Season two of Showtime’s critically acclaimed dramatic series Masters of Sex kicked off on July 13, 2014 with Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan back as William Masters and Virginia Johnson, real-life pioneers of the science of human sexuality. And as part of the summer Television Critics Association event in Los Angeles – and without giving away any spoilers for this upcoming season – series star Sheen sat down to talk about what fans of Masters of Sex can expect from the upcoming episodes as well as what it’s been like to take on the role of William Masters.
Have you done more research on William Masters as you’ve gone along, or did you feel like you did enough prior to taking the role?
Michael Sheen: “I’ve done less. To begin with I sort of read pretty much everything there was to read and looked at everything. Then I felt like I got the sense of who this man is that I’m going to plan, and then I’ve sort of done less and less. It’s not like I go back and keep checking. I now play the character I play and that’s who I’m playing. I’ll just go back now and again and remind myself of what began the trajectory for me.”
How do you walk the fine line when playing a character who’s emotionally repressed?
Michael Sheen: “It depends on what you can see. I can’t take any responsibility for what people are able to see. You bring your own humanity to what you watch. You see as much as you’re aware of in yourself. I think some people see the vulnerability. Things don’t have to be on the surface for you to be aware of them. I’m playing a character who one of the things I’m most interested in is how vulnerable he is. The most defended, guarded, prickly people on the whole are the ones I find are guarding their vulnerability so much because they’ve been so hurt in some way or they’ve been scared. They’re the most frightened people. So if you have the ability to interpret that, you have to go below the surface. I think – I hope – audiences are a bit more sophisticated than just accepting what they’re presented with on the surface.”
The medical cases are fascinating. Do you know if Masters really did face cases where his sponsoring hospital wanted him to perform an involuntary hysterectomy?
Michael Sheen: “I think that was happening a lot. There were all kinds of not necessarily as specific as we make them in the show but I think there were a lot of things happening at the time like that, yeah.”
Can you talk about that era and what was happening in the world that will be reflected in the series?
Michael Sheen: “I think one of the things we were interested in exploring this year was the idea of, I think there was a point in the ’60s – certainly in the mid-to-late ’60s – where definitely by ’68 with the Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King assassination, the Civil Rights movement, there was a lot of things on the margins of society at this point from the end of the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s. A lot of things were bubbling under the surface that were going to break through, potentially, to the mainstream towards the end of the ’60s. So we were interested in exploring this season the margins of society, especially because Masters has been kicked out of the mainstream in a way. He’s dealing with an area that is certainly in the margins. It’s not accepted norm, the study. So now that he’s lost his respectability, in terms of working for the hospital, he has to go and be in areas that he’s not as comfortable with and be in those margins. The people that he comes up against, the people that he rubs shoulders with, are maybe more representative of some things that will become more mainstream and other things that might fade away.
I thought it was interesting, the idea of burlesque. It’s become more fashionable now, but burlesque was something that kind of just stopped. It just stopped being fashionable and became something else, partially because of the sex industry and the way that sex was marketed later on. But then other things like the Civil Rights movement that were on the margins at this point became way into the mainstream and forced itself to remain on the main page of newspapers. In this season we explore that a little bit.”
Do you have any insight into what made him, after the loss of his respectability, continue with his research?
Michael Sheen: “That’s what the series is about. There’s no easy answer to that. That’s why, hopefully, it will take six or seven seasons to answer that question. You see that he’s a man who’s driven by all kinds of things. We heard him say 100 times that he wants to win a Nobel Prize, so there’s obviously ambition that’s driving him. This is an area of research that’s open to someone pioneering and leading and making a name for himself. That’s why I think it’s his choice for his career, even though he thought it risky. It wasn’t like he wanted to be on the margins. He wants to be an establishment figure. He wants to be mainstream, but he knows he has to take a risk.”
And you’re game to go for seven seasons?
