Christy Grosz is a contributor to Awardsline.
After a career mostly spent in comedy, Lizzy Caplan has taken on the serious role of sex researcher and proto-feminist Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s Masters Of Sex, based on the 2009 biography by Thomas Maier. Caplan says playing opposite Michael Sheen, who stars as Dr. Bill Masters, was clever casting on many levels. “It seems like a smart choice to put an actor as established and respected as Michael Sheen opposite a comedic actress, because it mirrors the relationship between Bill and Virginia,” she says. Caplan, who’s still not past the “blind-gratitude phase” of the role, discusses her admiration for Johnson and those awkward sex scenes.
AWARDSLINE: Did the subject matter of Masters Of Sex ever give you pause?
LIZZY CAPLAN: Not really. Of course, in reading it and knowing what was to be expected of me if I ever got the role, that’s something I think anybody would think about. But I was so enamored with this woman, and her story, and who she was, that I knew it would be such a privilege and an honor to get to play her. Part of who she was, was this unbelievably comfortable-in-her-own-sexuality type of woman in a time when that was not exactly the norm. So I knew if I were to get to play this part, I had to figure out a way to be completely OK with it, and it didn’t take very long. Clearly, I’m not squeamish about it or else I don’t think I would’ve tried (out) for it.
AWARDSLINE: Virginia passed away last year, but you tried to meet with her. What were you hoping to get from her that wasn’t in Maier’s book?
CAPLAN: I had this fantasy that Virginia and I would become close friends and potentially vacation together, and certainly talk on the phone all the time. (Laughs.) I think she was 87, 88, and you know, was not particularly interested in living out those last few years of her life in the spotlight. So she wasn’t really interested in meeting any of us. I held out hope that the show would come out and she’d watch it, and secretly fall in love with it, and want to come hang out with us, but that never happened.
AWARDSLINE: Virginia is a real trailblazer in so many areas of her life—what parts of her personality attracted you to the role?
CAPLAN: She was definitely a trailblazer, and that would’ve been enough for me to fight very hard to get to play this role, but her personality was the key to everything. (Virginia and Bill) find themselves in very odd situations over the course of their career, and it’s Virginia who’s able to make human connections along the way. Bill Masters is smart enough to know that he was incapable of making human connections at times, even with his own wife. So, he knew that he needed this other half in order to accomplish what he wanted. What fascinates me the most about Virginia is this never-ending quest for meaning in her life, and that, I think, is universal. It makes no difference what decade you’re looking at. What she was striving for was this interesting career, an identity outside of being somebody’s wife.
AWARDSLINE: Is there a lot of rehearsal that goes into the show? The sex scenes seem like they would require a lot of technicality.
CAPLAN: We never really have enough time to do anything. Such is the nature of doing a television show. But the directors who come in definitely take the time to sit down with whoever has to do a sex scene. Michael and I have a lot of these meetings because we have a lot of these scenes and, more often than not, the director is far more uncomfortable with the conversation than (us). This has now become old hat. If you take a step back and think about what it is we’re actually choreographing, it would be very odd for somebody to hear some of these conversations. But it’s so much a part of the gig that we’re kind of used to it now. We try to make it a very safe and respectful environment, especially for people who are coming in and aren’t so comfortable, like guest stars who are asked to do certain things. But I mean, it’s still weird. There’s no way around it. It’s definitely a strange way to spend a Monday morning, but it’s about as ideal as a situation like that could be.
AWARDSLINE: So many of the moments between Virginia and Bill are about subtext. Do you play with that on set?
CAPLAN: One of the things that we do very well on the show is keep everything as ambiguous as possible. We’re always striving for that, especially the relationship between Bill and Virginia. We do not want (their relationship) to be something that’s readily identifiable. We don’t want to back ourselves into a corner by identifying what things are, especially because that would be untrue for the characters. They have no idea what it is that they’re doing with each other from moment to moment. But, yes, I do think that the subtext is equally, if not more, important in every single scene. So much of Bill and Virginia’s relationship is never spoken about directly. It’s all done with how they look at each other or what they don’t say. So, when we show up for work every day, Michael always has very clear ideas about what Bill’s thinking, and I always have very clear ideas about what Virginia’s thinking. The best days are when we never tell each other, and we just do the scenes. It’s exciting.
Photography by J.R. Mankoff