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Lizzy Caplan on jealousy, Michael Sheen’s amazing birthday gift, and pissing off Kim Jong-Un

From Mean Girls to Masters of Sex, actress Lizzy Caplan’s career is filled with roles women love to watch. Here, she opens up about jealousy, Michael Sheen’s amazing birthday gift, and pissing off Kim Jong-Un.

“I’m dressed like a 12-year-old boy but feeling like a 90-year-old woman,” Lizzy Caplan tells me as she settles down across from me at a fancypants West Hollywood restaurant. Clad in a pair of green overalls and a crop top, the 32-year-old actress looks more like an 18-year-old girl than a tween boy, but I appreciate her self-deprecating style. Because, as a fan of Caplan’s indelible portrayals of Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex (2013-present), Casey Klein in Party Down (2009-2010), and Janis Ian in Mean Girls (2004), I’m understandably a little nervous about meeting Hollywood’s sexy, funny, “it” girl. The fact that she’s the female lead in the highly controversial upcoming Seth Rogen and James Franco film The Interview (Christmas 2014) does nothing to make her seem any less intimidating. But by the end of our meeting, I can comfortably tell you one thing for sure: Lizzy Caplan is exactly as cool as you hope she’d be. Cooler, even.

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My oldest friend and I used to go to The Cheesecake Factory and get Long Island iced teas and chicken quesadillas. And one Long Island iced tea from The Cheesecake Factory will fuck you up beyond belief.”

If you haven’t heard of Lizzy Caplan, welcome to a first date of sorts with the ultimate kickass BUST gal. Trust me when I say that somebody you know adores her work. There are the fans of her stint on Freaks and Geeks (1999), the folks who loved her on True Blood (2008) and New Girl (2012), and the rabidly loyal Mean Girls acolytes, not to mention the devotees of Bachelorette (2012), and the people who’ve watched Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) a million times. Plus, you’ve also got your Party Down fanatics and your diehard Masters of Sex addicts. And now I’m sitting down with this well-known stranger, ignoring the barrage of text messages I’m getting from men and women alike who want to know everything about my meeting with their crush, the Lizzy Caplan.

FYI, the reason she’s dressed so casually is that she was out last night gittin’ crunk (or at least ingesting a fair amount of fermented beverages). “I was out with a bunch of girls yesterday,” she says. “There was a lot of wine,” she adds. “And the disclaimer for this interview is, I’m extraordinarily exhausted. I’m not as quick-witted as I would like to be, but I think this coffee is really going to help me.” We guzzle our coffee quickly and look around for our server, who seems to have disappeared into the tasteful, billowing, floor-to-ceiling draperies or something.

As we try to get the attention of the oblivious waitstaff (they’ve all got earpieces and it’s very L.A.), I ask her about her upbringing. One of two sisters, Caplan graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School in the Beverlywood neighborhood of Los Angeles (famous alumni include Rita Hayworth). And while her school experience was pleasant, it certainly wasn’t posh; she describes the Hamilton of her era as “huge and falling apart, with tiles falling from the ceiling, but with an amazing music academy.” That was where Caplan found herself surrounded by “extraordinarily talented and creative humans.”

Because she was raised in Los Angeles, she has a solid core group of friends who don’t necessarily spend all their time at the latest hot club or Hollywood premiere. “My oldest friend just got engaged last weekend to a boy I set her up with, just saying,” she tells me with a grin, her big dark eyes flashing mischief. “She and I used to go to The Cheesecake Factory and get Long Island iced teas and chicken quesadillas. And one Long Island iced tea from The Cheesecake Factory will fuck you up beyond belief. It was like our favorite thing to do for a while.”

Caplan and I finally get somebody to bring us more life-sustaining caffeine, and she wakes up further as we chat. She’s funny, warm, and unpretentious, even though she says she feels like “a fucking zombie.” These days, she’s been in the thick of shooting Masters of Sex, the critically acclaimed Showtime series that follows the professional and personal adventures of famous sex researchers Virginia Johnson (Caplan) and William Masters (Michael Sheen). Caplan received an Emmy nomination for her work on the show, and has garnered rave reviews for her performance, which is bold and brave and complex. She also gets naked a fair amount, but I tell Caplan I’m not going to ask her any naked questions, because seemingly every writer does. “Listen,” she says, “I have so many rote answers, I can rattle them off. It’s a fascinating thing for people, I guess.”

“I took the first job that was offered to me, and it happened to be Freaks and Geeks, which is the coolest first job of all time.”

