‘Masters of Sex’ star Lizzy Caplan on nudity, the 1950s and typecasting

Senior Television Writer
09.25.13 11 Comments

Showtime

Lizzy Caplan has carved out a successful, if very specific, niche for herself in Hollywood as a portrayer of very modern, very sarcastic women. She only occasionally gets to play the lead in things (“Party Down,” “Save the Date”) but more often than not she”s the heroine”s dark, clever best friend (“Mean Girls”).
With Showtime”s terrific new “Masters of Sex” (it debuts September 29 at 10 p.m.), Caplan will be eliminating a lot of preconceptions about her. As pioneering sex researcher Virginia Johnson, Caplan fits seamlessly into the late ’50s period setting, and works wonderfully opposite Michael Sheen as Johnson”s colleague (and, at times, much more) Bill Masters. She”s still playing an assertive, independent woman – the real Virginia Johnson was very much ahead of her time – but it”s not the kind of role Caplan”s been able to play before, and she does it very, very well.
I’ll have a “Masters” review tomorrow, and at press tour, I talked with Caplan about typecasting, coming to grips with the show”s abundant nudity and, yes (briefly) about the ever-possible idea of a “Party Down” movie.
How did you first hear of this show?
Lizzy Caplan: I first heard about it in about as boring a way as one can expect. The script was sent to me by my representatives, who I think were fairly convinced that I would not be interested in doing it, because I don’t generally do dramas and hour-long episodic things. I don’t generally get cast in period pieces. So it seemed like a bit of a long shot from all angles, and then I read it and became instantly obsessed with her and it and felt like, “Hey, I might as well go after it. I’m never going to get this part, but it’s worth a shot.”
So why did you want it?
Lizzy Caplan: I wanted it because I think just generally female roles in television – the ones that I’ve been lucky enough to play – they’ve been more layered and more interesting than some of the film roles. This woman, I thought, reminded me in many ways of myself and reminded me in many ways of some of the other characters I’ve played. She’s a strong woman who does not want to do what it is expected of her, no matter what the consequences. You put that in 1956 and you see how much more difficult that would be to pull off. I felt like I can bring something to it and also I would become very sympathetic to this person when she had to go through it.
You said you don’t generally get the cast in period stuff. Do you feel like there’s something contemporary about you?
 
