“I honestly cannot believe that I got the job I’ve been waiting for,” muses Lizzy Caplan. Once the frequent subject of various “actresses-on-the-verge”-style articles, she’s now firmly established as the leading lady of Showtime’s prestige series Masters of Sex, where her appropriately masterful, sexy performance as legendary sex therapist Virginia Johnson has positioned her as a frontrunner for various television acting trophies—including this month’s Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. “It just makes no sense to me that I get to go to work on that show every day and play that woman.”
Caplan’s response is perhaps natural, having spent the better part of a decade frequently pinging Hollywood’s radar, yet never flying directly within it. Since her breakout supporting stint in Mean Girls she’s been an intriguing presence in populist FX-heavy fare (Cloverfield), trophy-collecting indies (127 Hours), and raunchy comedies (Hot Tub Time Machine) while building TV cred with roles on series ranging from hits (Smallville, True Blood, New Girl) to ratings-challenged critical darlings (Freaks and Geeks, Tru Calling, The Class) to shows your hippest friends urged you to watch (Starz’s cult favorite Party Down, beloved by no one more than Caplan herself)
So how, exactly, did the 32-year-old actress—after years specializing in smart, snarky women with rough edges and sharp wisecracks, with every expectation of finding her career-defining role in a comedy—end up as an admittedly unlikely series regular in a predominately dramatic premium-cable period piece chronicling the messy, complicated rise of pioneering sex therapists/sex partners William Masters and Virginia Johnson… and make the short list of Emmy contenders?
“Doing a dramatic role was something that I could see myself doing on a very small scale—independent films—but on a large scale, on a show that people actually seem to watch? It’s completely shocking to me,” she admits from her perch at a table at an Abbot Kinney coffee shop, where, despite being on full display, she garners only fleeting glances (“I can walk down the street and live my life and nobody knows who I am,” she says of the perks of pay-cable notoriety. “Something about the network sitcom thing has always scared the shit out of me”).
Indeed, the oh-so-juicy role of Johnson—fiercely independent, bluntly outspoken, sexually liberated, glass ceiling-shattering, proto-feminist, all in the buttoned-up ’50s—was one she decided not to covet. “As I got older and slightly more jaded, I knew better than to see myself fully in the role because it would hurt too much when I didn’t get it. And I truly believed that I would not get this part.”
Nobody, from the show’s creative team—who wondered if the actress’s very modern look and sensibility might be a hindrance—to Caplan’s own representatives, who knew it didn’t resemble projects that typically excited her, expected her to be drawn to the material either. But she took the meeting, telling the producers “all of my embarrassing dating stories and how it was always confusing to me that, even today, a guy never really believes that a girl doesn’t secretly want a relationship, and that would always incense me in real life! And I think they began to maybe see me as her from those conversations.”
Executive producer Sarah Timberman confirms Caplan’s suspicions. “After we saw her read some of the material in the pilot, we couldn’t imagine anybody else in this role,” says Timberman. “In Lizzy’s hands, you understand the dynamic between Masters and Johnson and how critical her rogue, pioneering spirit was. Lizzy has all those qualities: She’s courageous and incredibly intuitive and [somewhat] subversive. She’s a force of nature—and Virginia Johnson certainly was. They’re very well suited to each other. It just feels like this role was something of a calling for her.”
"Virginia and I share quite a few similarities,” agrees Caplan. “My approach to sex and relationships at certain times in my life fell completely in line with how she viewed those topics in certain points in her life. There were eerie things that we had in common that I don’t really tell anybody, very specific details. It started to feel like she and I shared this cosmic connection.” She could not, however, entice the real Johnson, who laid bare certain mysteries of her life to author Thomas Maier, whose 2009 biography on the couple forms the basis for the show’s narrative, to meet with her before Johnson’s death just prior to the series’ debut. “She was not interested in meeting me… I tried,” sighs Caplan.
