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Stars of ‘Masters of Sex’ playing challenging roles

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen star as Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters on Showtime’s series “Masters of Sex,” about the ground-breaking research into human sexuality they began in the 1950s.

MICHAEL DESMOND/SHOWTIME

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen star as Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters on Showtime’s series “Masters of Sex,” about the ground-breaking research into human sexuality they began in the 1950s.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Although the title may be titillating, Showtime’s new period drama “Masters of Sex” is about much more than getting busy. Set in 1950s St. Louis, the series airing Sunday nights at 10 stars Michael Sheen (“30 Rock,” “Frost/Nixon”) and Lizzy Caplan (“Mean Girls,” “Party Down”) as pioneering human sexuality researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson.

Sheen and Caplan, alongside their costars and the “Masters” creators, recently fielded questions from reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Here are a few excerpts from that discussion.

SHEEN on Masters, who, although he researched sex, is portrayed as disconnected emotionally from intimacy:

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“He’s sort of a mystery to himself, really. He has so many locked rooms inside himself that he has to tread very carefully and make sure that he tries to control his environment so much. So I think that creates kind of what you might call prudishness, but [is] actually sort of a lock-down desire to keep control. I don’t think that’s necessarily typical of everyone in the society at that time. But obviously, things have changed in many ways since the ’50s when the show is started, in terms of sexuality and how much access we have to images of it and information about it. But the same problems always apply. It doesn’t matter whether we know a lot more about sex now or there’s a lot more access to it. The same problems of intimacy, of dealing with other people, of connecting and being vulnerable with other people, which is what the show is ultimately about, still applies now, I think.”

CAPLAN, who has often played strong female characters, on Johnson, who is portrayed as having views on sex that were unconventional for the period:

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of women like that. And I think when you’re telling a story set in the present day, you can do a lot of that work by wardrobe choices or even hair color or a strategically placed tattoo. Virginia Johnson looks like every other woman around her. It’s what’s inside of her that makes her different and the choices that she makes. That’s what makes her different. I do feel like a lot of the women I’ve played leading up to this point have prepared me to play this woman, who, I think, is by far the most layered and by far the toughest. And when I think about some of the stuff that I’ve done with other characters, I just have to sort of multiply the intensity of it when placing it in this time period, in this part of the country, when she was not offered any sort of support for her more alternative decisions. And so every decision she made resonated especially loudly for me.”

On balancing the tone for the series which mixes drama, some comedy, and sex scenes both in a clinical setting and more conventional environments:

SHEEN: “I think tone is very important with this show, because there are certain aspects to the show that may be reminiscent of other shows. But it really is a very new kind of show, I think, in terms of the subject matter, in terms of the way it’s being dealt with, the fact that it’s about real people, real events. And so finding the right tone for that, for just so much sexuality being on display in the piece, it has to be absolutely believable. It’s also going between images and scenes with nudity and sexuality that would be, I suppose, seen in conventional terms as kind of sexually exciting. But it’s up against things that are much more medical and gynecological, and notoriously we as a culture and a society have some issues with that kind of thing. And so, [finding] a way of presenting all of these things that creates a kind of cohesive whole and doesn’t alienate the audience is tough. I think [with] a lot of shows, you discover the tone through experimentation, through actually making it. Eventually, it starts to cohere. So I don’t think it’s necessarily something that any show gets absolutely bang-on from the beginning. You kind of find your way with the chemistry that’s there already. And my own take on it is that you just try and make everything — and this relates to the question about the humor as well — that it has to come out of the situation. It has to come out of very believable, centered, real situations and characters bouncing off each other.

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CAPLAN: Exactly. We’re not really going for a joke. I mean, if you put a dildo in front of Beau Bridges’s face, people are going to laugh. But the actual work that was done by the real people sort of does a lot of that work for us. I mean, inherently, some of the situations that we’re depicting on this show are ridiculous, but they’re factually accurate and it’s what they really did to come to the conclusions that they came to. So we’re not trying to pull a bunch of jokes or anything, but I do think there are definitely moments of levity in this show. And I think in dramatic pieces, those moments of levity are especially appreciated.

Excerpts have been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at sarah.rodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.
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