Michael Sheen On 'Masters Of Sex'

Masters Of Sex star Michael Sheen is a very serious actor (even when there is a dildo in the room)

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Masters of Sex is Showtime’s (Homeland, Dexter) new 12-part drama about pioneering sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson as they lead after hours experiments into the mechanics of sex in smut adverse Middle America.

Which means lots of nudity, for the sake of science.

Leading man Michael Sheen explains just how you keep it together in a room of 20 young, naked, attractive women.

Esquire: You’re best known for playing famous men like Tony Blair, David Frost and Brian Clough. Was playing a lesser-known real life person like William Masters any different?

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Michael Sheen: I did a bit of research on Masters. But it’s not like playing someone who is instantly recognisable and very familiar to millions of people like Blair or Frost. It’s a different kind of pressure. The structure you have in place when you are playing who is better known can be useful. Whereas with someone you don't know, you don't have that template.

Esq: Is there a resemblance between the real William Masters and how you played him?

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MS: No, not really. He looks quite different. From he was quite young he was prematurely balding with white tufts of hair at the side on his head. He had a very hawk like face. He was quite an imposing, chilly and forbidding man.

Esq: Were you happy not to go bald for the part?

MS: I did suggest it at first but they decided it wasn't a good idea. I thought it would be quite a challenge to play someone who physically looked quite particular in this show and setting. Traditionally the leading man has to look a certain way and tick certain boxes.

Esq: Was it challenge to make a 1950s piece on sex not appear quaint to a modern audience?

MS: I don't know about you but maybe you have a much more enlightened life than me. Our access to information about sex is obviously a polar opposite to what it was then. It seems that no matter how much information we have about sex, it doesn't translate to make it any easier to deal with as part of a relationship. Because ultimately this story isn’t about sex, it’s about intimacy. We’re not trying to do a museum piece. Hopefully people will relate.

Esq: How do you stop it descending into Carry On?

MS: With a situation like this where you have characters and a culture where the sexuality is so repressed and taboo, and you have within that this incredibly explicit research, then naturally the clash between these two things is going to potentially give rise to a surreality and absurd opportunities. That’s also a really useful way to deal with something that can be quite difficult. Obviously when you have a glass dildo hanging around that you can light up and vibrate, that’s always going to be good for a gag.

Esq: Was it fun on set?

MS: For all our access to information about sex and everything that we are so sophisticated about, in quotation marks, you get a glass dildo out and grown men are giggling like kids. We don't seem to have come that far.

Esq: Anything else odd about filming?

MS: There was a lot standing around completely clothed while people are naked, partially naked, pretending to masturbate, pretending to have sex, pretending to have a gynaecological examination. Doing all kinds of things. Things that are fairly odd to do on a daily basis.

Esq: How did you master that?

MS: When I was doing the research I found it quite difficult to understand how a heterosexual male could be in the situation that gynaecologists find themselves in every day. Everyone said the same thing, which there is an area of your brain that you just switch off. Then doing the show, you find yourself in a room with about 20 almost completely naked attractive young women doing various sexual things and it is literally like on some level your brain knows ‘I will not be able to get through this day or any other day if I can’t relate to this differently.’ You just do.

Masters of Sex continues on Channel 4 tonight.

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