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.”