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'Masters of Sex' Star: 'I Relate to a Character Who Struggles'

Michael Sheen explains how his recent role in 'Hamlet' helped him prepare for new historical Showtime drama

Cast of 'Masters of Sex.'
Erwin Olaf/SHOWTIME
September 27, 2013 11:55 AM ET

Don't let the title of Showtime's latest hour-long drama fool you. Despite its suggestive name, Masters of Sex (which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET) is not particularly sexy. Sure, there's plenty of sexuality, nudity and a few writhing bodies throughout, but the series is far more interested in exploring the complexities of interpersonal relationships, family dynamics, and the groundbreaking research of its real-life subjects Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). This perhaps unexpected approach is what makes Masters of Sex fall's best new show.

Grounded and approachable, the series is a drama-filled period piece about an incredibly interesting moment in time. Masters of Sex boasts surehanded direction by veterans such as John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough) and fantastic performances across the board, from its two stars to its vast supporting cast. We sat down with William Masters himself, Michael Sheen, to discuss what it's like to step into a sex researcher's shoes.

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I really enjoyed what I've seen so far of Masters of Sex. It's my favorite drama premiering this season.
Wow. That's great to hear. Thank you!

How did you get involved with the series?
I was playing Hamlet onstage in London. I got sent the script of the pilot episode and John Madden, who directed the pilot, came over and watched the play, and we had a chat afterwards. I really liked the writing of the episode. As soon as you know you're reading something about this particular subject, I suppose, I first of all wondered, "Is it very exploitative? What's the tone of it and how's it being handled?" Very quickly I could tell from the pedigree of the writing, and the fact that John was going to direct the pilot – you know that you're in pretty safe hands. I did have a sense of how rich the possibilities were within these people's lives, and not just the dynamic of the relationships, but also culturally what was going on through the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties in terms of its relationship to sex and sexuality, so I thought there was a lot here to be explored.

What attracted you to the William Masters character?
The things that were daunting about the character to begin with became the things that I most enjoyed, really. It was a character who seemed very hard to read emotionally. He was very closed-off in certain ways, and there were a lot of contradictions there. He's a very different sort of character for me as opposed to a lot of the characters I've played. When you've got 12 hours of storytelling in one season, as opposed to a two-hour film, and a character that's a lot harder for an audience to get under the skin of, it's a lot more rewarding character to play, because you can reveal greater levels of complexity.

On the surface, William Masters is a driven genius, but he's not the nicest guy. How do you balance keeping him a likeable character while also showing his angry drive for knowledge?
I'm not particularly interested in the character being likable. That seems to be a given, that everyone just assumes that every character, or certainly the lead characters of something, whether it be a film or a play or a TV show, should be likable. I don't really subscribe to that. What I do subscribe to is the idea that every character should be able to be empathized with. Not necessarily sympathized with, but empathized with. A character should be compelling and should hold your interest, but in terms of whether you like them, I think it needs to go a bit deeper than that. When I watch something, I don't really relate to likable people. I fear, and I think most people fear, that sometimes we're not likable. I wouldn't be able to relate to that. I would be able to maybe hero-worship a character like that or romanticize a character like that, but in terms of relating to a character, I relate to a character who struggles, because that's what I feel the human condition is, really. Feeling like you struggle and there are little victories and little defeats, and sometimes you're one thing and sometimes you're another. [Masters] isn't instantly likable in the way that other characters might be in shows. But I do think there's depth there, and I hope that an audience is prepared to go on that journey with him.

You've done some TV before, but this is your first extended foray into the medium. Did you know you wanted to do television and were actively looking for a project?
No, no. Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite, perhaps. Not that I was actively not trying to do TV, but by the time I got towards the end of playing Hamlet, I'd already done another theater piece earlier that year in Britain called The Passion, which I'd done in my hometown. Both of those projects were very personal, and I'd worked on developing both of them for a very long time. So on the one hand, I wanted to spend more time at home in Los Angeles with my daughter. I didn't want to be away from her so much. So I was thinking of not doing any work for a while. And if I was going to do something, I wanted to do something that was very short. So the idea of doing five months of a TV series was not literally on the top of my list. But when the possibility of doing it in Los Angeles came up, then that made it much more attractive, because it would mean that I wouldn't have to leave home to do it, which was great.

