‘Masters Of Sex’s Michelle Ashford and Sarah Timberman On Prostitutes, Hook-Up Culture, And Marriage


Credit: IGN

You may have missed Masters of Sex, Showtime’s ambitious new drama about sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (the phenomenal Lizzy Caplan), which premiered in the aftermath of the series finale of Breaking Bad on Sunday night. If so, I recommend you remedy the omission as soon as humanely possible, whether it’s for the gender reversals between the prim Masters and the free-thinking Johnson, the funny, ribald dialogue, or the real sense of stakes in scientific research, a very different dynamic than the bloodbath that’s playing out elsewhere on network and cable television.

I spoke to the show’s creator, Michelle Ashford, and its executive producer, Sarah Timberman, earlier this year about choreographing the show’s many, many sex scenes, its sophisticated treatment of sexuality and sexual desire, and the ways gender roles hem in men as well as women. This interview has been edited for clarity and length:

Michelle, you mentioned towards the end of the panel feeling like a little bit of a prude, and I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about shooting the sex scenes, because there are a lot of them…I know they’re all story driven—I don’t have any doubt about that—but there are very different circumstances, and I was wondering if you could talk a little about the directors you’re working with–and you talked about giving some marching orders to the writers group–but I was curious about how you talked to the directors as well about how to pull those scenes together.

Ashford: Well that has been an ongoing thing.

Timberman: A lot of conversations through the whole season.

Ashford: Yes, and we realized it early on that we really did have to have really in-depth discussions about the sex, because we realized quickly that people just interpret what’s on the page differently…So you have one idea in your head, and sometimes the director will have a different idea. So we do have to talk a lot about the sex and try to be very clear with them on what is the intent.

Timberman: Even in the editing room, we’ve ended up cutting pieces of things that seemed unnecessary. As Michelle said earlier we left a lot of things on the cutting room floor that would probably be of interest to people. But we’re sorta known as the two biggest prudes.

Are you developing sort of, almost a house style about sex scenes in the lab versus sex scenes in someone’s home?

Ashford: It’s funny we don’t kind of come at it like that. Its really on a case by case basis about what’s the intent of the scene and that will inform what you’re trying to do with it, and how it should be shot.

Timberman: We don’t want it to play like—you know we feel like in film and television there are sort of “go-to moves” in portraying sex and the whole point—to sort of go into autopilot and shoot a sex scene would undermine the entire, you know, inquiry that was at the basis of Master’s and Johnson’s work and is in a way at the heart of the show. We sort of feel like we’re following in their footsteps: they were looking at sex saying, “What is this?” And we’re doing the same thing so we don’t want anything to feel like it’s just a reflexive way to portray something because its been portrayed that way 8,000 times in film.

Ashford: You simply can’t say one is more interesting than the other because oddly they are kind of speaking to each other as the episodes go along, because what happens in the work is informing what’s happening in their personal lives. And it’s a sort of ongoing dialogue back and forth, and you really just have to evaluate it as it comes along.

I was wondering if you could talk a little about how it seems like the study for many of the characters is a way to sort of legitimize things that they want to explore, that they want to act out. Teddy [Sears] talked a little bit about how his character is thrilled to have an opportunity to have sex that has this sort of academic imprimatur for cheating on his wife. And you know you have that great request by Michael [Sheen] to Lizzy [Caplan] at the end of the episode, “I think we should join the experiment.”

Ashford: Yeah, that’s based on the research that came through in Tom [Maier]’s book. I think a lot of people joined the study for this reason because they were confused about their own sexuality or they had questions or they were adventurous and it gave them perfect cover. And I think that’s very true about how people ended up in that study.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the pacing because you have an enormous number of years to potentially work through. The first book doesn’t come out until 1966. So you have nine years until you get there. And, you know, I was struck by the ending of the first episode too because it seems to me like it could have been the end of the first season.

Ashford: Yes, well, in an odd way when we first started talking about it we had a much slower idea in mind. But what we actually ended up doing was we actually ended up rewinding a bit in the episode that comes after the pilot…So we actually go back and then start forward again. So in an odd way, it like doubles back on itself.

