The Liberation of Lizzy Caplan

Peggy Sirota
Lizzy Caplan

How after dozens of false starts, the star of 'Masters of Sex' finally got on top

A bone scraper and a sausage piper surround Lizzy Caplan, and yet she is nowhere near the set of her show, Masters of Sex. She is wearing jeans and open-toe sandals. This may have been a mistake, since she is walking into a refrigerator filled with dead pigs on hooks. It's a tight fit into the meat locker of Lindy & Grundys, a posh Los Angeles butcher shop, and one of her human shoulders brushes against a pork shoulder. Caplan lets out a small yelp.

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"This is horrifying," she says with a grin. "I don't eat a lot of pig because the outside is the same color as the meat. You need that disconnect you get with beef."

Caplan is here for a sausage-making class, and, a little later, she is introduced to the Dickeron, a swordlike knife-sharpening contraption. Her hair, in a Fifties bob for her Emmy-nominated role of sexologist Virginia Johnson, starts, well, bobbing up and down.

"Pretty soon, I'm going to be making my own sausage," says Caplan. She pauses, popping the giant greenish-gray eyes that have dominated multiple TV shows and movies that no one watched. "Once I get my own dick machine."

Caplan picked the sausage-making class for our meeting, and I joke that I felt a tad uncomfortable writing about a female kneading pork. "I'm making it difficult for you because you're going to have to figure out clever ways not to make innuendos about sausages," says Caplan. But wouldn't jokes be OK because she chose the place? Caplan gives me a withering stare. "I guess you could, but I'm expecting more from you."

It was hard to tell if she was kidding or not. This is a vibe Caplan gives off to the uninitiated. "Part of her shtick is to come across as cold and standoffish at first, but it's not at all what she's like," says Seth Rogen, who has known her since they were teenagers on Freaks and Geeks and who recently directed Caplan in the upcoming spy caper The Interview. "Lizzy's very sweet once you get to know her. She has always played the smart, funny girl who cuts through the bullshit. That's much harder than what I do, playing dumb."

In a way, the sausage-making conundrum is an apt metaphor for Caplan's career. (No, really.) At 32, Caplan is best known for playing the anti-manic pixie dream girl (see Zooey Deschanel and Kirsten Dunst) in a bushel of little-seen but hilarious enterprises – get ye online and watch the caterers on Vicodin in Party Down or 2012's girls-gone-wilding Bachelorette – where she's the snarky girl with a heart made of some metallic concoction that is not gold. It was a great life, but Caplan felt hemmed in as "that girl" and wondered if that was all Hollywood had for her.

And that's where sex came in. Caplan is winding up the second season of Showtime's Masters of Sex, where she plays the research partner/lab partner/sex partner of Dr. William Masters as they delve into the study of sexual behavior during the 1950s. Eventually, their studies would land them fame, but the first years were harrowing, particularly for Johnson. There's more than a little of Caplan in Johnson, not so much the sex part as wanting to be taken seriously in an industry more than happy to overlook her. The doubts of casting directors became her own doubts.

They remained even after she got the part. Caplan, co-star Michael Sheen and show creator Michelle Ashford met in L.A. with Showtime execs after the pilot was picked up in 2012. Sheen, a classically trained Welsh actor who has seemingly been playing Tony Blair his entire career, regaled the room with tales of portraying Jesus in a 72-hour re-enactment of the Passion play. Caplan listened closely and felt a roomful of eyes turn to her.

"Well, I once starred in a movie with Dane Cook," she said.

Everyone in the room laughed. But when Caplan got back to her car, she thought, "I'm sitting across from Jesus, and everybody's eating out of the palm of his hand."

Then she started to cry.

At the shop, Caplan fires questions at Amelia the butcher, not unlike the way some of her characters might – "Have you ever gotten a pig and then cut it open and a baby fell out?" – and the conversation quickly takes a turn to the sexual proclivities of the American male as it relates to meat. Amelia recounts how strangers online send her messages about what they would like to do to her among the pork.

"Weird," shouts Caplan above the sounds of pig-grinding. Ice is added to ease the transition from pig meat to sausage. "This was in the news recently, because somebody just got arrested for it. It's like animal porn, but then they kill the animal. Like, pop a chicken's head off while you're jerking and shit."

Amelia is horrified. "Oh, no. I am so turned off by this," she says.

Caplan looks thoughtful for a second. "But doesn't it sort of warm your heart that there's something for everybody?"

Amelia doesn't know what to say, so she just cleans up the pork snow-cone ice left over from our sausage-making. A little while later, Caplan exits the butcher shop with a bag of sausages that she'll prepare for her dad tomorrow on Father's Day. She takes a seat in a booth at a nearby restaurant, and while it's not quite a wall, a reticence drops over her, making it clear she's much more comfortable talking about choking chickens than her personal life.

