For Showtime, landing Michael Sheen as the lead in "Masters of Sex," the drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson and their groundbreaking midcentury research into human sexuality, meant agreeing to film the series in Los Angeles, where Sheen could be close to his teenage daughter — and thereby giving up the sizable tax break dangled by the state of New York. So it must have come as some relief that, along with its critical accolades, the first-season show has been recognized with two Golden Globe nominations: one for best drama and one for Sheen's performance. The Envelope talked with the actor, who previously has played such real-life figures as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and interviewer David Frost, a few days after the announcement.
This seems to be a show about a pioneering study of intimacy, led by a man who is himself incapable of it.
[Laughs.] Well, there's no point in portraying people who are already good at it. Bill Masters is almost repelled by intimacy, or at least hugely conflicted about it, and yet something inside him wants to let go of control and move toward something more vulnerable, connected and authentic. That battle within him gets projected out, which is going to be a bumpy ride for everyone, including him.
I'm told that as a producer on the show, you've had quite a bit of input when it comes to developing the character.
No way would I do it unless it was, at the very least, a collaboration. At this point in my life, I'm only interested in projects I have a huge personal investment and stake in. I've pushed the whole journey for Bill into darker, more complex places. I want to push what an audience can handle and still be compelled by this man and his journey. And he's at the heart of the story, so that transforms all the relationships.
What can you tell us about your creative relationship with Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson. Is it similar to the one they have on-screen, or the opposite?
It could go either way — this kind of work could push you apart — but actually it has very much drawn us together. We are very supportive and open with each other. At the same time, there are aspects we don't talk about because it needs to be uncharted territory [for the characters], in a way. Some things need to be mysterious and unknowable, even about what's going on between us.
Some of the most intense and revealing scenes about what's eating at Bill have been the ones with Ann Dowd, who plays his mother. Do you get the most satisfaction from doing those?
Those were very difficult scenes to be involved in — there's so much conflict in them, so much pain. We see a woman desperately trying to connect with her son and put the past behind her, and a man who has to keep hurting her because he can't put the past behind him. It's painful to watch, and that I derive satisfaction from, because it's as it should be. But in the moment of doing it, I don't feel any satisfaction at all. It's work, it's what I do, and there's no place for satisfaction in that. Rather, you keep trying to do the best you can and never accept anything less from yourself.
But any actor wants his character to be understood. It must be a relief to shine some light on what's made Bill so emotionally unavailable.
Which goes to your first question. What I'm most drawn to in playing characters is how the things that allow us to survive as children end up being the things that threaten to kill us later on. Whatever situation you might be in when you're younger, it's as if an unspoken deal gets made: Here's a way out, and you go through that door, but when you grow up, you have to pay the price. And we see that most profoundly in the scenes with his mother.
This show brings up so much, and we're not even talking about the study of sex.
When those of us who work on the show talk about it, we very rarely talk about sex. It's an area that is very mysterious to Bill Masters — he wants to turn it into science, to define it with figures and measurements, but, of course, you can't. It's bound up with everything that is complicated and difficult about us as human beings. It can't be a coincidence that he's drawn to study this area that goes to the very heart of the biggest problem he has in his life.