Michael Sheen’s Masterful Study of Sex and Insecurity
'Whatever you think you see in there, I’m not making it up.' Michael Sheen on his psychologically rigorous role in Masters of Sex—and his romance with Sarah Silverman.
Michael Sheen has convinced audiences that he is Tony Blair in The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon on stage and on film, and even the glassy-eyed leader of a vampire clan in the Twilight Saga. But even on that high-powered list, no character has been more complicated, contradictory, believable, off-putting and intriguing than his role on Showtime's Masters of Sex. Sheen plays Bill Masters as a doctor with a God complex, if God had been a sex researcher masking tons of insecurities.
The show charts the revolutionary study of human sexuality done by Masters and his one-time secretary, Virginia Johnson (played by Lizzy Caplan as a spunky, wise busybody). But it is their fraught emotional relationship that makes the story so explosive. He's married and she's divorced with two children. It didn't take long for them to go from watching couples have sex and recording data to becoming, as they so quaintly put it, "participants in the study" themselves.
The Season 2 finale arrives Sunday, and a third season has been picked up. The current season has taken the characters through jolting changes. (Spoilers here for shows that have run.) Bill and Virginia have been meeting clandestinely in a hotel room like any couple having an affair, but they are still calling it "the work." In a much-discussed episode, they watched a boxing match, he taught her how to land a punch, and he talked—while they were role-playing as the fictional Mr. and Mrs. Holden, their nom de hotel—about his own childhood, when his father beat him relentlessly. Masters and Johnson now have their own financially-strapped clinic. He has reluctantly reconnected with a brother we didn't even know he had in Season 1. And after a mid-season leap ahead by a few years, into the 1960s, Bill and his wife are the parents of two small children.
Sheen saw this coming because he has always taken the long view of his character. He arrived at a hotel restaurant to chat about the show looking not wildly different from Masters—no bow tie, but with a neat suit jacket and slightly longer, curlier hair. His trenchant analysis of Masters's character sounds as thorough as any scientist's, but with an artist's sense of ambiguity.
He was less eager to talk about media coverage of his relationship with Sarah Silverman, even though she accepted an Emmy with a shoutout to "my love, Mr. Fancypants Sheen," and had previously grabbed his ass on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute Gala. A photo of that ass-grab skyrocketed across the media landscape. As wily as his character when asked about it, Sheen proved himself to be a master of the media, feinting with a good sound bite.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
How has Bill Masters changed over this season?
By the end of the first season he had lost control of all the major areas in his life. He was no longer in control of his work environment, having had to leave the hospital. That’s a big thing for him, his persona as the alpha male of that environment. Then he lost control of his home environment because the baby was there. Then in terms of the relationship with Virginia that’s all about giving up control, and he felt like she was gone. Season 2 has been about: Who is Bill Masters if he doesn’t have the things that had defined him up until that point?
Which is why we play around with identity in Season 2, role playing and him moving from job to job. The whole story that we’re going to tell is about a man who is changing and that’s why I tried to play him to an extreme to begin with, the absolute extreme of repressed, controlled, defended, guarded because I know where I want to go with him ultimately. [In Season 1] a lot of people just wrote him off and said "Oh he’s a jerk, he’s an asshole." Hopefully for people who saw something more complicated going on, it pays off now.
He is a brilliant man and the hero of the piece, but he is terrible to his wife and to his mother. He’s arrogant. How do you portray him in a way that keeps us sympathetic?
Being able to tell a story over a very long period of time, you can take more risks with the relationship between the audience and the character. Hopefully what is becoming clearer is that he is like that to other people because that’s how he is to himself. He is so self-loathing and so self-punishing. It’s no picnic being Bill Masters. We’re not used to seeing characters who maybe are going to have massive U-turns. I like the idea of risking that. And it’s balanced out by Virginia, who is such an engaging and likable character.
They've been playing this game where it seems like they're having an affair, and they insist to each other, "No of course we’re not having an affair." Are they deluding themselves? Do they actually think they’re not having an affair? What’s going on there?
There is no definitive answer to that. That’s what the show is about: all those things are there. People don’t know why they do things all the time. They think they’re doing one thing, and in retrospect it was something different. That’s again the beauty of this structure, you can play around with that a lot more and come closer to real life. We have all kinds of motivations and all kinds of currents of desire and fear flowing through us. I love the fact that we can explore that. It is impossible to pin down at any one moment exactly what is going on for either character and what exactly is the state of the relationship. Things can drift over time and you can find yourself very far away from shore when you thought you were quite close to the beach. Time plus desire can you lead you to some strange unfamiliar places.
