'Masters of Sex' Showrunner on Sex Scenes, Stereotypes and What's Ahead for Season 2
Masters of Sex showrunner Michelle Ashford is admittedly uncomfortable with some of what she sees on screen.
"We're prudes," she says of herself and her producing partner Sarah Timberman, who had to sit through scores of sex scenes in preparation for their Showtime period drama. Squeamish as the women were, the exercise paid off. Masters, which tells the story of real-life 1950s sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, is up more than 30 percent from Homeland's average in the same time slot during its freshman run. And on Oct. 22, the Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan vehicle was officially renewed for a second season.
As the series nears the mid-way point, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Ashford to discuss plans for the second season (she and her writing staff have been back in the writers room for a week already), sexual stereotypes the show has side-stepped and her own concerns about Masters' sex scenes.
What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make about season two so far?
How far forward in time to go. If you look at the story from beginning to end, it has some very definite milestones in it. If we just went on the big milestones, we would basically have a four-season show. I think that in success, for business reasons, they want something longer than that, and so now we’ve had to think about how we would divide up the story if we make it longer than four seasons.
Both Thomas Maier and his book, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, played a significant role in season one. How do you anticipate that changing as you move into season two?
It really can’t. We want to be faithful to their lives. We will always use Tom’s book as the scaffolding for where we’re going. There’s still weird gaps when you read Tom’s book as to what was actually happening – between Masters and Johnson or the details of their careers – so we feel like there are these pockets where we can take the characters on little detours. As long as we keep coming back to what we do know, we feel pretty good about that. And it’s much more interesting to watch anyway.
If you could go back and change one thing from the first season, what would that be?
All my issues about what I would change have to do with the process of how we get stuff done. For example, one of the things I have tried to do this year that is different from last year is keep the writing as far away from production as possible … so that you don’t have to deal with the runaway train that is production encroaching too much on the time you spend with the writing. The problem with production is once that starts, all hell breaks loose and my attention is fragmented into a million pieces. What I didn’t like about last year is that the writing and the production overlapped too much, so I didn’t feel like I got to take the time with the writing as much as I wanted to. [This year] we’re starting now and we probably won’t start filming until March or April, which gives me more time.
You explore what it means to be gay in the '50s with Beau Bridges’ role. Is his character based on one that actually existed?
He’s based on a weird amalgam of characters that were in their world in real life. Everything that Tom has in his book was vetted legally, so we can take in terms of Masters, Johnson and [Masters’ wife] Libby, but once we start getting into those peripheral characters, we can’t use actual people. Beau Bridges’ character is a good example of that… We do it for not only artistic reasons but also for legal reasons.
What has been the most awkward or difficult moment in the writers’ room?
What we’re always saying is: “Is this too far?” One of the things that’s fascinating about our show is that you can get very quickly into stereotypes. We were talking about potentially bringing in an African American character and we just thought … about all these stereotypes that people associate with, especially in the '50s (and still today, which is why we feel our show is relevant), the idea that … African Americans [are] perceived different sexually than maybe white people. Then you’re immediately into incredibly charged territory, which is good, but you have to navigate through that very delicately and thoughtfully.