Masters of Sex tells the story of William Masters, a brilliant scientist and doctor, and Virginia Johnson, a researcher, who in the 1950s bravely began studying the science of human sexuality. Their work and groundbreaking findings not only sparked the sexual revolution and catapulted them from anonymity to national and then worldwide attention, but also altered their lives and their complex professional-personal relationship. Lizzy Caplan, who plays Virginia Johnson opposite Michael Sheen’s Bill Masters, talks about the pioneering woman she portrays and the satisfaction of delving into such a complex character.
TV DRAMA: What did you find interesting and compelling about Virginia Johnson and the show Masters of Sex?
CAPLAN: Virginia Johnson is one of the most fascinating women and truly one of the most fascinating people of the 20th century. She is so complex. The research [she did with] Masters benefited women especially, so tremendously. Science is absolutely on women’s side. In the 1950s, when there was any sexual issue or sexual problem, because there hadn’t been scientific research conducted about the physiology of sex and what it does to your body, most people just believed what Freud was saying. And Freud was saying that it’s always the woman’s fault—any sort of sex problem had to do with the woman, with her frigidity or her inability to let go or with unresolved issues from her childhood and on and on and on. Masters and Johnson blew the lid off that. It is absolutely not true and there are numerous physiological reasons for why things are not necessarily working properly for both sexes. She was such a pioneer in that way—what she and Masters were able to do for so many people, for so many women. You juxtapose that with her personal life and how she wasn’t a girl’s girl, her behavior at [various] points in her life was quite questionable, and it ends up being an unbelievably layered and incredible character to play. Beyond that, [what appealed to me was] the fact that Masters of Sex was a dramatic show and a period piece. I do believe we are in the golden age of television and the most exciting place to be, especially for actresses, is on television right now. Since I had done mostly comedic work, this opportunity to do a meaty dramatic role terrified me! But it has also continued to thrill me for the four seasons.
TV DRAMA: In every scene, Virginia seems to be juggling so many thoughts and emotions. What’s it like to be able to perform such a complex character?
CAPLAN: It has spoiled me. I think I will always seek out future roles, especially in television, that are as fascinating as this one. The scenes I am most proud of are Virginia and Bill sitting in a room having a conversation, saying one thing and meaning something completely different, and the only way to convey those differing opinions is how we play the scene. That is one of the great strengths of our show—the audience is well aware that they are not telling the truth. And sometimes the character you are playing opposite is aware that [you are] not telling the truth, and for me, that is such a challenge creatively; it’s fantastic.
TV DRAMA: One of my favorite episodes was the one in which Bill and Virginia are in a hotel room for the entire episode.
CAPLAN: Yes, people really loved that episode. I love it as well. It was such a joy to shoot that because it felt so much like a play. Normally in a TV show you show up at the crack of dawn, you sit in hair and makeup, then you go and rehearse your first scene for usually no more than ten minutes, and then you shoot it, and you move on to the next scene. The pace is quite quick. But shooting that episode, because it was just the two of us, we had the luxury of rehearsing each day. We shot it chronologically, so we would shoot maybe five or six scenes in a day, and we would sit there for 90 minutes in the morning and rehearse the whole thing and then perform it as if it were a play. Not only did we get out of there usually by lunch every day, but it felt like a completely different type of experience.
TV DRAMA: Tell me about your working relationship with Michael. There’s such depth to the emotions and tension, how have you and he found a comfort zone and how do you play off each other?
CAPLAN: We trust each other at this point. I love acting opposite Michael. We still have the ability to surprise each other with how we are going to play certain scenes and I have the utmost faith that what he is going to do will be impressive and nuanced and layered. Even though we are only shooting season four, we’ve been involved with this show since the pilot was shot, well before we ended up shooting the first season, so it’s been about five years. I have acted more with Michael than anybody else in my entire career. It’s comfortable in many ways, and one of us always knows how to keep the other one off balance, which I think helps us.
TV DRAMA: Does Virginia love Bill or does she feel he used her to complete the research that he wanted to do? Theirs is a pretty layered relationship, isn’t it?
CAPLAN: I think that they both feel a great deal of love for each other. They are not so good at feeling the same level of love at the same time. One of them tends to be pulling away when the other one is leaning in. But I think it’s even more than a question of whether or not they love each other; it’s more layered than that. At this point, they’ve known each other in the story for about 12 years. They have altered the trajectory of each other’s lives in ways that neither could have ever expected. And now they are a unit, whether they like it or not, they are a brand. Masters and Johnson is one entity, not two separate people, in the public realm. That’s tricky when the two of them aren’t getting along, but they still have to be this unit in order to continue doing the work that fulfills them both, and living the portion of their lives that is and will always be the most fulfilling. The way that I see it is that these are two extremely flawed, broken people. Individually they can’t function at the highest level, but together they make up one complete person. Whether or not it’s a question of love, I think that they are absolutely soul mates for better and also for worse.
TV DRAMA: What are the creative challenges of playing a person who existed in real life as opposed to playing a fictional character, especially someone like Virginia Johnson who had such a remarkable life?
CAPLAN: There is a great responsibility to do the memory of both of these people justice. The first season of our show felt much more like we were playing two historical figures. While that never completely goes away, I do think now, four seasons in, we are very much playing amalgamations of the real and the fictional. We have created a lot of new characters that didn’t exist in their lives and story lines that didn’t necessarily happen to them. So the Virginia I am playing now, while she will always be rooted in who the real woman was, the character does feel like she’s taken on a bit of a life of her own. It was very scary at first to want to do a great job portraying a person who had lived. That will never fully go away, but I do have the luxury of getting to play a real person without being tasked with doing a direct impersonation because most people don’t know what Virginia looked like or how she sounded when she spoke or how she moved and walked and so on.
TV DRAMA: Does [showrunner] Michelle Ashford encourage suggestions and input from you?
CAPLAN: Yes, 100 percent. It’s a very collaborative experience and has been from the beginning. Both Michael and I are producers on the show, but even before I was officially made a producer it was one of the most collaborative working experiences I have ever had. There are always note sessions about scripts, the conversations are ongoing and we both have a lot of say and ownership over the characters that we play.
TV DRAMA: You had done a lot of comedy before Masters of Sex. Is it easier for a comedic actor to adapt to a dramatic role, or for a dramatic actor to adapt to a comedic role?
CAPLAN: I think it is easier for a comedic actor to move into drama. In both, you are trying to play honest moments, but not everybody can be funny. Which is not to say that every comedic actor can easily and effortlessly pull off dramatic roles, but I think the likelihood of a comedic actor being able to do something dramatic is higher than a straight dramatic actor figuring out how to be comedic.
TV DRAMA: What you can tease about season four?
CAPLAN: I’m very excited about season four. There is a new energy this season, partly because we have some new, really fascinating characters coming in playing very substantial roles. The world they are living in is the Swinging Sixties. All of a sudden society is catching up to the way Virginia has been living her life—it’s not so shocking anymore. We have swingers and open marriages and all kinds of stuff that people are into now in a way that they weren’t in the ’50s.
TV DRAMA: In real life Virginia and Bill got married. Will we see that in the series as well?
CAPLAN: In the series, yes, we will see it. When we see it—I will keep my mouth shut about that! We will be showing it in the show. It is a monumental event for Bill and Virginia!