Lizzy Caplan is funny. Like, really funny. A conversation with the actress must be repeatedly paused due to fits of hysterics. But Caplan has, quite intentionally, chosen a project that is no laughing matter for her next major professional endeavor in an attempt to reshape the perception of her career. And Caplan more than accomplishes her goal with Showtime's fascinating, formidable and ferocious Masters of Sex.
The process of making this 1950s-set series, revolving around sexual researchers Masters & Johnson, was one of the best experiences of Caplan's career, she tells me, but adds that the promotional rounds have been equally exciting since talking about this true story invites an engaging exchange about sex, gender roles and subject matter the self-proclaimed "feminist since birth" is more than happy to discuss. So we did. For nearly 30 minutes. What follows are the highlights of my intriguing and quite candid chat with Lizzy Caplan.
ETonline: Your executive producer told me that you fought really hard for this role. Why?
Lizzy Caplan: I think I usually don't know how to fight hard for roles. I've certainly sent a passionate letter or two ... which always leads nowhere. But I did fight for this. I was sort of fighting against myself as much as I was fighting whoever else I thought was after the role because the [producers] were sort of on my side from the get-go -- or at least they gave me that impression. It was all about this idea that I wanted to see myself as something different, and I wanted to convince people that I was capable of something other than what they would expect from me.
ETonline: If you wanted people to see you differently, how did you perceive yourself in the industry?
Caplan: It's a layered answer because I'm actually really proud of how I believe people perceive me in this industry. I worked really hard to be seen in a certain way. I think I get a lot of respect for what I usually do. I find that comedic world completely fulfilling and wonderful and they're all my best friends. That's where I, honestly, feel comfortable. But I did not set out to become an actress to find a place that makes me feel really comfortable. I become an actress to do things that scare the sh*t out of me and I felt like I didn't stand a chance to get this part because people have preconceived notions about me, but if they gave me the part, I would do everything in my power to not screw it up.
ETonline: In promoting a show with "sex" in the title, I'd imagine a lot of people are asking very personal questions about your sex life. Is that an odd experience?
Caplan: It is odd, but I've been pleasantly surprised to see people mostly laying off me in terms of asking personal things, like virginity. When I talk about why I love this character, and what she has done for me -- two generations later -- it's a very personal conversation that has everything to do with my own sexuality and how I view myself as a sexual person and a modern woman and so I find myself oddly prepared to answer those questions. I'm not going to shy away from them. I'm also 31 years old. It's not like I'm some kid who can be slapped across the newspaper pages like some harlot. Yes, there's a lot of sex in this show, but there's a lot of nudity in a lot of shows. If I was on Game of Thrones, I think the nudity and sex questions would probably get irritating, but this is a show about sex. Well, on the surface it is about sex. I think it's more about intimacy. But we are exploring those issues through sex and depicting it fairly explicitly on-screen and if I wasn't prepared to talk about that stuff, why do the show in the first place?
ETonline: Did you grow up in a "naked house?"
Caplan: Not even close. And I feel like, on camera, I might give the impression I was raised in some weird, hippie commune. It certainly was not that. At all. Although I did have friends who grew up in naked houses, and they're always the weirdest places to visit [laughs]. You always find out, like, a moment too late. My family was not like that. Thank God. It would be horrific.
ETonline: Are you comfortable doing sex scenes in general, or only when they're in service of such a great product?
Caplan: Yeah, that's the thing. The story we're trying to tell is a true story and we can't shy away from the authentic truth of the situation. So I expected to do a lot of nudity going in. But I was a late bloomer. I'm not one of those girls who's like, "I love my body! Hey, everybody, come look at my body!" In fact, the first time I ever got naked on TV was the biggest confidence booster of my life. You might think it would do the opposite, but [the reaction] helped. I was a weird tomboy most of my life. I didn't see the power in my own female form for quite a long time. Maybe that's a good thing.
ETonline: When you started researching who Virginia Johnson was, what did you identify with?
Caplan: She lived in a time when women were told explicitly what to do and what to hope for and what to yearn for in their lives. And chances are it involved a husband and kids and some kind of external stability, stability through a man. That was not interesting to Virginia. Obviously I live in a much different time, I barely know anyone who is married. But there is a certain expectation of girls to eventually grow up and behave and fall in line. I've always bucked against that. I've been a feminist since the day I was born. I wanted to play football. I didn't want to play with dolls; I wanted to play with boys and didn't understand why I couldn't. I mean, luckily, most times, I could. But it took me a long time to realize that being a girl is so much more powerful than being a guy, but I really saw myself as boy for a long while.
ETonline: How far do you think we've come as a society since then?
Caplan: Yes, we've come a long way, but in a lot of ways, I don't think we have. A lot of the core issues Virginia is struggling with -- having kids and a professional life -- are more important to women today as they enter the work force. There's a resentment brewing. It's 2013, why does the woman still, by and large, have to stay home with the kids? Also, if you meet a girl who has slept with 100 guys, you will think something of her you wouldn't think of a guy who slept with 100 girls. I think we're still bucking up against these things but it's odder in today's world because we're surrounded by sex all the time. If you pay attention, it's fascinating.
ETonline: Through their experiments, Masters and Johnson end up having sex with one another (and eventually marry). At the same time, Virginia is developing a friendship with his wife, Libby. Do you think Virginia feels pity for Elisabeth?
Caplan: I don't think she feels pity for her, I think they genuinely connect and have real conversations in a time when a lot of women had surface conversations. Women are very judgmental towards Virginia and Libby is not. But I also think in order to carry out the experiments she ends up carrying out with Masters, she has to compartmentalize that. So it's not like she's constantly thinking, "I'm sleeping with your husband!" What Virginia and Bill end up doing changes the world and it's sad that someone like her becomes collateral damage down the line. It's not like they're just going it to f*ck each other -- they're doing it for a greater good, and they go into it purely with that focus. Things get muddied along the way, but they accomplish exactly what they set out to accomplish.
ETonline: What do you hope the reaction to Masters of Sex is?
Caplan: The thing I hope happens, especially for the ladies, is that I didn't realize how much of what Masters & Johnson did informed the way I get to see sex. I'm a woman who has grown up in a world that is very different than the one we're portraying and the reason it's so different is directly as a result of what they did. I didn't know about Masters and Johnson before getting involved with this project, and finding out why the world is what it is for me, in that regard, is exciting.
Masters of Sex premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.