Lizzy Caplan on ‘Masters of Sex,’ Playing Virginia Johnson, and Her Emmy Nomination

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Lizzy Caplan Masters of Sex Interview

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in ‘Masters of Sex’ (Photo: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME)

Lizzy Caplan just earned her first-ever Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s critically acclaimed dramatic series Masters of Sex co-starring Michael Sheen as William Masters. The well-deserved nomination took Caplan – who was under the weather when the nominations were announced – completely by surprise and at the summer 2014 Television Critics Association event, Caplan recalled how that morning went down. “That was crazy. It was crazy. I was not anticipating that. If anything I thought it would go the complete opposite way, that the show would be nominated and the writers would be nominated and Michael [Sheen] would be nominated, and maybe next year I would stand a chance. It just goes to show,” said Caplan.

“I was sick in bed and I was sleeping and my friends who have my land line – because I still have a land line, not everyone has the number – so they were calling my cell phone which was silenced and they started calling my land line and I was completely, completely shocked. The best part, honestly, was my childhood best friend, he was in town visiting from New York and he was sleeping in my guest room so he was the first person I could run and jump on.”

Lizzy Caplan Masters of Sex Interview

Does playing Virginia make you more confident?

Lizzy Caplan: “Yeah, absolutely. It does. You know, if a person is capable of acting sexy in front of nine strangers every day – that’s like our pared down crew – then it becomes easier to pull it off in real life.”

Is it true and documented that Virginia was propositioned by some of her colleagues once the study got out?

Lizzy Caplan: “Well she never admitted to being the women in the video, in the film strip that he shows at the presentation in real life. But everybody suspected that she was indeed the woman in the film strip so, yes, she was up against a lot of unwanted advances throughout her whole career until I suppose she started being taken seriously when people were convinced she was actually a doctor, which she never corrected people about.”

And Bill was never propositioned by women?

Lizzy Caplan: [Laughing] “I mean, maybe he was. I had never heard about them though. He could have been. That man’s all sex!”

The EW weekly covers were so elegant and a little provocative. How did you feel about how those came out?

Lizzy Caplan: “I loved those photos. That photo shoot we banged out – so to speak – very quickly, like within half an hour I want to say. The photographer has shot me for other publications in the past and so I’ve become friends with him, so I felt very safe. And Michael and I can go to that place very quickly on command, like dogs. I thought that the pictures really embodied the spirit of the show. It is a little risqué and it does feel a little voyeuristic at times. I think that’s not always so easy to capture in a photo and I think Eric Ray Davidson did a really great job. He’s awesome.”

How much do you think about the challenges of being a woman at that time or still continuing to this time?

Lizzy Caplan: “I don’t think they’re limited to that time at all. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself quite a bit more since becoming a part of this show. Now, it’s so glaringly obvious when you start looking for something. Gender inequality is not something that’s relegated to the 1950s, not at all. If anything, doing this show has pointed out how far we have left to go, I mean, on a daily basis and especially in this business.

One of the things that I think the writers do really, really well is show what that means in the presence of other women for Virginia. She’s not exactly welcomed with open arms from other women, so she gets it from all sides. This is just a woman who owns her own sexuality and has career goals and ambitions outside of being somebody’s wife and a stay at home mom.”

How important is Virginia’s friendship with Lillian, played by Julianne Nicholson?

Lizzy Caplan: “That’s one of my very favorite parts of the show. That relationship is handled with such care, and I’m really proud of what we shot. Julianne Nicholson and I crafted what we consider to be a love story. It’s a friendship between two women. It’s not romantic, it’s not sexual, but it is absolutely a nuanced, layered love story which is really how very close female friendships begin to feel. I don’t think that that’s captured accurately in so many television shows, and movies as well. And this is a person, Lillian – Julianne’s character – who does not approve of a lot of stuff that Virginia does and vice versa. And so the fact that they managed to maintain this friendship, I think that that relationship is equally as important to Virginia’s relationship with Bill. They mirror each other in very interesting ways.”

What does Masters of Sex say about sexuality today in this period piece sort of format?

Lizzy Caplan: “Well, Masters and Johnson…unfortunately their names are tied to homosexual conversion therapies, which is something that they started getting into way later in their career and it’s something that Virginia never believed in and never stood behind. They actually fabricated a lot of the data. Masters fabricated a lot of the data to prove his point. He wasn’t making any judgement on homosexual. If anything, he was trying to help people. That’s what they were always trying to do. You see it with Beau Bridges’ character. Bill Masters is not anti-homosexuality, he wants to help his friend. In order to help his friend, he needs to help him not be gay anymore. These are ideas that can feel old, but I think everybody’s well aware that they’re not old at all. You hear kids struggling with these issues and it doesn’t feel like it’s 1959. It feels like it’s 2014 and you’re still being persecuted.”

And there are still people trying to convert homosexuals.

