In the 21st century, frank talk about sex is everywhere—TV, magazines, the internet and especially among friends. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of repressed attitudes, but that’s just cause for more conversation. In 1950s America, sex was something that went on behind closed doors, until Dr. William Masters and his assistant Virginia Johnson undertook a revolutionary study of human sexuality that still has us talking.
Season one of Masters of Sex, which chronicles their work and complex personal relationship, is currently airing on Showtime. In the first few episodes Masters (portrayed by Michael Sheen) struggled to find approval for his study at the Midwestern teaching hospital where he worked. One of the early volunteers he and Johnson (played by Lizzy Caplan) recruit is Jane Martin (played by Heléne Yorke), a seemingly quiet, prim hospital secretary.
Masters of Sex is a breakout TV role for Yorke, largely known for her theatre work. She speaks to DivineCaroline about shedding her own inhibitions in order to show how Masters and Johnson enlightened the world about sex and sexuality.
DivineCaroline: In the early episodes of Masters of Sex we haven’t learned that much about Jane yet, but it’s fascinating that this woman of the 1950s who seems so prim on the outside is open to participate in this sex study. How do you see her?
Heléne Yorke: When I first read the script for the pilot I was immediately struck by how honest and eager Jane is. I see her as a young woman making her own way in the modern world. Someone who wants to be very much a part of the now of 1957, so to speak. There’s a touch of naïveté there, but it’s clear she’s game to learn and game for the adventure.
DC: How did you research the era in which the series is set in terms of gender roles, women’s lives and women’s sense of sexuality?
HY: I plopped myself down in the library one day and read a lot about what had been written about sex at that time. It helped me understand what the female outlook about it at that time would have been. What I found interesting is that the male perception was one thing, but I honestly believe most women knew better. They’re our bodies after all! This helped me because I felt that Jane knows. She knows what feels good, and it’s amusing to watch the men fall all over themselves when they finally figure it out or are faced with a chick who knows what’s up. Talk about a girl power moment!
DC: Why do you think Jane was so immediately open in her first sexual experiment with “anonymous” (aka Dr. Austin Langham, played by Teddy Sears)?
HY: I don’t think she was IMMEDIATELY open to it. I think that was the power of Virginia Johnson in her relationship with Dr. Masters. She provided the perfect personal touch to get women to open up sexually. Jane becomes open because Virginia coaxes her through that door. And besides: have you seen Dr. Langham? I mean come on.
DC: What is it like to be immersed in a period drama, but still give it texture and dimension that will connect to a contemporary audience?
HY: I think the conversation about sex is one that never grows old and is one that people are always drawn to. We all have questions about our bodies and how each of us experience the act itself. What was being talked about THEN is still oddly debated and questioned NOW. There isn’t a girl on the planet who doesn’t laugh about having to fake it every once in a while. Sorry, guys.
DC: You haven’t done a lot of television or film. Would you please share a bit about your theatre credits.
HY: I went to the University of Michigan and have a BFA in Musical Theatre. I was in Grease on Broadway, toured with Wicked, was off Broadway a couple of times and have been a part of numerous readings and workshops. Next year I’ll be in Bullets Over Broadway by Woody Allen which opens on Broadway in March!
DC: What do you find the most interesting transition from theatre to television, and in the case of Masters of Sex a TV show shot very much like a film?
HY: I find the mediums to be incredibly different. In theatre you’re telling the same story eight times a week, and in TV that story is constantly changing and you’re often telling it out of order based on shooting schedules. They have very different challenges and rewards, but the most interesting thing to me is that no two days at work are the same in TV.
DC: While American society is still somewhat repressed about sex, information and the ability to discuss sex certainly exist. How do you think this show will enlighten people about how secret sex was in the 1950s?
HY: It’s made apparent in the way people related to one another, particularly men and women, which is very much highlighted in our show. That was a buttoned up time with some dirty stuff happening behind closed doors!
DC: What was it like to do nude scenes, some of which contain very intimate activity?
HY: The best way I can describe it is an extended doctor’s appointment with more people in the room. Everyone is very respectful going out of their way to make you comfortable but it’s definitely cold and a little awkward. The more intimate scenes that I did with Teddy were trickier because you’re also concerned about making your scene partner comfortable. We lightened the mood by gabbing about hockey between takes.
DC: What has been the response you’ve received thus far?
HY: People seem to be really loving the show! What I find interesting is that the ladies are really getting in to it. That was a time when women were gaining a deeper understanding of their physical power in sex, which is something we forget even today.
DC: Both Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen are doing amazing jobs as Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters. What are they like to work with?
HY: Those two are complete professionals and lovely individuals. I can’t say enough. I’m loving watching their work now that the show has started airing.
DC: How will Jane’s story unfold over the course of season one?
HY: Jane continues her work with the study and her involvement and perspective definitely evolves. It’s a busy hospital and she’s definitely keeping her finger on the pulse. And keep your eye out for some adorable 1950s yellow ensembles! We have our brilliant designer Ane Crabtree to thank for that.
DC: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers of DivineCaroline about upcoming projects on stage or screen.
HY: Come see Bullets Over Broadway next year at the St. James Theatre!