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Michael Sheen is one of Britain’s most accomplished and respected actors, having starred in three films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Equally at home on stage or screen, his versatility has seen him play roles including Tony Blair, Brian Clough, David Frost, Kenneth Williams and Hamlet! In his latest project, Masters of Sex, a twelve-part drama set in 1950s in the Midwest USA, he plays pioneering sex researcher Dr William Masters. Here, he reveals more.
Q: Could you please give us a quick overview of the series?
M: It’s the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson who were pioneers in the field of sex research. It follows the struggle that Bill Masters had in trying to explore this subject, which was very controversial during the mid- to late-50s. It also follows how the relationships, particularly between Masters and Johnson but also those around them, are all intertwined with the sex research itself.
Q: What was it about the role that particularly attracted you to it?
M: Well, it’s about a subject that I think is fascinating to people. Regardless of whether it’s set in the 1950s or the present day, it’s something that everybody, in one way or another, has to deal with on a daily basis. I thought the character of Bill Masters was fascinating; very shut off, very difficult to read, and very difficult to know what’s going on in his mind. Underneath the surface there is a lot of roiling, churning emotion going on, but he’s very controlled on the surface, so I thought that’s an interesting character to explore. Also, exploring the life of a man who’s chosen to work in an area that inevitably leads to him having to reveal a lot of himself both physically and, more importantly, emotionally is an interesting challenge for a character.
Q: Modern attitudes towards sex are arguably very different to attitudes towards sex during the 1950s. To what extent do you think these differences are due to the work of Masters and Johnson?
M: During the period of time that they were working in, the area of sex and sexuality wasn’t very talked about. Very little was open, there were a lot of myths, there was a lot of ignorance, people were in the dark, and it was a very dysfunctional relationship. Now, it could be said that today we have just as dysfunctional a relationship with sex, but just in a different way. The work that Masters and Johnson did definitely opened up the possibility to talk about sex, to see it in a new light and to have access to actual, factual, details to refer to. Suddenly there was a platform to be able to explore issues to do with sex and sexuality. It definitely changed things. But things have shifted since then. Now, we’re inundated with images of sexuality and information about sex. But we’re still just as much in the dark about it in lots of ways. Nowadays, I think one of the greatest dangers is that there appears to be some kind of sexual ideal which if somehow we don’t match up to then there’s something wrong. There’s just as much opportunity to feel shame and anxiety about your own sexuality as there was back then, it’s just for different reasons now.
Q: The relationship between William Masters and Virginia Johnson was very complicated. To what extent did Johnson influence Masters in his personal life as well as his research work?
M: Well one of the things that I think Bill discovered very early on was that his social skills weren’t necessarily that developed. I think he finds people quite difficult to deal with. Because of the research that he’s doing this issue became very important and so when he took on Virginia as an assistant it became clear that she brought a whole set of skills to the team that were very much lacking on his part, so they complemented each other very well, and they certainly allowed the study to develop in a way that it couldn’t have if it had just been Bill. I think once they became a team, and as Virginia’s position within the team became more and more defined and she began to play a more important role, then that team became very formidable. On a personal level, I think Virginia represented something that I think Bill had a conflicted relationship with. I think she, on some level, understood that she was going to be able to bring something out of him, something that was closer to what he would instinctively want for himself. But he’s a man who’s built his entire persona on control, on not being particularly spontaneous. So I think he’s both drawn to her and repelled by her, or at least by what she represents. I don’t think it’s ever particularly clear to either of them what the true nature of their relationship is. I think that there are a lot of different currents flowing between them and through them, and they’re playing out a lot of different things in their relationship. I think that’s what makes it a fascinating relationship, that as soon as you think you know where you are with them something happens and it changes and constantly confounds your expectations.
Q: What did you do by way of research for the role?
M: I actually became a doctor! That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. I do have to explain that I was made a Doctor of Arts, but I was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Wales, and so I am officially Dr. Sheen. Of course, I also read the book that Thomas Maier wrote about them (also called Masters of Sex). I also met some OBGYN surgeons who were practicing at the time that Masters and Johnson released their work, so I got a sense of what it was like before their work was published and how things changed very quickly for people working in that field.
Q: There have been a number of hit TV shows that have been set in the 1950s, what is it about that period that seems to resonate so strongly with audiences at the moment?