Lizzy Caplan: “Absolutely. I have some friends who were sent to gay conversion camps. It’s the same. And then all this stuff that’s going on with transgender kids and the bullying around that. If anything, those conversations have reached more of a fever pitch now and it’s the same issue. This issue is nowhere near resolved.”


Has the show taught you anything? You’d never studied sexuality like this before, I’d imagine.

Lizzy Caplan: “I never have, yes. But as a person growing up in the world and having a sexual identity, I think from the moment anyone becomes sexually active you’re struggling to figure out what your own sexual identity is, whether you’re married or single. It doesn’t matter. Whether you’re having sex or not having sex, it’s still defining you more often than a lot of people would care to admit. So, if anything, it’s taught me a lot about people’s attitudes toward their own sexuality and my own attitude toward other people’s sexuality. It’s so easy to pass judgement on people and I think that’s one of the most dangerous things you can do, especially for young people who are really trying to figure out what their sexual identities are in real time. It’s one bad conversation that can really derail a young girl’s self confidence around an issue that will be something she’s dealing with for the rest of her life.”

Have you read enough about Virginia Johnson to know how you feel about her or is it constantly evolving?

Lizzy Caplan: “I’m constantly learning. I’ve been involved with this project for about three years now and my feelings toward some of her choices obviously have begun to evolve. But it’s my job to be the custodian of this person’s story in this show. My job is not to judge things that she does, rather to justify them. To make them make sense so that I can play each moment authentically. Nobody is the villain in her own story and even though Virginia does do some questionable things, in her mind she’s justified every step of the way.”

This season it starts of with William more of a villain, but could that flip at any time?

Lizzy Caplan: “Yes. Listen, of course it’s very obvious that she’s the much more personable character. She’s more charismatic; she’s warmer than Bill will ever be. But the reality is they end up sort of changing roles – not in this season, but in the true story later in life. As he gets older he softens and she becomes much more strident in many ways.”

That sounds like it could be a fun part of her to play.

Lizzy Caplan: “Yes, I’m very excited. Her insecurities start to get the better of her and so it hardens her. But in this season she’s not the same. She’s not this bright light. She is absolutely absorbing the consequences of the groundwork that was laid in season one. That will change a person, and I’m proud of the way it’s changing her.”

Is your character emblematic of the times?

Lizzy Caplan: “Yes. I mean, they kicked off the sexual revolution. There were other things happening, the pill, many different elements led to this sexual revolution. But, yes, it’s watching this woman who had this side of herself, this ease with her own sexuality, which is something she always had to hide from people all of a sudden become an asset. Now, it doesn’t remain an asset and I don’t believe that it’s ever fully an asset, but at least she gets to see it in that way for part of the time for the first time in her life.”

What is your favorite thing about the hair and makeup of the period?

Lizzy Caplan: “I really have grown to love all parts of that. I, at first, thought I would hate it because I am used to wearing jeans and T-shirts in my regular life and on screen. I’ve always been the tomboyish character which leads to very comfortable clothing which I’m always in favor of. But I’ve really grown to love all elements of it. I mean, it takes forever to turn my jeans and T-shirt ass into Virginia Johnson every single day. I mean, hours.”

What takes so long?

Lizzy Caplan: “I usually am here at 5 in the morning so that means I’m up at about 3:15. They dry my hair and they set it in curlers. Then I go to makeup and makeup takes not very long, and then I go back into hair. The whole hair process probably takes an hour and a half. Big and curled under and like a bottle of hairspray which is a battle every day. I’m anti-hairspray but apparently it’s necessary. And then into the girdle and the bra and the stockings and the tailored suits – the skirts that you can’t bend over and breathe in. And the heels and all of it, all day long. And at this point I don’t even notice it which is the wildest part.”

Is there any news on Party Down?

Lizzy Caplan: “No news, no news. But the answer will always remain the same for me which is I would love to do more. I think I speak for everybody that we all would want to, but everybody’s busy now which is kind of great – but not great for the Party Down movie.”

Did you shoot any movies in between seasons?

Lizzy Caplan: “I did. I shot The Interview which will be out in October. I worked with both of those guys [Seth Rogen and James Franco] when I was 15 years old. That was my first job – Freaks and Geeks – so anytime I can work with them [is good]. The movie was pretty wild. I think that it’s going to do well. It takes it to a very bizarre place as only those two can.”

And there’s already controversy and North Korea’s leader is offended.

Lizzy Caplan: “I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we made a very broad comedy. This is not rooted in any sort of reality. Seth and James play the two biggest morons on the face of the earth who were dispatched to do this deed. Let’s just remember it’s a satire. We’re not trying to change the world with this movie.”

And you play?

Lizzy Caplan: “I’m a CIA agent who hires these two nimrods to go assassinate Kim Jong-un. It’s definitely ridiculous.”

– By Fred Topel

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