Everyone wants to get naked on Masters of Sex (returning July 13 for its second season). When Allison Janney signed on to play the lonely wife of a university provost (Beau Bridges) on the Showtime series — which chronicles the real-life studies of sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) in the late 1950s — nudity wasn’t in the cards. But then, showrunner Michelle Ashford recalls, Janney ”looked around, saw these stories we were doing, and said, ‘Well, how come I never get to take my clothes off?”’ (She eventually did, when her character, Margaret, bedded a handsome doctor played by Teddy Sears.)
Masters‘ copious copulation is graphic but never gratuitous, an approach Ashford has employed from the beginning. ”When I see sex scenes designed to be super hot and sexy, I always find my toes curling,” she says. Ashford has instituted ”all sorts of rules” for shooting the show’s signature scenes, from who’s allowed on set (spoiler: not many people) to what body parts will (or won’t) be shown.
”When you dissect it, it’s not just two people going at it,” says Sears. ”There’s a dance within the dance before the director yells, ‘Action!”’ A dance, you say? Here’s a step-by-step guide to the erotic choreography.
Making a Sex Scene
Before the shoot, the director meets with the actors to block out the carnal choreography. According to Caplan, whose Virginia Johnson couples with Sheen’s William Masters, ”It’s always the director that’s far more uncomfortable than Michael and me. We’re desensitized to the awkwardness.”
Once on set, the actors walk through their movements at half speed with the director before crew members chime in to recommend optimal positions. ”You work out the intricate dance of it very clinically,” says Janney. ”Arm here, I’m going to touch you there, roll here, put your hand here…you make it a paint-by-numbers.”
After rehearsal, director of photography Michael Weaver steps in. ”I’m watching in the shadows, figuring out where the cameras need to be, where the light is coming from,” says Weaver, who uses up to three cameras per setup to remain unobtrusive and avoid relighting. Microphone placement isn’t as subtle. ”There’s nothing sexy about Dennis the sound guy booming the mic six inches from your face,” jokes Sears.
For scenes in Masters’ lab, prop master Jeff Johnson uses boxing tape to adhere nodes to sweaty skin. Shots involving the 14-inch clear dildo named Ulysses require extra caution. ”It’s the best prop I’ve ever been given, but I think I’m going to get carpal tunnel every time,” says Heléne Yorke, who plays study participant Jane Martin.
Each rendezvous varies in shooting time, but editors always have plenty of thrusts and moans to piece together into one fluid sequence. ”I would rather die than go into the editing room and watch all the takes,” says Caplan.
Some actors (like Sears) watch the final product with their families, some (like Caplan) watch alone, and others just can’t watch at all. ”I’m in my bedroom with my hands over my eyes,” says Janney. ”I’m going to watch it 10 years from now and I’m going to love it, but I can’t look at it now.”