In the prudish 1950s, Virginia Johnson, a failed nightclub singer, caught the eye of St. Louis gynecologist William H. Masters, who was looking for an assistant to help him with his then-clandestine studies of human sexuality. At the time, Masters, a prominent fertility expert at Washington University, was conducting his research by spying through peepholes at prostitutes working in a brothel. He believed that a female partner might help to provide a glimpse into the mysteries of the female libido.
He found his woman in Johnson, then 32, twice divorced and with two children, who was candid about her forward-thinking attitudes about sex. Turns out she would have an intuitive streak when conducting interviews and a penchant for persuading people — including hospital staff and their wives — to participate in sexual experiments, both alone and as couples. Together, the team of Masters and Johnson, now the subject of a provocative new Showtime drama, “Masters of Sex,” went on to become trailblazing sexologists, overturning Victorian myths even as they conducted their own affair, they said, to defuse any sexual tension that might interfere with their research. (They ultimately married, in 1971, but amicably divorced 21 years later).
Lizzy Caplan, who portrays Johnson in “Masters of Sex,” which is based on Thomas Maier’s biography of the same name, has drawn kudos for her sexually frank turn as a vampire-blood-addicted vegan on HBO’s “True Blood” and as a promiscuous, foul-mouthed cocaine addict in the viciously comic 2012 film “Bachelorette.” Yet when she first read the “Masters of Sex” pilot, she said, she found the true sex story “astounding, even mind-blowing.
“If you were to walk into a hospital today and try to get doctors and nurses to sign up for a program that involved taking off their clothes, having electrodes taped to them and having sex in front of two other people, it would be scandalous,” the green-eyed beauty said in a telephone interview. “But Masters and Johnson managed to do just that — in the 1950s.”
Two decades before the women’s liberation movement, their conclusions were decidedly feminist: “A huge cornerstone of their early work was debunking Freud’s claim that a clitoral orgasm is immature, while the vaginal orgasm was the only type that a grown woman should be having with her husband,” Caplan marveled.
It was only natural that the 31-year-old Caplan was drawn to playing Johnson, who “made no apologies for who she was,” the actress said.
Caplan had previously carved out a niche as Hollywood’s go-to actress for playing bold women who are often as vulnerable as they are sarcastic. She turned heads (and stole scenes) as Lindsay Lohan’s caustic pal in the film “Mean Girls,” as a brittle attorney on TV’s “New Girl” and, of course, on “True Blood,” where her character met her demise while flying through the air. “I wasn’t naked in that scene,” Caplan said, “but that was one of the few.”
On a recent appearance on “Conan,” she regaled the audience with salty tales of secretly perusing her parents’ X-rated cookbook, with its recipes for breast-like tarts and meatloaf in the shape of a phallus.
Caplan wasn’t always so precocious, she said. As a teenager at the Jewish Gindling Hilltop Camp, she recalled, the boy-talk was “incredibly innocent by today’s standards.” For her disco-themed bat mitzvah at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, her mother, a political aide for Assemblyman Wally Knox, nixed her dream dress, a tight spandex number, in favor of a more demure outfit.
Caplan said she never intended to become an actress in those early years, preferring classical piano and attending Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music to further her studies. But she ultimately found that pursuit to be “both isolating and nerve-wracking,” so, at 15, she switched to drama and within a year had landed a gig playing Jason Segel’s disco-loving girlfriend on Judd Apatow’s TV comedy “Freaks and Geeks.”
The actress traces the ironic streak that would color her personality, as well as those of many of her characters, to her mother’s death from cancer, not long after Caplan’s bat mitzvah. “When something traumatic happens to you when you’re that young, it hardens you,” she explained. “My whole thing was never wanting anybody to worry about me, so I cracked jokes and put on quite a good show of seeming fine with everything.”
Caplan was often relegated to the role of the acerbic best friend rather than the ingénue. That’s shifted in recent years and the actress is now thrilled, she said, to have landed the role of Johnson, her first major dramatic turn.
As research, Caplan made a number of requests to meet with Johnson, but the elderly researcher declined, because “she no longer wanted to be in the limelight,” the actress said. Johnson died in July at the age of 88; Masters (played by Michael Sheen) died in 2001.
To tell their story, “Masters of Sex” depicts a jaw-dropping amount of nudity: “It was scary until I realized how protected you are in those situations,” Caplan said. “Nobody is sitting there judging your body; the crew are well-trained people trying to make you look and feel your best, so in a weird way it feels safer even than walking down the beach in your bikini.”
In one amusing sequence, Caplan thrusts a glass dildo in the face of the hospital administrator (Beau Bridges), who only reluctantly has funded their work. “[Beau] gives off the vibe of a friendly uncle, and I don’t think I would like to hold up a glass dildo to my uncle’s face,” she said of that awkward scene.
“But at a certain point you realize that our show is called ‘Masters of Sex,’ and if we’re just going to be babies about this dildo, then we should rethink what we’re doing here,” she added with a laugh.
“Masters of Sex” premieres on Showtime on Sept. 29.