Lizzy Caplan: I do. I think people see me in a certain way. I think as an actress, people get on your case if you do the same thing over and over again.But if you get too far away from that, people don’t like that either. I think if John Madden, the director of the pilot, was super well-versed in my work and in American television, maybe he would have already had some preconceived notions about me and whether or not I’d be capable of pulling off this role. He did not, and so I actually go to go in on a level playing field with anybody else. Yes, I think I slouch. I pad a lot of lines in comedies. I say “Uh” a lot. I say “Yeah.” I sound very modern. That being said, I think Virginia Johnson was very, very ahead of her time and she wasn’t old-fashioned. She was modern. But I still had to sit up straight and say “yes” instead of “yeah.”
Sometimes actors, when they go in for things like this, they’ll actually come to the audition maybe not in costume but at least in something evoking the period. Did you do anything like that?
Lizzy Caplan: Well the first time I met everybody was just a meeting and a conversation. I didn’t really do it there and then I read once with John Madden, who really had my back on this from the get-go. He really saw me in this role far earlier than I saw myself in it. We did a full like hair, make-up, wardrobe thing and read all of the scenes.And he was convinced I think before I was, but I remember walking away from that audition – it was several hours long – thinking, “That was one of the best auditions and one of the most enriching experiences of my career. At this point if I don’t get the part, I’m glad I got to do that.”
Some of the actresses of “Mad Men” will talk about how on the one hand, the costumes they wear are just such a pain to wear, but on the other hand it really helps them get into character.
Lizzy Caplan: It really does. For the four-and-a-half months we were shooting the show, I’d leave work and I’d be in grimy jeans and a t-shirt and full 1950s hair and make-up. That was like how I looked for a while. It’s not the best look but I was definitely rocking it. But teah, the undergarments, all of that stuff – if you start every day by putting on a girdle and old-fashioned stockings then, yeah, it feels different.
What was it like, meeting Michael and then developing the chemistry with him that’s so obviously there on the screen?
Lizzy Caplan: Thank you. The first time we met was at a premiere. I knew that he had just been cast. I had been cast for a while. We met very briefly, and then we had this lunch with John Madden and (Showtime president) David Nevins and (producers) Sarah (Timberman) and Michelle (Ashford), and Michael and I. Whenever you’re starting a new show, you have these awkward first lunches and meetings that are sort of mandatory and everybody shows up but nobody knows each other. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that those are the times you look back at a couple of months in and laugh about first impressions or whatever. So I thought Michael came off as very serious and very studious and meticulous about things, and extremely different than myself, and also approached acting in a very, very, very different way. I found that both intimidating and also exhilarating because I have a lot of faith in being able to make people like me.
How much research have you done into both the period and into Virginia herself? Or are you just going with what the writers give you?
Lizzy Caplan: We all read the book, which is probably the most extensive thing written about Masters and Johnson and explains their relationship very well and also the study and everything that they do. So, we all read that before shooting the pilot. Tom Maier, who wrote the book, I spoke to him, and there are some YouTube clips but most of them are from when she’s older. I felt good about the fact that it’s a daunting task. That”s a real-life person. I’ve never done it before; obviously, Michael has done it quite often. But I had the freedom to interpret her as I saw her, because when people think about Virginia Johnson, even if they know about her, they can’t really conjure up a specific image or a tone of voice or anything. So I felt like I had freedom to wiggle within the character but also I felt a deep responsibility to this person.
I hear actors sometimes say, whether they’re playing a historical figure or not, that they don’t want to know what’s going to happen to the character because then they start making choices based on something that”ll happen on the show five years from now. Did you find yourself doing that at any point?
Lizzy Caplan: I didn’t. Because I think you have to mean it when you’re in the scene. You have to have that scene and that decision or that choice, whatever it is every day, make sense in that moment. We know what happens to these people, and there are lots of interviews in the book with Virginia, but knowing what happens to Virginia, I know that that probably her life colored her interpretation of past events and how she saw him. I don’t think she felt particularly warmly towards them at the end of her life, and you take all of that into consideration. Why would a person feel that way? How emotionally invested was she in this person to still be angry or is she angry? And these types of questions are what you ask yourself in order to make any scene believable. But yeah, I think you have to approach it with zero judgment. Virginia was particularly excellent at compartmentalizing things in her life and I think I’m pretty good at that and I just had to amp that up tremendously.

