The actress talks about awards shows, the allure of reality television and that one time she applied for the C.I.A.
Can we be presumptuous and assume you’re going to win your first Emmy this Monday? Is that fair to say?
I don’t think it’s fair to assume that at all. I’m Jewish so I assume there’s no chance in hell that’s going to happen to me.
Are you excited to be at the Emmy’s, or is it just something you’re obligated to do because it’s part of the job?
The idea of being excited about something like this is so brand new for me. It always feels so obligatory at those types of events. I mean, obviously I haven’t been nominated in the past, but anything where you’re getting super gussied up and wearing uncomfortable shoes and watching people make speeches is not generally my cup of tea. But I’m legitimately excited. I think it’s going to be a very fun night.
When you watch an award show like the Emmys at home, are you reverent about it or are you making snarky comments about the speeches and the fashion mishaps?
A combination of the two. I generally watch it with friends and we eat a lot of food and wear sweat pants and it’s my ideal way to enjoy an award show. I’m never jealous of the people who are there in uncomfortable clothing and restrictive ensembles. I don’t ever want to be there. But I used to get into arguments with very smart person who told me “We’re just looking at a roomful of people who are doing better than we are.”
You’re a fan of the Real Housewives series, correct?
Why have they continually been denied Emmy’s?
That’s a wonderful question. Clearly they all deserve Emmy’s for those riveting performances as normal human beings. I find reality television to be so delectable. I cannot even fully express how much it means to me, and I really have ruminated quite a bit over why I think that it’s so great. So many people who I consider to be very, very intelligent, thoughtful humans really like reality television in the same way that I do.
And what way is that?
It’s this idea of taking a somewhat normal human being and then putting them on this frying pan of fame and in real time you can see how fame ruins somebody and makes them go insane.
Masters of Sex is set in the sexually repressed 1950‘s, and yet it doesn’t seem that far removed from today. As a culture, have we not come that far in terms of sexual maturity?
No. That’s the main thing I’ve learned from doing this show, is how far we have left to go. On the surface, yes, we’ve come a great distance from the 1950’s. You can see sexual imagery everywhere you look. Just flipping through your channels, you’re inundated with sexual imagery. That said, the discussions about sex still come with uncomfortable giggles. From what I’ve gathered, people aren’t particularly ready to have frank and open conversations about sex and sexuality still in 2014. It’s become part of my job to have conversations like that, and when people do relax into it and we can get into a real conversation about it, it never ceases to fascinate me.
If Virginia Johnson, the woman you play on Masters of Sex, was a public figure today, how long before she’d be slut-shamed on Twitter?
It would be instantaneous reaction to what Virginia was doing, absolutely. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever. She would have to keep very, very muted, which she did in the 50’s out of necessity. But I think it would remain a necessity today. What was really going on behind the scenes would have to be kept a secret for sure.
Since doing the show, are you more comfortable with sex as a topic? Are you more likely to be the one in a group of friends who says something like “Hey, let’s talk about dildos”?
Yeah, I mean, that’s pretty much how I start the majority of my conversations – hey, let’s talk about dildos – especially around the Chanukah table. I think people might be surprised. It’s as if people thought Sex in the City created this idea of girls out to brunch with each other, speaking very explicitly about sex. That has been going on well before that show aired and I assume will go on until the end of time. My relationship with my friends are very, very close, and very, very intimate. I want to know everything they’re thinking, especially around relationships or sexual relationships. It just shoehorns in quite nicely with the show I’m doing now, because now other people want to talk to me about the stuff that I’ve always been fascinated talking about. I feel like I know very specific details about people’s lovers that I should absolutely not know, and that just comes from being an inquisitive friend.
Back in 2008, when you did a few episodes of the HBO series True Blood, you apparently had to chug vodka before doing your sex scenes. Have you gotten more comfortable in recent years with those kinds of scenes?
I’ve had to. In True Blood, all I had to do was walk naked from the bathroom to the bed. That was my whole day. On Masters of Sex, there are no sex scenes that just stand alone. There’s always a sex scene surrounded by nine monologues, so there’s no getting drunk on that show. There’s way too much to do every day. It’s really unfair.
Where did you get your sex education growing up? Did your mom or dad sit you down and explain the birds and the bees?
My mother passed away when I was 13 but those conversations were already beginning. I really believe it’s a matter of luck. I happened to be born to this amazing woman who was very, very open to hearing any questions I might have around the topic of sex and it was met with absolutely no judgment and pure acceptance. I know that that’s very much the exception to the rule for many people.
If and when you become a parent, how are you going to approach the subject with your kids?
I think I’ll go old school and tell them if they masturbate they’ll go blind and to kiss anybody other than your husband on your wedding day is terribly sinful. I plan to shame my children into remaining virgins for the rest of their lives.
In your upcoming film The Interview, you play a CIA agent, which is something you seriously considered as an actual career choice.
I have a habit of getting very obsessive about one thing but it usually lasts no more than three days. The CIA thing went on for longer, but my serious consideration was limited to doing an online application for the CIA. I poured my heart and soul into it and never heard back from them, so there that story ends.
What did you think was involved with being in the CIA? Were you basing it on movies or novels or something else?
100% on movies, and not even James Bond movies. Like True Lies. I wanted to be some combination of a CIA agent and a hit man. I just knew I wanted to end people’s lives in covert ways with fun tools.
And be best buddies with Tom Arnold?
That goes without saying. You need a funny guy in the van, right?
Because the movie depicts an attempted assassination of Kim Jong Un, the North Korea government has called The Interview a “wanton act of terror and act of war.” Does that concern you at all?
It’s nice to hear the word “wanton” not relegated only to the characters in Masters of Sex. But yeah, I think it’s very important for us all to remember that we made a comedy and a very, very broad comedy at that. This is not a political statement. We do not speak for America or anybody other than Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who are crazy human beings with the maturity level of small children. The Interview is a ridiculous movie about ridiculous men carrying out a ridiculous mission, so I don’t fully agree with North Korea’s statement.
Is it true that as a teenager you aspired to become a professional pianist?
No, I played the piano for 10 years but I never wanted to be a professional pianist. I did not have the discipline at all. I was never good enough. I mean, I was good at playing the piano, like anybody who does anything for 10 years, but I never entertained any future fantasies of becoming a pianist. I have since forgotten how to play it and it’s a huge tragedy. If I had just kept it up for a bit then I think I’d be something to behold at a party.
Virginia Johnson played classical piano. That seems like something that should be written into the show.
I’m looking for any excuse to take up lessons again. It’s gotta be in there somewhere, some muscle memory. I really do regret giving it up. Virginia was extremely musical. There’s this wonderful photo of her sitting behind a grand piano that I have. It’s one of my favorite photos of Virginia. She sang too, and she sang country songs on the radio and she was part of the George Johnson band. I’m kind of hoping that they want me to play the piano because it will force me to take lessons.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the August 22, 2014 issue of the New York Times Magazine.)