Lizzy Caplan for Marie Claire and The Warp

"I had to take a bath yesterday, and Yen, my dresser on set, had to strategically place bubbles over my naked body," says Lizzy Caplan. "I may be naked on camera, but Yen's job is to place bubbles over my boobs. So who had a more ridiculous day?"

Making light of public nudity has been a job requirement ever since the 32-year-old actress signed on to Showtime's Masters of Sex, which returns for its second season on July 13. If you haven't seen the show (and you should fix that), Caplan plays the real-life Virginia Johnson, a twice-divorced, sexually enlightened nightclub singer in late-1950s St. Louis who becomes secretary to the prominent, married gynecologist William Masters (Michael Sheen) and collaborates with him on a series of groundbreaking studies of human sexuality. Their methodology? Record hundreds of subjects in the act—and eventually participate themselves.

Taking on the decidedly un-acerbic Johnson is a departure for Caplan, who made her name playing prickly snark queens like Casey Klein, the disgruntled cater-waiter on Party Down; Gena, the coked-up bridesmaid in Bachelorette; and, most iconically, crazy-haired Janis Ian, the scene-stealing outcast in Mean Girls. Growing up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a lawyer father and a political-aide mother, Caplan honed her withering wit the old-fashioned way: scouring newspaper comics and reading joke books from the library cover to cover ("I took being funny sort of seriously"). Though, like Janis, Caplan wore her hair black and her thrift-store clothes baggy, her performing arts high school was nothing like the one in Mean Girls. "It was kind of the weirder you were and the gayer you were, the more interesting you were." She began acting at 15 and turned down NYU to keep at it, making her the black sheep in her "tremendously academic" family. ("But," she points out, "the black sheep with no student loans. How you like dem apples?")

These days, she plays an actual adult on-screen, and in her own life she's getting there, too. Where she once shared an apartment with a rotating cast of platonic male roommates, now she's "obsessed" with renovating and decorating the midcentury-modern house in L.A. she bought earlier this year—which she shares only with her cat, Stephen Colbert. "It was very fun coming home to a house full of rowdy dudes, but I don't miss having to make small talk with all the random girls who passed through our door," Caplan says. "Perhaps it's a sign of some newfound maturity, but I finally see the value in having a sanctuary." Come Saturday night, you'll find her cooking for friends at the "very long, very raucous" dinner parties she throws. After dinner? Perhaps a game or two of Scattergories, though she notes, "My friends usually won't play with me. Apparently, being aggressively competitive and in everybody's face isn't as adorable as I think it is."

While comfort still reigns supreme in Caplan's world, she admits, "I now understand the power of being a better-dressed woman, as opposed to a strange little street urchin." So she may rock Wes Gordon and Timo Weiland on the red carpet, but in her off-hours she relies on a uniform of jeans and a gray T-shirt. And though her style acumen is growing, she's also happy to skewer the aesthetics-obsessed. Case in point: "Fashion Film," a web short Caplan starred in last year for Viva Vena! (Vena Cava's diffusion line), in which she floats around in a wispy dress and a flower crown, breathily describing her many creative endeavors ("I like to collect things. I'm good at it. I just make my art")—until a friend shows up and informs her she's in a commercial. "That supercharged hipster shit is definitely not me," Caplan says, laughing. "There's a part of me that's actually jealous; if I could derive that much pleasure from a flower or a raindrop, my therapy bills would be way, way, way lower."

Never has she appreciated the worth of clothing more than in playing Johnson, a character with extremely modern views on female sexuality—if you ask Caplan, Virginia's still ahead of the curve—and an extremely retro wardrobe. "The first thing I do in the morning is put on a girdle, garters with stockings, and a long-line bra," says Caplan. "Just doing that starts to make me feel like I'm in her skin. The simple act of clipping stockings to garters—there's an elegance to it. It's so sexy."

Lizzy Caplan never expected her dream role to be in a drama series, let alone one based in a hospital. Her agents didn't think she be into a project like that, either.

But the actress gave “Masters of Sex” a closer look and soon  became smitten with Virginia Johnson, the pioneering sex researcher she plays in the Showtime series.  And now, deep in production on the show's second season, Caplan remains captivated by Johnson, a singer who became a household name for her work studying orgasms along with partner William Masters.

The actress, who previously starred in “Bachelorette,” plays a sexually liberated woman in the late 1950s with remarkable aplomb. Her Johnson is complicated but deeply humane, the perfect counterpart to Michael Sheen‘s awkward Masters.

“I'm pretty in love with her myself,” Caplan told TheWrap during a break in shooting. “She does some things I shake my head at, but she's pretty great.”

As liberated as Johnson was for a woman at that time, she was also very private about her personal life. Thomas Maier's 2009 biography of the same name as the series is the show's main source material. It is based on the author's collaboration with Johnson in her later years, so some of the details might be understandably fuzzy.

“She was fiercely private,” Caplan said. “She wanted the work to speak for itself and didn't want to attract attention to what was going on behind the scenes,” which was her affair with the married Masters. “One luxury of playing a person that people don't have a lot of specific knowledge about is that it's not like playing Marilyn Monroe, where it can be an impersonation. This was completely open to my interpretation.”

Some characters and situations in the first and second seasons are completely made up, like the doctor Ethan (Nicholas D'Agosto), but a character like Virginia “doesn't require us to embellish that much,” Caplan said. “She is such an interesting character she doesn't require it.”

The requisite nude scenes weren't a big problem for Caplan, who “broke the seal” for that on “True Blood” and is willing to bare all as long as she's convinced the flesh-flashing isn't gratuitous.

“Learning more about the real Virginia, I talked with parents of friends that had seen her speak at college, and they told me how sexy and sensual she was,” Caplan said. “I realized if I was going to be nervous about it, I shouldn't be playing her.”

The sex scenes in the series are almost comically clinical and sometimes profoundly sad, with much of the carnal activity taking place in exam rooms with fluorescent lights buzzing. “There are none of the tricks you can put on screen to make it look intimate and not totally awkward, which is the point,” Caplan said. “The first season had some of the oddest love scenes I've ever been in or seen.”

The series paints Johnson as a reluctant sex partner to her prurient boss, who suggests they conduct research on each other to more closely monitor their sexual response. The more intimate they become, however, the more difficult it is for both to keep up their clinical front.

It is a measure of Caplan's equanimity  that the scenes don't come off as overly skeevy. Caplan's matter-of-fact attitude also helps keep sex scenes with other couples grounded, no matter how ludicrous research methods sometimes seem to modern eyes.

“I thought there would be backlash over the nudity,” said Caplan, who has gotten to the point where she can watch her sex scenes with hands over her eyes. “At this point, I've lived in this person's skin for 2 1/2 years from the pilot. It doesn't even feel like me. It feels like her.”

Caplan had appeared in shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and “New Girl” over the years but had been seeking a non-broadcast series for a while.

“It's been a dream of mine to to cable TV,” said Caplan, who admitted she was searching for a comedy before “Sex.” “I had no idea it would be something as rich as this.”

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