If you’re looking for any sort of indication as to what kind of person “Masters of Sex” creator Michelle Ashford is, know that during the 20 minutes she spoke with Indiewire during the 2015 TCA Winter Press Tour, the hotel suite echoed with a variety of weird and annoying alarm-like ringing noises. But she never expressed anything other than patience and amusement, while answering our questions.
Those questions included: How much does the shadow of “Mad Men” hover over the series about William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Victoria Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) researching sex in the 1950s and 1960s? Will “Masters of Sex” ever recast its leads, especially if the show moves decades forward into the future? And what makes “Masters of Sex’s” portrayal of sex different from other shows exploring the same material?
Showtime has become this really interesting network in terms of portraying female sexuality across its other shows. Is that a happy coincidence between the show you’re making and the network, or do you think it’s a deliberate part of their process at this point?
Well, I can’t speak for them because I wasn’t there in the room when they ordered those other shows, but I certainly was when they ordered “Masters,” and I think it’s no surprise to anyone that sex is a really provocative topic for television. And then it’s a good audience draw. I mean, people are always curious. So I know that was part of the reason that they thought “Masters” was going to be a really interesting show, but I think they further thought it would be interesting because it was a way to look at sex, it is really unusual.
I mean, first of all, you’re coming at it scientifically. It was an honest-to-God many years long research project that those two embarked on, and for me, who was— I mean, if you had told me I had to write a show about sex where it was just people trying to have the best sex they could find with whatever partner, I’d have a really tough time with that. But I found this a curious way to get into the subject. And I thought, “Wow, you’d have a lot of sex scenes that weren’t sexy at all.” In fact, it would be hilarious, awkward, or strange. So that seemed interesting to me. Because I think the tropes of portraying sex in movies, certainly, and television, have become a little bit tired. So I think what people are trying to do is say, “Well, we’ve seen people trying to have hot sex in every possible medium; what else can we say about sex that’s more interesting?”
Another thing your show has, that is kind of becoming a bigger and bigger deal today, is the concept of being a period piece. I feel like we’ve got these period pieces where, you know, it’s like your classic period piece except, “Let’s throw in some pretty explicit sex.” Is the draw of that the shock value?
Well, here’s the very luck thing that I have to deal with with on this show, which is that it happened. The fact that I don’t have to invent this from scratch. I remember writing the pilot and looking at it and thinking “If I had just come up with this on my own, people would just think, ‘You’re insane.'” And this is ridiculous, and borderline unbelievable. You know, that people would have had people into exam rooms to have sex and they would watch them, and wire them, it just seems kind of….
And yet, because it did happen, and it ended being, you know, they were together for many many years, they ended up being so integral to many of the societal changes that were happening. I feel like the period part of it is just a happy accident. If you told me, “oh, go write a show and start it in the ’50s,” I thought, “Oh, but there’s ‘Mad Men’ out there,” and it would have made me uncomfortable. But because this is really what it was, I feel like this was a story, so it doesn’t bother me as much, because I feel like I’m telling the story honestly.
Sometimes we look like “Mad Men.” We’re going to be in 1966 this year, so we’ve made a big leap. I think “Mad Men” covered 10 years in their time on air, and we’ll cover way way more than that, so we’ll end up not looking like them at all.
In the early days, did you feel that pressure of “Mad Men”?
We did. We worried about it. We thought, “Oh no, we’re gonna be compared right and left.” […] You know, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s a ‘Mad Men’ rip-off, just with more sex.” We got almost none of that. I think because there must be something that feels different about it. Certainly the subject matter is pretty different.
And another advantage you have, drawing from real events, is the fact that Master and Johnson did end up getting married. In terms of developing their relationship, in the back of your head, is there a version of “Masters of Sex” where Masters and Johnson aren’t in a relationship?
In terms of, would I deviate from history that much?