There is also a real power struggle going on this season that plays out in various ways. Some of it is sexual. He’ll throw her against the wall. She'll order him to masturbate and watch him. Is that a reflection of some kind of emotional power struggle as well?
Isn’t that in every relationship? There is a power struggle going on, and it’s always a dance we play with ourselves about how much you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable and how much you protect yourself. It's ultimately the story of all of us. In some ways Bill represents the worst of all of us, but nevertheless it’s still us. That’s a big part of what I’m doing with this character, to challenge to the audience: Are you prepared to see the humanity of this man? Are you prepared to see yourself in this man?
Because I’m playing me. He is called Bill Masters, but I can only play me. I’m trying to be as honest as I can about all the parts of myself I’m ashamed of and unhappy about and wish they weren’t there, but they are, and I know they are in everyone else as well. So I’m being honest. Are you prepared to be honest about this as well? Or is it a lot more comfortable and safe just to go, "Jerk, asshole, monster—that has nothing to do with me."
So what parts of you are Bill Masters?
I don’t think I need to talk about them because I play them. Whatever you think you see in there, I’m not making it up. I can't draw on anyone else’s real life, there is only mine to go on, so everything has to be psychologically rigorous and emotionally honest. It has to be if I want to play a character who is not a stock bad guy. It’s my experience of my own insecurities, my own jealousies, my own fears, my own anxieties, my own anger about things or desire to punish—things that everyone feels.
You didn’t know going into the first season if you were going to have a second and now there's a third coming. How far ahead do you and Michelle Ashford, the creator and showrunner, look?
Regardless of how many seasons we actually do, we had to decide how many seasons we would need to ideally tell this story, so that we know how long we can spend in any one period of time. The meat of the story is the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but there is still stuff going on in the ‘80s with the onset of the AIDS epidemic and how they reacted to that. That's part of what the jump in time this season was about, moving forward 2 or 3 years. We’ll have to do that a few times if we’re telling a story over three or four decades, and doing it in six or seven seasons ideally.
In real life Masters and Johnson didn’t get married until 1971. Playing any real-life person, you know his future. How does that shape how you play him?
Well, for a start that presupposes getting married means certain things. It doesn’t necessarily. Even though we know the facts of what happened to them, in no way does that explain what happened. You can’t make any assumptions about this. Virginia, just before she died said: there was never any love in the relationship, he forced me to have sex with him. So who do you believe? Everyone seems to go, "Oh well they got married so that means XY and Z." It doesn’t. We will discover what is in that when we get there. I know why they got married and it wasn’t on the surface anything to do with love.
I’ve read that she was about to go off with somebody else and the only way he could keep her was to divorce his wife and marry her.
But keep her with him for what? Because he loved her or because he wanted to keep her in the study?
What's your answer? Do you know?
You’ll have to see when we do it in the show. It makes it less interesting for you if I told you.
You’ve said in various interviews that Masters was hiding his authentic self. Did you have to decide early on: here is who I think he is essentially, and then take him from there?
No, because the authentic self isn’t a fixed thing. It’s a way of being. Like I say, it’s all based around control. He is afraid of his feelings, he has so much rage and hurt. His father used to beat the shit out of him for no reason at random times. The universe becomes a chaotic universe if you have a parent or authority figure who just punishes you totally randomly. It seems the universe is punishing, violent, random, chaos, and so of course you become controlling.
But also it makes you feel on some level—and this is the ultimate tragedy for anyone who goes through any kind of abuse—on some level you have to feel like you deserved it because that makes sense. If you don’t deserve it then nothing makes sense, and we cannot stand chaos. It’s more frightening to believe that your father beat you for no reason than it is to believe your father beat you because you deserved it and you don’t deserve love. That sets up a whole way of being that becomes incredibly destructive in your life and relationships—that’s what I’m trying to plot.
Is there any character or role you want to play?
As time goes on, it’s about being more personally invested in the projects, so there is no particular story or part. I just want to keep doing projects that have a lot of personal meaning to me. That probably means me writing more or developing things myself.
One last question. You got a lot of publicity for having your butt grabbed on the red carpet at the Met Gala.
I didn’t know we got lots of publicity
It was all over the web.
I don’t remember. I am genuinely unaware of that.
Okay. I think it was the moment when people said, "Oh yes Sarah Silverman and Michael Sheen are a couple because she grabbed his butt on the red carpet at the Met." There is a photograph of her hand on your butt if you want to look it up online.
I don’t need to. I can have her grab my butt whenever I want.