EMMYS Q&A: 'Masters of Sex' Creator Michelle Ashford On Getting Intimate With Masters & Johnson

Christy Grosz is an Awardsline Contributor

Awardsline logo_use this oneThe story of two 1950s researchers breaking ground in the field of human sexuality sounds like a natural for late-night cable TV, but Masters of Sex is much more than its title might suggest. The Showtime series—based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 book of the same name—follows the professional and personal entanglements of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose more than 30-year partnership resulted in bestselling books and a research institute that bears their names. Despite their success, series creator Michelle Ashford says their personal connection is what makes them perfect for a drama. “It is without a doubt one of the most complicated relationships I’ve ever come across,” she says.

Michelle AshfordAwardsline: When did you learn about Masters and Johnson enough to know they would make a good TV show?
Michelle AshfordI had been friends with (producer) Sarah Timberman for many years, and we were looking around for a pilot. She saw in The New York Times a review of Thomas Maier’s book and said, “I think we should look at this book. This sounds really interesting.”  Up to that point, I knew (Masters and Johnson) existed, I knew they were famous, I knew (they) had something to do with sex. Then I read the book. It was news as to what was really going on in that relationship and the enormous impact they had. So we optioned the book. A ton of our material is based on (it).  But the reason this happened was because (Timberman) has known (Showtime president) David Nevins for many years. She saw him in an airport, and she had the book in her purse and just handed it to him and said, “Michelle and I are thinking of doing this. What do you think?” We had talked to HBO, we also talked to FX, but David immediately read it, immediately got it, (and) said, “I see this completely.”

mastersofsex1Awardsline: How much of the personal interactions did you have to create to tell the right story?
Ashford: Well, Tom’s book is very thorough, and it’s filled with a lot of fact. And he did spend many hours with Virginia Johnson and tried to glean her feelings about things. That being said, Masters was dead, and there are a lot of gaps (about) the emotional substance of what was going on, which is good for us because it leaves us some room to say what was really happening. We can explore all the different variations of their love affair and their professional relationship.

Awardsline: Why create composite characters, like the closeted provost (Beau Bridges) and his long-suffering wife (Allison Janney)?
Ashford: When you’re basing something on a book, the book has already been legally vetted, so you really can take the information that’s (there) and you can use it. But you have to be careful when you’re extrapolating about characters that are peripheral. They may be mentioned in the book, (but) that doesn’t mean you can necessarily take that character and create a whole life around them. We knew in reality there was someone in Masters’ orbit that was the mentor figure who seemed to be a closeted gay man. That was really interesting, especially because Masters later on in his career actually tackled the notion of homosexuality. In modern days it sounds sort of barbaric, but he was not coming at it in a judgmental way. He tried to help people. I think a lot of that came from that experience of knowing someone who was suffering in this way.

Awardsline: Virginia Johnson is a single mother working in a verboten field. Is it tough to keep her complex and flawed without turning her . . .
Ashford:. . . Into a super girl?

Awardsline: Well, yes.
Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex
Ashford: We talked about that because I think there were elements of her that were the real woman, that were remarkable. She was really smart and didn’t graduate from college and yet managed to pull all this together. So we wanted to introduce her as an extraordinary woman. But we also knew that she’s a deeply complicated woman and the journey she goes on shows a lot of different sides. So yes, we used to say, “Oh, she’s the woman with the super vagina because every man is falling in love with her.” Then we thought, “We’ve shown that part, but now let’s look at what’s fueling some of that.” In season two, we see a more complicated woman, which is way more fun for us and also for our actress (Lizzy Caplan).

michael sheenAwardsline: Masters has his own complications and isn’t all that likable. Does that create its own challenges?
Ashford: The real Bill Masters made a remarkable journey in his life. It’s so sad that we don’t have the benefit of speaking with him because it’d be really interesting to hear his take on this. But when you look at the facts and the things that happened, it’s clear that (he) was wrestling with big demons, and that he came to a different understanding of his life and who he was and how he moved through the world. We have a very brave and wildly gifted actor in Michael Sheen, who has no problem at all really (going) for a guy who’s inscrutable and off-putting and who just keeps digging at the layers.