The Showtime drama series Masters of Sex, premiering on September 29th, chronicles the unusual lives, romance and pop culture trajectory of real-life pioneers of the science of human sexuality, William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).
While at the Showtime portion of the TCA Press Tour, actor Michael Sheen, along with executive producers Michelle Ashford and Sarah Timberman, talked about why this is one of the most challenging projects they’ve ever taken on, how closely they’re sticking to what really happened versus how much they have to invent for TV, setting the right tone, wanting to explore the relationship between Masters and Johnson slowly, how they handle the sex scenes on set, and whether this show has made them more open about sex, in their own lives. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
SARAH TIMBERMAN: Michelle established a rule among all of the writers, which is that there is never intended to be a gratuitous sex scene. That would be utterly beside the point. It was to tell a story through sex scenes. We never want to feel that the show just stops cold, so that people can have sex scenes. Every scene that deals with sex is dealing with a very complex set of relationships and these characters emotions.
MICHELLE ASHFORD: One of the rules was that the story always has to be pulling through the sex scene, in some form. It has to be about something that is bigger than just, “We are watching people have sex.” It’s very dicey material, so we impose our own code. I’m very oddly prudish about what I’m watching on screen, so it’s been a curious mix to be writing a show about sex, when you don’t really want to look at a lot of graphic sex. It’s been challenging, but very interesting, actually.
How much did you have to invent to give this show a dramatic backbone, and how much was already present, on the record?
ASHFORD: Well, thankfully, very little. Their story is fascinating and we had a biography to work from, with Thomas Maier’s book, so we’ve stuck to the facts very carefully. Certainly, with the research, we’ve fudged none of that. We’ve established some characters, but their lives were so complicated and interesting that we’ve actually had to establish very little.
Michael, are you struck by just how prudish Americans were, during the time period?
MICHAEL SHEEN: In terms of how prudish Americans were in the ‘40s and ‘50s, I have absolutely no idea. I do know about the character that I play. And I don’t think it’s about being prudish. I think it’s about trying to balance a sense of control in this man’s life. He’s a mystery to himself, really. He has so many locked rooms inside himself that he has to tread, very carefully, and make sure that he tries to control his environment, so much. I think that creates what you might call prudishness, but is actually a lock-down desire to keep control. I don’t think that’s necessarily typical of everyone in the society, at that time. But obviously, things have changed in many ways since the ‘50s, when the show is started, in terms of sexuality, and how much access we have to images of it and information about it. But, the same problems always apply. It doesn’t matter whether we know a lot more about sex now or if there’s a lot more access to it. The same problems of intimacy, of dealing with other people, of connecting and being vulnerable with other people, which is what the show is ultimately about, still applies now, I think.
What are the challenges of setting the right tone and understanding that this is a period where there was a lot of experimentation going on, while viewing it through the prism of 2013?
SHEEN: Well, I think tone is very important with this show because there are certain elements or certain aspects to the show that may be reminiscent of other shows. But, it really is a very new kind of show, in terms of the subject matter and the way it’s being dealt with, and the fact that it’s about real people and real events. It has to be absolutely believable. It’s also going between images and scenes with nudity and sexuality that would be seen, in conventional terms, as kind of sexually exciting. It’s up against things that are much more medical and gynecological, and notoriously we, as a culture and a society, have some issues with that kind of thing. And so, in terms of setting the right tone and finding a way of presenting all of these things, that creates a cohesive whole and doesn’t alienate the audience, is tough. That’s a challenge. And I think the tone of a lot of shows is discovered through experimentation and actually making it. Eventually, it starts to cohere. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily something that any show gets absolutely bang-on, from the beginning. You find your way with the chemistry that’s there already. The humor has to come out as very believable, centered, bedded, real situations and characters bouncing off each other.
We know that William Masters and Virginia Johnson eventually get married. How do you envision exploring that? Is that going to play out very slowly?
ASHFORD: Yes, I think it will play out slowly. They were married for two decades. They were together for a decade before that. And then, they were together after they divorced. So, if we have a long life here, hopefully, we will play it out very slowly. There’s a lot of material there.
How deep are you going to be getting into William Masters’ need for control?
ASHFORD: That is very, very far down the road. That was one of their later books, and it was a bit of a mis-step. It was a complicated story, though, why they came down that way and proposed gay conversion. It’s a fascinating story. If all goes well, we’ll get to tell it. But, we actually start the exploration of what it means to be gay in the ‘50s in this season, and that will reverberate seasons down the road, if we get there. It’s just a much later story. It happened much later in their career.
With so many sex scenes in this show, how do you handle that with the actors that are coming in and out of the episodes?
SHEEN: When you’re working on something where there’s usually one sex scene in the film, it all gets a little bit of a gray area and people get a bit uncomfortable and awkward. You just get through it. But, it became very clear on this that that can’t happen. There can’t be any gray areas on this because there are actors and actresses coming in for a day or a couple of days, as well as people who are there regularly. And when you do come into a show and you’re not there as a regular cast member, you feel a pressure to fit in. You don’t want to hold things up. You don’t want to get things wrong. So, if they’re coming in and having to do scenes that involve nudity or sexuality, in some way, the utmost important thing is that everyone feels comfortable and safe. If there’s any gray area, that’s going to be a problem. We knew, very early on, that we had to be very, very clear that directors need to speak to actors and actresses and be very clear about what is expected, and find out whether they’re comfortable with that. Wardrobe has to be in place. There have to be checks. Nothing can be left until the last minute, so that everyone knows exactly where they are. Everyone is comfortable and everyone feels safe because we want people to be able to keep coming into this show and taking those risks. There are a lot of risks in this show, not just nudity, but emotional risks. We want the best actors to feel comfortable about coming in and exploring this subject matter with us. And in Season 1, I feel like we’ve done that.
Has doing this made you more open about sex, in your own lives?
TIMBERMAN: It’s definitely been an interesting thing to see the degree to which people are surprised by the frank discussion of sexuality in the show more than the portrayal of sex itself, and that’s utterly relevant, today. In a way, it’s very much like it was in 1957. Things people talk about in the show generally aren’t talked about, so it shines a light on our culture and our ways of communicating, as human beings. It’s made for a lot of interesting writers’ room conversations.
SHEEN: I think for me and Lizzy [Caplan], more than anyone else, after seeing so many people so naked, doing such bizarre things in front of you, you inevitably just get used to it. I never thought I would get used to having a naked woman in front of me, masturbating with a glass dildo, to the point where I would almost not notice that they were there doing it anymore, and that the conversation about dinner that night would be more interesting, but I actually broke that barrier in this show. Having said that, what I think we found, in doing the show, and in life, generally, is that the more you try to separate sex from everything else, it’s impossible. You can’t. The act of observation affects the actual experiment, and we see that in this. My experience of working on this show, even though there is so much about sex and sexuality, and we find out a lot of facts and statistics that are very interesting, in their own right, I found that I started talking about relationships more, and the emotions, the difficulties and the challenges. So, I became far more open about that, which I think is probably an indication with the show itself. The more you think that you are watching a show about sex, the more you ultimately are watching a show about the challenges of just connecting with human beings and being intimate.
Masters of Sex premieres on Showtime on September 29th.