Lizzy Caplan can always sit with us. Sure, she scored an Emmy nomination for playing sex research pioneer Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s Masters of Sex, which returns July 12 for a third season, but it was Caplan’s performance as snarky outcast Janis Ian in Mean Girls that earned her a special place at our lunch table.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: You grew up in Los Angeles. What was your introduction to the LGBT community?
Lizzy Caplan: I can’t remember a time in my life without gay people. My uncle [publicist Howard Bragman] is a power gay, and I spent so much of my childhood at his house. I’d never even think twice about why his pool parties were all guys with amazing bodies in really tiny bathing suits. It wasn’t an issue. My dad is this very liberal Jewish guy, but one time he was at one of these parties, reading a book in the sun, when this guy brought out a big boombox, sat it beside my dad, and did a full flag dance right next to him. Seeing my father just sitting there, trying to read his historical biography, is one of my favorite memories ever.
Was your high school experience anything like Janis Ian’s in Mean Girls?
I went to a performing arts high school where being odd or different was appreciated. It was actually cooler to be gay than straight. If I were a lesbian, I would’ve been so much more popular. Remember the Delia’s catalog? I used to get a bunch of clothes from Delia’s because it was the bomb, and there was this one model in the catalog who was so beautiful and seemed very cool. I decided that in order to fit in with the older musical theater guys, the coolest guys in school, I would try really hard to fall in love with this girl. I’d cut out her pictures, paste them on my binders, and tell all the gay boys I had a thing for this chick.
It sounds like you were more interested in the gay boys.
I definitely had a friend-crush on this kid Benji. He was so cute and rad. Everything he did or said was hilarious. We’d drive around in his car and, when giving directions, we weren’t allowed to say, “Go straight.” We had to say, “Go gaily forward.” I thought that was lovely. One of my best friends in high school was this kid Max, who’s still one of my best friends. He is the gayest man I know. He was always ridiculously popular because he’s flamboyant and hilarious and smart and wonderful. We were roommates forever.
That must’ve been fun.
Yeah, well, he moved out after he saw me totally naked, spread-eagle on my bed. It my 23rd birthday or something and I’d passed out after a long night of drinking with friends. He came in to check on me and saw things he never wanted to see in his life.
I recently spoke to your Masters of Sex costar Allison Janney, who told me she’s been dating and falling in love with gay men for years. Can you relate?
There was this one guy I went on a couple dates with a few years back. I liked him a lot but he never tried to make the moves on me, which I thought was, like, shocking. I found out later that he had come out. I was like, well, that explains it. So if that ever happens to me again, I’ll just immediately assume the guy’s gay.
He must’ve been a big Mean Girls fan.
Playing someone with a gay best friend in that movie did give me a lot of gay street cred. My costar, Danny Franzese, has his finger on every pulse, so he reports back to me on occasion about the movie’s gay following.
I’ve actually seen drag Janises at Halloween. Wouldn’t it be fetch if you did Janis for Halloween one year?
Oh, that’s not going to happen. That’s a little too much narcissism even for me.
Your uncle that you mentioned earlier, Howard Bragman, is a publicist best known for helping gay celebrities come out. You’ve worked with a number of openly gay actors, including Jane Lynch and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Daniel Franzese came out publicly last year. What are your thoughts on the Hollywood closet?
I don’t know what it’s like to walk around with a secret like that, but I see how difficult it’s been for a lot of people I love. Back when we did Mean Girls, Daniel felt very strongly about keeping that to himself, because he thought it would impede his ability to get all different kinds of roles. But even in the last 10 years, the landscape has changed tremendously. It’s far easier to come out. You buy gay actors playing straight characters all the time now. That said, we live in a country with a lot of fucking uptight, right-wing, bullshit idiots, and, unfortunately, their opinions are heard because they’re part of the moviegoing, television-watching public. I just wish everybody could live his or her truth. It breaks my heart to see people pretending to be something that they’re not.
Like you, Daniel went on to star in a sexy show on premium cable. Did you watch him in Looking?
I haven’t seen it yet. I’m so behind on watching everybody’s shows. He’s such a beautiful, wonderful person. I love that he gets to be an out gay man and also celebrate it by being on such a respected gay show.
What do you recall about playing a lesbian teen in ABC’s Once and Again?
It didn’t enter my mind that it might be risky or strange to people. It was just another role, and that girl happened to like girls. It’s important to tell those stories, especially in a high school setting. I feel like I’ve played a bunch of other lesbians, but I guess I’ve just played a bunch of characters that everyone assumes is a lesbian.
Like Janis, who was actually Lebanese.
Exactly. She wasn’t the norm, so it was the emotional terrorist plot of the popular girls to spread the rumor that she was a lesbian, which was clearly an insult at that school.
