your mind. It’s a part of your life, after a certain age until you’re dead. So, to be able to examine it in a different way is really fulfilling. I feel really lucky. It’s so fascinating. If somebody asked me to do this, I don’t think I’d be eager to sign up. I don’t know anyone who would be. It’s strange. It really is luck of the draw. The family you were raised in, the time period you were born in, and the part of the country you’re in absolutely shape your view on sex, which shapes a huge part of anybody’s personality. It’s scary how it’s very easy to get bad information or be told there’s something wrong with you or you have dirty thoughts or you’re being judged, in any way. If you’re raised in a household where questions are encouraged, you’re the minority. It’s sad. One of the things that has resonated the most for me is that, in the ‘50s, if your sex life was unfulfilling, it was your fault, as a woman. It was never the man’s fault. Millions of women thought they were working with faulty equipment. If they couldn’t have orgasms from having sex with their husbands, then they were broken. That’s insane, and everybody believed it.
CAPLAN: I think she’s a magnetic person, in general. People are drawn to her. She makes people feel very comfortable, and she’s very disarming, at the same time. She’s just a complex woman who’s ahead of her time and different than the other women. Masters knows that he wants to study this, and it becomes clear to him that he needs a female partner, but he can’t ask a female MD because it was already difficult for female doctors, at that time, and no one was going to risk their career to do that. Most woman wouldn’t even touch it. So, in her, I think he sees this woman who’s one in a million. She’s the one person who could carry this out and speak frankly about sex, at a time when people were not speaking frankly about sex. In a way, when he sees her, the smartest thing he does is see the potential of this woman and this partnership.
Will viewers get more of a glimpse into why William Masters is the way he is?
CAPLAN: With any show, you get to pick into why a person is the way he is or she is. There are very, very clear reasons why Masters is a little odd, and we talk about these things in the show and we explore them. He’s definitely a product of his time, but he’s also a product of his family and his upbringing. It’s safer for him to be the doctor behind the desk. She’s the one who draws him out, and I think that’s very scary for him.
What do you think it is in Virginia Johnson’s life that has made her so open and able to express herself, in this way?
CAPLAN: I’ve asked myself that question, and I’m sure it’s a combination of many things. I think she was just born with this spark and just knew, very clearly, that she did not want to be like the women surrounding her, in her childhood. She did not want to be a farmer’s wife. She wanted to see the world and experience things. There are some of us who are just born with a more adventurous spirit than others. There are lots of people who would rather do the same thing, and she just was never that.
It’s one thing to know what you want, but a lot of people are never able to verbalize it, especially in this time period.
CAPLAN: Absolutely, especially at a time when she was offered zero support. It’s not like she was following the lead of her mother, or anybody. She was forging her own path, and she was met with a lot of judgement and a lot of resistance from pretty much everybody around her, for many, many steps of the way.
Even the men who got involved with her seemed to not know how to deal with her choices and decisions.
CAPLAN: Yeah, they didn’t. Even now, in 2013, there’s nothing that makes a man freak out and question anything more than a woman who doesn’t want to be in a relationship and who can separate those two things. You think that we’ve come so far, but men are still flabbergasted by that concept. It’s so weird.
CAPLAN: I think it’s difficult the first time, and then it becomes far easier. It’s not like I’m asked to take my clothes off in the lobby of a hotel. It’s been a very safe environment. We know what story we’re setting out to tell. I knew what I was signing on for. One of the things I respected so much about Virginia was that she did this. My whole mind-set was, “If I’m going to be uncomfortable with this, why am I the one that should play this part?” So, there are some things that are awkward, but it’s pretty technical. We work out stuff beforehand, and then you just bite the bullet and do it. There’s a certain amount of bravery involved, sure, but I’m not on the frontlines of some war zone. I’m just asked to take my clothes off, and I’m lit extremely well and taken care of by my crew. The first scenes with Michael and I, we really tried to work those out very, very specifically, less to make ourselves feel comfortable naked and more so that we were telling the story that we wanted to tell. After a certain point, you just get used to it. If we shied away from telling the sex parts of these stories, it would be odd. We wouldn’t be doing our job.
What’s it like to work with Michael Sheen on this, and what does he bring to your performance?
CAPLAN: I adore Michael, and I’m really fortunate that we are co-stars in this. I really couldn’t ask for a more supportive, better guy to have to do some very interesting and strange things with. The notion of doing this with somebody I couldn’t stand would be a suicidal situation. That would be awful. I learned a lot from him. I was coming from a comedy background where it seems like messing around, on and off set, is just part of it. Taking it ultra super seriously, for me in recent years, has not been as important as having a good time and celebrating the fact that I have a job that’s really fun. But Michael taught me how to focus on what matters. At the end of the day, it’s still one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had.
CAPLAN: It is! And what’s especially fascinating is how much harder on her the women seem to be.
Have you ever been a part of a job like this, where you learn as much about yourself as your character is?
CAPLAN: I’ve never done anything where I’ve played a real person before, and I haven’t really done much historical stuff. I did one Western once. I’ve played a different type of character in a different type of thing, for the most part. It’s not like you can’t mine tons of fascinating stuff from any character that you play, and I’ve always been fascinated with women and relationships, but this has been a completely different experience, for sure.
Does a project like this change how you look at other roles and the kind of work you want to do now?
CAPLAN: I’d like to be able to do everything. I don’t want to be limited. Part of the reason why I want this show to work, selfishly, is that I want to be seen as something other one type of actress. I’d love to do something like this again. Obviously, Michael Sheen has far more experience playing real people than I do, but it’s been really interesting. I’ve been an actress for half of my life, so to be able to have a new experience is very exciting.
Masters of Sex airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.