As played by Caplan, Virginia Johnson is anything but a familiar stock character. She’s not “just” a nerd (though she is brilliant) and she’s certainly not some stereotypical home wrecker (though she and Masters become involved). She’s not a naïve ingénue and she’s not a femme fatale. Instead, Caplan gives us a complex and complete woman, riddled with both flaws and gifts, who delights us, impresses us, surprises us, and even frustrates us. It’s an incredibly dynamic portrayal of a fascinating historical figure.

Caplan is well aware that it’s rare for a comedic actress like her to get a shot at branching out into this sort of dramatic role. She started out on the beloved Judd Apatow-helmed Freaks and Geeks, and has since become a mainstay of a certain type of funny, quirky, and honest comedic project—great work, to be sure, but an impeccable comedy pedigree does not always lend itself to a great dramatic career. Of the Masters role, she says, “It was so unlike anything I had done. It was not an easy process getting the part. But before that, in television, in pilots, in TV scripts, people would sometimes send me the idea of a type…like, the sarcastic chick with dyed black hair who really gives the boys a piece of her mind.” (In other words, Janis Ian.)

“I feel very lucky in many ways, especially these days,” she tells me. “None of it is lost on me. I’ve dedicated my life to doing this since I was 15—over half my life now—sacrificed a lot of shit to be sitting here. It’s this insane stroke of luck. Not that I’m saying I didn’t work hard and I don’t deserve it, because I feel confident enough saying I deserve this shot. But comedy actresses don’t get the opportunity to play very meaty dramatic roles, so I know I’m the one who’s lucky enough to get a shot. I truly believe that half of my friends, if given the same shot, would have done amazingly well at the same gig, and just are never given those opportunities.”

While she readily admits she’s taken some gigs for the paycheck, Caplan has found her greatest happiness through projects that haven’t necessarily brought in the big bucks. “Any job that I’ve taken for strategic purposes, I’ve ended up hating,” she says. “And for me, the only part of doing this job that I truly love is being on set. All the other stuff, the promoting it in the press and seeing it on TV and having [people] come up to me, that’s all fine, but the only part that I truly love is being on set. And I really love it.”

I tell Caplan that it seems like everyone has a different favorite Lizzy Caplan project that means a great deal to them. For me, it’s Party Down, the short-lived Starz show that followed Caplan and a fantastic ensemble of actors playing cater waiters in Los Angeles. Caplan lights up at the mention of the show. “Doing shows like Party Down really ruined me in terms of being able to do a lot of other dumb shit that maybe would have propelled my career forward a little bit quicker or in a flashier way,” she says, and I detect a note of pride in her voice. “But I couldn’t wrap my head around doing something that I didn’t believe in. That said, I found myself, totally luck of the draw, involved in these really well-respected cult projects from the get-go. My first job was Freaks and Geeks, and I was not weighing options then. I took the first job that was offered to me, and it happened to be Freaks and Geeks, which is the coolest first job of all time. And then from there, I started getting to do these more underground things that I personally found funny, things that I would personally watch, and not worrying about making money or becoming famous or any of that shit.”

I ask her what sorts of people come up to her on the street or in bars. “It’s led to a fan base of very cool human beings,” she says. “I’m friends with people who are famous in a network-television way, for example, where they’re in everybody’s living room and they’re famous everywhere they go. Anywhere in the country, people will come up to them. And the way that those fans look at those people—they’re not looking at them as a peer, or as somebody who they can have a real conversation with. It’s a fan and a celebrity and there’s a real disconnect there. But I don’t feel that ever.”

"For the first time ever; I feel oddly content weigh my lot in life and I can relax around work.  I'm also really excited to be an actress today versus how it felt even 5 or 10 years ago.  There seems to be so much more room for people who don't fit the straight forward 'ingénue' mold."

There is, however, a bit of a disconnect with our adorable young waiter, who seems to be a little confused about when to approach us and when to leave us be. Undoubtedly accustomed to persnickety celebrities, he’s chosen the “leave us be” option—but that’s not working for us, because now that we’re jazzed on caffeine, Lizzy Caplan and I are hungry. I declare that I’m going to flag somebody down so we can order food. “Good luck,” Caplan says, “They hate us.” “They do,” I say. “Because we’re very difficult women.” “Clearly so demanding,” she says. “Just making the busboys quiver.”

