“I think that if anyone takes a step back and looks at what’s considered the norm, it’s all jarring. I mean the lack of female characters, the single digit percentage of female directors in this industry. The fact that women get paid less than men, the fact that roles for women in movies for the most part are nowhere near as complicated as men’s…I don’t think there’s anything particularly interesting about a role wherein you’re supporting a man on his journey. That makes me want to tear my hair out…” -Lizzy Caplan
Lizzy Caplan is the living, breathing personification of this frustration, and more importantly how to rise above it, kick its ass, and subvert industry standards along the way. Growing up in Los Angeles, she attended a performing arts high school during which she transitioned from piano to drama. Her career has spanned nearly two decades now, marked by a handful of choice roles including her very first paid gig in the cult classic Freaks and Geeks. In 2004, she landed a spot in blockbuster, Mean Girls, and it appeared that comedy would become her defining genre. What followed in the years to come only proved that one truly can’t predict the future, especially in a town as fickle as Hollywood. “I was very firmly planted in the comedy world and I thought that that was the type of work I’d be doing, and that it was going to be my career: mainly comedy…But you know, it was always a goal of mine to be on a prestigious cable show, at this time when being on a prestigious cable show afforded the most opportunity specifically for women, to get to play really complex characters…I think for the longest time if you wanted to play an interesting comedic role as a woman you were going to find that nine times out of ten it would be in the form of a TV show.”
She found that prestigious cable show when the script for a dark, sexy, and boundary-pushing HBO drama fell into her lap. Though neither she nor her team initially felt it was a good fit, all that would soon change. In fact auditioning for and landing the role of 1950s sexuality researcher Virginia Johnson, in Masters of Sex, was her watershed moment as an actress. “I read this script and I, at the time, as well as my representatives didn’t think that it would be something I would be interested in because it’s such a dramatic piece. But I read it and really fell in love with it. It surprised me as well as them.” She decided to take the plunge and audition and the rest is history. Three seasons of Masters of Sex have now aired and in 2014 Lizzy was nominated for an Emmy for her stunning portrayal of Virginia Johnson. Watching Masters Of Sex, one can discern how deeply Lizzy has integrated herself into the psyche of Virginia, who was a game- changer for gender politics and the social understandings of human sexuality during a time when even the word “sex” was taboo to utter. “Her experience has colored my day-to-day life and vice-versa which is this amazing, terrifying thing.”
For Lizzy, Virginia truly embodies the struggles of the modern day woman with regards to society’s willful shutting-out of complicated female archetypes – those who are possessed of contradictions that befuddle the status quo. “I think women’s brains work in infinitely more interesting ways than men’s brains. I feel like there’s this scary, untapped well of fascinating female characters…and I’m lucky enough to be playing one right now…this is a deeply flawed human being …you don’t get to see too many female characters like that in film. They’re all pretty two-dimensional.”
Lizzy sees incremental changes occurring in the film industry regarding gender discrimination, which though may be minuscule, still hold significance. “One-hundred percent with zero hesitation I pronounce myself a feminist. It’s definitely in the transitional period from a dirty word to an accepted word. You still see women in positions of power shying away from that label and it is astounding to me, being that the definition of feminism, is you would like to be considered equal to a man. It has nothing to do with hating men or hating femininity or even hating sex. For some reason those ideas are all clouded around that term.”
Lizzy, like her character on Masters of Sex, is a female role model working during a time when society digs its heels in when it comes to equality for women. In this way she is leading a parallel existence of sorts to Virginia Johnson. Upon stepping back and enumerating the ways in which progress has been achieved over half a century since Virginia’s heyday, the symmetry is quite spectacular and eye-opening – showing how far we’ve come yet just how far we still have to go.
The fourth season of Masters of Sex will premiere this summer.
Read the full interview with Lizzy Caplan and The Untitled Magazine for The #GirlPower Issue below:
The Untitled Magazine: So I just wanted to start out with a little bit of your background on your career and how you got started in acting. I read that you were studying music at a performing arts high school. So how did you make that transition from piano to deciding to embark on acting?
