'Masters of Sex' Star Michael Sheen on 'Monkey Business' Scene: "I Never Liked It"

"I don't think it worked," the actor told THR of the suprising scene that saw Lizzy Caplan's character expose herself to an ape.
Warren Feldman/Showtime
Michael Sheen in 'Masters of Sex'

Michael Sheen is finally speaking up about Masters of Sex's now infamous episode, "Monkey Business."

The surprising installment, which aired four weeks ago, featured arguably the series' strangest — and consequently most-talked about — scene, in which Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) flashes a gorilla to help him overcome his sexual dysfunction.

The exchange had not only critics and viewers perplexed but evidently the show's stars as well, at least according to Sheen. "I hope I’m not being overly disloyal," he told The Hollywood Reporter, "but I never liked it and I don't think it worked."

As the Welsh actor was readying to shoot his next project — Passagers, Sony Pictures' high-priced sci-fi love story starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt — THR caught up with him to discuss the ape storyline, Bill's journey from prickly outsider to sympathetic adult and the harsh criticism of his character ("That was really hurtful to me.")

What'd you think of that scene in episode seven where your character encourages Virginia to show an ape named Gil her boobs?

I hope I’m not being overly disloyal, but I never liked it and I don’t think it worked. It was a very risky choice to make. I think it’s really important to take risks, but not all risks pay off. It’s just that kind of thing has to be very, very carefully monitored. I haven’t watched it yet myself so I can’t really talk about it in that sense, but I know that a lot of people were very surprised by it — and not necessarily in a pleasant way.

After you read the script, did you have conversations with the writers about the scene before you shot it?

One of the aspects of the production that I love the most is how collaborative it is, but as seasons move on — since all the scripts aren’t written before we start and it’s an ongoing process — the amount of time you have to really look at the script and change them if they need changing becomes very precious. And it's more a matter of logistics to where you’re just trying to get it done. When there is a risk, you just have to hope that it works out. I’m glad we took it. I would never try to stop anyone from taking risks on something. I do think that it does really require everyone being really on it. You can’t take your eye off the ball, and that can be difficult with just the practicality of shooting a TV show.

Did Caplan feel the same way as you?

We were all very concerned about it, but other people were very confident that it was going to work and that it would be great. At a certain point, you just have to trust, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to work out.

Do you plan on watching the episode at some point?

Yes, I will. I just never watch the show while we’re still working on it. You create the world of what you’re doing in your head — it’s like trying to keep a ball in the air. Sometimes if you watch what you’re doing while you’re doing it, it can become a very complicated relationship. Your first reaction isn’t always the healthiest, and then that can really effect the work.

Is this what you saw Bill and Virginia’s relationship looking like near the end of season three?

There are certain markers that we knew we were going to hit because they’re the facts of their life. One of those is that around the midpoint of the story, which is where we are now, Virginia meets another man who became a very, very serious [suitor] and a possible alternative life for Virginia. That is obviously Josh’s character, Dan. So we always knew we were heading to that massive fork in the road for Virginia and Bill. It’s very interesting for Bill because as he becomes more connected to what he’s feeling, it makes him more prone to getting hurt. And just at that precise point, a very big threat to the relationship comes along.

And now you almost can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.

I hope that the effectiveness of that is in precise relation to how much people didn’t like him to begin with. That was the challenge I gave myself in a way, as an actor. We started from a place where everyone liked Virginia and nobody liked Bill — everyone called him an asshole — and slowly, he goes on this journey of change. I felt that the way the medium of TV works, you can really explore in detail over a long period of time a process of someone who goes through real change. When he gets to the point of where we’re at now, people do really feel for him. And yet, maybe that will surprise people. That was I wanted to try to do.

I would imagine it would still be hard to hear that criticism of your character, right?

Yeah, but I wanted this man to go on a real journey, one that is tough and really puts him through the ringer. And if the audience is prepared to go on that journey with him, then it puts them through the ringer as well. I didn’t want to do the TV-film shortcut way of "some big thing happens to someone and then they become a different person overnight." That just doesn’t happen in life. Because of that, everything that I did in the earlier seasons, even though I was aware [of the criticism], I was trying to push to make the harder choices, the choices that would make the audience feel potentially alienated from the character. I had to make sure that every single thing he did was rooted in something very real and believable, so of course what I draw on is myself. I put a lot of myself into this character. [You draw on] everything that you’ve either done or that you have the potential to do because that makes it real. So when people would just write Bill off or say he’s an asshole, that was really hurtful to me. I understand it, but it’s hard to hear that because it was me — I wasn’t playing some monster and I wasn’t playing a character in that sense. It was all me in there.

Do you still feel like your character is misperceived in any way?

