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Masters of Sex continues to weather criticism in its third installment.
The Showtime drama first ruffled feathers when it became more of a family affair in its season opener, showcasing rebellious teenagers and revealing a new, unexpected pregnancy for Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia, as well as a third child for Bill (Michael Sheen). In a July interview with The Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Michelle Ashford attributed the perplexing creative decision — particularly given the fact that the real-life Masters and Johnson each only had two kids — to an “astronomical legal hurdle” behind the scenes.
Then came last week’s episode seven, “Monkey Business,” in which Virginia bared her breasts to a gorilla to coax him into overcoming his sexual dysfunction, similar to the way she helped Bill cure his impotence in season two. Critics leapt to tear apart the scene, with The New York Times’ Judith Warner writing, “‘Flashing the Ape,’ I predict, will soon become the go-to term for creatively racing to the bottom.”
As Masters sets out to regain its loyal fanbase with the final five episodes of the season, THR caught up with Caplan talk about her take on the drama’s recent events, how she’s adjusting to the major changes for Virginia and her onscreen romance with Josh Charles’ Dan Logan.
Were you surprised when you found out Virginia was going to have another baby?
Well, the kid situation is a bit of a story. It was… interesting, and a complicated obstacle to be thrown at us very early on. But it’s Michelle’s story to tell so I’ll let her tell it or not tell it. I knew going in with a fair amount of time that this was something we were going to have to process. We’re very lucky that our writers and Michelle, being the leader of said writers, are so smart, because a lesser group of writers would have buckled under this weird set of circumstances that we were presented with. The first episode was partly to get that out of the way.
So you were well aware of the legal issues?
Yes, it was an all-hands-on-deck situation. One of the best things about my job — I was just talking to Josh Charles about this — is that it’s very collaborative. We all have a lot of say in what happens to our characters and our opinions are always heard.
Did you know you were going to jump ahead in time, too?
Yes, because our show is the juicy parts of Masters and Johnson’s real story, which spans 30 years. I know that at times our audience can feel a little uncomfortable with the time jumps, but unfortunately they are a necessary evil if we want to be able to tell the whole story.
At this point in the season, do you feel like you’re back to the original story the writers set out to tell?
Yeah, I think Michelle has said we’re pretty much on track now. In season two, we were left to our own devices quite a bit because it’s a dark period in Masters and Johnson’s experience in the book that we base our show on. So in the third season, we’re getting back into more historically accurate plot points. We have the privilege to now build upon the relationship that we really colored in during season two. I’ve never done a show for this long and I’ve never done a show based on real people, but it seems like we borrow heavily from the truth and from the show that we’ve created. I think episode one was a lot to process, but I’m actually watching the show this year, unlike last year, and I think we’ve really hit our stride and that we did it pretty quickly considering.
Is this where you saw Virginia ending up in season three?
The additional kid changed how I viewed Virginia quite a bit because I knew this woman as a twice-divorced mother of two. Then what came with the additional kid was the re-marriage to my ex-husband, so there was a lot of stuff to wrap my head around. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily where I saw the character going, but I do trust our writers and I like where the character is going quite a bit. We’re almost done with the third season and I have been playing a very overextended, overwhelmed woman for a long time and it’s starting to rub off on me. I think I’m ready for a break [laughs.]
How much did you study up on the real Virginia Johnson beforehand?
The source material is very, very limited when it comes to their private life, and that was by design. The two of them, because of the complicated relationship they were in with each other behind closed doors, they thought that it would sully their findings, that the public would not be able to process it knowing the truth of it, and they were probably correct. So they both kept their mouths shut until this book by Thomas Maier, who was just on set for his annual visit. The book is only interviews with an 88-year-old Virginia at the end of her life after many, many rough years. So not only do you have to keep in mind that it’s a one-sided telling of the story, but it’s a one-sided telling from a woman who is decidedly and understandably upset about a lot of stuff. I need to re-read the book for sure, but it’s sort of our bible.
The first season the book helped me an unbelievable amount and I felt like the Virginia I was portraying was very much the Virginia in the book. Again, the second season, because we took these characters in directions that weren’t written about with her opinion, we departed from what was actually on the pages and it seemed less necessary to constantly check back in. But this season has been mostly true to the book. Now when I approach her, it’s as combination of my version of her and who the real woman was.
How do you feel about the current state of Bill and Virginia’s relationship?
It all makes sense to me how they are interacting. I don’t think I could have imagined from the first day what would up happening with these two people, but I buy it completely. I do think one thing that will slowly become apparent to our viewers if we end up running for six seasons — which is one of the more fascinating parts of the book — is that Virginia enters the scene as this charismatic ray of sunlight, a people person, whereas Masters couldn’t be more closed off and buttoned-up. But by the end of their relationship, they almost switch personalities. Virginia hardens so much and becomes so paranoid that she doesn’t have a proper education and people are going to find out, and Masters just gets older and softens in his old age.
Do you feel like you’re the protagonist of the show?
I think that was the case definitely in the first and second seasons, but in the second we really dug into why he is the way he is. He has a very tragic childhood story. There are very good reasons why he is such a mess of a guy and why he has such a hard time opening up to people and showing any vulnerability. Virginia, while she’s more appealing on paper and certainly was in the first seasons, Virginia behaves questionably as well. She has a lot of things going on in her life that would be easy to judge, but she’s much more likable personality-wise than Bill so she probably gets away with more. But in the third season, you’ll see. Virginia, I’d argue, can be just as difficult and stubborn as Bill.
What’s it been like to have Josh Charles on the show?
Josh seamlessly just fits in with all of us just hanging out and he brings a completely different energy to it, which is really great for the show. Viewers seem to be really digging him. For Virginia, before we knew it was Josh, I knew that this this perfume guy character was a very important thing for us to show because, honestly, when you watch the show, you see Virginia in this very complicated, “Is it or is it not love?” relationship with Masters, and then every other guy that comes into her life is way more into her than she is into him. You don’t see her having a proper love story. With Josh, if we do our jobs, hopefully you’ll see some old-school romance.
Masters of Sex airs at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.
[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to episode seven, “Monkey Business.”]
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