In the promising new Showtime drama Masters of Sex, Lizzy Caplan plays pioneering sex researcher Virginia Johnson, whose groundbreaking work with William Masters helped usher in the sexual revolution (and without which Caplan might never have been able to most memorably lay down the laws of blow jobs in Bachelorette). Johnson was an independent-minded and sexually adventurous single mom when she teamed up with Masters, a cold but brilliant clinician, in the late fifties. The series follows their unprecedented experiments that involved the two of them observing — and engaging in — lots and lots of sex for science. Caplan spoke to Vulture about working with Michael Sheen, nudity, and, yes, the Party Down movie.
What was it like meeting Michael?
Of course at the beginning I was intimidated by him. He’s a fancy actor. He went to a very different type of acting school than I did, which is the school of hard knocks. You know what I mean? He’s going to be knighted and some shit. He has honorary degrees. It’s a very different situation, as he likes to point out to me all the time. [Laughs.] It’s almost like the producers knew exactly what they were doing though because it really echoes the dynamic between Masters and Johnson. He was an established person and she didn't have a college degree. But they really end up complementing each other very, very well.
Masters and Johnson wind up engaging in the research, which is to say having sex for science. Did you and Michael do anything specifically to get comfortable quickly?
The intimidation factor went away fairly quickly. The truth is actors spend a lot of time between sets just really trying to make each other laugh. Michael’s as good as any of the comedy morons that I know and love. We’ve become extremely close friends over the course of this series, and I'm super, super grateful for that because I honestly can't imagine a more disgusting thing to have to do every day than go to work on this show with somebody that I really did not like.
You’ve said your character reminds you of your mother. How so?
My mom passed away when I was 13, so our conversations about sex were pretty limited at that time, but any question I had or any curiosity about my own body was completely encouraged and met with no judgement whatsoever. It led me to have nothing but a series of completely healthy relationships with men over the course of my life. Or, if they were unhealthy, they were not unhealthy because of that. In that regard, I honestly consider myself completely lucky because it took everybody I knew a little bit longer to sort of find their own sexual security.
In making the show, did you learn anything about fifties sexual mores that you didn’t already know?
Yeah, in the fifties, if you could not achieve vaginal orgasm through sex with your husband, you were considered frigid and you were broken. What Masters and Johnson figured out was that clitoral and vaginal orgasms are actually identical, which if we think about it, is such a liberating idea. They also figured out that women were more the sexual athletes over men. Male orgasm is so much more valued, but women are the ones who can have more than one orgasm. Men need this period to just chill out in between and women’s bodies are actually built to do it longer and more often.
You were nude on True Blood. Did having that experience make this one any easier?
It was scary for True Blood because I had never done it before. But as soon as the first scene was over, it was oddly never scary again. It felt very empowering. One would think that you’d feel maybe typically objectified as a woman, but it didn't feel that way. It was sort of like, Fuck everybody. I'm taking my clothes off. I’m the one who can do that. Can you fucking do that? That’s been the only other time I’ve done nudity onscreen. Unfortunately, with the Internet, it feels like I do it all the time. Obviously, that’s going to be a thing again.
The sex scenes in Masters are pretty tasteful. They’re practically modest. It’s like a complete 180 from the kind of stuff you’d see on Game of Thrones.
It’s beautifully shot, and I’m not getting naked for a room full of people. I'm getting naked and it’s extraordinarily well lit and all of these people are on my side to make me look good doing these things. Now, the Internet of it all ... it just is what it is. I find by being an actress, you're signing up for a life of being picked apart by total strangers. Offering up your naked body is one thing, but it’s just as baseless if people are talking about your performances. So the nudity was something I thought about, but I didn't think about it very long, and at no point was it going to prevent me from taking this job, because I believed in this show, and I really, really, really wanted to play this character. And if there were any moments of hesitation for me, all I needed to do is think about the fact that the Virginia did it for real in the fifties, and I'm doing it on TV. I have a much easier job.
The women get fully nude in the first two episodes, but the men don’t.
Well, they don't show their penises, but I'm hoping that we get to it.
In season two.
Yeah, “Masters of Sex Season 2: All Dick.” Because really, guys aren't that embarrassed to show their asses. It was all guys’ asses for the most part. I will say once Masters and Johnson start doing the research with each other, and they’re doing it in the examination rooms with no intimacy whatsoever, that stuff is more explicit. But also more awkward. There’s fluorescent lighting, you’re hooked up to wires. Don’t kiss. Don’t look at each other. Penis in vagina. It’s different if you’re shooting a sex scene with somebody who’s supposed to be your husband or long-term lover, and you need to convey a comfortable vibe between the two of you. That was not the case. The awkwardness was welcome.
I have to ask: Any news on the Party Down movie?
There’s no update, unfortunately. It sort of breaks my heart to not have any sort of update about it. I don't want to squash it, because I actually hold out a lot of hope. I think a couple of years ago, everybody was really committed to this idea of making a movie. I would love to make a movie, but I would also love to make more episodes. Everybody’s really busy, but now we have the template for both options. And Party Down’s one of those shows where the longer it’s off the air, the more people discover it. Any excuse to be in a room with those people again shooting that show, all of us would jump at a chance. I think it’s safe to say that.