ABOVE: LIZZY CAPLAN IN LOS ANGELES, JULY 2013. TOP: J.W. ANDERSON X VERSUS VERSACE. EARRINGS AND BRACELET: CARTIER. STYLING: MOSES.
The simulated sex is one thing, but it’s a nonstop onslaught of sexual discussions and sexual inadequacies and highly emotional scenes . . . Everything that could be kind of terrifying as an actor. Lizzy Caplan
Man junk, lady bits, what people do with them and why are all at the center of Lizzy Caplan’s new Showtime series Masters of Sex, which tells the story of how American gynecologist William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his research assistant, Virginia Johnson (Caplan), famously committed themselves to the scientific study of human sexuality in the 1950s—and how real sex provided the real data that would pave the way for the sexual revolution of the following decade. The show, which recently premiered, tracks the development of both their work and their relationship, as well as their unlikely ascent as harbingers of a new sexual reality in America.
Caplan, a veteran of films such as Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) and Bachelorette, is best known for her comedic work, most notably, as non-Plastic Janis in Mean Girls (2004) and as struggling comedian Casey Klein in the short-lived cult Starz series Party Down. But in her dramatic portrayal of Johnson she taps into her wry, anti-authoritarian streak to play a woman who, as a divorced single mom, was already bucking some of the Leave It to Beaver-esque norms of the Eisenhower era before she decided to eschew them entirely in the controversial exploration of human sexual response and dysfunction that she undertook with Masters, who later became her husband. (According to biographer Thomas Maier, whose book Masters of Sex provided much of the source material for the series, the real-life Johnson was also vocal about her reservations regarding the research presented in their dubious tome Homosexuality in Perspective, calling it “a bad book” and expressing a desire to update it.)
Parks and Recreation star Adam Scott, who appeared alongside Caplan in Party Down, recently connected with the 31-year-old actress in Los Angeles, where they discussed the excitement phase of doing a new series, as well as other matters of sex, television, and the occasionally inexplicable but often wondrous things that can happen when desire and opportunity meet.
LIZZY CAPLAN: I’m excited to have this conversation with you.
ADAM SCOTT: I know. I’m just surprised more of our conversations haven’t been published before. They’re so interesting.
CAPLAN: Yeah, they’re really, really riveting. Lots of deserts of pause …
SCOTT: They’re usually full of insults.
CAPLAN: And complaints.
SCOTT: So, to begin, on a scale of 9 to 10, how much do you miss me?
CAPLAN: When was the last time I saw you? Long time ago, huh?
SCOTT: Yeah. Was it the Comic-Con thing? No, it was [SF] Sketchfest.
CAPLAN: That could have been the last time. So I guess on a scale of 9 to 10, I miss you, like, a 9.
SCOTT: The bare minimum.
CAPLAN: I haven’t seen you in six months … Who would have thought that’s what would become of us, my friend? Our relationship is really in the dumpster. Tragic. I just have another little pre-interview thing to say to you, but it’s actually true. I’ve paced around in this living room, like I’m doing right now, talking to you about very different things over the course of the years, but the one that’s sticking out to me right now is the conversation where I told you not do your current television show [Parks and Recreation]. Really solid career advice.
SCOTT: Well, one thing I do remember from when we were doing Party Down is that we were all really unsure about what this thing was going to be. Even though we had a lot of faith in the show’s creators, we didn’t really know what Starz was. They weren’t behaving like TV networks usually do in the sense that they wanted us to sign on for a bunch of years for, like, the money you usually pay a guest star. It was all very strange …
CAPLAN: I don’t remember them wanting multiyear contracts. By the time I came in, I think they had already gotten rid of that idea.
SCOTT: I think by that time, Ken [Marino] and I had said we’d just do a year at a time, which is unusual for TV shows, right?
CAPLAN: Really unusual, unless you’re paying nothing.
SCOTT: Right, which is what they were doing.
CAPLAN: They paid me in spare change because I was the last one. Even you got more than I did.
