Showtime is ready to talk about sex.
The network’s new drama, Masters of Sex tells the story of human sexuality research pioneers Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).
“I don’t think it’s a controversial thing to say that Masters and Johnson were almost single-handedly responsible for the sexual revolution,” Sheen says. “No one was talking about sex. No one had a forum to do that.”
But although their seminal research changed the country, their story is unfamiliar to most. “This story just needed to be told,” executive producer Michelle Ashford says. “No one really knew what they did. But they were instrumental in changing not only how we viewed sex but how we viewed men, women and society.”
The series begins in 1957, where William Masters is a successful OB/GYN who is secretly conducting research on human sexuality at Washington University in St. Louis. He hires former nightclub singer and single mom Virginia Johnson to be his research assistant. It is the start of a relationship that lasted more than 30 years and eventually became romantic.
“It’s a fascinating, unorthodox love story,” executive producer Sarah Timberman says. “It’s this very controlling man. The only muse that he had is his prestigious intellect and his skill as a scientist to try to nail down something that you can’t nail down ultimately. In a way that informed their romance. There’s such an interesting dance that those two did over decades.”
During the conservative 1950s, no one was talking about sex. “This study is sort of on the edge of society,” Sheen explains. “It’s not acceptable yet. It’s about to become incredibly well-known and famous and explode, but at this point it’s just bubbling under American society. That’s what I love about that period as a whole. That sense of potential. That sense of things are going to change. Things are going to get very, very different.”
Both those in front of and behind the camera envision the series going for many years and chronicling Masters and Johnson’s rise to fame. “They went from hiding, literally hiding and being kicked out of their university to being on the front page of Time magazine,” Ashford says. “So the odd thing that they had to contend with was celebrity which became a really corrosive and odd sort of element in their relationship and even in their work.”
William Masters passed away in 2001, and Virginia Johnson died this past July. Sheen, who has previously played real-life figures Tony Blair and David Frost, says he didn’t reach out to anyone in the Masters family while preparing for the role. “My own personal experience in working on pieces about real people is that I have always tried to avoid having any contact with the people that it’s about because it sort of compromises your ability to really explore the subject,” he says.
Caplan was drawn to playing an opinionated, self-assured woman during a time when women were often not heard and their feelings disregarded. “She is every step of the way, in every beat of every scene, a contradiction of sorts,” she tells critics. “She’s never just one thing at one time. She is very sexually adventurous and sort of views sexuality as what we would consider a more modern view of it, but she also is a single mother of two and has a tremendous amount of domestic responsibilities. For me, the challenge was to not ever judge her decisions but to see why she was so capable of compartmentalizing so many different things in her life.”
The series vividly depicts Masters and Johnson’s research—an aspect of the show that brought the cast together. “One of the most exciting things of doing this show is turning up every day on set and knowing that you’re doing something that you don’t have to switch off from when you leave the set,” Sheen says. “It’s about your life. It’s about everything that’s going on in your life. And I think that’s what brought us very close as a cast but also what is quite demanding of the cast that comes in as well.”
Sheen says it was important that all the guest stars feel comfortable with the explicit nature of the show. “We knew very early on that we had to be very, very clear about what is expected, whether they’re comfortable with that,” he says. “There have to be checks. Nothing can be left until the last minute, so that everyone knows exactly where they are, everyone’s comfortable, everyone feels safe. Because we want people to be able to keep coming into this show and taking those risks.”
On other projects, people might be uncomfortable during a sex scene, but then everyone moves on. On Masters of Sex, sex scenes and graphic research scenes are a regular occurrence.
“I think for me and Lizzy more than anyone else, after a while of seeing so many people so naked, doing such bizarre things in front of you, you inevitably just get used to it,” Sheen says. “You just do. I never thought I would get used to having a naked woman in front of me masturbating with a glass dildo to the point where I would almost not notice that they were there doing it anymore.”
And while there will be a certain titillation factor, all involved believe the series will offer the viewer something more. “For people watching, we want it to provoke thought, feeling and reflection on their own lives and experiences,” Timberman says. “I mean, it certainly has been the case with everyone involved in making it.”