Sex was on the brain during Monday night’s Paleyfest panel at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, where Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” stars Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Teddy Sears and Annaleigh Ashford riffed on such titillating topics as the meaning of love, on-camera copulation, and the 2009 Thomas Maier biography upon which the show is based.
Buzzfeed’s senior entertainment editor Jarett Wieselman moderated the spirited discussion.
“We were looking for ferocious intelligence and people who had an unconventional bent to their work and to the roles that they had chosen,” explained series exec producer Michelle Ashford of casting Sheen as famed 1950’s OB/GYN William H. Masters and Caplan as Virginia Johnson, a lounge singer-turned-secretary-turned-pioneering sexologist.
“I was leaning toward more comedic roles because I thought that was all I was going to get, but that’s not what I sought out to do as an actress,” Caplan said of her decision to pursue the role. “I wanted to do everything as an actress. Going after this job was about proving to myself that I could do more than one thing.”
Even so, Caplan was skeptical that she’d actually land the part.
“I walked away from that three-hour audition and I thought that was the best audition I ever had and I did not get that at all,” she admitted.
“They must have really wanted Lizzy to do it because I tried everything to get rid of her,” Sheen joked, whose lyrical Welsh lilt is a far cry from Masters’ sturdy Midwestern accent.
Sheen called the series “a perfect combination of an existing structure: real life and real facts which act as a springboard to work from.”
“Even though we know certain things [about Masters and Johnson],” he said, “they were such private, secretive and mysterious people you have to invent as well.”
While FitzGerald worried that Libby, Masters’ long-suffering bride, would be just another “conventional ’50s housewife,” Ashford and exec producer Sarah Timberman assured her that that would not be the case.
“[Libby’s] motives for having a baby are so much more about need and safety and security and that feels very much contemporary for me,” said FitzGerald.
Sheen praised Ashford and Timberman for their deft and fearless handing of “complicated” subject matter.
“We have this word ‘love,’ and it means whatever it means for everybody and we all put a pretty little bow on it, but nobody knows what that is,” he said. “One of the things I find fascinating about the show is that it’s a show about sex but you can’t separate the sex and the sexuality from the emotions and the psychology that go along with it — all those things go together. Time makes you intimate, that’s just what happens. Those are the ties that bind us.”
Caplan is pleasantly surprised that the show, now shooting its second season, has engendered such a rousing response.
“I really did not anticipate the reaction to be so in line with what we were going for,” she said. “That’s never happened to me before in my career. When we first aired, we were seen as a show that didn’t degrade women in the least. It was a feminist story that we were trying to tell. It was so refreshing and really proves how smart the audience is and that it deserves more.”
While nobody would disclose what exactly happens this next season — save that “Breaking Bad” actress Betsy Brandt makes an appearance — Caplan did explain how she manages to stay so nonchalant about all the naked sex scenes required of her character.
“Some people flip burgers for a living,” she shrugged. “Some people get naked and grind Michael Sheen.”