SCOTT: I don’t know about that. So every time we would finish a season, which was two times, we would have to get on the phone and I would have to try to convince you … First of all, I had to try to convince you to do it in the first place.
CAPLAN: Okay, we had one conversation. I don’t really think you did any sort of convincing in that conversation.
SCOTT: What do you mean?
CAPLAN: You were not giving me any sort of bullet points of why I should do the show. I don’t remember what was said, but it certainly wasn’t you convincing me to do something. It was a weird, “Hey, how are you?” thing—kind of like talking to your cousin or something.
SCOTT: Well, we had never met.
CAPLAN: Or, like, your new stepcousin. I just remember not getting off the phone, like, “Oh, me and Adam are going to be real best friends. That went super-well.”
SCOTT: Why? What do you remember happening in the conversation?
CAPLAN: It was just awkward. I feel like I was trying to make you feel comfortable when the point of the conversation was you convincing me to do something.
SCOTT: Because I got off the phone and was like, “I think I got her.” [both laugh]
CAPLAN: Yeah, and that ended up being the blueprint for every one of our interactions: me bending over backwards to take care of you, and you thinking you did great.
SCOTT: Me thinking that I had conquered the world of Lizzy. But then by the time season one ended, we had become buddies, right? Am I on the right track here?
CAPLAN: That one I actually agree with.
SCOTT: And since it was one year at a time—it wasn’t like a regular TV show where it got picked up and everyone was just like, “Okay, see you in three months.” We had to make sure everyone was still on board. And you were the one who was sort of like, “I’m not sure,” because not only had we not seen the show or anything we’d shot, but we didn’t know what the reaction would be, because it wasn’t going to air for another few months. So we didn’t know really what this thing was, but they wanted us to all sign on immediately.
CAPLAN: I want to rewind for a second and point out that you’ve now been on a show that has worked for so long that, in your mind, that’s how it is—you finish and then you say, “I’ll see ya in three months.”
CAPLAN: I have never been on a show that’s gone two seasons—other than Party Down … You’ve changed from the failure that I once knew.
SCOTT: But with Party Down, I think they had told us they were going to do another season. Anyway, we had a lot of conversations about doing another season, and you were like, “That was a perfect experience, so why fuck with it and maybe screw it up with another one?” It’s almost like talking about doing a sequel: “What if we do another one and it’s not as good?”
CAPLAN: That sounds like something I would’ve said.
SCOTT: We have the same agent, and I remember trying to get him to convince you to do another season. He was sort of on the fence, too.
CAPLAN: Oh, he was the most on the fence. I feel like our agent didn’t want either one of us to do it.
SCOTT: Yeah, but I don’t think he cared if I did it, because there wasn’t really anything else on the table, except Piranha 3D .
CAPLAN: Which really was worth doing. Personally, I’m glad that you did that.
SCOTT: Yeah. [laughs] Anyway, my point is you made a choice with your taste and your heart and decided to do another season. It would have been such a bummer if you hadn’t. Like, no one knew what the show was going to do if you didn’t do it.
CAPLAN: Well, that’s nice to hear. But it’s too scary in television. It’s scary to sign a six-year contract for something that you don’t necessarily know about. And yet I did that most every year. I’ve done a lot of failed pilots. But it’s different when you have in your mind Party Down. There was something about that job—and I think this is the same for you—where it’s like, “Oh, this is what it could be like …”
SCOTT: I think part of what was so special about it was us not knowing if it would ever be seen, or if people would ever be into it, or if it would ever even be as good as it was feeling to us. So we had this sort of gang mentality of it being us against the world. Who gives a shit if anyone ever sees this? So there was something really fun about that—that no one was paying attention to it, so we could do whatever we wanted.
CAPLAN: But it really paid in dividends. It definitely changed the way I see working.
SCOTT: Do you think that Party Down would have had a better shot if the show came out today? The way people watch TV now is lot different than it was three and a half years ago.