Comedic instincts continued to serve her in the role, bringing a wry touch to risky, often intense material that endeared her to her colleagues. “Right from the beginning, we connected and felt very comfortable with each other,” says her costar Michael Sheen, who plays Bill Masters. “You have to build trust on any show, especially on a show like this with the sort of things that we have to do. Not just the sex or the nudity, but just the emotional stuff that we do, so there’s a lot of pressure in that way. And the fact that she always makes things very easy and light… it’s been a real pleasure.”
Those frequent, oft-asked-about sex scenes, she confesses, are “always funny. When it’s not funny, that’s the only time that it’s really scary.” Only recently she found herself daunted by a startlingly raw scene from the second season in which she and Sheen’s characters are as emotionally naked as Caplan is, literally, uncovered. “That was the first time in a while that I was in my trailer beforehand having the feeling of, Oh, I don’t want to do this. I would rather be doing just about anything else! But knowing it’s not exactly optional, it’s part of my job, I believed in it for the narrative of the story. I frequently forget that it’s going to be on television, and when I remember that, I get a wave of anxiety.”
Harder to navigate was wrapping her head around the fact she’d not only gotten the un-gettable role, she was thriving in it. “Such a huge part of my identity was wanting something, striving for the job that you loved more than any other job, or a certain position in the business,” she says reflectively. “When you get a job that seems to fit that bill, it’s a huge shift in how you see yourself. And by no means do I think I have no reason to be ambitious anymore. But it took me a while to acclimate to it.”
Caplan’s striving began during a very non-showbizzy childhood in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of LA. A natural tomboy, she remembers her mother posting a sticker on a bulletin board that read RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY, instilling early acceptance to defy traditional gender roles and challenge convention. “I knew to want to be different,” she says, and soon enough she found herself set apart. “My mother passed away when I was 13. That really was a marker of ‘You are different than your friends now,’ and I leaned into it, even though it didn’t always make me feel good.”
Creativity was as encouraged as academics in her family (her father and brother are lawyers, her sister’s getting a PhD in psychology), which led her to attend a performing arts high school to study piano, though even then she knew she’d never play professionally. (“There was no way in hell—I did not have the discipline, nor the talent.”) Dropping piano, a need for a replacement elective led her to drama class. “I thought I could fake my way through it,” she laughs, shocked at how quickly acting resonated with her. “I hadn’t felt that comfortable trying something new ever before.” With her family’s blessing, by 15 she was making the rounds of Hollywood auditions, fiercely competitive from the start and more than occasionally frustrated when better parts went to other actresses.
“I’ve always felt like the underdog—partly because I’ve been told that I’m the underdog, pretty explicitly, on many occasions,” she reveals, recalling the days when she and her friend Lindsay Sloane would audition for pilots on the now-defunct WB network. “We’d want to get T-shirts made that said, I AM WB PRETTY! because we’d just been told, ‘Oh, she’s great, but she doesn’t have that WB look.’” She laughs at the memory. “In retrospect, I’m so grateful it took as long as it did, because I’ve been able to slowly acclimate to these changes instead of an overnight success story.”
Following the second season of Masters of Sex, Caplan appears in fall’s big-screen comedy The Interview, in which she plays a CIA agent wrangling two celebrity journalists (James Franco and Seth Rogen) as they plot to turn an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un into an assassination. Adoring her LA hometown, she recently bought a house. “I’m never there, but it’s a really great place to sleep in so far! I was sick for a week and stuck in bed, and I’m weirdly grateful now because it forced me to get to know my house.”
She accepts the suggestion that she may be on a mission. “There’s quite honestly nothing else except this show,” she admits. “I mean, I’m going to dinner with friends tonight, and I could not be more excited. But I have absolutely no time. I live very isolated these days.” But Virginia Johnson walks with her, and that matters. “This role changed me entirely—the way I talk about feminism, the way I talk about sexual politics. It’s really opened my eyes in a lot of ways, and I can’t imagine caring about something more than I care about this.