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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The new TV series "Masters of Sex" tells a true story set in the middle of the last century; before the Pill, before free love, before it sometimes feels like sex was even invented. It takes us to a time when a young researcher, William Masters, might have sat down with a friend and expressed this frustration.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I mean the real truth, Barton, is I don't know anything about sex. And you don't either.

MICHAEL SHEEN: (as William Masters) But wouldn't you like to know? I mean wouldn't everyone like to know some answers? Wouldn't we all be so much better off if we could shine a light into the darkness?

MARTIN: Eventually, using electrodes, brothels and a lot of politicking, William Masters and his research partner Virginia Johnson made sure everyone knew about sexology. William Masters, as you heard in that clip, is played by Welsh actor Michael Sheen. His partner is a singer turned secretary, turned researcher, Virginia Johnson, who is played by Lizzy Caplan.

In our conversation, Michael Sheen started by explaining what was so new about Masters and Johnson's famous sex research.

SHEEN: Kinsey had obviously done his study but was based on anecdotal evidence, so no one had actually studied what happens to the body during sex. There were no textbooks, there was no reference. When I spoke to some OB/GYN surgeons who were working at the time, they said that if people came in with any kind of sexual problems, there was just nothing they could refer them to other than their own sex lives.

MARTIN: And, Lizzy, Virginia is initially hired as a secretary, but she is substantively more than that to Bill Masters. Describe her role in his project.

LIZZY CAPLAN: I like to think of the two of them as two parts of a whole. Bill has very, very shoddy people skills. He doesn't know how to make people feel comfortable in any sort of way but he had all the scientific expertise and all the prestige. Virginia comes in and by the strength of her personality she makes herself this indispensable part of this study.

MARTIN: When you first encountered a script for this show, Lizzy, what jumped off the page to you that made you think, oh, wow, that is a character I'd like to play?

CAPLAN: I guess the fact that I was drawn to it at all. I mean, I had pretty much decided that I was a comedic actress only. And when I read this script, I was blown away by, A, how much I liked it, and, B, how I felt like my comedic characters had prepared me to play this particular woman.

SHEEN: I too was finding it hard to break out of the comedic actress box, which is why I was so excited when this role came along.

(LAUGHTER)

CAPLAN: Yeah. Well, you're like Bette Midler.

MARTIN: So, Michael, for you, when you first encountered Bill Masters on the page, what made you think this is the man for me?

SHEEN: Well, lots of reasons really. Partly because, you know, when you first get sent a script for a TV series, you only have to make a decision based on the pilot episode. It's one single episode. But the deal that you have to sign for it is for seven years potentially. So, it's a big decision you make based on very little.

MARTIN: Kind of risky.

SHEEN: Exactly. So, a lot of what goes into that decision, I think, is about potential, about possibility.

MARTIN: Because he's - your character's not exactly very endearing in the pilot.

SHEEN: No. But that's one of the things that I really like about the character, is that he doesn't pander to wanting people to like him. The role itself is quite challenging in that he's sort of, in some ways, the good guy and the bad guy of the show at the same time. And I like that. I'm drawn to that kind of challenge, I suppose.

MARTIN: At one point in the very first episode, Bill Masters says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

SHEEN: (as Bill Masters) We need to implement a system.

MARTIN: It would be really good for his science project.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

SHEEN: (as Bill Masters) You won't object to a device...

MARTIN: If he and Virginia engaged in the research themselves and had sex with one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

CAPLAN: (as Virginia Johnson) But why don't you just come out and say whatever it is you're trying to say.

SHEEN: (as Bill Masters) The two of us should undertake the research ourselves.

CAPLAN: Have sex with our patients? Bill, that would be transference.

SHEEN: We should undertake the research with each other.

MARTIN: I have to say, at the time, when I watched this, it seemed like a plot device. But I understand this actually is how it happened. He made this proposition to Virginia in real life.

SHEEN: Indeed. Yeah.

CAPLAN: Yeah. The things that are the most shocking in our show are true, which then makes them even more shocking.

SHEEN: One of the difficulties with this show is that there's almost an embarrassment of riches. It's about choosing what you keep in as opposed to trying to create content for it. It's an extraordinary story.

MARTIN: You two are serious actors with all this talent and this is a serious show. But I just wonder when you're doing a show that is so much about sex - there are a lot of sex scenes, sexual conversation - do you ever just start giggling at inopportune moments?

CAPLAN: I giggle every time Michael takes his shirt off.

(LAUGHTER)

CAPLAN: Everybody does. Oh, my friend...

(LAUGHTER)

SHEEN: Apart from small children, who start crying and running away.

CAPLAN: It's so strange to think about, you know, plenty of times on set the co-stars don't get along. And I cannot imagine it. When Masters and Johnson start taking on the research together, they do the wired-up version of having sex. Meaning we have taped electrodes all over our bodies. And if you cover up in between takes, they all fall off and it's an extra 20 minutes. And so we got used to just sort of sitting around in our birthday suits and having conversations about sports.

MARTIN: Really? No.

CAPLAN: Yeah, we did.

SHEEN: That's true.

CAPLAN: We did.

MARTIN: Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. They star in the new Showtime TV series "Masters of Sex." It premieres on Showtime tonight. They joined us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much, you two.

CAPLAN: Thank you.

SHEEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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