CAPLAN: I know. It’s amazing how quickly that’s changed. I don’t think there are many good comedy shows being made right now that we haven’t heard of. It was just bad timing. But I still get asked about it all the time—it’s crazy. I remember you once said something about Party Down fans being cooler than your average fans, like not geeking out, but coming up with some really clever thing to say.
SCOTT: Because everyone feels like it’s theirs a little bit. Usually when people watch it, they’ve discovered it—it hasn’t been pushed on them. So they kind of feel like they have a little private thing with you.
CAPLAN: It’s true. It happened to me today. This really cute, like, 19-year-old girl in this cool little coffee shop said something like, “Does Party Down mean anything to you?”
SCOTT: That’s a new one.
CAPLAN: We had a moment, a little back and forth.
SCOTT: I love hearing about all the cool coffee shops you go to.
CAPLAN: Listen, man …
SCOTT: You’re too modest to say it, but people are always trying to get you on their TV shows—and for good reason. What I’m wondering is, because you’re so picky, what was it about Masters of Sex that made you want to do it? I remember when you were in the process of getting the job and making the pilot, you were really excited and really passionate about it. What was it that made you want to dive into this so intensely?
CAPLAN: Oh, Adam …
SCOTT: Did I sound like I work for Entertainment Weekly there for a second?
CAPLAN: You sound like you’re in your first year of Entertainment Weekly school. But I think what it was, was that I was interested in doing a television show again. I really like doing television shows, and I anticipated doing a comedy, because that’s the place I feel the most comfortable—those are the risks I want to take. But it was always really hard for me to find a script that I really liked. I’m extra harsh on pilot scripts, which is difficult because pilots, generally, are not that great. You have to imagine the whole series instead of just that one script, and I have a really hard time doing that. I had spent about a year before that point trying to develop my own TV show at HBO called I Don’t Care About Your Band, and that whole process was difficult. I took it really hard when they did not pick up that show. So when I Don’t Care About Your Band didn’t work out, that was a seriously crushing blow. When I think back to that now, I can separate my emotions from it a lot better—not perfectly, but a lot better. Man, it was like I couldn’t get out of bed for a week—so traumatic. So, anyway, I was open to the idea of just doing a TV show and to reading a lot of scripts and making a call on something, finally. Then they sent me the Masters of Sex pilot, and I remember it being presented as this thing that I’m probably not going to want to do because it’s a drama and it takes place in a hospital and it’s an hour long and all these things that aren’t usually interesting to me. But I read the script and I was really surprised by how much I liked it. I thought that I didn’t stand a chance of getting it because people just don’t see me in that way. But I decided to just meet with them anyway. I met with the creator, Michelle Ashford, the producer, one of the executive producers, Sarah Timberman, and then John Madden, who directed the pilot. John is this fancy English director who doesn’t know any American television actors, so when I met him, I felt like he wasn’t coming in with all these preconceived notions about what kind of actress I was. Because of that, he saw me doing this role far before I saw myself doing it. I auditioned one time with him—the audition was three hours long and we did all the scenes, and when I left, I remember thinking, That was one of the most satisfying audition experiences I’ve ever had, but I’m definitely not going to get that part. And then, weirdly, everything just kinda started going my way.
SCOTT: Was it tough to wait on this while there were other opportunities coming your way? Sometimes with these Showtime or HBO shows, it’s a long process and you have to sort of throw caution to the wind and hope it comes through while other lucrative things float by.
CAPLAN: Yes—and, again, you pay your representative to give you really practical advice. And picking the potential for doing something over a real job is not something that’s necessarily advisable. But in the same way that Party Down ruined pilot season for me for a little bit, I can’t do something that’s not going to be as fulfilling. So when Masters of Sex came along, it was a similar thing. I just knew that if I saw somebody else playing this role on the show, I would not be able to get over it. And I never really feel that way.
SCOTT: So then you got it. Was it as fulfilling shooting the show as you thought it would be?
