As the female lead of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, TV’s erstwhile go-to gal for snark and sass took a big swing to portray human sexuality pioneer Virginia Johnson opposite Michael Sheen’s Dr. William Masters. The venture led the actress down strange, new (and yes, “terrifiying”) roads, yet she met the challenge every step of the way, and thus far has earned a Critics Choice Award nomination for her efforts.
With Emmy Award season on the horizon, TVLine spoke with Caplan about the joy of Sex — including why Season 2 may be off-limits to the fam back home.
TVLINE | I was just rereading the first feature I ever did with you, from fall 2006: “Cozy Up to The Class‘ Queen of Snark.” Does that sound about right?
Can you please title this feature exactly that same way? Please…?
TVLINE | I shall not. Gosh, we were so young back then….
Remember 2006? The world was our oyster.
TVLINE | Tell me about your first acting role as a kid.
My first acting role as a kid was on Freaks and Geeks. I did it when I was 15 years old, I played Girl No. 1, I was in the pilot and I had one line. Ben Foster was in the scene with me, and I had no idea what I was doing, and then I came back for three more episodes — still didn’t know what I was doing and was very nervous — and since then I’ve been very proud to have been a part of what is probably one of coolest shows ever made.
TVLINE | OK, I was more going for, “Betsy Ross in a third grade play.”
Oh, you want to go back that far? Because I got that. I was a Russian dancer in my elementary school production of Fiddler on the Roof when I was in third grade of fourth grade. I was one of the younger kids accepted into the play, and the plays were pretty impressive, let me say. When we did Wizard of Oz, one of the girls few through the air on a harness.
TVLINE | That’s hardcore. Nowadays, schools would be worrying about lawsuits and such.
I know, this was way back in the Wild West, pre-lawsuits.
TVLINE | Here you now are on Masters of Sex, playing an important, real-life person on a period, prestige drama, on a premium cable network. As far as your career-to-date goes, did you feel like this was your biggest swing?
It probably was, especially since in the years before I took that swing I was fairly content being a comedic actress and not taking “prestige drama” swings, even though it’s always something I’ve wanted to do. It felt like a big risk going after it, but at the same time it didn’t feel like a risk at all, because I felt my chances of landing the role were so slim that I didn’t have anything to lose. I just wanted it so badly, and it had been a while since I had wanted something so badly that I didn’t think I stood a shot at getting.
TVLINE | Is there a greater responsibility or a greater satisfaction – or both – in portraying a real person?
I’m in this weird zone with playing a real person because, yes, she is an unbelievably important historical figure, but I’m not tasked with doing a direct impersonation of this woman. In a lot of ways, it’s my interpretation of a historical figure. That definitely makes it less daunting than having to pull off the storylines that we’re trying to tell on our show while also doing a direct impersonation, something my costar Michael Sheen has done successfully many times in his career.
TVLINE | Talk about the trust you’ve got there with Michael, because you two have to go to some interesting places.
We do, indeed, and it’s about finding the balance between having total trust in one another but also surprising one another and letting each other hang there. The relationship between Virginia and Bill is so complex, and spans so many decades, and just gets odder, and their intentions become more and more muddled with each other…. You’ll see, it’s pretty extreme in the second season, and as actors we’re there for each other 100 percent. We hold each other up, but there has to be an element of danger between the two of us…
TVLINE | It can’t come across as overly rehearsed and safe.
Exactly. There’s an instinct to pull the power out of scenes like that because it’s scary to play a particularly graphic sex scene or even a particularly revealing emotional scene, but we don’t do that. We don’t try to dilute it completely by just being buddy-buddy all the time off the set – even though he is mah buddy.
TVLINE | The Lillian/Virginia friendship is one of our most favorite on TV right now. How has it been working with Julianne Nicholson?
That’s so awesome that you say that because that is one of the things that I’m the most proud of in the show – specifically, what we do with that relationship in the second season. So much care and so much love is given to developing this friendship between these two women, and I’ve referred to it as this a couple of times now, but it truly is crafted as a love story. It just happens to be a female friendship, but the intimacy that these two women share and how it requires both of them to break down their own walls…. I think the writers did an amazing job with that storyline. I don’t want to give anything away, but hopefully Season 2 won’t disappoint you if you’re a fan of that relationship, because it certainly didn’t disappoint me.
TVLINE | Showrunner Michelle Ashford has said that she wants each season to feel like a completely different animal. Does that excite you?
It’s blowing my mind. I anticipated the shock of getting this job to have settled in at this point, but now doing Season 2, it’s even more insane to me that I get to show up to work on this show every single day. In terms of what the audience will see as whether or not it feels like a completely different animal…. Masters and Johnson are not in the same hospital anymore, so our sets will feel very different. We have to do a big time jump about halfway through the season, and hopefully that won’t jar people too much, because the story that we’re trying to tell is 30 years long, and we don’t have the luxury of shooting it over 30 years. Playing this role was terrifying in one way for Season 1 and in a completely new way for Season 2 — and if it continues to terrify me onward, then I think I will continue to pinch myself about getting this gig.
TVLINE | Well, when you got this gig, who amongst your family or friends was it most vital to warn, “Listen, I want you to see my new show, but… you’re gonna see things”?
Season 2 should be interesting because for Season 1, Valerie Joseph, our lovely post-production supervisor — because we had a lot more time between wrapping, shooting and the airdate of the show — made “family edits” that artfully cut out everything that had to do with Virginia being naked. Everybody else’s nudity and stuff was in there, but mine was cut out. But [the producers] made it very clear to me last year that that would not be an option in Season 2. So as we gear up for the airdate of Season 2, this will be the first time I have to have that conversation with my family, because it’s definitely not something that I want them to watch. I thought perhaps I would have matured a bit in the last year to wrap my head around it, but I can safely tell you I have absolutely no interest in the male members of my family watching Season 2 of Masters of Sex.
TVLINE | So, Crazy Uncle Lenny got to see some version of Season 1, but that’s it? He’s cut off?
Yeah. I mean, they’ve all created methods for watching it that usually involves a female member of the family telling them when to close their eyes. But I try to stay out of it, because if I were to take that on as my problem, I’d probably have a stroke.
TVLINE | When all is said and done, what do you hope that your portrayal of Virginia communicates to viewers about her?
That’s a big question…. One thing that I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by… is that the story that we’re trying to tell and the way that we’re trying to tell it resonated with the audience pretty much immediately, even though our show’s called Masters of Sex. There’s a ton of sex in it. There’s a ton of nudity in it. But there’s nothing gratuitous about the show that we’re trying to make. I think that a lot of times, for women in particular, sexuality can be tied up with a lot of negative feelings in the media and about ourselves, and if any woman sees our show and it forces them to reevaluate how they see their own sexuality and the ideal of female sexuality in general, I’d say that’s a home run.