Emmys: On the Set of 'Masters of Sex,' a Lesson in Sex Ed and Re-Creating the Late 1950s

Lizzy Caplan

Hmm, how do you make a mechanical phallus? Creating authenticity is a big component for the cast and crew of Showtime's hit drama starring Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen.

"She says she's having fewer virginal contractions in the orgasm phase." Such is typical dialogue on the set of Showtime's Masters of Sex. On this day, April 14, those words are being uttered inside Stage 9 on the Sony lot in Culver City by Lizzy Caplan, 31, who plays real-life 1950s sex researcher Virginia Johnson.

Director Michael Engler calls, "Cut!" on the scene taking place inside the office of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen, 45) -- actually a dream sequence for the fourth episode of season two, which bows July 13.

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And while Engler and his on-set colleagues -- writer Steven Levenson and executive producer Amy Lippman -- don't reveal to this reporter who is dreaming and why, they can't resist making jokes.

"Steven now knows more about vaginosis than any writer in Hollywood," says Lippman, laughing. "And everyone wants to sit next to us at parties because of everything we've learned about sex making this show."

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A visit to the ornately designed set of Masters — the 2014 Golden Globe nominee created by Emmy-nominated writer Michelle Ashford about sex researchers Masters and Johnson — is both a lesson in sex ed and in re-creating the late 1950s. The detailed set for the show, which averaged nearly 5 million viewers in season one, is teeming with extras styled as nurses, doctors and secretaries, painstakingly dressed by costume designer Ane Crabtree, who has created around 300 costumes for seasons one and two. And it was set designer Michael Wylie who oversaw the lavish (and ongoing) construction of the hospital and numerous midcentury modern home sets.

"People ask all the time, 'Is that hospital in L.A.? I'd like to shoot my show there too,' " says Wylie. "That's the ultimate compliment for me."

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No detail is too small: Nearly every period-specific prop -- from a 1957 edition of The St. Louis Sun newspaper to a potato chip bag to a child's pacifier -- must be created.

"Our strangest undertaking was making 'Ulysses,' the vibrating, lighted, clear-plastic mechanical phallus that Masters and Johnson used in their sex research at Washington University," says Ashford, with a laugh. "There were no photos, so we had to ask ourselves, 'OK, what could this thing have looked like to do the job it was doing?' "