Slowly now as people refer to him as being "more likeable" or "softening up" or whatever it is, [it’s important to acknowledge] that it’s still coming from the same person. He’s the same person he was in the beginning of the show. I made the choice that I was going to make central to this character the abuse he suffered as a kid. You owe a debt of responsibility to people who have gone through that so it has to be absolutely believable, which means it’s problematic and difficult. There are huge, challenging aspects to people who have gone through that kind of upbringing and I didn’t want to shortchange that. I thought it was very important as well to deal with the cyclical behavior involved in that. There is a great fear in people that they will perpetuate that kind of cycle, but it is not inevitable that they do that and it is possible to break out of it. That’s also been the guiding principle for me with this character.

Bill's growth has been very apparent this season, but do you feel as though the process has actually been more gradual?

In the beginning of the story, even though he’s very much in control of his domain and a professional success, he’s essentially in prison. He’s a man who is imprisoned by his own personality and his own upbringing, but he starts to become freer as they story going on. As you watch the show play out toward the end of this season, there’s an ironic twist that will become clear. But it’s been going in the same direction from the very beginning of the story. The point of it, for me, was to be able to take a character on a journey that went from one extreme — constantly moving in direction of being more open, less defensive and more vulnerable. It just takes a while. It’s a cumulative process, so this season has been an opportunity for a lot of the things that I have been working toward from the beginning. It’s just now becoming more apparent, I guess. The process was one that had to take place in a quite subterranean way for a while. In order for this season to work, it required a lot of things to be happening underneath, and I had to lay that foundation all the way through.

Out of all of his deeper fears, what do you think has been plaguing Bill the most throughout his life?

The thing that has oppressed him for most of his life and the thing that he had been most frightened of in parenting has been the fear that he has the same sickness that his father had, that poison that led to him being physically abused. He’s been terrified that that is something that he carries with him, and that he will do the same thing with his own child, which is why he was so resistant to having children in the first place that he would go as far as lie to his wife about why they’re not able to have children. That has shaped a lot of his personality — that’s why he’s so defensive and why he’s so scared of being vulnerable — because he feels like essentially he is a monster and he needs to hide that from the world. Then once his child is born, he wants to protect his son from himself as well. But it’s sort of a classical Greek tragedy in a way — in order to try to escape his fate, he runs into it. So by trying to protect his son from the harm that he fears he might do to him, that very way of protecting him ends up harming his son in a different sense.

And now you feel like now he’s overcome that fear?

Well, the season began with a big turning point for Bill around that where the thing that he’s scared of doing, beating his son up, almost happens in that first episode down at the dock where his manuscript gets thrown in the water — but he doesn’t do it, and that changes a lot of things for him. The thing that has been hanging over his head, like Damocles sword, is suddenly not there, and there is a level of freedom that he finds because of that. Throughout the season, you start to see how that affects him. This other Bill, who has been in hibernation for so long, starts to emerge. And it comes out in odd, surprising ways — he appears more eccentric. I think he’s surprising himself as much as he is other people.

What can you tease about the upcoming finale?

We’re getting to a big crossroads in terms of what the future of Bill and Virginia’s work and their personal relationship is going to be, so it is building toward a very dramatic finale this season. It’s been a process for Bill of starting off as a man who wouldn’t really let life touch him, and life not only touches him, it kind of beats the shit out of him. That’s a big part of how he changes. As you start to open up a little bit and let your defenses down, the risk is that you can be hurt more. That’s the point of being vulnerable. As this season is moving on, the more vulnerable he gets, the more anxious and scared he becomes of what he has to lose, and that’s a process that is going to escalate all the way to the end.

Caplan has told THR that there's essentially a reversal of roles that takes place between your character and hers by the end of the story. Do you feel the same way?

Yeah, we saw from the beginning that Virginia is very at ease with people and she seems to be likeable, and Bill is someone who is the opposite of that. I’ve always found it fascinating that the people who knew Bill and Virginia toward the end of their lives described them in a way that appeared to be the total opposite of that. So that will be an ongoing thing. It’s [telling] about the affects of the journey they go on, their own personalities and the dynamic of how they dealt with people.

What are you most looking forward to in season four? 

I mean, you can go on the internet and find out the facts of what they did, but that is not the whole story. It’s not about just knowing certain things that happen to them. The enjoyment I’ve found with this is working with those facts and exploring how they can really wrong-foot you. Knowing that they got married or whatever it is, you then assume certain things about that and what’s lovely is that we’ll be able to play with those assumptions, so that will be something that continues as the show goes forward. And in terms of their work, I find it interesting as we move through the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, seeing how the culture around them is changed by the relationship to sex and sexuality and how they have an effect on changing it.

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