M: Well I think it’s a period of time that on one hand seems like a whole world away and yet, on the other hand, is actually very recent. I think it can be quite a useful way to comment on today’s world whilst having the fact that it feels like a very long time ago acting as a kind of buffer. I think we’re a lot closer to what was going on at that time, and we’re still very much affected by what was happening then, much more than I think we’re aware of.
Q: What were the days like on set? There are some very funny scenes and some very unflinching scenes. What was it like, as an actor, dealing with those two ends of the spectrum?
M: You see everything through the prism of your character, really (well I certainly do) and so you want a very varied experience as you’re working on something. It becomes very useful to have humour in there and I think it makes it more accessible for an audience as well. Because of the subject matter, and the period of time that it’s set in, this secret research that’s going on within a very repressed society and in a culture that is very much about how things appear and being proper, there are inevitably going to be some humorous situations that arise quite naturally. Put a character like Beau Bridges’ (Barton Scully) in a situation where you’ve got a prostitute masturbating with a glass dildo, there is going to be a certain amount of humour that is there to be mined, and that’s great for the audience and it allows for a more varied experience for the characters as well.
Q: The series looks at a particular moment in time of Masters’ and Johnson’s research, but obviously they worked together for decades. What do you see as the potential life span of the series?
M: We’ve talked about it a little bit and there’s no set plan. Obviously we’ll see how things work out, but I think there is a desire to tell the entire story of Masters and Johnson. This is based on real people and factual events, so it’s not like you have to make things up as you go along, and we know the trajectory of the characters, and we know where they end up so it would be terrific to be able to tell their story. Also, because their story intersects so much with the story of our culture, and our culture’s relationship to sex and sexuality and how that’s changed, it would be great to be able to chart that journey through the focus of Masters’ and Johnson’s characters.
Q: You’re well known for portraying some very well-known figures like David Frost and Tony Blair. Dr William Masters is less well-known. Was that a relief, or was it a bit more of a challenge, playing a character with fewer recognisable traits?
M: It’s just different, really. I do enjoy being able to work off a pre-existing structure. One pre-existing structure is the script, obviously, but in the case of a real-life person another pre-existing structure is their actual life which I can read about, watch, listen to, discuss. That becomes a big factor in the development of the performance. In the case of Bill Masters, it’s not like I’m playing a character that everyone knows what he looks like, what he sounds like, his mannerisms and all that kind of stuff, so there isn’t that element (which can require a lot of work and ultimately I think people slightly overstate the importance of) to be taken on board. It’s all about making an audience comfortable with the fact that you’re playing that person, trying to get them to accept that they are that character and person. In a way it’s a relief to play a real-life person when I don’t have to worry about any well-known mannerisms for patterns of speech, but it doesn’t make it any easier or harder, it’s just a different way of coming at it.
Q: Do you prefer acting on the stage or on the screen?
M: I don’t really have a preference. These days it’s more logistical than anything else in that most of the theatre performances I’ve done are either in London or in New York. I live in LA with my daughter and as really it’s a minimum of six months to do a play so that means being away from my daughter for six months, which I don’t want to do. It’s not that I prefer one or the other; I just do less theatre now because it’s impractical. I enjoy doing both and I hope that I’ll be able to continue to do both.
Q: What do you like to watch on TV?
M: I have really enjoyed shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. I love Nurse Jackie as well; I think Edie Falco is extraordinary in that. I’ve been watching Dexter recently, Mad Men and Girls. House of Cards I watched recently as well and Homeland of course. I think it’s a really great time for TV drama at the moment.
Q: Wales has just produced the world’s most expensive footballer in Gareth Bale. You were offered a place on the Arsenal Juniors team in your youth, is that something you’re slightly regretting now given Gareth Bale’s recent pay rise…?
M: No, no! My career as a footballer would’ve been (if I’d ever even had one as it’s so difficult to even get into first team in a Premier League club and to then have a career, at that level…) over just around the time that it was really taking off for me as an actor I suppose. Plus I get to play at Old Trafford every two years anyway with the Soccer Aid charity so I’ve still managed to play with Giggs and the rest of them. I’ve even played with Gordon Ramsey!
Masters of Sex is on Channel 4 this October.