Masters of Sex: Michael Sheen and Lizzie Caplan on playing sexologists Masters and Johnson

Their names were synonymous with things folks didn’t discuss in polite company in the ’50s, but agonized over in private — until their 1966 tome Human Sexual Response made it downright fashionable to talk about sex. Now Showtime is bringing the life, and life’s work, of famed sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson to fascinating light in its new series Masters of Sex, which premieres Sunday, Sept. 29 at 10/9CT.

Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) and Lizzie Caplan (New Girl) are engrossing as Masters and Johnson in this beautifully crafted character study culled from the 2009 book by critically acclaimed biographer Thomas Maier, who drew his material from 90-plus hours of interviews with the legendarily guarded Johnson.

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Yes, there is plenty of nudity and explicit sex — most often in the name of science — but the complex relationships between a compelling group of people struggling with issues of gender, success, family, sex and love at the dawn of the sexual revolution are what make the series extraordinary.

Johnson was a free-thinking, divorced single mother who longed for a career that would suit her bold personality when she began working in the typing pool at Washington University in 1957 as a means of earning a sociology degree. Catching Masters’ eye, she began working as his secretary, quickly using her fierce intelligence and deft human touch to thaw Masters’ chilly nature and become his partner in a landmark study of human sexual response — and eventually his wife.

“Women in the ’50s were looking for men who would provide them security and stability,” Caplan explains. “William Masters was very off-putting to many women. You see these secretaries coming in and out of his life and he scares them. Virginia is not one of those women. She doesn’t have a history of choosing dependable men who provide her with any sort of security, and Masters doesn’t scare her. I don’t think she has any idea of what she’s getting into, but she gets that job by not being afraid of his behavior or the way he speaks to her. And once she’s in, she’s in.”

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“From Bill’s point of view, this is a man who has built his whole life around control,” says Sheen. “And what she does is start to chip away at that and start to make the foundations of that come under question. On one hand, he’s drawn to her because there is something essential and something that he’s drawn to that’s been missing in his life that is calling him now. But he’s built his life around not listening to that call, and that part of him wants to fight it and push it away and punish it and control it and make it into a bad thing and control it. All of those things play themselves out in their relationship and that is part of why their relationship and the study progresses so much that is that it becomes a sort of a form to put around this formless thing, this dangerous thing.”

Though, like Johnson, the other women in Masters’ life — his patient first wife Libby from whom he hid his infertility, the prostitutes who are the study’s initial test subjects (AnnaLeigh Ashford’s Betty steals every scene) and other female hospital employees — often come across as far more in tune with their sexuality than the men around them, Caplan says Masters of Sex makes plain how females bore the greatest punishment for the era’s hush-hush attitude toward sex.

“Women were fed such a laundry list of lies about their own bodies when it came to sex,” she says. “They did not have healthy views of sexuality or their bodies — it was impossible for them, because there was no information that would back it up. What Masters and Johnson did was they uncovered the scientific truth about people’s bodies — and in that truth came the ability to liberate women’s feelings about sex and orgasms.”

Both stars say they also welcomed the timelessness and universality of the show’s messages about matters of the heart and mind.
“What honestly drew me in was that I related so completely to this woman — she just happened to live in a time where being that woman would be especially difficult,” says Caplan.

“It’s so rare for me to read a script that’s actually about something — something that has actual meaning and resonance for me, for my life,” says Sheen of his rare venture into series television. “Going into work every day and working on something and then going home and feeling like there’s no difference … that’s a great privilege and a great luxury. There’s possibly more potential here than anything I’d ever come across before in my life.”

Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10/9CT on Showtime.

Images: Showtime

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Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.