It’s lunch hour at a chic brasserie in Beverly Hills—the kind of place where Botoxed women in spandex share salads and businessmen hover over laptops and steak frites. Michael Sheen and I are discussing female orgasms and dildos. Of course, the topic might seem inappropriate under ordinary circumstances, but given Sheen’s latest role—he plays the real-life human-sexuality pioneer Dr. William Masters in Showtime’s new series Masters of Sex—our conversation doesn’t feel quite as dirty as it otherwise would.
The Welsh actor, who is known both for his screen-stealing biopic performances (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and his West End theater gravitas (Caligula, Hamlet), is dressed in a tailored charcoal suit and a freshly pressed shirt, ready to recount some of the more risqué moments on set. While the series is not a comedy, shooting it yielded a few light moments. Such as those on-set tricks orchestrated by his co-star Lizzy Caplan, who plays Masters’ research partner, Virginia Johnson. “I’d find ‘presents’ in my trailer…like giant replicas of penises,” he says with a snicker, combing his fingers through a tuft of salt-and-pepper hair. “I guess we knew what we were getting into when we signed on because of the subject matter, but I would imagine if we didn’t have the same sense of humor it would be incredibly awkward. We really developed a bond through dealing with bizarre situations.”
“Bizarre” might be an understatement. In the pilot episode of the show, the duo stands behind a two-way mirror with a stopwatch and clipboards, documenting women while they masturbate and couples as they have sex. According to Sheen, that’s only a small fraction of what’s to come. Masters of Sex is based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of Masters and Johnson, chronicling their controversial lives and the groundbreaking work that helped launch the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
“Masters had a very thick outer layer that people couldn’t get through. Even at the end of his life, people said no one really knew him,” says the 44-year-old, with an accent far less pronounced than one might expect from a Welshman. “He’s opaque—a closed book, emotionally. He’s secretive and very reserved.” Sheen, it seems, is quite the opposite. By the time we’re finished with lunch, he’s showing off iPhone photos of his parents dressed like medieval knights on a party bus he rented to transport his family and friends to a Medieval Times in Buena Park, California. He gushes over his daughter, Lily, a creative 14-year-old who loves to write and has taken up acrobatics. (“Just unbelievable!” he says of her recent performance.)
Work shirt, PERRY ELLIS BY DUCKIE BROWN. Classic T-shirt, $45, POLO RALPH LAUREN, macys.com. Pants, GIORGIO ARMANI, 212-988-9191. Watch, TISSOT, macys.com.
Sheen’s candor is refreshing and unexpected. He rarely, if ever, gives interviews and is seen in tabloids only when photographed alongside whatever A-list actress he’s dating—he had Lily in 1999 with his then-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale, and split from Rachel McAdams in February of this year. “I’m happy with where I’ve gotten to at this point, and it hasn’t really been based on me doing publicity,” he says. “I don’t give much of a shit about that.”
Sheen would much rather focus on his work. The first of Masters‘ 12 episodes premieres on September 29; until then, Sheen will be anticipating America’s reaction. “If people have the wrong expectations about it, that could really backfire on us,” he says. “It’s not a romantic comedy; it’s not Sex and the City or Mad Men…and it’s not about perfect people having perfect sex. The whole point of the series is to explore a subject that has so much mythology and romance surrounding it.” He pauses, glancing toward the gaggle of thin, plastic women: “And to try and cut through all of that and show what’s real.”
“Masters of Sex” premieres September 29 on Showtime at 10 p.m. Watch the trailer below:
Groomer: Louise Moon. Photographed on location at Chaya Brasserie Beverly Hills.