Whether you know him from stage work, acclaimed films like The Queen or Frost/Nixon or going for the silly with his arc on 30 Rock, Michael Sheen has always been an actor we connect with, reveling in the journey he and his characters take us on.
In his new role as Dr. William Masters in Showtime's Masters Of Sex, Sheen must close himself off emotionally because his character was a man of greatness in his studies of sex but, ironically, had personal problems connecting with others emotionally. Especially when it came to his wife.
The ambitious series - based on Thomas Maier's biography, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson - dives into the early days of Masters' study, the start of his relationship with Johnson (played by Lizzy Caplan, below with Sheen) and the intricacies of the study itself. The series also stars Beau Bridges, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Teddy Sears and Nick D'Agosto
I sat down with Sheen recently to discuss how this character is different from past roles and what we'll find out about the past that shaped Masters into his adult self.
Michael Sheen: I guess it’s a whole combination of things, really, and it also depends on where you’re at in your life, as well, and what you feel you have to offer. I’ve come across scripts and parts that I thought were really good, but I ultimately felt like, 'You know what? I think someone else would be better at doing this than me. I’d like to have a go at it, but I feel like it’s not the right time for me to do this. '
I played Hamlet just before we started doing this, at the age of 42, and I’d been asked to play Hamlet many times throughout my career but it didn’t resonate. It didn’t connect. I can see that it’s a great part and it’s a great play and all that. I think the right thing comes along at the right time and part of the talent for having talent, then, is knowing what is the right thing to do at the right time, for you, and this was definitely that, for all kinds of reasons.
So, the script itself I really liked but it was a big risk because you’re essentially agreeing to commit to something possibly for years and years of your life. Maybe something that everyone will always identify you with and that’s a big, big thing. And it’s five months of the year, so it’s a big time commitment and you’re having to go off one little 50-minute episode, when even the people that are creating it don’t know what’s going to happen. So, there’s no guarantee. So, it was a big commitment, but all the different circumstances aligned, and it felt the right thing to do at the right time for me in my life and career.
TVF: Masters is emotionally very closed off. Is that more of a challenge to play than somebody who’s a little more outlandish and open?
MS: Yeah, initially I thought it was, and initially I was quite concerned about that. I’ve usually played characters where there’s a lot more going on on the surface, even if that’s very different to what’s going on under the surface. There’s more to obviously play. So, I was concerned about that but with the nature of this format of storytelling, where you have a much broader canvas, really, you’ve got 12 hours to tell a story, just the first part of the story, then a character who is like that is actually, it turns out, the most enjoyable to play in that way. It might be different if it was a 90-minute piece. Yeah, but with 12 hours to just even begin the story, start from that point of view, it is great, really exciting.
It becomes this really interesting puzzle, because I know so much about this man now, or certainly my version of this man, this character. I know so much of what’s going on underneath. I know so much of how he ticks and what the mechanics are inside him, and all that stuff. So, it becomes really interesting to how you reveal that, how do you show that, how do you, without being too on the nose about things, just indirectly allow an audience a glimpse of something that then puts everything else into relief.
So, I’m hoping there are moments through season one where everything you’ve thought you knew about him suddenly changes and you re-evaluate everything you’ve seen before and all that kind of stuff. So, it was the very things that I was most nervous about in the beginning, the things I came to appreciate the most.
TVF: The scenes with you and Caitlin [Fitzgerald, as Masters' wife, Libby], they’re so uncomfortable and almost horrific to watch. You see her wanting to connect and he can’t. Did you work on that together? Or is that the kind of thing that you don’t work on because you want that distance, emotionally?
MS: We would talk very much about certain aspects of the relationship from the characters, but then it was more about discovering things and always trying to go for the more complex parts, never going with the obvious or the simple or, not even the cliché, but just the accepted point of view. Clearly, when we first began, in the pilot episode, the relationship between them was, I think Michelle [Ashford, creator] would say, it was a little bit two-dimensional. It was a little bit, 'Oh, well, she’s the loyal housewife who’s desperate to connect, and he doesn’t really love her, and it’s just convenient.'
Even in the playing of it, I think just because of the nature of the kind of actress that Caitlin is, the kind of actor I am, it inevitably became more complicated. So, we just, rather than pulling back from that, we were like, 'No, let’s keep going with that.' And even though there’s stuff in the sex scene we have in the pilot episode, even though it’s all been cut out, when we were doing it we did all kinds of stuff that was interesting. Now, it’s been edited to actually reflect much more what the pilot script was like but what we discovered from doing that stuff that you don’t see feeds into the season.
So, we found out all kinds of things, and that relationship became so much more three-dimensional in the season as it goes along, and you’ll see. It’s sort of extraordinary what happens. That was the revelation of the season, I think. We always knew that the relationship between Masters and Virginia was going to be very, very interesting and layered and challenging, but I don’t think anyone quite expected that the relationship between Bill and Libby was going to become so complex and interesting.
TVF: Speaking of Virginia, I could tell he’s intrigued by her in the beginning. Is he also a little afraid of her, just of what she represents and how she’s so different than him?
MS: I think, certainly the way I related to it, was that this is a man who has defined himself by his ability to control. He is literally God-like in his own mind. He has the power of life. He’s a fertility expert. He controls everything, including himself, and we discover as time goes on maybe what that’s about, why there might be a fear of the opposite of that, why the feeling of not being in control could be maybe so dangerous to him, and so, for a man who has built up an iron-clad persona and environment, this woman comes along, and something about this woman that I don’t think even he understands attacks that.
It starts to undo that. on the one hand, I think she speaks to something that he hasn’t really listened to for a long time, that is something maybe an authentic experience of his, something that is much more closer to who he really is. Therefore, that’s a life-giving force and I think he’s drawn to that. He’s attracted to that but it threatens to explode everything in his life, everything he’s built up.
So, he’s very, very frightened by that, or very challenged by that, very threatened by that. So, the woman who he’s most drawn to is also the woman that he has to defend himself against the most, as well, and the story of season one is about that battle, about how that will work.
TVF: Will we get any of his backstory maybe see flashbacks? I wonder what his parents were like, and I wonder what his upbringing was like. Do we get a piece of that at all?
MS: Oh, yes. Yeah, that becomes very much a focus.
TVF: I think what hooked me is at the end of the first episode, when he propositions Lizzy with something for the sake of the study and she goes, “Let me think about it,' and then she leaves, but we stay on Masters and see the look of almost shock or wonderment in his face.
MS: Throughout the entire episode, not showing any of that, and then at the end, 'Oh, that’s not what I was expecting.' You would expect the camera to follow her, and it doesn’t.
TVF: In a lot of TV, they don’t let actors or characters have those quiet moments, because everything’s got to happen so fast, but that was just a really terrific moment of silence. Congratulations.
MS: Thank you very much.
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime right after Homeland.