Lizzy Caplan: I played the piano for about ten years and I went to this performing arts school to continue playing piano, but I never had any intention of translating that into a career. I never wanted to be a professional, classical pianist. I didn’t have the discipline nor the drive and in 10th or 11th grade, I decided that I didn’t want to play the piano anymore because I wasn’t as motivated anymore doing it and it wasn’t going to lead to anything. So I quit piano and I needed to pick another performing arts elective in order to stay in the music program of my high school. I couldn’t really play other instruments, and the musical theater kids in my school had been singing and dancing since they were really tiny kids so I knew I couldn’t do that either. And so I just decided drama would probably be the easiest thing to make my way through, and it was! And continues to be. Totally random yet it worked out.
UM: So you started getting work right away it looks like and acted in some pretty amazing roles for a handful of TV shows. Are there any of these early parts that stick out for you as particularly important or kind of seminal to your career?
LC: Yeah, my first job was one line in the Freaks and Geeks pilot when I was 15 and that definitely was a far more important job than I could have imagined. It’s led to all kinds of things. I don’t think anybody realized that Freaks and Geeks was going to be as special a show for so many people. You know, when I showed up and was there, I certainly didn’t make any sort of imprint on the cast or crew. I was a little kid who had no idea what I was doing. I had never been on a set before. I didn’t know anything so I just showed up to work and had no idea I was working on something that would end up becoming such a major part of the zeitgeist and personally would have such an influence on my career. So that was one of the big ones and then, quite honestly, I was auditioning for everything – both good and the bad – trying to get a job. I’ve done plenty of stuff, plenty of pilots that went nowhere and for very good reason, but the really bad stuff that I went out for, just the tasteless shit, I never got those parts. It’s this weird thing with actors – we’ve all gone through it, where you’ve convinced yourself to go on an audition you don’t want in the first place and when you don’t get it, you just want to tell the people, “I didn’t even fucking want to be here anyway”. But there’s no time for that conversation. Its like such a specific form of humiliation. Then Mean Girls obviously was kind of in the same vein, but I knew that I wanted to be in that movie and I knew that it was special because at that time, comedy wasn’t as good as it is now. I mean nowhere near. I think it’s a cyclical thing and I just happen to be starting out at a time where it wasn’t connecting with it. I didn’t think that a lot of the stuff that would be made as a comedy was particularly funny, but I thought the Mean Girls script was hilarious. It’s an amazing movie and truly an amazing script. That was a bit of a process of getting that movie, but that was a big one for me. And then after that, Party Down was really important. Mean Girls was a fantastic experience and I did a show called The Class that I had a lot of fun on, but Party Down was the first time that I believed in it and personally thought that it was so good and the quality level was so high, but it was also so unbelievably fun and with a group of people who were so madly in love with each other. I realized those were the types of jobs that I want to do. I want to be able to have a great time as well as be able to make great things.
UM: It’s amazing when you can have that experience of doing something that will kind of determine for you how you want to take on roles in the future and what kind of work that you want to do in the future.
LC: Absolutely. Quality of life.
UM: Let’s talk a little bit about Masters of Sex. How did you prepare for that audition?
