Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in 'Masters of Sex'
Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in 'Masters of Sex'

He was doing “Hamlet” while she was doing “Hot Tub Time Machine,” but Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan proved they are equally endowed with wit and comic timing in a delightful panel appearance at Paley Fest Monday night to promote “Masters of Sex.” The pair plays pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s sharp freshman drama, which unfolds in the same era as “Mad Men.”

“What does that say about the culture?” Sheen demanded in mock outrage when the mention of “Hot Tub” got raucous applause from the crowd, while his “Hamlet” credential -- he was pulled straight out of a London production to do the Showtime pilot -- elicited “Nothing! Tumbleweeds!” as he put it. To compensate, he leapt up and launched into a soliloquy that he identified as “Act 5, Scene 2.”

“How else could it end?” said Caplan about season one’s final moments, in which a man stands in the rain confessing his love for her. “Everything I’m in ends that way,” she said demurely.

In truth, she confessed, she fought hard for the role, seeing it as her shot at proving she could do something other than the contempo comedies (“Mean Girls,” “Party Down”) that had become her métier. The constricting period undergarments she wears to play Virginia became a kind of metaphor for what it takes to harness her modern sensibility to fit that era. “No more mumbling or padding lines,” said Caplan. “I’m not used to being ‘word-perfect’ in a script, but it’s made me a much more disciplined actor.” Caitlin FitzGerald, who plays Libby, Masters’ long-suffering wife, expressed her consternation at the elaborate hair and makeup rituals the period requires. “The truth is, women would be running everything,” she exclaimed, “except that we’re too busy getting ready.”

Since just after Christmas, creator Michelle Ashford and the writing team have been scripting season two. Shooting on the new episodes began this month on the Sony lot in Culver City. Ashford, joined onstage by producer Sarah Timberman, said the pair had come to the Paley Fest session, held at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, straight from the set, where an emotional scene involving Beau Bridges and Allison Janney was underway.  

“We were both weeping,” she said, indicating that whatever happens next between hospital chancellor Barton Scully (Bridges) and his wife Margaret (Janney), who are struggling with their marriage after her bombshell discovery that he is gay, the feelings run deep. Also present for the panel were cast members Annaleigh Ashford (Betty DiMello) and Teddy Sears (Dr. Austin Langham), who said his favorite scene so far was the one in which he and Janney rekindle their attraction during a nighttime encounter at the university swimming pool. “She’s the best in the business,” he said of Janney.  When the show returns in July, it will feature Betsy Brandt (“Breaking Bad”), who joins the cast as Dr. Masters’ new secretary.