If I had come to you three years ago and said, “What do you know about Masters and Johnson,” what would you have said?
Lizzy Caplan: Nothing.
Were you even aware that they were people?
Lizzy Caplan: No, I wasn’t. What I’ve learned in talking about this over the last two years is you either studied Masters and Johnson in school or you didn’t, and I didn’t. I knew about Kinsey a bit from the movie but I didn’t know about Masters and Johnson. But it is fascinating as a woman, and really how I see my life as a modern woman and the lens through which I view my own sexuality. I mean, it had so much to do with what they did – they really shaped a ton of my worldview and I had no idea who they were.
Because I”m watching this and realizing that these things were going on in 1956. That”s crazy.
Lizzy Caplan: It’s crazy and what’s crazy is, you know, of course we’ve come a long way in certain regards and then in other regards we have not at all. That’s fairly disgruntling.
You’ve done nudity before and you’ve been okay with it, but this has a lot of it.
Lizzy Caplan: Yeah.
What discussions did you have with John, with Sarah, with everybody about that going into it?
Lizzy Caplan: John is one of those directors who you feel instantly safe with. I knew he was going to shoot it beautifully and it wasn’t going to be gratuitous. It was going to be warranted, and I also knew from the get-go that if I was going to have serious reservations about the nudity and sexual content, then what business did I have playing this role. I mean, Virginia Johnson actually did this. So any time I would have any flash of hesitation, I’d be like, I’m pretending to do it in a very, very safe environment with excellent lighting.  So I think I can pull it off. Plus, there are the questions that we’re asking. Yes, on the surface, the show is very clearly about sex. It’s about sex researchers. But I think the questions that we’re asking are far deeper than that, even as we are presenting them through sex. It’s important. A lot of these shows – “True Blood” – all of these shows that are about things, they just happen to have a ton of sex in them. This show is about sex. So if you’re going to be squeamish about it, go be on some CBS show.
But there’s no part of you that’s thinking, “Oh, my God, these clips will be on YouTube forever. There will be whole Tumblrs devoted to this…”?
Lizzy Caplan: Of course, there was a part of me that thinks about that, especially because I’ve only done nudity one time and it feels like I do it every single day if you look at the fucking Internet. But as an actress I think you get accustomed to being picked apart and it’s part of the job. Your physical appearance being picked apart unfortunately is also part of the job. So, just got to avoid reading and if it makes you uncomfortable then I’ll see how much stuff I read about myself. It’ll be interesting.
I want to get back to something you were talking about in terms of how actors get pigeonholed as certain things. I remember a couple years ago you were developing the Jules Klausner book (“I Don”t Care About Your Band”) for HBO. And that seemed like that was going to be a really good part for you, and it didn’t get made. You have a very distinctive screen persona. Has that been good for you, or has that been difficult for you because you can’t necessarily be slotted into any old part?
Lizzy Caplan: It’s been both. I think it would be more difficult if I didn’t like the slot that I was forced into, but I really do. I mean, I’ve spent many years cultivating a certain persona and I’m proud of that persona. I’m proud of who that person is for girls on screen. And honestly, I thought that that would just be what I did forever and I was oddly all right with that fate. If I actually step back to think about it for a minute, it would make me uneasy because as an actress, of course, you want to be able to do everything. So I am hoping that this changes people’s minds about what they think I’m capable of doing as an actress. But at the same time, I mean, I have a deep affinity for many, many of the characters I’ve played.
You talked about how John created a safe space in the pilot for doing the sex scenes. Was there a point either in the pilot or over the course of the first season where it just became old hat to you, or was it always strange on some level?
Lizzy Caplan: No, it became old hat shockingly early. Honestly. Like in the pilot I remember being uneasy about a couple things, not even my stuff. More like wiring up naked Heléne Yorke with electrodes. I was totally giggling about that in my trailer. Like, “What is this job? This is so weird.” And then the first episode or two probably, it was like, “I can’t believe this is what I do!” And then instantly after that, desensitized to the point where I didn’t even remember if I had seen naked people that day or if it had been the day before or whatever. It all starts to bleed in to each other. And, when you’re doing a television show, it really is this all-encompassing thing. It’s your entire life; these are the people you see more than anybody else in your life. It got very easy to try on the Virginia Johnson skin and just act like a doctor or anybody who sees naked people all the time, it becomes less about naked people and more about what are we trying to say.
So you and Michael and Teddy (Sears) and the other regulars got used to it, but when guest stars would come in, how did that work for them?
Lizzy Caplan: Well, that was the thing also. If there was ever a moment where I think I would be afraid of it, I felt very safe and very comfortable with these people. And we had some people who would come in and had zero lines of dialogue, and they would be naked and doing stuff. You”ve got to go to a really Zen place in your head to be able to pull that off – those people are super, super brave. My hats off, honestly, to all of the people who came in and did some pretty crazy stuff. And a lot of people who were on our show had never done nudity before. And I know what it’s like to do it for the first time and how oddly empowering it could feel, and so I tried to make a point of talking to all the girls who had to do it and just checking in with them and seeing if they were prepared. And most of them had a really healthy mindset about it. It is a weird thing, because one would think it would feel like, Oh, you’re being objectified, but I remember after the first time I did it on “True Blood,” I felt very, very empowered and it stirred up a huge feminist thing in me. So I’m choosing to do this, and Virginia Johnson to me perfectly embodies feminism. Yeah, I’m taking my clothes off on television but I don’t feel like I’m being objectified for it at all. I feel like this is a story that needs to be told in order to empower women instead of objectifying them.
You alluded to it earlier, with the niche that you had carved out for yourself and the way that girls could see you,  and the way in which the world has and hasn’t changed from 1956: What do you see as the value of this show to women, young or otherwise, in terms of them seeing both Virginia’s story and the larger story of what the two of them were doing?
Lizzy Caplan: Right now, the conversation of “Can women have it all?” seems to be something that’s talked about very, very frequently. It’s still a question where a lot of people think the answer is “No.” You have to pick your career or your family. These are questions that Virginia is grappling with in 1956, when there was no sort of support for a woman who wanted to work and also have a family. So, the fact that we’re still asking ourselves these questions is – it’s disheartening. I think it sucks, actually, and I also think that as far as we’ve come in terms of the culture and the sexual imagery that is shoved upon us every step of every sidewalk and billboard and Internet banner and whatever, where sex is used to sell everything – at the same time, I do feel like a double standard still exists. I think that if you’re a girl who has had many, many sexual partners you are judged for that, and the same is not true for men.
Finally, if Rob Thomas and John Enbom can ever get the financing together and the schedules match up, would you do the “Party Down” movie?
 
Lizzy Caplan: Duh!
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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