We whisper a little more about our situation, deciding what the best assertive approach is (I suggest throwing a glass in the name of feminism) and eventually we corral the young gentleman through a combination of pestering (me) and charm (her). And this is when I truly realize that Lizzy Caplan is a gem of a human being, because it takes little to no convincing to get her to order the following items with me: a plate of pigs-in-a-blanket; a plate of sausage; and a plate of toast with lots of avocado smeared all over it. The latter item is surely a very Hollywood actress thing to consume, but I can tell you that it is a rare and divine young Hollywood star who will get excited about “a day of tubed meats,” as Caplan puts it. Michael Sheen even bought her a sausage maker for her last birthday, and she’s off to a barbecue after we finish our meeting.

 “What I think is important to remember, is that we made a very broad comedy. It’s not a political statement. . .We’re skewering the fucking American media as much as North Korea.”

I’m curious about The Interview, the upcoming Sony Pictures action-comedy that reunites Caplan with fellow Freaks and Geeks alum Seth Rogen as well as multi-hyphenate superstar James Franco. Like the monster hit This Is The End, it’s co-directed by Rogen and longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg. The film is about a producer and a celebrity tabloid show anchor who score an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, only to be recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator. Caplan plays CIA Agent Lacey, and if the project is anything like her previous forays into comedy, it (and she) will be fucking brilliant. But the film has also stirred up controversy because the real-life Kim Jong-Un apparently hates the idea of it, prompting the government of North Korea to declare the film an “act of war” and promise retaliation if it is released. Sony Pictures responded by moving the film from a fall release date to an ultra-competitive, high-profile Christmas slot.

As we feast on our trashy finger foods (plus the fancy avocado toast), I ask Caplan if she’s ever been in another project that set off an international incident. “Yeah, Party Down really pissed off the Russians,” she jokes. But then she gets serious and adds, “What I think is important to remember, is that we made a very broad comedy. It’s not a political statement.” She places the film “in a long line of people making broad comedies set against the backdrop of some pretty horrible shit, Dr. Strangelove being a big one. We’re skewering the fucking American media as much as North Korea.”

She speaks so highly of co-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg that I wonder aloud what her dream team of collaborators would be. She can’t quite figure out an answer, though she does mention the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson as being high on that list.

“I’m not a baby. I just dress like one.”

Caplan may have a rabidly devoted cult fan base, but she’s flown under the mainstream radar for much of her career. There’s still something very indie and underground about her persona. But her roles in Masters of Sex and The Interview—along with that little ol’ Emmy nomination—may just change all that. When we talk, however, that next big leap in her star status has yet to fully take place. So I wonder if she ever gets jealous of other actors with bigger names who have perhaps logged less time in the Hollywood trenches. She readily admits that she used to get super-jealous all the time. “I had really cultivated a personality of the incensed ‘It should have been me’ person,” she says. “I don’t feel that so much any more—which is not to say I’ve reached some pinnacle in my career, because there’s way more stuff that I want to do. But for the first time ever, I feel oddly content with my lot in life and I can relax around work for the first time. I’m also really excited to be an actress today versus how it felt even 5 or 10 years ago. There seems to be so much more room for people who don’t fit the straightforward ‘ingénue’ mold. The fact that Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence are the ‘it’ girls is so life affirming. What they’re doing, I think, is opening up doors even for the old broads like me. God, I’m so old.” I’m a year and a half older than Caplan, so I feel fully justified in telling her, “You’re not old. You’re a baby.” She looks at her overalls and ruefully says, “I’m not a baby. I just dress like one.”

We wrap things up, and she gives me a warm hug before scampering off to her barbecue. As I watch her walk away, I’m struck once again by how frank and, well, normal she is. I muse that it must be a combination of things: 17 years in the industry; a solid base of non-starfucker friends and family; and above all, a devotion to doing good work. Maybe Caplan will never have to deal with the weirder aspects of celebrity. Maybe she’ll always get to just be a girl in overalls scarfing down mini-hot dogs in happy anonymity. Then a young man approaches me with evident excitement. “Oh my fucking God,” he says, his eyes shining. “Was that Lizzy Caplan?” “Um,” I say. “Yes.” “Oh my God, what is she like?” he asks. “Is she cool?” “She’s really into tubed meats,” I say mysteriously, before disappearing into the hazy West Hollywood afternoon.

By Sara Benincasa; Photographed by Amanda Marsalis; Styled by Hayley Atkin • Makeup by Darlene Jacobs; Hair by Marcus Francis; Manicure by Millie Machado; Prop styling by Joni Noe

 This story originally appeared in BUST Magazine October/November 2014. Subscribe today! 

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