LC: Yeah, it’s definitely amazing. The role is so incredible and I was very firmly planted in the comedy world and I thought that that was the type of work that I’d be doing and that was going to be my career, mainly comedy. Maybe a lighter movie or something, but it was always a goal of mine to be on a prestigious cable show at this time when being on a prestigious cable show, I feel like, affords the most opportunity, specifically for women to get to play really complex, credible characters. I think the same thing applies for comedy. I think it’s starting to change, and I see the change, and its very exciting in film, but for the longest time if you wanted to play an interesting comedic role as a woman you were gonna find that nine times out of ten in a TV show. But then I read this script and at the time, my representatives didn’t think that this would be something I would be interested in because its such a dramatic piece, but I read it and really fell in love with it. It surprised me as well as them and the first time I did, I read the script and then I went out for drinks with the director of the pilot, John Madden and Michelle Ashburg, the creator and Sarah Timmerman the producer and we talked. I talked about why I felt so connected to this woman and how it had picked up all sorts of things in me just reading the script and how passionately I felt about the story. We were very much on the same page on all of that but because they hear John Madden wasn’t familiar, he’s an English guy, he wasn’t familiar with my work at all and Michelle and Sarah, I think a tiny bit, but they knew me as a comedic actress so they needed to see if my sensibility would translate to a period piece which was absolutely fair enough cause I wasn’t particularly certain of myself. So the audition was with John Madden and myself, in a room in full nineteen 50’s hair and makeup and we read through every scene, every Virginia scene in the pilot script over and over again in the audition. It was close to four hours and I remember leaving that audition feeling like I’ve never wanted a job more. I’ve never felt better about an audition but I know that I’m most likely not going to get this part. It’s just so far outside of my wheelhouse and I was very surprised. It was the first time in many, many years that I went out and celebrated getting a job.
UM: So you were surprised when you heard that you landed the role?
LC: I guess. I think a lot of actors can relate. Sometimes when you want something so bad, you get to the point where you expect the ones that you really, truly want to slip through your fingers. You spend so much time not getting the ones you want.
UM: I guess that mentality’s better for base survival in the industry, not going crazy. So now that you’ve played her for three seasons, in what ways do you see yourself personally relating to her at this point?
LC: We’re about midway through shooting season 3 and I think that her experience has colored my day-to-day life and vice-versa, which is this amazing, terrifying thing. I didn’t go to college and I was very alright with that decision. Virginia Johnson, this is something that plagued her her entire life, certainly after, it plagued her entire working life. She became more and more paranoid that people were on to he – that she didn’t have a degree and she let people think that she did have a degree and she was a psychologist and she let them go with that. She never corrected people when they thought that. All of a sudden, it hardened her personality. It starts to happen in season 3 and it will get more defined in future seasons as well that she goes from this brilliant, charming, light bright presence to something much more guarded and armored and out of nowhere, I started really giving myself a hard time about not having a college degree and truly this is something that never bothered me. It was almost a badge of honor in a way and now, it’s passed a bit. I’m back where I used to be in my own headspace about that, but it surprised me and I had no idea that I was obsessing over that.
UM: What are some of the mechanisms you use to avoid bringing it into your life in that way?
LC: In the past I would go to work, come home, and we work extremely long hours on our show and often times I would start work at 5 in the morning and get home around 7 or so and I would learn lines for the next day for at least an hour and I never saw anybody. I never saw my friends even though we’re shooting in the city that I live in. I would go to sleep for a few hours and wake up and go back to work. Total immersion is a very cool thing. I’m very happy that I did it and I don’t think it’s something that I wouldn’t do in the future on a film project but now, for this show, I learn all my stuff for the next day while I’m still at work and by the time that I get home, it’s over. I have home to deal with which, even just that tiny thing has helped tremendously.
UM: So, I watched the preview for season 3 – I’m super excited for it. It looks like Masters and Johnson – their work is finally about to get the attention that it deserves after a lot of ups and downs. Is there anything you can tell us about what’s in store for Virginia this season?
LC: Yes, that’s kind of the big thing for us because everything they did was shrouded in so much secrecy, their work and their personal lives. Their personal lives will remain under wraps because that ain’t gonna be blown up public any time soon, but it went from something that belongs to them and their trusted coworkers and colleagues and patients to something that belongs to the rest of the world and they become public figures as they become famous off of this. So that’s going to change quite a bit. Additionally, there’s a new love interest for Virginia. This guy’s a real character. I mean a real person. Josh Charles is playing him and he’s a really interesting guy. He’s a perfume manufacturer and he starts working with Masters and Johnson to study pheromones for his perfume. It is a perfect match, which is why its so fucked up.
UM: Well, I’m just stoked to see it. I’ve been following it since its beginnings and I think it’s so amazing what they’re doing with these people’s stories. Switching veins a little bit, this is the #GirlPower Issue of The Untitled Magazine, which you may know, so we’re asking the women that we’re featuring whether they consider themselves feminists and if so, what that concept means to you personally?
