Michael Sheen came to the Masters of Sex Q&A at PaleyFest and tried to class up the joint with a lot of talk about playing Hamlet, and reading Arthur Miller as a teen only to discover Miller’s plays had no bad characters — just people making bad choices. Fortunately, he was greatly outnumbered on stage at the Dolby Theatre by the women of Showtime’s 1950s-set drama series about real-life pioneers of the science of human sexuality, Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. They wanted to talk about the drudgery of maintaining a ’50s hairdo and the best way to pee in a girdle.
Sheen, known for playing David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in The Queen, said playing Masters was the “perfect combination” for an actor, because he was a famous historical figure but was little known as a man and so “private” and “secretive and mysterious” that, “by necessity you have to invent a lot as well.” And while he was not looking to do television, Sheen said he was receptive to the idea, because “you can tell a story over 12 hours [that] really opens the door, as an actor, to explore character in a different way.” Pay cablers like Showtime are “a stratum of filmmaking that’s not being done in film any more. … Writing is so strong in television at the moment … the sophistication of the audience … the bar is very high, and that pushes you to do the best work you can.”
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Annaleigh Ashford, who plays prostitute Betty in the series, said: “Undergarments can change everything about how you walk, you talk, you move. Also, it was really hard to pee back then. You had to ask someone to help you pee. I haven’t done that since I was, like, 4.” She and Lizzy Caplan, who plays Virginia Johnson, discovered in the course of the conversation that they had very different strategies for peeing while wearing a girdle — Caplan pulled it down, while Ashford pulled it up, being careful to unclip the stockings from the garters.
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“The truth is, women would run everything but we’re too busy getting ready,” joked Caitlin FitzGerald, who plays Masters’ wife Libby. “We show up at 5 AM and it’s a solid two hours getting hair and makeup. These women did it every day, and that’s crazy – crazy! And they were also cleaning their house and taking care of children and cooking three hot, well-balanced meals – sometimes out of a can – for their husbands. That’s a full-time thing.”
The clothes and dialogue helped Caplan define the period. “I realized how much I rely on saying ‘like’ and ‘um’ and having terrible posture, and mumbling. … My posture changed tremendously, and making sure to say every word” was a challenge. The role, she said, has “made me much more disciplined.”
“That shit don’t fly with me,” Sheen jumped in.
“Hamlet – bleccch,” Caplan groaned in response.
Asked what was his favorite scene of the first season, Sheen finally settled on the one between the glass dildo, named Ulysses, and a prostitute, “in which she had to lie on the bed with the dildo and “go mental – go like bonkers with it for a really long time … and she started doing it and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It was the most extraordinary performance — the most extraordinary human behavior, aside from the acting. It was, like, ‘What just happened?!”