It turns out that the pioneering sex researcher William Masters in “Masters of Sex” is most exposed when cloaked in a plush white bathrobe.
The July 27 episode of the highly praised Showtime drama had viewers more on edge than the moments before a physician delivers test results. The episode pivoted on Michael Sheen’s stellar performance as the famous sex researcher who slowly peeled back the Band-Aid on a very troubled childhood and then quickly re-applied it.
After delivering a baby with ambiguous genitalia, and later becoming incensed by the harsh reaction from the newborn’s father, Masters found himself reflecting on his own struggles with masculinity to research partner Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) during a secret hotel rendezvous. With nothing but a bathrobe as his armor, Masters became the patient.
“He did me a favor,” Sheen said in the scene where he tells of suffering a broken nose at the hands of his father at age 14. “He made me the man I am today.”
It was a commanding point in the slow-burn of the icy character as the modest-performing show settles into its second season. For the man who has thrived in Hollywood’s world of historical fiction — playing real-life characters in film such as David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in “The Queen” — the Welsh native has established himself as one of television’s premiere actors. His depiction of the sex researcher as one of TV’s least sympathetic anti-heroes has been revered by critics — many took issue with his omission from this year’s Emmy race.
Over a recent breakfast, Sheen reviewed the intricacies of the confounding character whose work help set the stage for the sexual revolution. As he cut into two poached eggs, the 45-year-old actor motioned to the oozing yolk with his eyes.
“That will never be Bill,” he said. “You won’t see his feelings spill out, but he gave us a little something in that episode.”
After a pause, he elaborated.
“The road to happiness can often be a road of awfulness in getting there,” he added. “Bill has become the person he’s become and he’s adapted to life and dealt with things the ways he’s dealt with them because of stuff that happened to him when he was younger, but it’s not really working for him. What it’s created is kind of a prison. And, yeah, he’d like to be free from that prison, but there’s a part of him that made that prison for a reason, and he doesn’t want to leave it. It’s too scary. And I find that so damn interesting, I have to say. It’s like he’s the Walter White journey in reverse.”
When viewers met Masters, he was a prominent but uptight OB-GYN physician at Washington University School of Medicine who was also a detached husband to a doting wife (Caitlin FitzGerald). He soon became fixated on the study of sex, a taboo subject particularly for an academic in the 1950s. Eventually, to pursue his passion, he enlisted Johnson to help conduct research — the two eventually began a sexual relationship.
The near constant in Masters’ character is that he’s a jerk much of the time. It’s a boldly honest approach to a character that dares to buck TV’s hang-ups with likability, Sheen said. And like Masters, Sheen isn’t here to play nice and make friends.
Michelle Ashford, who developed the series from Thomas Maier’s biography of the same name, initially gave consideration to making Masters slightly warmer and more palatable for viewers. The decision was being weighed during a time when audiences were actually rooting for “Breaking Bad’s” meth-dealing Walter White.
But Sheen fought against softening his character to please viewers.
“There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s film ‘Nixon’ where (Richard) Nixon points to a painting of JFK, and he says, ‘When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are,’” he said in his best Anthony Hopkins-as-Nixon impersonation. “Most TV characters are who people want to be, even if it’s Walter White.
“Sure, Don Draper isn’t a pleasant character, but he looks gorgeous, and everyone wants to sleep with him. I don’t look like that! And I want to make that a strength. At the same time, I have an absolute responsibility to be totally rigorous in making sure that he’s a real person. Why shouldn’t the audience have a character that’s about all their worst qualities?”
The role was presented to Sheen during his run as Hamlet in a controversial production in London in late 2011. The call was Ashford’s first glimpse of Sheen’s intensity.
“He was really listening more than he was asking a ton of questions,” Ashford said. “Since then, the back and forth between the two of us as to who Bill is and what makes him tick and what makes him weak is a true collaboration. You can’t even say he’s been invaluable to the process. He just is the process. We talk on the phone, by email, in his trailer — we talk all the time about this character. The way we’re able to follow this character for a long time really stirs something in Michael.”
Over breakfast, Sheen displays an equal curiosity over the medium’s state of metamorphosis — the way it’s consumed; its multi-platformness. The fascination has spurred him to begin developing his own projects for television. In doing research, he’s read over some TV outlines — among them was the original series overview of HBO’s “True Detective.”
“In the very opening line, it’s described as a ‘literary,’” Sheen said. “It hit me like a bullet because I’ve been thinking about that. I feel like that is what this new version of TV is kind of becoming. It’s a cross between a novel and a film. The way you can layer and reveal characters in this space is just so fascinating to me.
“It’s why I’m OK with being the (jerk) in your living room. At least I’m not a (jerk) trying to cover it up.”