Pop Culture

Showtime's 'Masters of Sex' breaks down barriers

Frederick M. Brown / Today
Actors Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan appear at the "Masters of Sex" panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

You might expect a press conference about a new television show called "Masters of Sex" to be dominated by sex.

You wouldn't be wrong.

For example: "I never thought I would get used to having a naked woman in front of me masturbating with a glass [sexual toy]…where I would almost not notice them doing it anymore and that a conversation about dinner that night would actually be more interesting," actor Michael Sheen said at the Television Critics Association summer press tour on Tuesday. "But I actually broke that barrier on this show."

And: "If you put a [sexual toy] in front of Beau Bridges' face, people are going to laugh," said actress Lizzy Caplan, explaining some of the levity in the period drama.

Starring Sheen ("Kingdom of Heaven") and Caplan ("Cloverfield") as William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers of the science of human sexuality, "Masters of Sex" premieres on Showtime on Sept. 29. The show is based on Thomas Maier's book, "Masters of Sex: The Life & Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson," and will track the decades-long professional and personal relationship of Masters and Johnson and the research that touched off the sexual revolution. As much as the show centers on the study of human sexuality, it also explores human vulnerability and relationships, Sheen said. Some of the sex scenes occur in a lab environment; others in more romantic settings.

"What I think we found in doing the show, and what I found in life generally, that the more you try to separate sex from everything else, it’s impossible," Sheen said. "...I found that I started talking about relationships more and the emotions and the difficulties and the challenges. I became far more open about that, which I think is probably an indication about the show itself — the more you think you’re watching a show about sex, the more you’re ultimately just watching a show about connecting with human beings and being intimate."

Caplan said she is enamored with Johnson, the toughest character she's ever played, because the role reminds the actress of her own mother, who allowed her to be open about sex when she was growing up. Johnson died on July 24 at the age of 88.

"What my mother did for me, being open and not judgmental — you’re not dirty, you’re not going to hell for asking these questions, Virginia Johnson did this for millions of women, for generations of women," Caplan said. "Sometimes all you need is for somebody to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you, that you’re normal. And before Masters and Johnson, nobody was telling women — it was always their fault. And that’s some [expletive]!"