She was raised not far from here, in the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles. Caplan is the youngest of three kids whose father is a lawyer. She had the childhood of a typical Jewish L.A. kid, a bat mitzvah, a domineering piano teacher, a trip to Israel, and a liberal home where questions about sex could be asked. But then her mom fell ill and died when Caplan was 13. Through the grieving, Caplan first started thinking of becoming an actress.

"Strangely, from that age on I thought the only reason why I could even attempt to be an actress was because this horrible thing happened to me," she says in a quiet voice. "Like something dark and terrible had to happen in order to earn your stripes as a human being and be able to be an actress. I don't know where I got that from."

Caplan went to an L.A. arts high school, and then started going on auditions. Her first role was on Freaks and Geeks, co-starring Rogen, who recalls her as "funny, Jewish and smart, pretty much the whole package for me." She was supposed to appear in one episode, but her charm won over showrunners Paul Feig and Judd Apatow. "There was something unique about her performance," Apatow recalls. "So we brought her back again. Then, when it was time to shoot the finale, we were so impressed by her work that we thought, 'What if Jason Segel's character started dating Lizzie?' She was amazing as his rebound romance."

The Freaks and Geeks experience set the tone for much of Caplan's career as she ambled into her twenties: winning quiet acclaim playing the role of "who's that girl?" in shows and movies that disappeared. Caplan estimates she shot at least seven pilots. There were moments of brilliance, but lots of no's – her role in Mean Girls was followed by a year without work. She scored a part in True Blood in 2008, but that came with its own trauma. On her second day, she was required to do the first nude scene of her career.

"I remember all the many hours of pep talks required of my friends, like, 'Tell me that my body doesn't look weird,'" says Caplan. "I walked into my dressing room, and where your clothes are hanging on a rack was just one pair of underwear."

Caplan did what most people would do in that situation: She swigged some vodka, got drunk and started asking crew members how they liked her ass. Caplan recounts the story with some reluctance, perhaps regretting that and some of the other stories she let out of the bag about when she was young and brash – including a tale about passing out on her birthday naked and splayed on her bed, compelling her gay roommate to move out – and it's clear she wants to be seen in a more serious light now that she's on Masters of Sex.

"Aiming for the stars becomes a bit soul-crushing after you're told 'no' for the thousandth time," she says. "I didn't want to be continually rejected. I was right at the doorway of believing I couldn't do anything else when this came around. It was right in the nick of time."

Since Masters of Sex started, Caplan hasn't let her character wander away. She persuaded Thomas Maier, author of the book version of Masters of Sex, to let her listen to some of his interview tapes with Virginia Johnson. She became fascinated with the contradictions of Johnson, who insisted she never loved William Masters even though they ended up married for two decades. "There hasn't been one day that has gone by in those three years that I have not been thinking about this job," says Caplan. "I don't remember a time before Virginia Johnson."

Caplan harbored fantasies of spending the night with Johnson at her assisted-living center in St. Louis, but it didn't happen. Johnson died last year and was ambivalent about the show. But Caplan, who dated Matthew Perry for years and describes herself as "recently seriously single," sees something of herself in Johnson.

"She wanted to be a mother, but she didn't want to be a wife necessarily," says Caplan. "I still have this idealized version where maybe I'll get to be both simultaneously. That's the goal right now. But she tailor-made her own life, picking and choosing from each category what she wanted. That was difficult for a woman in the 1950s. That's how I want to live my life. It's an act of bravery for women now who choose not to get married, who can have babies on their own and pursue their careers first."

But it's not just the feminist part of Johnson that connects with Caplan. Johnson was often derided in the book and on the show for getting by on sass and not substance. It's not too far from the way Caplan was viewed in Hollywood before Masters of Sex. "I think Lizzy looked at Virginia and said, 'There are so many things I can identify with,'" says show creator Ashford. "She's lived much of this herself."

The great irony is that the sex scenes in Masters of Sex are the easy part of the show for Caplan. After the vodka on the True Blood set, she's reached a comfort level with her naked self. Before a recent taping of a scene where Caplan and Sheen copulate, Caplan reclined, put her legs up and yelled, "Ah, home again."

The psychological strain of Virginia Johnson has been more difficult. Caplan seems exhausted by the experience in a way one is not exhausted by playing the love interest in Hot Tub Time Machine. A few weeks ago, she found herself sitting in her dressing room saying to herself, "I don't wanna do this, I don't wanna do this, I'd rather be doing anything but this."

"It was a momentary 'what the fuck, why am I here?' kind of an existential crisis," she says. "But it passed real quick. This is only my second Season Two. I'm so lucky." Caplan flashes a quick smile. She then gathers up her bag of meat and heads for her BMW. There will be no crying tonight.

From The Archives Issue 1216: August 28, 2014

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