So the decision to put them together is very much like, “We know that they’re going to end up together eventually—”
Yes, and one of the things that’s a real challenge, which was once we go on the air, and people go, “Oh! Those are real people?”, they can do a five-second Google and they can know the entire story. So I thought, “Wow, that’s taking a little starch out of our thing.”
So, I thought, well, the interest is not in what happened, it’s how. So every time we’re constructing a season, we look at like how would we end it. What’s a sort of cliffhanger thing? It can’t be what happened, it has to be, “Wow, that’s where they are, and I know where they’re going. How did they get there? How did they get from A to B?” I mean, that’s one of the things we talk about all the time. That’s the interesting thing.
Certainly any movies that deal with history, where you know the ending, people still flock to see them. I was just thinking when I was watching “Lincoln” last year, and I was thinking, “Well, we know where this goes,” but it didn’t make it any less enjoyable because it’s just the “How did it happen?”
The other thing I wanted to mention, though, in terms of Masters and Johnson ending up in a relationship together is that it’s almost like cliche that the two sex researchers fall in love. When you were developing their relationship, what were you doing to kind of make sure that you avoided those?
Well, what’s really lucky about the true story is they did not fall into that. It’s one of the strangest, strangest — and I put the word “love” in quotes — it’s one of the strangest “love” stories I have ever run across. And that was another thing that really drew me to the material, is I thought well, we’ll never be in that area, of cliches of falling in love, or “don’t we just have the hottest sex ever.” It won’t be that, because that wasn’t that with them. They had an incredibly complicated and strange relationship for many, many years, and it took different forms, which also is really great when you’re dealing with this series, because you think, “Wow, their relationship changed like that? That is really interesting.”
But at the same time, you do kind of root for them, like in late Season 1, where essentially they’ve slipped into making love for the first time. Watching them realize that was a really exciting moment.
Right. Well there’s no question that those two had incredibly deep feelings for one another, but they were also incredibly complicated. And the one thing that’s really interesting, is I don’t think they’re ever quite on the same page at the same time, which would have made their relationship much more traditional in that sort of cliched way you were saying. But they could never quite— they were always sort of like this in an odd way, because they were. They had many competing agendas about what they wanted out of that relationship, I think, and that’s why it becomes really complicated. But that isn’t to say, I think, that there were moments of profound and deep love between them, it just never really looked like any kind of love that we would necessarily recognize; except for those few moments, maybe.
You mentioned that Season 3 is in 1966. How big a leap that is?
Well, for us it’s five years. We end Season 2 in January 1961, when Kennedy was inaugurated.
Right. Wow, so you’re just jumping over the Kennedy assassination.
Was that deliberate?
Well, I did have this grand plan that we would come back. Everyone’s imbued with all the enthusiasm of his inaugural speech, which was very exciting. He says the torch has been passed on to a new generation and there he is up there, handsome, and a whole new— you know, coming from the kind of stodgy, old Eisenhower, he looked like, Whoooo! Like a movie star. So it’s all very exciting, and what he was saying was very exciting, and a new generation and everything, and I thought, “Oh, it would be great to end that and then come back in 1963 and they’re all around the TV crying, you know?” I watched some of “Mad Men,” I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show at all, and I’ve had a couple of times people say to me, “Well, they did [fill in the blank] on “Mad Men,” and I’ll say ”They did?” One thing I do know is I think “Mad Men” used the Kennedy assassination in one of their episodes.
It’s a big part of Season 3.
Exactly. Anyways, someone related to me that, they said, “Oh, Mad Men has really used the Kennedy assassination.” So, because someone has pointed to me before that we did something that was “Mad Men”-like, I thought, “Hm, I actually know about this one this time,” so maybe that’s not so great.
But also, I wanted our third season to be really taut, to be really exciting, to be filled with event, to be a little bit of a nail biter, and when I looked ahead at their lives and their careers, 1966 was a really important one, and I thought, “You know, why don’t we just go for it? Why don’t we just plop them in the year that the most crazy stuff happens?” So that’s what we did.
