On Showtime’s Masters of Sex—about the lives and work of sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson—you play Virginia. How tough is it to play someone real?
I didn’t feel tremendous stress impersonating her because she’s not somebody enough people know so well that they could judge if I was moving or speaking like she did. I was let off the hook. It turned out I identified with her to an eerie degree—her struggle, what it was like for a woman then. And yet, because I was mainly known for doing comedy, not drama, I just couldn’t shake the idea that the people who had hired me would quickly get wise to the fact that I was the wrong person for the job, that I was in over my head. Luckily, that’s what the real Virginia Johnson felt when she showed up for her first day with Dr. Masters, so it worked for me.
There’s a lot of nudity on Masters of Sex, including yours. How comfortable are you with being naked on-camera?
It’s certainly not boring. They give us pretty intense stuff to do. A standard-issue sex scene is one thing, but standing completely naked and masturbating in front of someone is quite another. Arrgh. All that stuff we did in the second season is just now coming back to me. I’ve watched only the first season and three episodes from the second, in part because season two started airing while we were still shooting. I realized that, as an actress, especially in this role—in fact, only for this role so far in my career—it required a much different muscle to make the show than to watch it. Drama is such a departure for me. I wanted to trust my instincts and not let viewing—and the inevitable self-criticism—affect my performance. I don’t know many actors who enjoy watching their work anyway. At premieres they’ll go to dinner during the movie and then show up to the party.
You’re not the only one who takes off their kit on the show. In addition to your test subjects, Michael Sheen, who plays Masters, strips down for sex scenes with you—for research purposes only, of course.
I don’t think Michael Sheen does this, but definitely most of the guys who take their shirts off do push-ups or lift weights. The super-cut guys have these intense regimens. Not only do they work out all day, but they also don’t drink any water and they swallow diuretics for one day. That doesn’t sound great. I guess it’s just as bad for the boys; they’re as vain as we are.
Masters of Sex takes place during the late 1950s and early 1960s, an era when women ramped up their struggle for liberation. Virginia Johnson keeps pushing the envelope, but you can feel her frustration at almost every turn. Things have changed, but have they changed enough?
The tough pills that women are expected to swallow have gotten better, but it’s naive to think we’ve come that far from the 1950s. Women are still expected to accept a lower paycheck than a man for the same amount of work. And what about the difficulties every working mother faces, the stigma of leaving her child with a caregiver versus staying home and giving up her own dreams? There’s nothing on our show around the feminist issues that I don’t feel has a huge echo today. If anything, it makes me angry about today. [pauses] I’ve never said this out loud before, but I don’t know if we’ll get there in my lifetime. Until we can convince our own side—women—that this is a good thing for all of us, I don’t see how we stand a chance convincing all the men.
Women are divided about equality too?
Yes. It’s disturbing. It’s not a 50-50 split, but some women have reacted to what I think is the wrong definition of feminism. It doesn’t mean you hate men or you hate sex or you’re a butch lesbian. Feminism is about equality. And yet some women with sway in this world, especially with younger girls, are unwilling to identify as feminists, and I don’t see how that helps. There are still some women fighting against other women who want to make their own reproductive decisions. That just blows my mind.
You did your first nude scene during a short arc on True Blood. Did you really prepare by getting smashed on vodka? What brand is best for helping loosen your inhibitions?
Wow, that feels like so long ago. I was just 25 and really nervous. The first time is scariest. I think I drank Grey Goose, kept in the freezer from the night before and mixed into a bottle of Vitaminwater—a surprisingly delicious cocktail. I drank the entire bottle and had to get my stomach pumped. [laughs] I don’t know who told me the facts of life about doing nude scenes, but it was “Do whatever you need to do to get through it.” I was encouraged to get loose. Unfortunately that’s not an option on Masters, even for the more intimidating nude scenes, because they’re always in the middle of the day, with nine pages of intense dialogue. For the True Blood scene I had to walk across a room wearing only tiny panties and climb on a guy, and that was it.
Can you tell when someone you meet socially has seen you on-screen in the buff? What are the signs of creep factor?
It’s usually a guy who can’t stop smiling and whose eye contact is inappropriately intense when he introduces himself. They’re incapable of hiding it. Very uncomfortable and stressful. But what am I going to do, be mad that people watch my show?
When actresses talk about disrobing on set one always hears the same thing: how wonderful the crew is, how sensitive. It’s almost a cliché. What’s it really like?
The crews are very respectful. It’s a pared-down crew, the smallest group possible—the director of photography, producers, writers, makeup artist. And I really trust them. I’ve looked up from a scene, and no matter what, as soon as they cut, everybody turns the cameras away and looks down at the ground. Nobody’s trying to sneak a peek. They also lock the set up tightly. For the particularly intimidating sex scenes, I double-check who will be behind the monitor. It’s one thing to feel safe in the room, but with monitors broadcasting, you have to feel safe all over the set. It’s a good thing there’s no live feed in the cafeteria. That would be bad.
You’ve described yourself as an actress who has appeared in many roles, most of which you claim nobody has seen. But with a résumé that includes shows such as Party Down, The League, The Class, Related and The Pitts, as well as guest spots on New Girl, Smallville and your debut on Freaks and Geeks, plus roles in films including The Interview, Hot Tub Time Machine, Cloverfield, Bachelorette and Mean Girls —and this is just half of what you’ve done—you’ll excuse us for not believing you. What’s your stick-to-it secret?
