Of all the characters on television last year, Michael Sheen‘s portrayal of Bill Masters, the sex researcher, stands out for its compellingly complex look at human intimacy and the pathologies of a man whose work changed our very society.
Sheen, a veteran actor whose work has ranged from “Frost/Nixon” to “The Queen,” spoke to TheWrap for our Emmy quickie contender series.
TheWrap: Do you enjoy digging into such a sensitive and taboo topic — not the sex, but the psychology of sex?
Michael Sheen: It’s the psychology of intimacy and vulnerability. What drew me to the character is how damaged he is, how damaged he was by his parents, his father. Every adult has to at some point attempt to confront what has affected how they perceive the world, in order to have any relationship of real value. It’s exciting to explore someone who is soul-damaged, soul-warped, and to explore that through a relationship.
Do you want Bill Masters to be unlikable?
I partly did it on purpose. It’s interesting to see how things get reflected back — people have a hard time with him as a character. He’s a very, very damaged character, a very trapped man. He’s a victim of abuse. I wanted to tackle head-on what it is like to develop a personality around a kernel of horrible abuse. You’re not often asked to have to go on journey with a main character — who you should see as a hero — to like that character. Part of the big picture is hopefully you watch a man changing. Hopefully he’s finding a way out of that prison that he finds himself in.
Are you accustomed by now to the many sex scenes with Lizzy Caplan?
When we first started it was a way of bonding very quickly. You are immediately talking about areas that are very intimate and vulnerable-making. Quite quickly you find yourself having to make a decision about what you’re going to share. It helped that me and Lizzy both were very quick to dive into that. We felt we could trust each other.
In terms of the actual scenes where we’re doing sexual things — we just felt very confident with each other, very comfortable and we could trust each other.
How do you approach the sex scenes?
That partly had to do with creating a setup within the show where we felt comfortable with those scenes. Often when it comes to sex scenes, it can be gray area, people feel uncomfortable talking about it directly. Early on, we were very clear that there couldn’t be any gray areas, that we were going to be doing that so much that everything had to be talked through beforehand.
What do you mean by “talked through”?
There’s almost like a checklist to go through, nothing is left to the day. The director talks with every actor days beforehand. You make sure everyone on paper is clear what will be happening physically — what you’ll be wearing. You talk it through with wardrobe, hair and makeup so on the day nothing is a surprise. And when we shoot, it’s an absolutely closed set. There’s someone ready to give you something to put on immediately as soon as they yell, “Cut.” No one is allowed to wander past the monitors.
What to you is unique about this last season?
At the heart of Season 2 is that we tell ourselves stories that allow us to move through the world and keep certain things sacred. The revealing of those things is in itself an act of intimacy, and it’s not always the whole truth. It’s the beginning of intimacy. I’ve never seen that being done before.
Like for Bill, he’s based who he is on the story of what happened between his father and him, and his younger brother. And that comes up for question and becomes very threatening to Bill. The idea that he may have abandoned his brother to the same fate [of abuse] — he has to prove himself right over his brother.
The complexity of what is going on there is staggering. It raises so many questions about the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, we want to be right more than we want to be happy. It’s extraordinary writing, the honesty going on there. I felt very proud to be part of a project that was dealing with those kinds of things.