CAPLAN: It was. Definitely through the pilot and through the first episode, I was taking it really, really seriously. I was coming from a mindset of, Oh, having fun between takes is just as important as the work you’re doing on camera. And then realizing, Oh, that’s not really going to fly at all. With Party Down, we would show up and it was really well-written and we would fuck around with the lines. They gave us a lot of leeway. But on Masters of Sex, especially in the pilot, everybody was showing up word-perfect, and you’re expected to show up word-perfect. And then Michael Sheen comes from a completely different school of acting. He’s this established Shakespearean actor. He comes on set and knows his lines—every word. So that was a bit of an adjustment. But luckily I think I was prepared to take something seriously in my life.
SCOTT: It must have felt nice to have something be completely different.
CAPLAN: Yeah. And legitimately scary every week. There was always at least one thing that I knew was going to keep me up the night before. But when you live in the world of the show long enough, nothing seems weird anymore.
SCOTT: What do you mean?
CAPLAN: Just the idea of all these naked people in front of you all the time, and actually interacting with the naked people a lot. And the content of the show—the simulated sex is one thing, but it’s a nonstop onslaught of sexual discussions and sexual inadequacies and highly emotional scenes … Everything that could be kind of terrifying as an actor. But you know—you did a fuck show, too.
SCOTT: Yeah, I did. How many naked penises do you think you saw over the course of your show?
CAPLAN: Zero. That’s the bullshit part. Zero penises. Just a lot of boobs. You become unbelievably desensitized to it really quickly.
SCOTT: How many boobs do you think you saw?
CAPLAN: [laughs] I saw about 13 individual boobs.
SCOTT: So half a dozen pairs of boobs. I found that on Tell Me You Love Me—the sex show that I did—something I found really weird was that by the middle of the season, when it was time to do a sex scene again, it was like, “Oh, okay,” and we would just take our clothes off. It started to get routine, and I remember thinking, Oh, this must be, like, a fraction of what a porn actor feels.
CAPLAN: Yeah, I mean, it’s one thing when you know the crew really well and you’re good friends with the cast. You can set the environment up in a way that’s the least scary—you can joke your way through it. But the people who come in for one day and don’t know anybody … That’s a whole different animal. Those people are far braver than I had to be. But we also were really, really anal about making the set safe for everybody. Because it’s not only that you have to take your clothes off and walk around in front of the crew, which is scary enough, but these people have to masturbate with wires and stuff hanging off of them. Also on a TV set, in between takes, you want to be completely covered up. For scenes when Michael and I are wired up to each other, it was actually impossible for us to be covered up without ripping off all of the wires, so then you have to figure out a way to be comfortable without clothes for hours on end.
SCOTT: Wow. This sounds insane.
CAPLAN: What I’m excited about is that, yes, there’s lots of sex in it, and I think that might get people’s asses in the seats in the beginning, but the show is so not just that.
SCOTT: Lizzy, I just have to say, their asses will already be in the seats because they’re at home.
CAPLAN: Good one.
SCOTT: Thank you.
CAPLAN: Anything else?
SCOTT: No. Go ahead.
CAPLAN: Well, I was going to say that the conversations that I’ve been having with real reporters tend to get interesting—as opposed to your boring press-junket questions—and I think that has to do with the subject matter being completely fascinating. I mean, the series shows how absurd these two people’s reality was, but the end result completely changed the world. It’s not something that anybody can even debate.
SCOTT: How many vaginas do you think you saw over the course of season one?
CAPLAN: I wasn’t supposed to see any vaginas because they’re supposed to be covered up, so I saw only about 620.
SCOTT: 620 vaginas?
CAPLAN: Accidental vaginas.
SCOTT: That’s a lot.
CAPLAN: That’s because everybody I walked by liked to pull down their pants and show me their vaginas.
SCOTT: How many butt cheeks did you see over the course of season one?
CAPLAN: Only two. Sometimes I don’t know if they are butt cheeks or vaginas, I should point out.
SCOTT: I can point out the difference to you. I have internet access. I will send you an e-mail with giant arrows pointing to which is which. Are you freaked out about being on a show with all this nudity and having it all over the internet? Is that a concern of yours at all?
