Interview: Michael Sheen
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Michael Sheen is one of Britain’s most accomplished and respected actors. Equally at home on stage or screen, he has played roles including Tony Blair, Brian Clough, David Frost, Kenneth Williams and Hamlet. In his latest project, Masters of Sex, a twelve-part drama set in the 1950s Midwestern USA, he plays pioneering sex researcher Dr William Masters. Here, he reveals more. Could you give us a quick overview of the series? It’s the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson who were pioneers in the field of sex research. It follows the struggle that Bill Masters had in trying to explore this subject, which was very controversial during the mid to late 50s. It also follows how the relationships, particularly between Masters and Johnson but also those around them, are all intertwined with the sex research itself. What was it about the role that particularly attracted you to it? Well, it’s about a subject that I think is fascinating to people. Regardless of whether it’s set in the 1950s or the present day, it’s something that everybody, in one way or another, has to deal with on a daily basis. I thought the character of Bill Masters was fascinating; very shut off, very difficult to read, and very difficult to know what’s going on in his mind. Underneath the surface there is a lot of roiling, churning emotion going on, but he’s very controlled on the surface, so I thought that’s an interesting character to explore. Also, exploring the life of a man who’s chosen to work in an area that inevitably leads to him having to reveal a lot of himself both physically and, more importantly, emotionally is an interesting challenge for a character. Modern attitudes towards sex are arguably very different to attitudes towards sex during the 1950s. To what extent do you think these differences are due to the work of Masters and Johnson? During the period of time that they were working in, the area of sex and sexuality wasn’t very talked about. Very little was open, there were a lot of myths, there was a lot of ignorance, people were in the dark, and it was a very dysfunctional relationship. Now, it could be said that today we have just as dysfunctional a relationship with sex, but just in a different way. The work that Masters and Johnson did definitely opened up the possibility to talk about sex, to see it in a new light and to have access to actual, factual, details to refer to. Suddenly there was a platform to be able to explore issues to do with sex and sexuality. It definitely changed things. But things have shifted since then. Now, we’re inundated with images of sexuality and information about sex. But we’re still just as much in the dark about it in lots of ways. Nowadays, I think one of the greatest dangers is that there appears to be some kind of sexual ideal which if somehow we don’t match up to then there’s something wrong. There’s just as much opportunity to feel shame and anxiety about your own sexuality as there was back then, it’s just for different reasons now.
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