Lizzy Caplan has carved out a successful, if very specific, niche for herself in Hollywood as a portrayer of very modern, very sarcastic women. She only occasionally gets to play the lead in things (“Party Down,” “Save the Date”) but more often than not she’s the heroine’s dark, clever best friend (“Mean Girls”).
 
With Showtime’s terrific new “Masters of Sex” (it debuts September 29 at 10 p.m.), Caplan will be eliminating a lot of preconceptions about her. As pioneering sex researcher Virginia Johnson, Caplan fits seamlessly into the late ‘50s period setting, and works wonderfully opposite Michael Sheen as Johnson’s colleague (and, at times, much more) Bill Masters. She’s still playing an assertive, independent woman — the real Virginia Johnson was very much ahead of her time — but it’s not the kind of role Caplan’s been able to play before, and she does it very, very well.
 
I'll have a "Masters" review tomorrow, and at press tour, I talked with Caplan about typecasting, coming to grips with the show’s abundant nudity and, yes (briefly) about the ever-possible idea of a “Party Down” movie.
 
How did you first hear of this show?
 
Lizzy Caplan: I first heard about it in about as boring a way as one can expect. The script was sent to me by my representatives, who I think were fairly convinced that I would not be interested in doing it, because I don't generally do dramas and hour-long episodic things. I don't generally get cast in period pieces. So it seemed like a bit of a long shot from all angles, and then I read it and became instantly obsessed with her and it and felt like, “Hey, I might as well go after it. I'm never going to get this part, but it's worth a shot.”
 
So why did you want it?
 
Lizzy Caplan: I wanted it because I think just generally female roles in television — the ones that I've been lucky enough to play — they've been more layered and more interesting than some of the film roles. This woman, I thought, reminded me in many ways of myself and reminded me in many ways of some of the other characters I've played. She's a strong woman who does not want to do what it is expected of her, no matter what the consequences. You put that in 1956 and you see how much more difficult that would be to pull off. I felt like I can bring something to it and also I would become very sympathetic to this person when she had to go through it.
 
You said you don't generally get the cast in period stuff. Do you feel like there's something contemporary about you?
 
Lizzy Caplan: I do. I think people see me in a certain way. I think as an actress, people get on your case if you do the same thing over and over again.But if you get too far away from that, people don't like that either. I think if John Madden, the director of the pilot, was super well-versed in my work and in American television, maybe he would have already had some preconceived notions about me and whether or not I'd be capable of pulling off this role. He did not, and so I actually go to go in on a level playing field with anybody else. Yes, I think I slouch. I pad a lot of lines in comedies. I say “Uh” a lot. I say “Yeah.” I sound very modern. That being said, I think Virginia Johnson was very, very ahead of her time and she wasn't old-fashioned. She was modern. But I still had to sit up straight and say “yes” instead of “yeah.”
 
Sometimes actors, when they go in for things like this, they'll actually come to the audition maybe not in costume but at least in something evoking the period. Did you do anything like that?
 
Lizzy Caplan: Well the first time I met everybody was just a meeting and a conversation. I didn't really do it there and then I read once with John Madden, who really had my back on this from the get-go. He really saw me in this role far earlier than I saw myself in it. We did a full like hair, make-up, wardrobe thing and read all of the scenes.And he was convinced I think before I was, but I remember walking away from that audition — it was several hours long — thinking, “That was one of the best auditions and one of the most enriching experiences of my career. At this point if I don't get the part, I'm glad I got to do that.”
 
Some of the actresses of “Mad Men” will talk about how on the one hand, the costumes they wear are just such a pain to wear, but on the other hand it really helps them get into character.
 
Lizzy Caplan: It really does. For the four-and-a-half months we were shooting the show, I'd leave work and I'd be in grimy jeans and a t-shirt and full 1950s hair and make-up. That was like how I looked for a while. It's not the best look but I was definitely rocking it. But teah, the undergarments, all of that stuff — if you start every day by putting on a girdle and old-fashioned stockings then, yeah, it feels different.
 
What was it like, meeting Michael and then developing the chemistry with him that's so obviously there on the screen?
 
Lizzy Caplan: Thank you. The first time we met was at a premiere. I knew that he had just been cast. I had been cast for a while. We met very briefly, and then we had this lunch with John Madden and (Showtime president) David Nevins and (producers) Sarah (Timberman) and Michelle (Ashford), and Michael and I. Whenever you're starting a new show, you have these awkward first lunches and meetings that are sort of mandatory and everybody shows up but nobody knows each other. But I've been doing this long enough to know that those are the times you look back at a couple of months in and laugh about first impressions or whatever. So I thought Michael came off as very serious and very studious and meticulous about things, and extremely different than myself, and also approached acting in a very, very, very different way. I found that both intimidating and also exhilarating because I have a lot of faith in being able to make people like me.
 
How much research have you done into both the period and into Virginia herself? Or are you just going with what the writers give you?
 
Lizzy Caplan: We all read the book, which is probably the most extensive thing written about Masters and Johnson and explains their relationship very well and also the study and everything that they do. So, we all read that before shooting the pilot. Tom Maier, who wrote the book, I spoke to him, and there are some YouTube clips but most of them are from when she's older. I felt good about the fact that it's a daunting task. That’s a real-life person. I've never done it before; obviously, Michael has done it quite often. But I had the freedom to interpret her as I saw her, because when people think about Virginia Johnson, even if they know about her, they can't really conjure up a specific image or a tone of voice or anything. So I felt like I had freedom to wiggle within the character but also I felt a deep responsibility to this person.
 
I hear actors sometimes say, whether they're playing a historical figure or not, that they don't want to know what's going to happen to the character because then they start making choices based on something that’ll happen on the show five years from now. Did you find yourself doing that at any point?
 
Lizzy Caplan: I didn't. Because I think you have to mean it when you're in the scene. You have to have that scene and that decision or that choice, whatever it is every day, make sense in that moment. We know what happens to these people, and there are lots of interviews in the book with Virginia, but knowing what happens to Virginia, I know that that probably her life colored her interpretation of past events and how she saw him. I don't think she felt particularly warmly towards them at the end of her life, and you take all of that into consideration. Why would a person feel that way? How emotionally invested was she in this person to still be angry or is she angry? And these types of questions are what you ask yourself in order to make any scene believable. But yeah, I think you have to approach it with zero judgment. Virginia was particularly excellent at compartmentalizing things in her life and I think I'm pretty good at that and I just had to amp that up tremendously.
 
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