Interview: MASTERS OF SEX’s Michael Sheen

October 3, 2013

2013 blog masters sheen caplan

In the 1950s, sex wasn’t really something that was discussed in the halls of academia. Well, not until Dr William Masters and his research assistant Virginia Johnson decided to boldly go where few scientists had gone before.

Leading a research team that explored both the physical and psychological areas of sexual behaviour, Masters and Johnson became synonymous with the subject, penning bestselling books and eventually establishing their own institute dedicated to further investigating and understanding human sexuality.

And now the story of the pair and their groundbreaking work is being brought to television in Masters of Sex, a candid, intelligent and emotionally resonant 12-episode drama.

The fraught and fascinating dynamic between the curious but repressed Masters (played by Michael Sheen) and the more liberated and forthright Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is the foundation of the series, but it delves just as deeply into the social conventions – both public and private – of the era, making it an interesting snapshot of a time gone by and a prism through which the audience can perhaps regard how far we may have come in the decades since.

For the acclaimed, award-winning Sheen, renowned for his portrayals of real-life individuals like UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the late television journalist David Frost, bringing Masters to life was an exercise in emotional extremes.

“There are so many contradictions to be explored in the material, and especially when it comes to Masters,” he said.

“He’s a man whose work takes huge steps forward, particularly in terms of women’s sexuality and gender politics, but he’s also a product of his time and his upbringing when it comes to his relationships with women.

“And he’s a man who is a pioneer in researching a subject about which he himself has so little knowledge and about which he doesn’t feel confident in his own life.”

Control is a key element for the man, says Sheen – “he seeks to control his environment, the people around him and even himself” – and the sense of control he has begins to erode when Virginia Johnson, a twice-divorced mother of two, enters his life, professionally and gradually on a more personal level.

“I think from Masters’ point of view he is both attracted and repelled by what Virginia represents,” said Sheen.

“He has reinvented himself in order to be what he needs to be so he can pursue what he needs to pursue, and whether he’s aware of it or not there’s an inauthentic quality to his life. He has chosen things with his head more than his heart.

“Then Virginia comes along and appeals to part of his make-up that he hasn’t really listened to very much, and that starts to undo certain things in his life.

“He welcomes that prospect on a subconscious level but on a conscious level he is terrified by it and will resist it as much as he can. It makes for a very interesting and conflicted relationship, which is the best kind for a story like this.”

The tug of war between conscious and unconscious desires is a prevalent theme throughout Masters of Sex, and Sheen found himself intrigued by what drew Masters to the study of sexuality.

“There were all kinds of reasons,” he said. “Masters was a hugely ambitious and driven man, and this was an area he knew he could be a pioneer in. It was a real risk, because being as controversial as it was it could ruin him, but it could also be the making of his career.”

Professional ambitions aside, Sheen feels Masters wanted to overcome his own fears and misunderstandings about sex.

“His early research was all about separating the emotional and psychological aspects of sex and focusing purely on physicality, and I think that was a reflection of his own fear.

“But as frightened as he was, there must be a part of him that wants to fight that fear, because he’s not a happy man at the beginning of this story.”

Society’s views of sexuality may appear to have moved ahead in leaps and bounds since the period depicted in Masters of Sex. But it remains a touchy subject in a great many ways.

“In the ‘50s, the topic was whether it should be discussed at all, whereas now it’s about how it should be discussed,” said Sheen.

“We’re saturated these days with opinions and imagery and information but it’s all been extremely commercialised – we’re overtly or covertly being sold products or lifestyles or values, whatever it might be, with sexuality as the vessel. And that can be as dangerous or confusing as having no information.

“So I think there’s an opportunity with a series like this to discuss all that, with the time period of the ‘50s acting as kind of a buffer. Masters of Sex is about who we are now, how we got here and where we’re going.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space: GRAVITY

October 2, 2013

2013 blog gravity poster

Anticipation is high for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and deservedly so – it’s an intimate and richly emotional story, almost primal in its themes and ideas, but told on a scale that’s both grand and hushed.

The technical virtuosity displayed by the Children of Men director, with invaluable assistance by that film’s gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is breathtaking stuff, with the opening shot one unbroken take that lasts 15 minutes or so, swirling and swooping through space, introducing the characters while providing an array of viewpoints that lay out the shining beauty and intimidating vastness of the environment they’re negotiating.

I’m normally in two minds about such shots – I can appreciate and even admire the ambition and diligence that goes into their planning and execution but sometimes find myself a little detached by their showiness. It can seem more like a clip for a showreel than something that actually enhances the storytelling or moves the plot forward. But Gravity’s opening sequence moves with such languid, lyrical beauty while offering the audience with information it needs to know that it pretty much sets a new benchmark in this regard. It’s a magnificent start to a movie.

The story is a simple one. A mission 650 or so kilometres above the earth is thrown into jeopardy when catastrophic damage to a satellite sets off a chain reaction resulting in debris hurtling through the void at high speed. The shuttle that was giving scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) their ride home is destroyed; the ensuing turmoil sees the pair untethered and floating free in space.

And you thought you had a bad day at work

And you thought you had a bad day at work

There are still space stations nearby but there are several factors to take into account – reaching them, hoping they remain undamaged, coping with the ongoing waves of “space shrapnel”, navigating their way back home. Every minute presents a new challenge. And as the film states at the very beginning: “Life in space is impossible.”

Gravity is thrilling in ways I’d almost forgotten movies could be. I didn’t realise how inured I’d become to 3D, thanks to wave after wave of shitty post-conversion jobs that added close to nothing to the experience, until I found myself flinching as scraps of metal flew towards me.

But that trickery is only one small part of the overall effect it had. Cuaron expertly modulates the tension, building to crescendos before offering brief periods of relief, then starting the process all over again. It’s masterful. (And mention must be made of Steven Price’s score, lushly and stirringly orchestral at times, propulsive and foreboding at others.)

But it’s a human story first and foremost, a story about the will to live. There’s an old adage about storytelling that you put a character in a tree and then proceed to throw rocks at them for 90 minutes – that’s why Gravity does, and does well.

But if you don’t care about the character being pelted with rocks, what’s the point? Caring about Stone and Kowalski is easy, partially due to the deft, effective screenplay by Cuaron and his son Jonas but mainly because of some very astute casting and a pair of truly strong performances.

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Clooney’s relaxed charm and underlying air of confidence and capability (he’s essentially playing Liz Lemon’s dream date, Astronaut Mike Dexter) provides an ideal counterbalance to the reserve, panic and ultimate resolve shown by Bullock, who gives a performance that quietly, subtly runs the gamut of emotion. She’s incredible. So is Gravity. See it on the biggest screen you can, then go see it again.