And “Downton Abbey” can age 20 years in like three seasons.
So how far have they gone on that show, because, again, I don’t watch so much?
They’re in 1923 right now.
When did they start?
Oh, they did?
Yeah. They start with the Titanic, that’s like the first episode, and then Season 2 covers the entirety of World War I. And so, people do have questions, like, “Why is that dog still alive?”
[laughs] Dogs can live a long time, depending upon the breed.
Apparently! Especially if they are the dogs of Lord Grantham.
[laughs] That’s hilarious. Well, that’s good, 1912 to 1923, that’s a longish bit!
Yeah! How much do you have in your mind, when it comes to what year the last season takes place, whenever that might come?
Well, they at least go in the ’80s, because in the ’80s they published a book on homosexuality. And that was a really strange little spell for them, and it’s such rich material that we go at least that far. So, we’re ’66 now, we’ll head into the ’80s for sure.
So, lots of old age makeup.
Well, that’s our biggest, biggest challenge, is what to do. How much do we really age them? I mean, how much do people want to see two series leads that look like they’re 70? You don’t really see that on television, so, when I look into the last year, I think, “Hm, they really would be old,” and I have some ideas about that. But I suspect us just doing an entire season with two leads that are really old is not in the cards.
So you wouldn’t, necessarily… Let’s say Gena Rowlands was available, you wouldn’t recast?
We would not.
So, no matter what, it’s Lizzy Caplan.
No matter what.
That speaks to how happy you are with that casting.
Yeah, well, yes, now we couldn’t have anyone else. Yes, we love them. People say this all the time about, you know, an actor kind of fitting with a role, but both of them are so utterly perfect. I mean, I think so many things that were true about the real-life characters, really resonate with the actual actors themselves. Lizzy read the book instantly and was like, “I know this woman.”
I think Michael initially said, “Well, I’m normally playing people much more outgoing, this guy’s so internal.” And then I think something clicked for him, and he found something he thought, “Oh, I really, actually understand this, I understand a lot of it.” And I think he found it very interesting. He’s normally playing people who are more extroverted, like the Prime Minister, or David Frost, or, you know, in “The Damned United” he played the head of that soccer team, who’s, you know, a very big, out there kind of guy. And so when he read this, he was playing Hamlet — who is, obviously, an internal character but one that expresses it all. And he was just like, “Hm, this is a strange character for me to play,” and I could see he was just thinking about it, and then he went for it. And now that I know him as well as I do, I can see that something— it tapped into something that he felt really interesting, that I think he felt was also very personal.
The reason I wanted you to clarify that is because I wanted to say, it’s so interesting to think about his performance in that respect, because there’s so much surface to the way he plays Masters, that makes sense in terms of his process.
Oh, yeah. Michael is an incredibly cerebral person. He’s very, very smart; he thinks about this stuff a lot; he really, really digs deep. He’s a very, very fun actor to be partnered with in terms of the long haul of a television show. You really have to have a collaboration, otherwise it’s just no fun.
Final question: In terms of staying in the rhythm of the period, what is the key thing for you? Because, it’s not today, it’s not modern times. You’re trying to recreate this other era.
Well, I think one of the things that’s lovely is a certain constraint when it comes to language. That’s really fun for me to write, I love that. I wrote on “John Adams” and “The Pacific,” you know, so I’m very used to having to hear a specific tone to the way people speak in another era. I actually like that, I find it very fun. It’s so specific in what words you choose and how people phrase things, so I love that. I love the societal constraints; I love that we’ve moved into the ’60s though, so things will be changing, so what would that mean for our two characters? Certainly all sorts of crazy stuff is about to happen and was happening, but how will that change them? Will they sound different? Will they look different? I don’t know. That, to me, is really fun.
READ MORE: Watch: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3 Trailer Takes the Revolution on the Road