I’m very competitive and ambitious. I’ve gotten angry when I didn’t get a role. That fueled me for many years. Instead of quitting, I just wanted to make a list of whoever I thought had wronged me by not hiring me. I’d show those motherfuckers. I’m sure I’ve since gone to work for some of those motherfuckers, because at a certain point you have to let it go. If it were easy to be an actor or actress, then everybody would do it. We all have to start at the bottom. I’m grateful for every bad audition experience. It’s given me a career I can be truly grateful for. We shouldn’t be handed things.
Is it true you avoid social media?
I’ve never been on Twitter, Facebook, Myspace or Instagram. I know myself well enough to know that I would spend far too much time obsessing over a tweet or a photo or an opinion. I understand I’m part of a business, that it’s not driven just by artistic integrity. You have to take into account the commerce. But being online is not my job. My job is to convince you that I’m somebody else. The less people know about me, the better I’m allowed to be at my job. I don’t want to get a job because I have 500,000 Twitter followers. I want to get a job because I earned it.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night?
Besides open and close my eyes? I know what I should do: take a few deep breaths, a couple of moments of meditative thoughts, stretch, start my day. What I actually do is hit snooze about 15 times, check my e-mail, get pissed off by something I read, get out of bed, drink two cups of coffee before I’ve eaten anything and start my day on the totally wrong foot. The end of my day should also involve some deep breathing, some light meditation and perhaps some more stretching. But it usually just ends with watching The Real Housewives. I love it. It’s painful but so meaningless to my life that it’s like junk food. It’s white noise, and for some reason it relaxes me.
You once told Conan O’Brien about rifling through your parents’ X-Rated Cookbook as a child and seeing a breast tart and a meat-loaf penis. What else did you discover that you couldn’t describe on the air?
It’s been 25 years, but those are seared into my memory. The breast tart was beautifully photographed in that kind of grainy 1970s color. The dick meat loaf was just disgusting and unsettling. I don’t remember anything resembling a butt or vagina, but the vagina could have been anything. Does a shellfish work for you? A hamantasch? It was probably some sort of cake or meat shaped into a sloppy-looking vagina that could feed a family of four.
You’ve said you grew up a tomboy. When did you get into girlie clothes?
The show helped. Every single day I wear these long-line bras and girdles and stockings that I put into garter clips—just like your mom used to wear. That makes me feel like a woman before I even go into hair and makeup. I wore panty hose and tights when I was younger, but not stockings, which are very elegant. I like jeans and T-shirts, so I don’t know if I would have matured into my womanhood, as queer as that sounds, without this job. Or maybe I’m just at the age when this starts to happen to all of us career tomboys. I’ll credit the show.
When you were a kid, what was under the bed that scared you?
Seriously, every night I checked in my sheets for spiders and in my closet for monsters and/or robbers. I was always petrified someone was going to break into the house and kill me. Always. I think girls are raised to be more aware of who’s walking behind them on the street. You have to be more alert moving through your life than a guy does, which pisses me off. At the time, I thought it would be a genius idea to keep a bottle of ketchup by my bed. In case somebody broke in I could pour ketchup on myself so it would look like I was already dead—and they’d leave me alone. It now seems sort of crazy that anyone who would break in would believe that someone else had gotten there first. Another problem: It takes too long to get the ketchup out of the bottle. I needed a squirt bottle. Terrible plan. Major holes.
What would we find in your underthings drawer that would surprise us?
A severed human head. And a severed finger—but I won’t specify which one. [laughs] I’ve always found it hilarious how guys are shocked when they see what’s in girls’ underwear drawers: It’s the underwear we wear when you’re not going to see us. I do have some going-out underwear, but I’m really not into dropping a lot of coins on sexy lingerie. I love lingerie, but it’s more for me and for showing other girls. Guys, I’ve realized, can find anything sexy.
What do you find sexy?
I like when guys don’t wear those boxer briefs that go to mid-thigh and look like bike shorts. It’s harder and harder to find. They’re very popular, but I think they look stupid. I prefer old-fashioned tighty-whities or even just boxer shorts. When you discover a man who wears tighty-whities, you hold on to him. It’s so old-school. They’re great.
What don’t women understand about men that they still need to learn? And vice versa.
For the ladies, I suppose it’s worth assuming that whatever little physical imperfections you obsess over in the mirror are in reality invisible to the man you’re standing naked in front of. He is distracted, you see, by your breasts. For the men: that your girlfriend’s girlfriends know everything about your penis and most things about your balls.
What kind of man has a chance with you?
A guy who wants a chance with me has to have a sick and dark sense of humor. [laughs] I’ve had a handful of serious relationships. I take that shit very seriously. Before breaking up I will try everything to make it work, because if I love somebody, it means a great deal. I don’t toss that word around easily or frequently. But when it’s over, there’s a DO NOT RESUSCITATE sign hung around the relationship’s head. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
We’ve heard you’re a food thief who likes to eat off other people’s plates. You even have a special three-foot-long fork.
I did have the fork, but I’m careful to eat only from portions that seem untouched. I get that it might be weird for others, but I was raised not to create boundaries around my plate or around the plates of others. Besides, food just looks better when it’s on someone else’s plate.
We forgot to ask: When did you master sex? And what’s better than sex?
Immediately. [laughs] Nah, no one does it immediately. I was very lucky to have an ideal first sexual experience. It was good and sweet and safe. What’s better than sex? Sex with someone I like.
Styling by Anita Patrickson at the wall group | Hair by Christian Wood for Toni & Guy hair meet wardrobe at the wall group | Makeup by Molly Stern at Starworks Artist | Prop styling by Sean Daly |