But what I really enjoyed was playing the one character in multiple episodes and specifically being able to have so much input into where the character goes, and the storylines and what we'd focus on in terms of what's going on for this person. Because the episodes were being written as we were doing it, I was able to report back from the front line of the character, in a way, as I'm discovering things in scenes and thinking more about him and starting to understand him a bit more. I could talk to Michelle [Ashford] and the other writers about what I thought might be interesting to explore. That was incredibly exciting, to feel so involved, and for it to grow so naturally out of discovering things in scenes. That's something you really can't do in any other medium, really.

The show is obviously about sex, but it's not exactly sexy. Were there any worries about the audience not really knowing what they were getting into?
It was very clearly going to be involving a lot of stuff about sex and sexuality and nudity and that kind of stuff. I think everyone knew that going into it. My experience playing Bill is that it's much more about intimacy than it is about sexuality, in a weird way. The research obviously is about sex and sexuality and the human, physical response to it, and there's a lot of very interesting facts and discoveries that come out of that. But the drama of the piece really comes out of the challenges of intimacy.

For a show titled Masters of Sex, I found it to be more of a family drama than anything else. How important was it for you to show the human, family element of these characters?
There's a deeper thing going on in that [Bill]'s frightened of who he is because of what he has been handed down by his father. He's a man who begins with being a sort of mystery to himself, and then slowly starts to get a sense of what is in that locked room inside him, and he starts to be scared of it. That, inevitably, touches on family. How you are a product of your past, your family, and how that then informs present family. I think that's very much at the heart of it. It's how we discover who we are a lot of the time. Especially in terms of our family and the people closest to us. Like I said, I'd just come from doing Hamlet, which is one story about an incredibly dysfunctional family and the ghosts of the past and the man who is haunted by his father. I think I brought a lot of that with me into this. [Laughs]

Did Showtime have any reservations about the kinds of things you were going to have to explore on this show?
I don't know what the writers would say, but I think one of the most exciting things about what's going on at Showtime now, and the other cable channels as well, is that there seems to be absolutely a kind of free hand to explore things. They genuinely want it to be as interesting and exciting and dramatic as possible, as opposed to being concerned about what might be going too far. It seems like they're just looking for the best show they can make. It's pushing the boundaries, and it's got a really healthy sense of competition. The bar has been raised so much, which is really exciting.

It's also cool to see so many great people congregate around this project. You get to work with John Madden, Michael Apted, Lizzy Caplan and Beau Bridges, among others.
It's amazing. Apart from just the joy of working with Lizzy every day and Caitlin [FitzGerald], who plays my wife, and people like Beau and all the other amazing people, then you've got people coming into it like Allison Janney, who I think is one of the greatest actors at work today anywhere. Even people coming in to do just a day, or one scene. Mae Whitman came in and did one scene, and it's like a perfect scene. It's just amazing. So you'd see these people coming in and just doing a little bit here and there. The quality of performance was so high, it was really a joy to do that.

Did working on Masters of Sex make you want to do more television or make you want to go back to film?
It's made me very excited about what is possible with the medium. I kept thinking, as we were doing it and subsequently, that in a way the format of multi-episodic television is sort of, in some ways, closer to literature than it is to film. The level of complexity. The multiple storylines. And the space and time in which you can explore that has the rhythm of something much closer to a novel than it does to film. As an actor, to have so much input into it and to be able to make choices about where you're going based on what you're doing, rather than it all being laid out ahead of you in the first place – that's really exciting, and you really do get to explore things with the other actors and the writers. It feels like a real team.

Do you ever have time to watch TV?
Funny enough, last year, not long after we did the pilot, I had to have shoulder surgery, so I knew that I had to take time off work to heal. I took a few months off towards the end of last year and I thought, "Well, I'd better watch some television," because I hadn't watched much of it, and knowing I was about to do a season. So I ended up having the great enjoyment of just laying in bed watching the whole of season one and season two of Game of Thrones in about two days and then watching all of Breaking Bad in a week. Just going through stuff. And that was when I really thought, "Wow, there's some great stuff out there at the moment." I was both simultaneously very excited about getting a crack at it myself, but also very daunted by the standard of stuff out there.

I would love to see a Michael Sheen appearance on Game of Thrones.
Me too. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen if Masters of Sex keeps going. [Laughs] That would be quite difficult. But, yeah, I would absolutely love to do that.

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