From Mean Girls to Masters Of Sex, Lizzy Caplan brings an edge to every role she plays. And in real life she doesn’t let us down
Words: Alexandra Jones
Photography: Thomas Whiteside
It’s a huge cliché – on a par with describing their subject as down to earth – for an interviewer to say that they feel like they could be friends with the celebrity they’re interviewing. I’d always vowed to steer clear of those platitudes because they invariably feel like lip-service. But then I interviewed Lizzy Caplan. Admittedly, I’d been a fan of hers since 2004 when she made Mean Girls’ Janis the ultimate droll/hilarious mouthpiece for every unpopular-girl-at-school who ever lived. But, by the mid-way point of our interview, I was having to exert Herculean levels of self-control to stop myself from asking her outright whether we could, like, go for lunch or something. Bold, hard-edged and curious, Caplan is funny in a filthy-mouthed, wise-cracking kind of way. With whip-smart and wryly observed comebacks that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Janis herself, it’s easy to see how she’s made a career out of being the complete opposite to the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ characters her contemporaries Zooey Deschanel and Kirsten Dunst play so well.
And she is cool. Despite the fact she claims that her ideal weekend is one of cooking and napping, I get the sense that a Saturday in LA with her would end in a series of Instagram snaps I’d have to delete first thing Sunday. She grew up in the city so of course she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the best haunts. The youngest of three children, Caplan’s father was a lawyer, her mother a political aide until her death when Caplan was 13. She started acting at 15 in cult comedy Freaks And Geeks, directed by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, and comic roles in Mean Girls, Hot Tub Time Machine and Bachelorette followed.
But it was her first serious dramatic role in US TV series Masters Of Sex that proved to be a game-changer. Currently filming its fourth season, Caplan plays real-life sexologist Virginia Johnson, whose research with Dr William Masters [played by Michael Sheen] proved pioneering. It gained Caplan a clutch of award nominations and showed she could tick many more boxes than simply the one marked funny. As Johnson, Caplan is mesmerising in the vein of a Peter Lely painting; all eyes and dark tumbling hair. So poised and buttoned up – a world away from the eye-rolling wild child.
In real life, Caplan gives full, thoughtful answers on everything from current affairs to culture. She’s polished, but not so polished as to lack passion (see her views on Donald Trump), and is happy to admit to finding people falling over hilarious.
For Caplan’s next trick, she’s returning to comedy in the follow-up to the surprise – and surprisingly funny – heist hit Now You See Me, which follows the adventures of a group of Robin Hood-esque magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco). As Lula, the newest recruit to the group, she is hilarious and brainy. She more than holds her own among an ensemble cast of male heavy hitters, bringing a rapier-sharp dry wit and some much needed cool to the boys’ magic circle.
In the Stylist office, we have a theory that you’re the ultimate Hollywood cool girl. Are we right?
That’s nice to hear [laughs]. I prefer that than people thinking I’m some sort of geek. My friends would probably say that’s what people think but that’s a complete fallacy – I probably am the biggest nerd out of the bunch. Not in that trendy ‘I’m a nerd’ kind of way, I’m legitimately a nerd. I get very excited by things.
What are you excited about now?
I just want to talk about current events and weird science things. My boyfriend [actor Tom Riley] is trying to get me into graphic novels, which feels a little too on-trend, so I’ve been really resistant. But I actually just read one and it was beautiful. I think that maybe I do like graphic novels but that’s really embarrassing because I don’t think that illustrates who I’m trying to be [laughs].
Everything going on in the news feels quite bleak right now. Do you ever want to insulate yourself from that?
Sometimes it’s too much and I just want to read fluff online but that depresses me even more. It’s important to be a citizen of the planet – it’s easy to pretend that the things going on around the world aren’t occurring if they’re not in your own backyard, but I think that’s really irresponsible. I find in London you have a broader… I’ll get in trouble for this… well, I think in LA it’s easy to surround yourself with the movie business and that can take up all of your reading and dinner conversations. That’s a lot less interesting than talking about the real stuff that’s going on in the world.
