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'Masters Of Sex' On Showtime: Lizzy Caplan Talks Playing A Feminist Antihero -- And Nipples

09/27/2013 03:45 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2013
Showtime

Lizzy Caplan is one of the most interesting and entertaining actresses working today, and she doesn't disappoint in real life either. Honestly, that almost never happens.

HuffPost TV sat down with Caplan to talk about her most intriguing role yet: Playing Virginia Johnson on Showtime's "Masters of Sex" (premieres Sun., Sept. 29 at 10 p.m. on Showtime) opposite Michael Sheen as William Masters. As one-half of Masters and Johnson, the famed sex researchers who began studying human sexual responses in men and women back in the '50s, Caplan gets to play one of the original feminists, but she's a character that's as flawed as any male antihero on cable TV.

From being a sexual pioneer, to being an adulterer (for science!), to showing some serious nipple (again), Caplan discusses it all ... keep reading for her take on the show and insight into this unique role.

You've done TV series before. Was it a big decision to come back to do this?
It wasn't a thought really because I love doing TV. I'm always looking for a great TV show to do, but I don't want to be on a network show -- right now. Listen, if this show gets canceled, who knows! I just bought a house! But the idea of doing an hour-long episodic on a network that films somewhere else, like deep in Canada or something, that would be a serious consideration. This commitment is four-and-a-half months out of the year -- it's like a long movie -- and it's so much more fulfilling than some little part in some big movie. So no … this has always been sort of my dream to get on a cable show.

It's one of those things that this show has made me think even more about, this idea of being a woman and wanting to have a family and a stable home life. The show was supposed to shoot in New York, and I loved the idea of being in New York for half the year, but then I was thinking, 'Hopefully this show goes many, many years, and maybe year four or five I don't want to uproot my entire life.' So the fact that we were shooting in LA was great … and it's the greatest character I had ever read. She's amazing.

She really is. That's kind of all you need. Of course it's a bit sad that Virginia Johnson passed away before you got to meet her -- or is that better?
Michael [Sheen] has way more experience playing real people, but even though it's the first time I'm playing an actual person, I felt like I had a bit of wiggle room because when you think of Virginia Johnson, even if you have studied Masters and Johnson, it doesn't necessarily conjure up a very specific image, how she spoke. It's not like I was asked to do an impersonation of her -- it's my own interpretation. She was 88. She's such a personal hero of mine now, obviously. I would've loved to have met her.

I don't know if she read anything -- I don't know really how much she was paying attention to it -- but I liked the idea of her sitting in her retirement home as I, like, plotted a way to become best friends with her. I dug it. And now that she has passed away, I'm like reading message board comments on her obituaries. She really meant a lot to a lot of people. And now it's like this legacy that I feel a tremendous responsibility to.

She's a very strong character. She knows what she wants and she figures out ways to make it happen. What do you like most about the character?
I really appreciate how flawed she is. I think men on cable TV -- which is such an exciting place to be an actor right now -- men get to play those antihero parts more than women. Women are still sort of archetypal in what they're representing. She's a very flawed character. She makes decisions over the course of the first season, and hopefully the seasons to come, that are going to piss a lot of people off, and piss a lot of women off. And people are going to have very, very mixed feelings about her. I love that that exists. I'm looking forward to really upsetting people, or getting people to talk about why this is upsetting, why they're more capable of accepting certain behaviors from a man and not a woman.

Even in a period drama!
Exactly. It's crazy. And she's like a liar. She lies to people to get what she wants, but her goals are always coming from a good place -- she wants the good life for herself and her family, she wants to be educated, she wants to support herself without just getting married. These are really important things that she's fighting for, and unfortunately the environment she was living in and the time period she was existing in … it didn't make it easy to get those things. You had to be a little bit more cunning.

We see that a lot in Episode 2 when they're working out of a brothel and she talks one of the prostitutes out of wanting to find a man to get her out of the business … this dream, this ideal, it's not actually that great.
Yeah, and I think that, as a woman, do it yourself. A man is not going to make your life easier. It's probably going to complicate your life. The prostitute character is played by Annaleigh Ashford -- I love her, and she nails it, she's amazing -- and I think Virginia being raised in this small town in Missouri, her high school sweetheart wanted to marry her and she didn't want to be a farmer's wife. She was raised in that type of community and she knew what that type of family looked like. Then she became a nightclub singer. She did all of these different things, and knowing the prostitute character, she knew that that wouldn't fit, at all, and she would be deeply, deeply unhappy.

