Viewers tuning in to Showtime’s new series Masters of Sex (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT, The Movie Network; 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT, Movie Central) might find themselves doing a high school reunion–like double-take: “Is that babe in the pencil skirt Janis Ian?” Yes, Lizzy Caplan, who stars with Michael Sheen in the period drama about pioneering sexologists, is the same talented comedian who played the caustic goth in 2004’s hit film Mean Girls.
Unlike certain actresses, Caplan didn’t peak in North Shore High School. Her clever, quirky appeal has won her several acclaimed, if under-the-radar, roles: irreverent Casey on the late, great series Party Down; cynical cokehead Gena in the ensemble comedy Bachelorette; stylish marriage-phobe Sarah in the indie rom-com Save the Date. Next year, she’ll play a CIA agent in The Interview, an assassination caper directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. “I’ve always been picky with the parts I play,” says Caplan, “sometimes too picky—like, before I should have been able to be.” Being spoiled with roles she can “sink her teeth into,” she says, has been a blessing and a curse. It’s harder for her now to accept “the half-cooked role”—“the placeholder girls, instead of the fleshed-out three-dimensional characters.”
Caplan’s part in Masters is, happily, more well-done: She plays Virginia Johnson, the real-life down-on-her-luck secretary who teamed up with gynecologist Bill Masters on the controversial research that paved the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s (she died this past July). A triple-divorcée who, says Caplan, “really prided herself on being able to separate the emotional from the sexual,” Johnson was a woman not of her time.
Convinced casting directors saw her only as a comedic actress, Caplan thought there was “no way in hell” she would land Johnson, and Masters of Sex creator Michelle Ashford admits that she “couldn’t envision Lizzy playing period.” But when Caplan auditioned, Ashford knew she’d met Virginia. “She was in ’50s clothing and had her hair done—she looked fantastic—but more than that, Lizzy just embodied this woman,” says Ashford. “The fact that she has this contemporary quality that runs underneath made her a perfect fit.”
Not content to wait for more scripts like Masters to arrive in her mailbox, Caplan is now thinking of writing her own role, ideally in a “really smart romantic comedy.” What would she play? “A sarcastic girl who can’t commit in relationships,” she deadpans. “Because I don’t think people have seen enough of that from me.”