Lizzy Caplan (above) as Virginia Johnson on Masters of Sex.
Even if you don’t recognise her name there’s a pretty good chance that Lizzy Caplan has starred in a few of your favourite films or TV shows. Her celluloid CV includes the much-missed show Party Down (she can’t confirm the rumoured movie version but says she is ‘very interested’ in being involved), smart teen comedy Mean Girls (‘Your mom’s chest hair’ is the line most quoted to her on the street) and vamp drama True Blood.
In fact her resume is so stellar that her first ever role was in the acclaimed cult TV series Freaks and Geeks – not bad for someone who never even harboured childhood dreams of being an actress. Despite growing up in LA, 31-year-old Caplan only got into acting so she could stay at her performing arts high school after quitting piano. “I just picked drama because I thought it would be easier than trying to learn how to sing or dance,” Caplan says over the phone in her distinctive deadpan monotone. “I thought I could fake my way through a drama lesson, and then I did it and ended up really falling in love. It was a total fluke.”
She also credits her trustworthy track record in picking roles as a happy accident, at least initially. “I was auditioning for everything – terrible things as well as good things. My first job on Freaks and Geeks was really the luck of the draw. Then a few years into my career I started to be selective – far more selective than I had any right to be and I’m sure that cost me a lot of jobs. But I’m pretty happy with the way it all turned out.”
The cast of Masters of Sex.
And she has reason to be. The newest addition to her acting resume is on the small screen in the much anticipated Masters of Sex (it already won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Most Exciting New Series before it had even aired). The show has had critics raving since the first episode aired in the US on Sunday with Slate calling it “the best new show of the fall season” and Time saying the series is “an absorbing, beautifully acted story about science, emerging feminism and American culture”.
Set in the 50s (Caplan says she actually enjoyed wearing a girdle), Masters of Sex tells the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering and controversial researchers of human sexuality who eventually ended up marrying after Masters left his first wife for Johnson. Caplan plays the fascinating and forward-thinking Johnson, who as a single mother with no medical training was hired by the gynaecologist Masters as his research assistant. Together the pair recorded some of the first laboratory data on the physiology of sexual response, particularly in regards to female sexuality.
“No one was willing to do this research,” says Caplan. “And really the research helped women out. Before Masters and Johnson did these studies everybody thought that if you had any problems in the bedroom with your husband it was the fault of the woman. Everyone believed what Freud believed, which was pretty much if you couldn’t have a vaginal orgasm then you were frigid and needed to enter into years of psychoanalysis. Also before Masters and Johnson there was no scientific proof that women could have multiple orgasms. Masters and Johnson in their own words refer to women as the ‘sexual athletes’ – not men. This was groundbreaking and turned everything on its head.”
The series is also notable for the fact that it has a woman creator in Michelle Ashford and a predominantly female staff of writers – not exactly common practice in Hollywood, but one that Caplan feels gives a unique edge. “For a story such as this one I’m so grateful that it’s created by a woman and we have a ton of women around all the time, because at its core it really is a feminist story. There’s a lot of sex in our show but none of it is gratuitous sex – it’s not made by men for boys,” says Caplan.
The show is a welcome addition to the small screen, another entry alongside some of the amazing television driven by multifaceted female characters that is currently filling the airwaves, such as Girls, Mad Men and Orange is the New Black (which Caplan flags as a particular favourite of hers). Caplan admits to wanting to be a part of this televisual revolution for a while now and couldn’t be more pleased that it’s finally happening with Masters of Sex. “Cable TV series are just as interesting as film, if not honestly better than film at this point. I think we’re in a golden age of television and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. On cable you’re able to tell darker stories and more complicated characters exist.”
The first episode of Masters of Sex screens Thursday 3 October at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.