But I'm sorry -- they can't keep talking about how Virginia was a nightclub singer and not show us some flashbacks to that! We need to see this.
I know. I wish that there were flashbacks in the first season, but I can't imagine we won't do that [eventually]. It's so awesome. And Mather Zickle, a great actor who plays my ex-husband, bandleader George Johnson -- he's a really smarmy weirdo, so to see the two of them being in the band together will be really special.

I was asking Michael if they'd give him enough heads up to grow sideburns or something before a major time jump between seasons, and he was joking that Masters never really changed his look … and that he wanted to look more like him, but they weren't really having it.
I know, Michael wanted to be bald. Can you imagine? He loves a game of dress-up, that man.

masters of sex

[Laughs.] Well, the first season is really getting us all acquainted with these characters and what they're up to, but there are so many decades to cover. Do you have any concept of how the pacing will play out over a few seasons?
It's interesting -- we only cover '56 and '57 in the first season. I think there are certain periods that we'll speed through and others that we'll take a lot of time with, but the story -- the meaty, interesting bits of the story -- spans 30 years. There's a lot to tell, and the relationship between the two of them just gets stranger and more compelling. I don't know how they're gonna do it -- I'm glad that's not my job.

Knowing what you know about Masters and Johnson's eventual personal relationship, is it hard to play buddy-buddy with his wife?
I love that part of it. I love that part of the book and the real story, because they really did become close friends and confidantes. These two women shared this bond. Virginia was always like a cheerleader for Libby and really supportive of her -- they supported each other and liked each other quite a bit. She was also sleeping with her husband the whole time.

For the most part, unless you're a psychopath, no one sets out to do evil. People feel they're justified in their actions, and Virginia felt justified, partly for good reason. What came out of her and Masters sleeping together changed the world, so it wasn't like, oh they were just having an affair. Not even close. But she was still sleeping with her friend's husband. To be able to compartmentalize and be a good friend … we get into that a bit in the first season, but that just gets weirder.

masters of sex

Oh I'm so happy to hear that -- I was watching the first few episodes thinking I couldn't wait a whole season knowing the inevitable. Masters is such a creeper, in a way …
[Laughs.] Poor guy! He just loves science!

And sex.
I don't know! I don't know if he loves sex. I don't want to get into that. [Laughs.]

Seeing patients for their study leaves the door wide open for great guest stars. Who else will we see popping up?
Allison Janney has an amazing arc -- she's so fucking good on this show. She's sort of flawlessly perfect in everything, and a flawlessly perfect human being. Beau Bridges, obviously, is in it quite a bit. Mather [Zickle], people will know from a lot of comedy stuff, which I appreciate.

You have a lot of comedy friends. It's kind of a comedy gang. Get all of them to come play!
I mean … I would love my gang. I tried to convince some of my friends to take a look at my ex-husband part, but they all were too freaked out by it. They wouldn't touch it. You have to be a certain type of actor who's willing to do some crazy shit if you want to be on this show, and a lot of people are kind of scared to do it. I love having comedy people on the show -- I think it brings a whole other layer to it. We have one comedian, actually -- Kevin Christy does a lot of stuff on our show, and he's hilarious. There's a lot of room for my comedy buddies to come and do the show, but it'll be interesting to see if they'll actually be brave enough to sign on.

I think it's good to stretch yourself as an actor and do something that scares the shit out of you. I know, personally, I'm always looking for roles that I think are terrifying.

But some actors avoid that at all costs, and you've made a career out of it.
I know -- keep being afraid of it! Keep not wanting to take your clothes off, ladies! More for me!

You're not scared to show a nipple …
[Laughs.] Unfortunately I'm really not. Yeah, there's one interesting nipple story I can tell you. In the script, I was supposed to be measuring a girl's nipple, and as written, it was something like "3.5 centimeters!" or something. But I was measuring it and it was not what it was saying it was in the script. So I had to go talk to the producers, like "Are you going to change that?" Just talking, in depth, about the size of a total stranger's nipples. [Laughs.] Yeah, it's an odd job.

"Masters of Sex" premieres Sun., Sept. 29 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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