Come July 12, Lizzy Caplan will break her own record.
That date is the third season premiere of Masters of Sex, the Showtime series in which Caplan stars as sex-research pioneer Virginia Johnson. But the day also officially marks the first time that Caplan, who got her TV start in 1999’s Freaks and Geeks, will have been a series regular on a series lasting longer than two seasons.
“Party Down was the only other show I did that went more than one season, but those were 10-episode seasons and we shot them in 10 weeks, so it’s a much different animal from this,” she says via phone just after wrapping a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. (At Kimmel’s urging, she spit a half-chewed gummy bear into his hand, then he ate it. It was funny.)
It’s been three years since Caplan first donned Virginia’s lab coat. And it’s taken nearly that long for the idea that she finally found a series with staying power to sink in.
“The notion of being an actress with a steady gig and not having that dragon breathing down my neck, trying to find what the next thing is? It’s been really nice,” she says, chuckling.
Also nice: the critical acclaim the Michelle Ashford series — and Caplan’s performance in it — has amassed, as well as her 2014 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Leading Actress in a Drama. Season 2 provided plenty of fodder that could make Caplan a contender in this year’s race, too; as Virginia and Bill prepped their groundbreaking work for public release and continued their increasingly complicated affair, Virginia’s ex-husband challenged her custody of their two children.
TVLine talked with Caplan about Season 2 (including the buzzed-about “Fight” episode) and the upcoming Season 3 (including scoop on an unexpected kiss and some “massive” plot surprises).
TVLINE | Once you had a season under your belt as Virginia, did you go into the second season feeling like, “I’ve got this”?
Not at all. I did feel like I understood her mannerisms and how she walked and moved and her diction, all of that was easy to fall back into. But no, I put even more pressure on myself the second season than I did the first. The first, I was just very overwhelmed and couldn’t believe it was happening to me. The second season, it was that combined with this real drive not to blow this for myself, for my castmates and for my producers. Because of that, I decided to only do the television show in Season 2 and get rid of any remnants of a real life or social life or friendships or anything. [Laughs]
TVLINE | Along those lines, how is the filming of the third season going?
There’s this huge gap in the historical accounts that we draw from. The book, Masters of Sex, we know how [Masters and Johnson] met and how it was for them at the beginning of their relationship and the beginning of their working relationship together, and there’s about eight, nine years where they didn’t really go too much into it in the book. The next big milestone that occurs is where we start Season 3, the publishing of their research and their book. So the second season, we knew our objectives and we knew the story we wanted to tell about their personal relationship but it was much more up to the minds of [series creator] Michelle Ashford and our other writers.
So by the time that I got to the third season, this character I’m playing — even though she’s based on a historical person and I feel a great responsibility to tell her story in a three-dimensional, interesting, careful way — at this point, the character that I’m playing feels as much like an imaginary creation as it does a real person. Which is, of course, not entirely true because as we get back into the historical narrative of Season 3, I’m finding I’m trying to straddle that line between both sides. So that said, the thing is now I’ve been playing this person for a long enough period of time that I find there is absolutely room in my schedule for an actual life after my working day ends. [Laughs] It’s pretty good. Way better for my sanity.
TVLINE | In real life, Virginia has said there was no great love between herself and Bill. Does what you know about what she has said about him affect the way you play her?
Absolutely, but it’s important to keep in mind that even though the book is our primary source material for who these people were, the book is based on over 100 hours of interviews with just Virginia Johnson. Bill Masters had already passed away at that point. And Virginia was in her 80s and she was looking back at her complicated, fascinating life and there was traces of bitterness, and I think that those traces of bitterness were completely justified.
…I think she was harboring a great amount of resentment toward him, again, for a very good reason, but no, I don’t buy that they didn’t love each other. Their version of love is certainly not a storybook fairytale version of love, but these are two people who absolutely needed one another in so many ways, personally and professionally. They truly understood each other. I like to think of them as two broken, fragmented people on their own but when they’re together they make up this one, whole, magnificent human.
TVLINE | It’s true that thinking about love can be a completely different thing in retrospect than it is when it’s happening.
Completely, especially because what ends up happening 20 years down the line, it’s not great. [Laughs] Bill does some stuff that I would probably be upset about, too.
TVLINE | The “Fight” episode that everyone was talking about last season: When you were reading the script, did you know it was going to hit so big?
You never really know that and I don’t know how helpful it is to think about it in that way… I couldn’t be a huger fan of all the people on our show; my castmates are incredible and just so skilled and awe-inspiring. So to do something with just [myself and Michael Sheen], I suppose there was a part of me that thought people were going to miss our other characters who are really loved by a lot of the audience, but I do think there was a lot of important ground covered in that episode. It was beautifully written. Amy Lippman wrote it and I think she really hit the nail on the head in many areas.
TVLINE | Michael Sheen has said that you’ve done so many sex scenes that nothing is awkward between you two on set anymore. What is the vibe like during breaks in shooting those scenes now? Do you try to maintain the tone of the scene? Do you feel a need to break the tension?
It’s funny: At the beginning, Season 1, because we didn’t know each other that well and because we were obviously placed in a fairly strange situation for people who don’t know each other all that well, not to mention the fact that we didn’t at that point know our crew all that well either, it was a room full of strangers watching some wild s—t. But we’ve now been doing it for so long that it’s quite honestly just another scene in the day. And we don’t even feel the need, like we did in those early days, to diffuse the awkwardness by making each other laugh with stupid stuff. We just continue the conversation we were having before we were sitting there without our clothes on. It does not raise our blood pressure in the least. It’s quite honestly just another moment at work.
TVLINE | That’s amazing.
It is. It’s weird.
TVLINE | In the Season 3 trailer, there’s a moment where Libby kisses Virginia and says something like, “I always wanted to know how you taste” or something like that.
You just made it so much nastier than it is. [Laughs] It’s “I always wondered what it was like“!
TVLINE | So sorry! Perhaps that was from the fan fiction I’m writing on the side. Can you tease what leads up to that scene?
[Laughs harder] I haven’t seen the episode yet, but that scene when we were shooting it, I felt like something, there are moments in shooting this show where a scene will stand out to me and will feel special, like we’re doing something interesting. Usually those scenes are the ones that are the eeriest, strangest, saddest ones. The scene with Libby and I, the two of us having a conversation — I think the show is at its strongest when two people are having conversations about two different things but pretending to have a conversation with one another. And that’s fully what’s going on there. It just ended up being very quiet, eerie and beautiful and not what you’d think from the trailer.
TVLINE | Josh Charles is coming on — his character, in real life, is someone the real Virginia was involved with. What can you tease about their relationship on the show?
Josh Charles plays a character named Dan Logan… He plays this millionaire perfume tycoon who starts working with Masters and Johnson at the Masters and Johnson Institute because he wants to unlock the secret of pheromones for his perfume business. All of that really happened… This guy enters their world and is the catalyst for massive plot twists. For all of Masters’ staid, buttoned-up uptightness, Dan Logan is all charm and charisma and so that is going to throw a wrench into all sorts of things.