LC: Yeah, 100% with zero hesitation. I pronounce myself a feminist. I think what we’re seeing now is exciting in that people aren’t using that as a dirty word any longer. It’s definitely in the transitional period from a dirty word to an accepted word. You still see women in positions of power shying away from that label and it’s astounding to me being that the definition of feminism is you would like to be considered equal to a man. It has nothing to do with hating men or hating femininity or even hating sex. For some reason those ideas are clouded around that term and it’s personally really frustrating.
UM: Do you have any personal experiences with sexism in the entertainment industry? I know it’s pretty rampant and a lot of it’s very latent. Is there anything that you’ve experienced that’s been particularly jarring?
LC: I think as soon as a person takes a step back and looks at what’s considered the norm it’s all jarring. The total lack of female directors, the single digit percentage of female directors every year. The fact that women get paid less than men. The fact that roles for women in movies, for the most part, are nowhere near as complicated as men. These fit into very, very broad-stroked categories. Like the black friend or the goth one, the sweet mother next door, I find it really frustrating. I don’t think there’s anything interesting about a role where you’re purely supporting a man on his journey. I mean that makes me want to tear my hair out especially because I think women’s brains work in infinitely more interesting ways than men’s brains. I feel like there’s this scary, untapped well of fascinating female characters. You get to see a ton of them on screen. I’m lucky enough to be playing one right now, but this idea of even the role I play in Masters of Sex. This is an ambitions, career-driven woman who is not showing up for her kids in the way that would be considered necessarily hands-on mothering. She’s having a long-term affair with a married man. She’s friends with the wife of the married man. So this is a deeply flawed human being and you don’t get to see too many women characters like that in film. They’re pretty 2-dimensional. And again, I track it closely and the number one movie this weekend was Spy and that’s a major thing. Any time any female-driven comedy is number one, and I have to say, I get a perverse pleasure from Spy kicking Entourage‘s ass. It feels like the time when Entourage first came out, it was more acceptable to portray Hollywood as this hedonistic, gluttonous culture with so much money and the toys and the planes and the shit that comes with it, but quite honestly, the female roles on Entourage are so fucking shitty. It’s always the girl fawning over the not-particularly-interesting guy that makes me nuts. The fact that its just about everybody trying to make movies. And I support other artists doing their thing, but if anything, maybe I’m being idealistic, but it felt like it signaled the tide is shifting. People maybe want to see something slightly different than that.
UM: Do you have any other projects on the horizon this year that we should be looking out for? I know you have a movie coming out in November with Seth Rogen.
LC: Yeah, I haven’t seen that movie. It’s a Christmas movie and I’m a sucker for a Christmas movie and apparently it’s a funny one. And when you’re going into something that’s clearly the guy’s story – maybe I’m contradicting myself cause of all the Entourage stuff, but I just like Seth and those guys so much and I want to be involved in what they’re doing, but its definitely a movie about 4 guy friends that they happened to cast, or they chose to cast, really interesting comedic women in all the girl parts so I’m really excited about that on. And then next summer I did a movie in the winter, the sequel to Now You See Me. So, now it’s Now You See Me 2, which I think is coming out in the summer and I had an unbelievably good time on that movie. I mean, I have not seen a single frame of it cut together so who knows, but one thing I did appreciate there is I’m the girl in this group of guys and I felt no pressure to wear slutty clothing and be boring. They let me make that character so weird and irritating and all the things I wanted. So hopefully it translates.
Lizzy Caplan photographed by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine’s #GirlPower Issue
Interview by Marianne White
Stylist: Kelly Brown
Hair: Marcus Frances
Make-up: Rachel Goodwin
Photographed at James Goldstein Residence
Pick up a copy of the issue in our online store and check out The Untitled Magazine’s behind the scenes video with Lizzy below.
LIZZY CAPLAN BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO – THE #GIRLPOWER ISSUE 8
Photography and Video Direction by Indira Cesarine
This article originally appeared in The #GirlPower Issue of The Untitled Magazine (2015).