After being bullied and ostracized, Janis reinvented herself as a tough goth girl. Have you heard from young people whom that character inspired?
I’ve heard from a lot of girls, gay and straight, who are trying to carve out their own identity and feel good about themselves in environments where it’s hard if you’re not a blond, skinny cheerleader.
Were you ever bullied?
I was always a tough kid, so no one really fucked with me, thank God. But I saw how rough it was for some of my gay friends at private schools, and I know that so many kids are still bullied for being different, for being gay. Especially these days, with Internet bullying, being a kid is like living in a war zone.
If you were to play another lesbian, whom would you want as your on-screen love interest?
Julianne Moore. She’s so beautiful and amazing. And she was a great lesbian in The Kids Are All Right.
When you did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit a few years back, a lot of female fans professed their girl crushes on you. What do you make of that?
It’s very flattering. Early in my career I definitely had moments of wishing I fit more into the straight-up ingénue type — face, body, attitude, whatever. But the truth is that the majority of girls aren’t like that, and most young girls are doing their own thing, trying to figure out who they are. I’m in my early 30s and maybe just starting to have a handle on who I am. So I’m not interested in playing the girls who get the boy and then everything’s great. I want to play people who are struggling with their identity and who don’t fit into the world around them. A lot of girls feel that way, so they get excited when they see that portrayed on-screen.
You’d hear more nice things from fans if you joined social media.
Yeah, but the definition of my job is to effectively convince people that I’m somebody else. A big part of me feels like my job becomes harder if you know what my cat looks like and what I had for breakfast. I like writing funny texts with friends, so I’d probably get a kick out of Twitter, but I also know that I’d get in a lot of trouble. I don’t want to start Twitter feuds and have to apologize for shit.
Let’s talk about Masters of Sex. Where are we at the start of season 3?
We’ve jumped ahead to 1965, which is about nine years after Bill and Virginia met, so a lot has changed. Our show is based on Thomas Maier’s biography, Masters of Sex, which is pretty much the only source material we have about their personal lives. They were very guarded throughout their entire careers, because they wanted the focus to be on the work, not on their relationship behind closed doors. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a blackout period in the book — we know how they met and then what happens when their first book is published in 1966. The second season was focused a lot on developing their relationship, so we had to create our own narrative around how these two people got closer. We got to explore and make these people our own characters, rather than just biographical representations. We’re starting season 3 at a point where we know a lot more about their relationship and the work that they’re doing. They’re right on the precipice of becoming major celebrities, which is going to completely change their dynamic and their work, because they’re opening it up to the world at large. It’s going to be crazy. And now Virginia has a new boyfriend, which throws another wrench into everything. We’re just going to keep trying to make things complicated and difficult for these people.
The show has already touched on gay conversion therapy with the tortured gay character of Barton Scully, but Masters and Johnson famously supported the practice in their 1979 book Homosexuality in Perspective, which was based on a 14-year study that started in the ’60s. Will we begin to see that research conducted this season?
I’m not sure if we’ll get more into that beyond Barton’s storyline. Beau Bridges is back for a few episodes this season, and he plays that character so beautifully and so heartbreakingly. That’s actually some of the stuff in the show that I’m most proud of — how well that story has been handled.
How do you feel about their controversial conversion therapy research?
It’s a bad piece of science. It created way more pain and suffering than I know they ever intended. It was published pretty much at the end of their career together, and Virginia maintained through interviews that this was something she was never on board with, and that Bill messed with the numbers to support his theory that homosexuality was something that could be reversed. That said, these people weren’t proselytizing at all. This was not coming from a place of believing that being gay is morally wrong, corrupt, and something that needs to be fixed because it’s bad for society. It was quite the opposite. You see in our show how much Beau Bridges’s character is in pain, and how much Masters looked up to this man and loved him like a father. Society was not ready for homosexuality; he saw these people in pain and he truly wanted to help ease their suffering — in the same way that Masters and Johnson eased the suffering of so many women with their research and science. All that said, he shouldn’t have done the study. It’s been used for so much more evil than good.
That seems ripe to explore in a future season.
Oh, once we do get to that point in their story, it’s going to get very complicated. Because it’s one of their more lasting legacies, unfortunately, and, again, Virginia was never on board with it. Until then, we have quite a few gay characters on the show — Annaleigh Ashford, of course, plays Betty, our receptionist, who’s a lesbian — and we continue to explore their struggles.
I worry that it may not end well for them.
Yeah, well, nothing ever ends well. If you’re on our show, something terrible’s definitely going to happen to you.
The Advocate, August/September 2015 issue; extended online version.