MASTERS OF SEX, now in its second season, Sunday nights on Showtime, dramatizes the story of real-life sexual pioneers William Masters, played by Michael Sheen, and Virginia Johnson, played by Lizzy Caplan. In addition to embarking on their studies in the 1950s, when the subject was almost forbidden, Masters and Johnson had quite complicated personal lives. At the time we meet them, Masters is married to the devoted Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who resorts to somewhat drastic means to have a baby with her husband; Johnson is a twice-divorced mother of two. At Masters’ suggestion, he and Johnson embark on sexual relations as part of their study, with neither willing to label what they’re doing as an affair, even when, in Season 2, they begin meeting in a hotel.
Showtime is sponsoring an evening visit to the set of the Masters home for the Television Critics Association. Actor/producer Sheen is seated, as his character sometimes is, on the living room sofa, where he talks about MASTERS Season 2.
AX: Embarking on Season 2, how did you feel coming back to the role? Had you previously had a role where you took however many months off and then returned to it?
MICHAEL SHEEN: No, no, this is the first time I’ve done that. It was exciting – well, it was a mixture of feelings. It was exciting, knowing that the first season had been received well and obviously hoping that the second season [would] exist. I was involved in it before we’d actually come to the filming. I’d gone in and seen where the writers are at, talked about storylines and possible areas that we could go into. So that was exciting, knowing where we were maybe going to explore, and it was great to be able to work with all the same people again, which was terrific, but so much is different this season to last season in terms of the story. It was quite sad to see the hospital set disappear, but exciting to go into different areas and to be active in different places with new people. It was really exciting.
AX: Does Masters feel like the same character as in Season 1, or is he changing so much that you feel like this is a slightly different role?
SHEEN: Oh, no, absolutely not. It’s absolutely the same character, but he is changing, like we all do. But it’s definitely the same character. That’s part of what is so exciting about it. You’re not just playing random things. I think on a lot of shows that I watch, you see that the characters change in order to service the story, whereas I think this is the other way around. The story evolves in order to service what the characters are doing, what’s happening with the characters, so that’s what’s exciting about it, going, “Well, given what happens in the first season, who is he now, how is this going to be different, how is this going to change him, how will he react to these new situations now, and how is he becoming a different version of himself as time moves on?” And that’s what I love about this medium, is that it allows you to do that.
AX: Do you have a favorite scene or a favorite episode from the first season?
SHEEN: Not really. I can’t say that I do have a favorite episode. I can’t even remember what’s in each episode, to be honest. I think of it in terms of the development of the story for the character. I thought the sweep of story from the beginning through to the sort of midpoint where Libby lost the baby, and that was a very satisfying storyline to play, because it put the character in a situation that brought out his contradictions, I suppose, and that’s always fun to play and interesting to play – what are the opposing forces that are at work within the character and how can you reveal and expose the vulnerabilities of the character? What is he most frightened of and how can you make sure that he has to face what he’s most frightened of? So that arc allowed for that, so I thought that was very satisfying to do.
AX: There’s a scene in I the first episode of Season 2 where Masters and Johnson are in the hotel lobby, and she’s talking about “This isn’t an affair” in terms of, “It’s our work, which is much more special than an affair,” and Masters seems to take offense and says something that indicates that he sees what they’re doing as less than an affair. Are there any emotional screen directions in the script, does the director interact with you at all, or do they just figure that they two of you got the subtext from just reading what’s on the page?
SHEEN: We don’t have to get the subtext, because we create the scene together. Me and [MASTERS creator/exec producer/show runner] Michelle [Ashford] and the other writers talked about it. What tends to happen is, Michelle will say, “Look, we’re thinking of something like this happening. What would Bill do in that situation?” And then I’ll talk about, “Well, I think he would react like this, and do this and that.” And then they go away and they’ll write a version, and we’ll talk that through. So by the time it comes to actually acting the scene, I know exactly why it’s there, why the character is doing that, and the same for Lizzy, I think. So it’s not like the script just lands on your doorstep and you have to work out what’s going on. So when we came to do that scene, Michael Apted was directing and we worked a lot with Michael by that point [that the scene was shot], so he just let us go and do it. By this point, we know these characters pretty well. In some ways, sometimes we have to be directed to play less subtext, because we’re so aware of what’s going on underneath that we have to be careful that we don’t do too much of that, that we need to bring it out on the surface a little bit more [laughs].
AX: Do you know what you’re doing during your break when Season 2 is finished with production?
SHEEN: All kinds of different things. There are always different things for me to do.
AX: Do you have a good feeling that MASTERS OF SEX will come back for Season 3?
SHEEN: I’d be very surprised if it didn’t.
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