CAPLAN: It’s a concern, but it’s not a major concern. I’ve gone through it on a smaller scale before with True Blood. If you think too much about it, it can be anxiety-provoking because it lives on the internet forever. I’ve only taken my clothes off on that one other show, and yet, if you were to Google Image me, it would seem like I do this all the time. As an actress—and as an actor, too, but it’s worse for actresses—you constantly get picked apart for how you look. Obviously, being picked apart with your clothes on is slightly less terrifying than when your clothes are off. But whenever I would have a moment of hesitation about it, I’d think about the real woman, Virginia Johnson, doing this in an environment that was far less safe. And she wasn’t surrounded by a handful of highly qualified men who are lighting her perfectly—
SCOTT: And makeup artists.
CAPLAN: Yeah, the stakes were much higher for her. But the cornerstone of her personality was this ease with her own sexuality at a time when that was pretty unheard of. So I knew that if I was even going to go after this part, then I would have to be fine with it. Otherwise, I didn’t believe I had a right to play this person.
SCOTT: I always feel like nudity is so different for a guy, because if a guy does nudity, no one really cares that much. For a girl there’s a different set of considerations. But it sounds like there was no other way to do this show and to have the same kind of impact.
CAPLAN: No, there wasn’t. On pay cable, it’s now an expectation. I mean, even on Party Down, they tried to get us to do it.
SCOTT: Right. That was Starz’s only note: more boobs.
CAPLAN: Yeah, it’s a requirement. Some of the shows do it more tastefully than others, but it’s like you take a little break and watch people fuck, and they’re totally naked, and you get that crossed off the list of that hour of programming. This show is about sex. It’s about people kicking off the sexual revolution, so we see different kinds of sex: There’s definitely intimate lovemaking between couples, and then there’s the stuff that I think will surprise people, which are the experiments they do … In harsh lighting, with electrodes taped to them, and no intimacy whatsoever. Also, Masters and Johnson themselves were basically hardcore feminists, and our show is run by women, so it’s not like, “Oh, look at everybody’s boobs.” It’s more about what sex is telling you about relationships versus just sex for the sake of sex.
SCOTT: People throw around the word brave a lot when talking about actors and performances, and I think it barely ever applies, but it sounds like you guys are doing something really new with this show.
CAPLAN: I mean, I was doing stuff that I was scared of and I was forced to face my fears, so in that way, it’s brave. But the nudity part, to me, wasn’t as brave as trying to make these characters, who are at times completely unlikable and seemingly unsympathetic, compelling. It’s a different thing with cable TV. You don’t have to have your characters be lovely again by the end of the episode. And in this era of the male antiheroes on cable TV, you don’t even need to make them likable; you just need to make them compelling. As opposed to film, where it’s still those basic tropes of good versus evil. But for women, I don’t think that has been widely seen yet. My character does some stuff that is going to freak out women, so I’m really curious to see how the audience reacts, because now, as a culture, we’re ready to accept that in men, but I don’t know if we’re going to be as ready to accept it in a woman.
SCOTT: Well, I will accept you no matter what, Lizzy.
CAPLAN: Adam, thank you so much. All I needed was your acceptance.
ADAM SCOTT WILL APPEAR IN THE FILMS A.C.O.D., OUT THIS MONTH, AND THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, OUT THIS DECEMBER.
COSMETICS: M.A.C., INCLUDING LIPSTICK IN TAUPE, FACE AND BODY FOUNDATION, PAINT POT IN GROUNDWORK, AND POWDER BLUSH IN COPPERTONE. HAIR PRODUCTS: LIVING PROOF, INCLUDING SATIN HAIR SERUM AND RESTORE TARGETED REPAIR CREAM. HAIR: TONY CHAVEZ FOR LIVING PROOF/TRACEY MATTINGLY. MAKEUP: DARLENE JACOBS FOR M.A.C COSMETICS/FRANK REPS. MANICURE: ASHLIE JOHNSON FOR CHANEL/THE WALL GROUP. SPECIAL THANKS: MILK STUDIOS AND DEBBIE DAY.