“Masters of Sex” has a 1950s lesbian storyline in Season 2

 
 

Annaleigh Ashford was originally cast to play Betty, the prostitute for only a small part of Masters of Sex‘s first season on Showtime. The Broadway actress stole every scene she was in, though, and one line she was given about preferring to have sex with women despite her day (night?) job spawned an entire new television career for the Kinky Boots star. Now a regular on Season 2 of the hit drama, Betty returned on last week’s premiere keeping her sexuality and sterility a secret from her new husband, Gene the Pretzel King.

“I know I can say that she has so many secrets at the top of the season that she’s hiding from her husband, played beautifully by Greg Grunberg,” Annaleigh said during a Masters of Sex set visit. “Really in the first half of the season she’s really navigating all those secrets and keeping them hidden. One of the secrets she has is her relationship with Helen.”

TCA SUMMER PRESS TOUR 2014 - MASTERS OF SEX SEASON 2 PARTY

Helen, her lover, is played by comic Sarah Silverman, who will be in two episodes this season.

“My character specifically has made forward movement socially through her relationship with a man. She never would have been able to raise her social status from being a hooker if she hadn’t married a wealthy man,” Annaleigh said. “And I think that there’s still elements of that social structuremaybe not in every part of the country but I think in our world, it still exists today. I think one of the things I’m most grateful for in Betty as a character is she’s so strong. She knows when she does have power and some of those social norms don’t always apply to Betty which is just so rich to me as an actor.”

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Working with Sarah Silverman, Annaleigh said, was a lot of fun, as the two enjoyed singing together on set.

“Sarah Silverman and I do have a love scene and she was luxurious as a scene partner in that way as well. We laughed a lot and giggled,” Annaleigh said. “We sang the entire ‘If Mama Was Married’ from Gypsy and the whole crew was laughing so hard. So we had a great time and oh, she was just such a dream to work with. She’s one of the most gifted comediennes of our generation and oftentimes we forget that great comedians are great because they’re honest and that makes them honest, interesting actors and she brought all of that comedy and humanity to the role that she played and I couldn’t be more grateful to have a fabulous scene partner. She’s beautiful as an actress and then she was incredible as a human. We had such a ball on set.”

Although she kept the plot points close to the chest, Annaleigh did say that there’s some dialogue about Betty and Helen not feeling like they can fit in anywhere, even among the secret lesbian community hangouts in St. Louis, Missouri.

“I did a lot of research into the woman of that era and there’s hardly anything. There’s like The Ladder was just coming out,” Annaleigh said, referencing the first national lesbian newsletter and magazine. “That’s kind of it. But we do have talk that we’re both ladies, lady fashion and that is kind of one of the challenge. I don’t know if it is in the episode but there was some dialogue that explained we had trouble going to a butch bar. That is one of our challenges as a couple is we’re both lighter and more feminine, there hasn’t really been a place for us to fit in. I would definitely say I show a more masculine energy.”

Series creator Michelle Ashford said she couldn’t wait to explore more of lesbian life during the time period, which is so rarely put on screen.

“We put a line in one of the episodes about women who would go to these odd bars, these gay women bars. There was this trend in the late ’50s where women would dress as men,” Michelle said. “It was just this interesting stuff. So we thought let’s get in there and see what happens. So that story is very strong and then she stays with us the whole time and she’s just one of us now. [Betty's] around so now we have some time to dip in and out of really complicated stories with her.”

Michelle said Sarah’s character will also be back for Season 3, which hints that Betty and Helen might be sticking together, at least for now.

“[Sarah's] great. We ended up loving her so much,” Michelle said. “We had her in mind for the longest time for this. She was so game for it and she’s so lovely. Also we knew she had to be a very unusual woman to have hooked up with Betty. So she alone has this whole mysterybut she’s so beautiful and subtle in the role. I think people will be really surprised. She’s lovely and so now she’s in. She’s another one, in with us for good. She’s also a very busy woman so she’s in two wonderful episodes this season but she’s gonna be coming back for sure.”

Even though Helen won’t be part of every episode, Betty is a huge presence, as she shows up at Dr. Masters’ office every morning pretending to go through fertility treatments. Her husband thinks she’s doing everything she can to get pregnant, not knowing that Betty had her tubes tied when she was a working girl and Dr. Masters wasn’t able to reverse it the procedure in Season 1. Gene Moretti is Betty’s beard, as she is only interested in the social status she achieves through his being a millionaire.

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“You get to go to the Moretti household and the prop masters put a pretzel on our key because he’s the pretzel king so we had all these magical little treats everywhere,” Annaleigh said with a laugh. “We filmed in this incredible house in Hancock Park and the dining room is real fabulous.”

With new money comes new fashion for Betty, who donned pants in Season 1 unlike her very feminine counterparts.

“[Costume designer] Anne Crabtree would send me pictures before I got here: ‘Alright, Betty’s got money. What do we think?’” Annaleigh said. “We decided that she would be kind of outrageous because when somebody has no money and they finally do, we were like ‘Nouveau riche, honey, nouveau riche!’ She’s got a bold spirit in her fashion choices and I will say I think it’s like episode five-ish I have a sensible skirt and it opens up to pants. That was that look right then. It was heaven.”

Outside of her love life, Betty also becomes involved with trying to dispel myths about promiscuity, sexuality and other taboos of the era, which is one reason she respects Dr. Masters so much. In Episode 2, Betty overhears a dilemma with a patient whose parents try to control their teenage daughter’s body. Betty might overstep her bounds but only has good intentions, and Annaleigh does some great work that will make women of all kinds proud to have her on the show.

Annaleigh, who says she’s played a hooker “at least four times,” is also not concerned about the nudity that comes along with being on a show all about sex.

“It’s one of those territories as an actor that you weigh the pros and cons,” she said. “You look at the character and one of the things that’s so important on our show is that oftentimes the sex is first from a scientific standpoint so that makes it a lot easier to digest as an actress. And it also is often so important for the story. That’s always one of the things that you have to look at: Is it gratuitous or is it imperative? Almost always it’s imperative.”

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Even without the sex scenes (scientific or otherwise), Masters of Sex is one of the most progressive shows on television, ever. Another major storyline includes Beau Bridges character as Barton Scully, a closeted gay provost at the college Masters began his study at and one of his biggest champions. Barton’s wife (played by Allison Janney) has found out his secret and their home life is so strained, Baron goes into electro-shock therapy in the first episode of Season 2 before ultimately trying to hang himself in the family’s basement. The very real stories of the LGBT community might be depressing to see play out in the drama, but they are also untold on a mainstream level with such integrity. Set in the late 1950s, there are still many stereotypes and situations that play out 60 years later. Showtime is showing their commitment to telling LGBT stories on Masters of Sex, and treating them with the same kind of respect they do straight ones.

Masters of Sex airs Sunday nights on Showtime.

 
 

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