How do you feel about what’s playing out politically in the US?
Often, during a dinner conversation, I’ll have to defend my country, which isn’t always so easy to do. I, as an American, cannot explain this Donald Trump sh*t, I find it deeply humiliating and very confusing, but now I guess I’m moving out of that and into just pure fear. The Republican offering makes me want to scream and move out of the country, just hightail out of there.
Where would you go?
Who has impressed you?
I recently met Obama, I don’t think there are many people walking this earth who are more interesting than he is. It was [at an event] in London, where young adults were asking him questions. The most impressive thing was that he wasn’t afraid to say, ‘I actually don’t know enough about what you’re asking me, so I’m going to do some research and get back to you’. It’s the mark of an exceptional man, whereas Trump would never ever admit to not knowing the answer to something.
You’ve done a lot of comedy in your career. Where does your knack for that come from?
I’ve always been surrounded by very funny people – it’s really helpful when your friends all share the same sense of humour. I have this nice split of all the kids I grew up with and then all of the friends I’ve met through work. Being surrounded by very funny people makes you a funnier person.
Who or what makes you laugh?
People falling over or embarrassing themselves publicly. Anything with potential for real injury, that gets me. And I’m really drawn to black humour – I think that the UK definitely does that the best.
What was it that appealed to you about Now You See Me 2?
It’s shot in London and China, which felt very exciting to me. And I thought that the world of magic was something that would be fun to mess around in for four months, and I was proven correct.
Your character delivers some punchy, unexpected lines – I assume that played a part when choosing to take the role?
That was really important. In big popcorn movies where there aren’t very many female characters, women never feel like fully fleshed-out human beings and I didn’t want that. The producers and director [Jon M Chu] were open to letting me bring elements to her character that weren’t necessarily written in the script. The motorcycle thing [asked if she can handle a bike, Lula replies: “Have you asked the guys that question or is it just me?”] was something I said impromptu.
In terms of your career, have you always been assertive or is that something you have learnt?
I’ve always been that way. I don’t know many actresses that are just grateful and happy to be there, which is almost always the assumption. Most actresses want the same opportunities that are awarded to actors, certainly in terms of how layered a character is.
Virginia, your character in Masters Of Sex, is exceptionally layered…
It was a dream come true to play her. If people start to recognise your work, they have a tendency to see you in only one specific way and I was kind of resigned to that fact. I wanted the chance to explore other roles and miraculously, somebody gave that to me. So much has changed because of this show. It’s the hardest acting job I’ve ever had but I’ve never been more grateful. Being Virginia for four months every year is a gift – playing somebody so layered and so complicated. I’ve really grown up, in a sense, with this woman. Whenever I step back into the role, it feels very familiar, but kind of like a familiar sweater – one that sort of irritates your skin a bit because it’s an uncomfortable process.
Do you ever feel like you want to work out because you know you’re going to be naked on screen? [As sexologist Virginia Johnson Caplan has a lot of nude scenes]
Nah. Also, they didn’t work out a lot back then and I’m someone where if I work out too much I get really ripped, so that would look sort of strange. The truth is nobody is interested in you looking bad so you kind of just roll up and let them work their magic.
That’s good to hear, I went to a nudist town at the weekend for a Stylist feature…
Oh my god, that’s amazing! [laughs]
It was to see if it made me feel more liberated – I think you just have to come from a more naked family than mine.
I didn’t come from a naked family either. I would think that it would make you feel really good though – a lot of people waste loads of time standing in front of the mirror, picking apart their faults, but when you’re around people who frequent nudist camps, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m probably not so bad’. I always wonder about ants though… And I know this isn’t what the interview’s about, but I’m very curious, are there any sort of strange sexual things there that are completely taboo?
At this point, the conversation segues into a lively discussion about swingers and why you should always take a towel with you to a nudist camp – for more details, read next week’s issue – before I manage to rein the conversation back in.
What has playing Virginia taught you?