Michael Sheen: “Yeah, for now. We’re still filming the second season and I find the character a fascinating character. It’s a challenging character because you don’t have any of the usual things that maybe you can hold on to. You can’t fall back on those things. I’m not necessarily a conventionally handsome leading man. The character is not particularly charming. He shows the worst of us in a lot of ways. People react to that in a particular way and I think that’s the best part of what I was drawn to in playing this character that over a long period, you can explore someone who’s very complicated who maybe in a film would be a bit more two-dimensional. He’d be like the bad guy or whatever. Whereas in this way I get to explore all the parts of myself that I don’t like, that I’m not proud of but they’re me. I’m playing me, I’m not playing anyone else. I can only play me. If I want to be honest in what I do in my performance, then I have to draw on myself. That’s a challenge as well, to work through that. It’s very interesting.
Maybe if we’re still going in season four, maybe I’ll have a different story. But for now I find him absolutely fascinating.”
Do you view your character as metaphorical of the cultural revolution taking place, and does that metaphor become stronger as the decade continues?
Michael Sheen: “The character I don’t think is necessarily a metaphor, but I think their place in the culture, the work that they’re doing does. What I find interesting in a way is that he is very much a product of his culture and yet part of the work that he’s doing is going to change his culture. Then he in turn will be changed by that culture, so there’s a very interesting process going on. For a man who is so closed in so many ways and so frightened of vulnerability and intimacy, for him to keep studying something that inevitably always leads back to intimacy, exposure, vulnerability in some way, that’s good drama. I find that fascinating.”
You’ve said the show isn’t just about sex but about the difficulties of finding that intimacy. How do you think the show is going to continue to explore that as the relationship between the characters changes?
Michael Sheen: “A show that’s just about sex…well, you can see lots of those. You can go on the internet and there’s a lot of porn on there. Those are shows just about sex. What makes it different is that it’s not about sex; it’s about intimacy. It’s about the challenges of how we relate to each other in a setting that includes sex and sexuality. Inevitably, it’s always about intimacy. If you’re going to be physically naked with someone and be as physically intimate as it is possible to be, there are all kinds of emotional and psychological consequences for that. And if you want to keep doing that with the same person, that can become really complicated. I think everyone can relate to that in one way or another. That’s what this show is all about. As much as the character of Bill Masters wants to say, ‘You can compartmentalize it. Sex is something that can just be studied scientifically. It’s got nothing to do with these other things like emotions or psychology or anything,’ of course it does. So the more that he works on it, the more that he’s brought up against that, those are the areas of his life that he has the biggest problem with, and that’s called drama as opposed to porn.”
Did he change as he got older?
Michael Sheen: “That was one of the things that I found interesting was that people towards the end of his life talked about what a lovely man he was and how likable he was, how affable and easy he was and how really difficult Virginia was – and how much they were scared of her. I thought, ‘Well, that’s an interesting turn of events.'”
Did he consider himself a success?
Michael Sheen: “I have no idea. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t look back on their career and lives and see that they played a major part in certainly one of the biggest changes in culture and in gender politics and sexuality. I don’t see how they wouldn’t see that. But I know there was a lot of controversy in certain areas and I think they realized they got certain things wrong as well. So, I don’t know how he would feel about it but it was certainly a full life and a full career.”
Has it been fun to retrace these steps and see how this all played out?
Michael Sheen: “Yeah, absolutely. Although there are facts of what happened to them, there is so little known about what was going on under the surface. I feel like we have the best of both worlds, really, with this show where the actual facts themselves are the springboard for what we do. But we have to imagine because no one knows what happened.”
There’s a very interesting scene in the first episode of season two where Masters and Johnson are together…
Michael Sheen: “Me and Michelle and the other writers talked about it. What tends to happen is that Michelle will say, ‘Look, we’re thinking of something like this happening. What would Bill do in that situation?’ And then I’ll talk about, ‘Well, I think he would do this and this,’ and then they go away and write it, and we’ll talk that through. So by the time it comes back to acting the scene, I know exactly why it’s there. […] It’s not like the script just lands on your doorstep and then you have to try and work out what’s going on. So when we came to do that scene and Michael Apted was directing and we’d worked a lot with Michael by that point, and he just kind of let us go and do it. By this point we know these characters pretty well. So, in some ways sometimes you have to be directed to play less sometimes because we’re so aware of what’s going on underneath that we have to be careful that we don’t do too much of that.”
– By Fred Topel
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