Q&A: Dirty Talk With the Woman Behind Masters of Sex

Photo: Showtime, LLC. All rights reserved.

The best part of Showtime’s new series Masters of Sex isn’t the sex — though there is plenty. The best part is the talk.

Masters of Sex, which aired its first episode last night, follows the personal and professional lives of pioneering sexologists William Masters and Virgina Johnson as they embark on their groundbreaking research into ordinary sex lives. And amid all the will-they-won’t-they-we know-they-will banter between Lizzy Caplan (Johnson) and Michael Sheen (Masters), it offers a funny, thought-provoking commentary on both historical and contemporary attitudes toward sex.

Showrunner Michelle Ashford talked to the Cut about modesty patches, booty calls, and how sex scenes are like action sequences.

Photo: Michael Desmond Photography/Showtime, LLC

This is a pretty sexually charged show, with lots of graphic sex. How did you approach that?
I’m not someone who even watches shows with lots of sex. I feel like so much sex in movies and TV is so boring because it’s so predictable: It’s using sex to be sexy. To me, that’s ridiculous. So my first thought was how can we do this in a way that isn’t like that approach? That’s one of our rules: The sex always has to have some sort of story.

We didn’t want to romanticize sex. We’re looking at what these subjects did in an exam room, and we really wanted to capture the reality of that. It’s awkward and funny and harrowing, and we wanted to show how it tested the people watching and the subjects taking part. 

Do you have any rules for the actors to keep things from being too awkward?
We had to set very definite rules. We didn’t do it right at the beginning, but we didn’t realize what we were in for.

For example, one of the actresses didn’t want to wear a modesty patch — a patch that covers private parts. She just didn’t feel like it. But then you realize there are all these other people standing there, and how do they feel about it? We had meetings to set expectations, the same way directors of action movies have to discuss safety when they’re blowing things up.

What was the most interesting part of bringing this show to life?
I love the idea of using the notion of trying to understand sex in a scientific way as a way to understanding love and intimacy and relationships, which is really what our show is all about. It was a trip to explore how much changed since the late fifties and to explore how much has not changed since the late fifties.

People were just confused about the simple physiology and biology of how bodies worked during sex — so, in that sense, it was very different than it is today. But what hasn’t changed is that the minute you get into sex, it’s impossible not to get into the emotions underneath. People are still as confused as ever about what sex means, how it fits in their lives — is it a way to connect, is it an alienating thing?

And it’s all becoming more complicated by hookup apps.
I’m not anyone who would have a hookup app, so I find this very interesting. So, basically, these apps allow you to find people that you can just have sex with sort of randomly?

Yes, like Tinder lets you geo-locate a booty call.
Oh God. This is kind of shocking! So, “Peter lives in this one-mile vicinity and he wants to have sex with you” — and then you start, what, texting back and forth and you hook up?

Something like that. Does this in any way relate to your source material?
Virginia Johnson, the actual woman, at the end of her life said, “I don’t know why I never married anyone I loved.” This is a woman who had a lot of sex. She had many partners in her life, and it really seemed like she had a weird separation between sex and love. On the one hand, it was sort of liberating because she could move through relationships without getting bogged down in a lot of emotional complication. She could have sex and then move on. But on the other hand, it ended up being — this is my opinion — her Achilles’ heel, because I think at the end of the day, sex with no deeper emotional connection is really not particularly satisfying on any sustainable level. So I think that’s one of the things we’re really exploring here. I mean, I appreciate that app, I suppose. But I can’t imagine that that’s going to last very long.

We know what happens with Virginia and William (thanks, history) — but how do you understand it?
They’re both ambitions. Were they in in it for work? Who knows? They spent their lives together. Even after they divorced, they were still doing things together. They wouldn’t have been successful if it weren’t for the other.

I think her initial attachment to him is one of admiration, because he was such a successful and confident and powerful doctor with this really interesting project. For him, I think he was initially attracted to her. There’s no question about that. Yet, he also really cared about his work and saw that she was going to be invaluable. He really championed her. He put her name on papers; he put her name on their book. He actually took the “M.D.” off of his name so that on the cover they would look like equals. 

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime, LLC

Why was Lizzy Caplan the right woman for this role?
Lizzy is a very contemporary girl. But she read the script and then she read the book and there was something in there that deeply struck her. She really understood Virginia Johnson — she felt there were very many things they had in common. And when it happened, we said, “Wow, she really gets this.”

Lizzy is very sophisticated. She’s very casual, funny, ironic, hyperaware. She uses a lot of slang. She can curse with the best of us. She’s grounded. And great to hang out with in a bar.

Your writing team is mostly women. Is that intentional?
No, but I’m happy it worked out that way. That was not by design. When you’re doing a job like this, the main worry is finding good people. I was just thinking who’s the best writer, who’s the best director. There are a lot of very talented women out there. It’s great to have a lot of female voices on this. We talk a lot about female sexuality — it would be a tough show to do with only men.

Unlike your first show, The Pacific.
I was the only woman. I wrote two episodes — both of them were the non-war episodes. They never gave me any of the battle stuff. And I thought, Oh! Guess that’s why they have a girl.

Dirty Talk With the Woman Behind Masters of Sex