I’ve always been a staunch supporter of equality between the genders, that’s absolutely something I was raised to believe in by my very strong mother. But the role has taught me that we have so much further to go in this fight. I believe we’re at a point in time where there can be no exceptions – not only the majority but every woman has to feel this way if we’re going to get anything done. The fact that we’re still talking about equal pay for equal work in 2016 makes me want to slam my head against the wall.
One of your most famous roles was Janis from Mean Girls – was your school experience anything like hers?
Not really. I went to a performing arts academy so there wasn’t the whole popular cheerleaders/jocks thing with the weird artsy kids on the fringes. Everyone was an artsy weirdo. I went to school with a whole bunch of Janises!
How did you find your own uniqueness?
I have an older sister [Julie] and she won the ‘Most Unique’ award in my high school for six years. I was obsessed with her. She always wanted to be the most different person in every room so I think that had a massive influence. I was always cutting my hair off and wore thrift store men’s clothes that were far too big for me. I looked like Annie Hall mixed with a 12-year-old boy [laughs].
You were only 15 when Freaks And Geeks came out, why were you drawn to acting from so young?
Well, I actually had no desire for acting until I was 15, which was when I quit the piano and needed to find something else to do at school. Drama seemed to be the thing that I could probably pull off or fake my way through. I was drawn to it after that, but it was definitely a fluke.
Knowing what you know about the industry now, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
I think if somebody had told me that it would be such a struggle for so many years, I don’t know if I would have stuck with it. It’s about patience and perseverance, as boring as that sounds.
Was there ever a time when you were literally eating tins of beans?
Yeah, there was a period of time after Mean Girls where I didn’t work for a while and that was really strange to be somebody who did really well but then not see that translate to my individual career. I was trying not to spend more than $5 a day.
Did you ever just think, ‘I give up. I’m going to become a yoga teacher’?
[Laughs] It’s crossed my mind, of course, but I really didn’t have many other options. I’m very, very under-educated. It’s a little too seductive to have a back-up plan. For me, it was very helpful to only have this option, you know. I had to make it work or I was screwed.
You’re an LA native, what’s your ideal weekend?
Brunch at Cafe Stella in Silver Lake for the avocado and poached egg on toast, followed by having a bunch of people over for a lengthy dinner party. I’ve gotten very into cooking, I set aside the whole day to go to farmers’ markets for produce. I should probably say ‘go for a hike or to the beach’ but it wouldn’t be that.
Who would you have as your dream dinner party guests?
Louis Theroux, President Obama and Hillary Clinton. It would be fascinating – I just need someone who’s a dummy to make things more interesting. There’ll be drinking games and pandemonium.
You’ve filmed a lot in London, any favourite haunts?
I stayed in Notting Hill in this incredible house they’d rented me [when filming Now You See Me 2], so that felt like a fairytale. But I’d say I’m more of a north-east London kind of girl. I had a few fun nights at The Chiltern Firehouse though and I was at The Fat Duck [in Bray, Berkshire] this week – it blew my mind. It was four to five hours of eating. I’m a big fan of British pub food; I’ll take down a scotch egg any time.
Who has always inspired your career?
Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Both of them, at least from the outside, seem to have mastered the balance between work and real-life, privacy and a public life. Debra Winger is one of my favourite actresses, she sort of left the spotlight for many years. I totally understand why she wanted to. I think being in the public eye is a very oppressive place to be for a lot of people and so, in many ways, it seems crazy to me how few people tap out and decide they don’t want it. The word on the street is always ‘this person went crazy’ but I don’t think that’s it. To be honest, I think you have to be crazier to stay in the business than to step out of it.
With that in mind, how do you feel about the spotlight now?
I’ve managed to create a life where I have a lot of privacy, a lot of my own time. I’m not hunted by the paparazzi. I’m not on any social media, so I don’t have that daily litmus test on how I’m doing in terms of how the public see me. My public life is a lot smaller than my private life and if I can maintain that for as long as possible, then I can stay in [show business] for as long as possible.
Now You See Me 2 is in cinemas nationwide now