Timberman: In reality, they spent I think close to a year doing their research in brothels. And it was very hard to gain legitimacy. And one of the first conversations we had with Michael after finishing the pilot, he said, “I just want to make sure we make this as hard as it was for them.” And it was actually a point very well taken, because they were, you know, really breaking ground in this work.

Ashford: And it was really not welcomed for the most part for quite a while. I mean they had a really tough time.

That actually leads me to a question I wanted to ask about the treatment of sex workers on the show. Because that was one of the things that struck me, just how nuanced and funny those characters were, and sort of the depth of the casting there. Was that a concern at all about—not, you know, having characters who are sex workers—but worrying about making them seem ignorant, or risible. I mean that seems like a tough balance to strike especially given a lot of preconceptions not just about sex but about sex workers.

Ashford: Well, when I think of sex work I think of surrogacy, which comes in—they did that as well—but that comes in much later and it’s something we’re going to deal with down the road. If you mean prostitutes, yeah. It was a bit of a fine line, because—the humor doesn’t come from the prostitutes in and of themselves—it comes from taking that particular person of Bill Masters and dropping him into that pond. I mean, talk about a fish out of water, I mean he’s so kind of uptight with his bowtie and all that, and then around a bunch of hookers. But that is in fact what happened so we felt like, well we can’t go away from the humor, because it must have been absurd! And there he is, he’s in a closet looking out of a hole! I mean its ridiculous!

Timberman: And the truth is Betty who figures into a couple of episodes is a very shrewd woman. In a way she is a catalyst for the entire endeavor in terms of his partnership with Virginia Johnson.

Ashford: Well, you know, he’s such a curious man, Masters. And I think it just really gives us great fuel to propel us into other seasons because he’s such an odd duck. And he ended up in such a different place from where he started, so he has a really interesting trajectory…He was incredibly adventurous and athletic! And he would, he parachuted…Bill Masters had a lot to prove, he was coming from an unbelievably damaged background. So the idea that he was virile, that he was in control of his life, he needed all that. And I think that led him to things like being very fit and being very—because I mean the idea of admitting vulnerability for him was just impossible!

Timberman: Which is really the, you know, key to that relationship is his discovery in Virginia Johnson, someone who could sort of penetrate his walls, the walls that Michael Sheen was talking about. It was both sort of, she was completely irresistible to him in that regard because he really was a figure who had put up a lot of barriers, and you just get the sense that she just, you know, made his head spin. And he didn’t quite know what to do about it, so he set out to pin down—at least our interpretation is—to sort of pin down everything that he seemed to be feeling, through science.

It’s also interesting to me that you use the word penetrate particularly in that trajectory, in that relationship. Because one of the things I found really striking about the first two episodes is the extent to which you have certain men—and Ethan in particular—acting more stereotypically feminine, or more emotional about sex than you’d expect. I didn’t know that was based on the historical record or whether it was sort of something you decided to add to the show.

Ashford: Well actually that started with Virginia’s character who was able to separate sex and love—which is a very male trait and not usually associated with women—

Timberman: Certainly not in that day.

Ashford: Yeah, and even in this day it’s very strange though I guess apparently more common, although I’m very suspect about that, about how much—

Timberman: The hook up culture.

Ashford: The hook up culture. But I wonder how well that’s going for girls to be honest, because I think there’s some hard-wiring that you just can’t ignore about women. But she was very different. And so, once you take that and you put her with a man, then of course, all of a sudden just by definition, the roles are flip-flopped. And you can see that the minute you start thinking about the story, so you go, “Okay so he’s starting to become the girl, she’s the man.” But the thing is that that is a deeply uncomfortable for a man to be in, which is why he acts like such a brute. I mean he doesn’t—you know it’s so funny so many women read that script and they were like [Gasps]—and they are bringing a real 2013 sensibility to it, which is “Well, he, someone should call the cops” and “Forget it, he’s dead.” I was like, it’s not that black and white. First of all, men acting like that toward women was much more common then, but also this is coming out of an emotional upside-down tumult for him, that he can’t figure out and he just freaks out.

