Masters of Sex: Isabelle Fuhrman talks growing pains for teenage Tessa
Virginia Johnson has always had her hands full with her children, but Masters of Sex has elevated the good researcher’s stress level by growing her children from pint-sized to prepubescent, with hormones and resentment raging.
Viewers met the 15- and 17-year-old versions of Tessa and Henry right in the third season premiere, with Isabelle Fuhrman and Noah Robbins joining the cast as the grown versions of Virginia’s previously teeny tots.
But with Henry off to the Army, it’s teenage Tessa who’s sticking around to press Virginia’s buttons, as teenagers are wont to do — and especially so when their mother is on the verge of becoming one of the most famous names in America. Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) was hardly around for Tessa’s youth, and now the teenager needs her mother more than ever, particularly after this week’s harrowing scene when Tessa’s new suitor Matt forces himself on her.
EW spoke with Fuhrman (known to movie audiences from Orphan and The Hunger Games) about the challenging scene and where Tessa and Virginia’s relationship goes from here.
EW: I’m just going to say it — it feels so strange to see this little girl we’ve known for two seasons suddenly all grown up.
ISABELLE FUHRMAN: I was laughing because when they cast me as Tessa, I was like, I look nothing like the younger version. And they’re like, “Yeah, but you look more like Lizzy.” But that’s kind of funny how I go from dark brown hair and olive skin to…black hair and pale. [laughs]
What did you know of Tessie’s arc in your first meeting with the show?
It’s changed a lot, but they had an overall sense of where they wanted to take Tessa. When you see Tessa in earlier years, she’s kind of sassy and I think they wanted to play that up. They also wanted to add a sense of humor and respect for her mother, but at the same time she has this distaste for the way that her mother has neglected her and has cared so much more about her work than her. That was a main piece that has stayed constant, but some things changed, like the relationships Tessa has and the way she deals with those relationships. Especially with boys.
Tell me about getting the script for this episode.
Just reading it, it really broke my heart. I went to a regular school and knew girls in middle school that had that happen to them. I knew people that had had a date, and a guy said “You can’t leave me like this” and it ended in a very violent way and they thought… is he my boyfriend now? Does that mean we’re together? And it’s a confusing thing because they didn’t understand that that was sexual assault. And I think that just shows that even though this took place in the ‘60s, there still is that need for people to be able to talk candidly about sex because it’s still a conversation that people are afraid to have.
Does she eventually tell Virginia, or is this not something she will ever share?
It’s a secret that she keeps, at least right now.
It felt like, if she didn’t tell Virginia in the car, she’s never going to tell her.
In that car scene, there was almost a hope and a need for her mom to recognize that there’s something wrong. Miguel Sapochnik, who directed it, was like, “I really want to see that you wish she would just turn to you and say, ‘What happened?’” Because clearly something happened, but Virginia’s too caught up in her head and what’s going on with her. I think Tessa will hopefully be the person that will turn her around.
As a viewer, can you empathize with Virginia?
In season one and two, you were constantly rooting for Virginia, and I think what they’re trying to show in season three with Tessa is that yeah, Virginia’s this pioneer and she’s a strong independent woman, but at the same time, she’s completely neglected the fact that she’s had children that need her. Tessa feels like she can’t go to her mom and talk to her about anything because she’s too busy, and that’s what really brings their arc together in a very clashing way. It’ll either go one way or another. They’re either going to resolve this and it’s going to be great, or it’s not going to end up being fixed.
In terms of Tessa’s relationship with Virginia, what has damaged her more—Virginia being “the sex mom,” or the negligence?
It’s the not being there. Something Michelle and I talked about extensively is that Tessa’s a very smart girl and she looks at her mother and really respects her for everything she’s done. She recognizes the barriers she’s broken down. But it’s almost like she feels that even though her mom worked in the field, her mom never was there to explain it to her. She was too busy, and so Tessa acts out as a way to get her mom to pay attention. She doesn’t even really receive negative attention, and I think that’s even worse. She doesn’t get any sort of conversation with her mother, and the conversations that they do have are not that great.
That’s what drives her to Masters in the season premiere. But then Tessa and Bill had that kiss — what’s going on there?
She was drunk and she was a mess. I don’t think it meant anything or was meant to mean anything. It was more of her showing that she’s grown up and she’s an adult and she can do what she wants, and that was more of the intention behind it rather than a romantic interest in Bill. The relationship between her and Bill changes really drastically throughout the story because Tessa learns that her mom and Bill are having an affair.
What does that knowledge do to her?
It brings her to a more resentful place with her mom because it turns out it’s not just work that’s holding her up, and she realizes that.
What have you discovered about Tessa’s relationship with her brother Henry?
Remember that the end of season two, Virginia gives up the kids to George. So Tessa and her brother have shared in the mutual bond that their mom is more interested in her work than being a mom. They both have a mutual resentment towards Virginia, but again, they both have a respect for what Virginia does, and I think that’s important. They don’t look at their mom as this terrible person who’s not doing anything; they realize that the work she’s doing is important, but they still wish that she had the time or room in her heart for her family, and she doesn’t.
How does Henry going into the Army affect her?
I don’t actually know if Henry’s coming back. The relationship between Tessa and Henry was very strong, and I think now that he’s gone, it’s put more tension on Tessa and her mom because there’s no buffer or person there to talk to about it, and she has to deal with these things on her own. And that’s the most difficult part about being young and a teenager, is not having someone to talk to and explain things to you.
What else is coming up for Tessa, beyond her relationships with her “boyfriend” and her mother?
We have Frances Fisher and Michael O’Keefe playing my grandparents, so that plays a big role in the season and in the relationship between Tessa and Virginia. You’ll see a lot more mischief from Tessa. As I said, she’s smart and she figures out that Virginia and Masters are dating, so she’s not in any way going to make that easier on them. This arc with [Tessa’s boyfriend] Matt is really one that’s been interesting, at least to me as an actress, because I get to explore this relationship that I’ve never experienced.
This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.