'Masters of Sex' Stars Interview Their Boss About the Show's Challenges and Sex Education on TV

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan query Michelle Ashford for THR's Power Showrunners Issue

This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Michael Sheen: Michelle, on a scale of one to 10, with one being Ebola-comfortable and 10 being Lizzy Caplan-comfortable, how do you feel about being interviewed?

Michelle Ashford: Can I go into negative numbers? 

Sheen : OK, I'm gonna read the first question on this card. 

Lizzy Caplan:  Wait, before that, between the two of us, who would you rather have sex with? I understand you're a heterosexual woman, that aside … (Laughter.)

Sheen: OK, first question! What has most surprised you in telling the story of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson?

Ashford: That they were both very funny in their own way. I didn't expect that. Watching them come to life … they both have a stealth sense of humor, both of them. You see little flickers of it. The other surprising thing is that their work is still so relevant.

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Caplan: What's the toughest part in adapting this real-life story for television?

Ashford: We have a story that goes on for 30 years, maybe even longer, so it's difficult to do that on TV.

Sheen: You mean in terms of figuring how long to spend on certain periods of time?

Ashford: Yes. I can't really think of another show that has to do this! 

Caplan: Quantum Leap?


Sheen: It's also a true story, so people can go online and look up everything that happened.

Ashford: Yes. Then it's about how and why it happened. You can't rely on plot. It comes from an emotional reality: Why do people behave the way they do? This show's a complicated little creature.

Sheen: Are you more drawn to character-driven stories?

Ashford: Yes. Most of what I've written has been character-driven. I wrote [on the HBO miniseries] The Pacific, but I got the "girlie" episodes, like when they were on leave in Melbourne.

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Sheen: What are the biggest challenges to being a showrunner versus just being a writer?

Ashford: That's a very good question.

Sheen: Thank you.

Ashford: Showrunning is an intricate exploration of writing and also a massive managerial job. You have 300 people wondering what the hell is going on every day. You have to shift back and forth between trying to create art and trying to manage a small, little corporation. 

Caplan:  That sounds terrible. 

Sheen: What does the show teach us about sex?


Ashford: Early on, one of our writers' wife thought she urinated out of her clitoris. This was in 2013. People are still confused about sex. What's very fascinating is how mysterious it still is and yet how essential as well. Everything that Masters and Johnson's study stirred up has yet to be really resolved because it's sort of unresolvable.

Caplan: I urinate out of my eyes.

Sheen: I've seen you do it.