He says to Masters that he thinks he’s going to marry her before she sort of makes clear where she is. And it seems as, if she had been emotionally engaged as well, Ethan would have sort of had cover for his emotions.

Ashford: Yes, exactly…And also he wouldn’t have needed to go out there like that because she would have been providing that. She would have been like, “Oh we’re gonna be together,” so he could have settled down and relaxed. But he’s stuck with this creature he doesn’t understand at all. And it’s threatening because she is not going along with the program. So he just doesn’t understand. And that’s why it makes him act like that way, makes him vulnerable. He has to express his emotions, and expressing his emotions of course no man wants to do that, so then it’s just like—then everything’s all screwed up.

Timberman: And of course, she—Virginia Johnson—in our series is a woman capable of hitting back, too, you know, which is really important as you were saying earlier to that story: that she is not victimized by him, it is much more complicated than that.

That storyline, and Bill’s relationship to his wife’s infertility, seem to be a lot about how gender roles really hurt men of that era as well.

Ashford: Everybody’s in prison

Timberman: They were boxed in and constrained by a lot of ideas that ultimately were just that: ideas.

One of the reasons I like Betty’s character so much is that so much of our historical imagination of homosexuality is about gay men. There are comparatively few portrayals of lesbians in the period—I mean The Playboy Club did that a little bit with its Mattachine Society—but part of what was interesting to me about the sequence with Betty is that she seems to feel if she takes on sort of the trappings of conventional femininity, if she goes to church, she has a job in a hospital, she marries a man, that she’ll be fine.

Ashford: Exactly and this is so reflective of the time, which is just sort of, what Caitlin was saying—if I just do these things, my life will have order. But of course, nobody’s life conforms to any of this.

Timberman: Right. This show deals a lot with that dichotomy, in terms of people’s, you know, outer selves and inner lives, and what their true emotional lives which weren’t always comfortable to express in 1957 still aren’t today…But you know, it’s beyond just looking at what is sex. The show inevitably moves, you know, into so many other areas: what is intimacy, what is a marriage? And in a way what winds up being in the strange way the most intimate connected marriage is a very surprising one by the end of the season. And as Michael said, I thought he hit on something very important, which is it’s not a show where you leave the work at work when you go home. It’s a show where people get to really think about everyone involved creatively thinks, you know, inevitably it reflects on your own experience.

I know you said that you weren’t—and it makes sense that you wouldn’t be able to touch on—sort of the reparative theory elements of the research, because it just doesn’t fit in the timeline—but I was curious about whether the question of sort of scientific integrity comes up. My understanding is that Virginia Johnson came to believe that Masters had sort of faked or distorted the research on the efficacy of reparative therapy. And I didn’t know if that was something that comes up—you know if the question of scientific integrity comes up earlier in other contexts, whether deliberately or simply because this is the kind of research that involves certain emotional involvement and bias.

Ashford: You know, I mean they were pretty clean. You know its very interesting that thing which comes very late in their careers also comes very late in their relationship. And their relationship has taken a very serious battering by the time they get to that part of the study. And so it becomes this odd wedge that was kind of put between them, because of what she thought they should be doing with that work and what he thought. And why he went that direction is fascinating because you cannot—there was no morality involved—he actually as a doctor taking a Hippocratic Oath believes that his job is to help, and that’s simply what he was doing…Also he was faced with—and this is very much a reflection of the times—he was faced with people who are saying, “I hate being gay. This makes my life a living Hell. I can’t fit in in the way I want to fit in and I’m dying.” And so, it was coming out of that. It wasn’t coming out of ‘You shouldn’t be gay.” He once said if a person comes into our office and says they mate with a dog, ask them if it was a German Shepherd…He just did not get moralistic about this at all.

Christopher Butterfield transcribed this interview.