Lizzy Caplan Faces Down Fame: How She Hit Her Stride With ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’
Lizzy Caplan isn’t interested in fame. Actually, she’s a little turned off by it.
“I don’t know how people do that and don’t go completely insane,” she says. “The pressure is wild — pressure to look a certain way, or that every single thing you’re saying is being dissected. I just want to pretend to be other people for a living.”
That’s not to say that the actress, whose career began in 1999 with a role on “Freaks and Geeks,” hasn’t enjoyed critical and commercial success — she earned an Emmy nomination for “Masters of Sex” in 2014, and still gets recognized daily as Janis Ian, her grungy outsider from 2004’s “Mean Girls.”
When we meet over oat milk lattes and Earl Grey tea in West Hollywood, Caplan is effortlessly cool in a slouchy sweatshirt, boyfriend jeans and her hair in a neat bun, the outfit elevated by several pieces of dainty gold jewelry.
Despite her aversion to notoriety, she’s found herself in somewhat of a career renaissance, with two major TV projects in the past year. In FX’s “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” she plays Libby, an ex-Manhattanite struggling to come to terms with her new identity as a suburban stay-at-home mom, and in Paramount+’s “Fatal Attraction,” she takes on the iconic role of femme fatale Alex Forrest, originated by Glenn Close in the 1987 film of the same name.
The characters couldn’t be more different, but that’s nothing new for Caplan, who has avoided being typecast. When I say, “Looking at your range of roles, I’m struck by …” Caplan cuts me off, saying, “… how many movies you’ve never heard of?” We share a laugh, and she’s not wrong.
“It seems rare to know, for me, what a whole year is going to look like,” she says. “I keep it moving, jumping from lily pad to lily pad.” She adds, “I feel extremely lucky that I get to bounce around so much and do the things that I personally find meaningful or scary or a challenge.”
With Alex Forrest, Caplan ticked all three of those boxes, but she required a bit of convincing at first. “I had my own fears about it, outside of the pressure of stepping into Glenn Close’s shoes,” she says. While Close earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, she’s since been vocal about the film’s lack of tact in its portrayal of mental illness. So righting that wrong was of paramount importance to Caplan and showrunner Alexandra Cunningham.
“Every conversation I had with Alex, I just got more invested,” Caplan says. “Knowing about Glenn Close’s concerns, that was the wind behind our sails. We’re telling a different ver- sion of the story, maybe more in line with the work that she did.”
Caplan extensively researched the role with a psychiatrist to understand where Alex was coming from but didn’t get too hung up on diagnosing the character. “I don’t feel like we were trying to show a very specific mental illness,” she says. “It’s ‘Fatal Attraction,’ not ‘Frances’ — hopefully it’s entertaining.”
Of course, the series is far more than a portrait of Alex’s struggles with her mental health: It’s an erotic thriller. Caplan shared the steamy scenes with Joshua Jackson, who took on Michael Douglas’ role as Dan Gallagher. “We did our first table read over Zoom, and somebody told us how much chemistry we had — over Zoom,” Caplan says, rolling her eyes. “I was like, ‘That’s not possible. I call your bluff.’”
Despite their video-call chemistry, the actors had help with the intimate moments — this was Caplan’s first time working with an intimacy coordinator, which made things “very different” on set. “On ‘Masters of Sex,’ I always felt comfortable speaking my mind about things I was comfortable or uncomfortable about, and I never felt pressured into doing anything,” she recalls. However, Caplan says, there were many day players who’d come on set to do “wild, naked” sex scenes, who could have used an advocate like an intimacy coordinator.
“I like to think that we created a really safe environment to feel like they could raise their hand if something made them feel odd. That’s definitely how I remember it,” she says. “But there was nobody to throw a look to in the corner, who’d step in. When that great train of production is moving, it’s really easy to feel like you can’t slow it down. So the intimacy coordinator is for the people who have no power and no voice. And for that reason, I will never complain about it. I completely see the validity of that role. It’s shocking that it didn’t exist before.”
“Fleishman Is in Trouble” reunited Caplan with Jesse Eisenberg, with whom she starred in 2016’s “Now You See Me 2.” They hit it off fast. “Making ‘Now You See Me’ really was one of the most fun experiences ever,” Caplan says. “Jesse was on my second date with my now-husband. Jesse’s basically my brother … because you go on a second date with your future husband with your brother, of course,” she adds with a cheeky smile.
“Yes,” Eisenberg says over email later, “I went on the date eager to pass judgment and veto Tom.” (Caplan is married to British actor Tom Riley, with whom she has a 1-year-old son.) “But Tom was so cool and funny, I think we both fell in love that night — her slightly more than me.”
When Eisenberg heard he and Caplan would be working together again on “Fleishman” — they’d be playing college best friends so honest with each other that the relationship becomes almost unbearable — he instantly understood the tone of the show, which had been murky up to that point. “When I heard Lizzy’s name, the show suddenly gelled in my mind: the wryness, the emotion, the insight. It all felt right.” He adds, “I’ve never had a relationship, either in my life or as an actor, where I am annoyed by a friendship with a woman. In the show, I become increasingly cruel to Lizzy as she becomes increasingly invasive in my life. But it was great to play these feelings toward Lizzy, because she’s so sharp and has such a strong presence that it felt like a fair fight.”
Caplan’s hot streak doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. Just after our meeting, she’s headed to New York to begin work on “Zero Day,” Netflix’s conspiracy thriller starring Robert De Niro in his first regular television role.
I bring up the news that De Niro has just welcomed his seventh child at age 79, and Caplan doesn’t miss a beat: “It’s me!” she says, joking, because she plays his daughter in the series.
She’ll get to meet him for the first time tomorrow, and excitement flashes across her face as she shares how she hopes that meeting goes. “I’m gonna let him lead. I’m in awe of him. It’s always interesting to meet somebody who looms so large in your brain and your childhood and your understanding of culture. Yet he’ll be a human person — I assume.”
While plot details are still under wraps, Caplan will play a congresswoman seeking to escape her father’s political shadow. She’ll be joined by Connie Britton, Jesse Plemons and Joan Allen in principal roles. “All the scripts are written,” Caplan says. “The cast is stacked. Everybody has great moments in it. It’s an exciting political thriller, but also definitely a showcase for all of these actors. I’m pinching myself that I get to do this. It’s wild.”
Caplan has put in more than 20 years of work to reach this moment, but she discusses her success with humility. “I think when you’re starting out, it’s easy to look at a career that spanned many years and say, ‘Oh, that was by design.’ But it wasn’t. For me, it was a combination of exercising choices that I probably shouldn’t have made, combined with dumb luck.”
She finishes her tea and smiles. “This feels like the culmination of this bonkers couple years,” she says. “I can only hope for more bonkers years. Keep it moving!”