Sometimes plot twists surprise performers as much as their audiences. Case in point: Beau Bridges, who has earned critical acclaim and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Barton Scully, a closeted homosexual on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, a drama about real-life St. Louis sex researchers Bill and Virginia Masters set in the prejudice-laden 1950s. Fans of the series may have been caught off-guard by the sudden revelation about Bridges’ character last season. But they might be even more shocked to learn that the veteran actor wasn’t drawn to the role because of its socially conscious subject matter.
“I had no idea it was coming,” Bridges (who is the elder brother of the Oscar-winning dude Jeff Bridges) says about Barton’s hidden sexual orientation. He adds that the character was initially appealing for more conventional reasons: “During the pilot, I saw Barton as mainly a mentor to [star Michael Sheen’s] Dr. William Masters. The driving force for my character was that he was upset about the sexual experiments that this young man was putting on at the university. And I think my first scene was having Masters hand me this huge dildo, then stand in front of a young woman’s open legs.” He laughs. “It had nothing to do with with Barton being a closeted homosexual, initially. That came later.”
Below, Bridges tells us more about Barton, going toe-to-toe with Mad Men and the contemporary themes hidden in Master of Sex’s retro setting.
: Aside from being surprised by Barton’s true sexual orientation partway through Season One, what have been the challenges of playing this character?
Beau Bridges: I think with any character I delve into, the first thing I do is consider how he serves the story. And the challenging thing in a series is that your character is constantly evolving, you’re taking on things from one episode to the next that you aren’t aware of until they practically happen. Very much like life. I had never played a gay man before. I had played someone who was transgender and had the operation [on TNT’s The Closer]. And that was pretty eye-opening. But I’d never played a gay man before. So it was interesting to step into those shoes, especially in the ‘50s, when society wasn’t very open-minded.
: Being 72 years old, you must have some vivid memories of that era’s prejudices.
Bridges: Yeah, I grew up in those times. I graduated in 1959, and it just never came up with my friends and I. And I’m sure there were a number of my friends that were gay at the time, but it just wasn’t something you discussed. That was quite sad, and I think this show really reflects the narrow-mindedness that was going on at that time. Unfortunately much of that is still going on today, which I think is what makes Masters of Sex a very important show and very interesting—even though it takes place in the past, and is based on real events, they do reflect on what’s happening today, in terms of sexuality and people trying to be who they really are. It asks why we insist on judging one another and persecuting one another. We should just leave each other alone, because what defines us is not our sexuality, but our capacity to love. And I think [creator and executive producer] Michelle Ashford has really captured that on the show.
: How does Ashford succeed in doing that? She writes uniquely tense scenes—like in the Season One episode where Masters confronts Barton about visiting gay escorts.
Bridges: Michael Sheen is a wonderful actor. What a blessing to be able to work with him and someone like Allison Janney [who plays Barton’s wife, Margaret Scully]. That scene you mention, once again, made me think about people’s capacity to love, and our loving relationships, not all of them sexual, but sometimes just the love you have for another person because you respect them and you want to nurture them. Here is this young man that I, Barton, was so impressed with, that I was willing to go out on a limb for [by initially green-lighting the sex study, before it was shut down]. And then Masters, he ends up blackmailing me to try and get his way. That’s very hurtful, because there’s no sensitivity there, it’s all about being victorious, and him trying to get his thing across. It was very upsetting for Barton. Then, in the second season, Masters winds up supporting me. I’m not in a lot of the second season, but I guess they’re going to bring me back more substantially in the third one. I’m looking forward to that, because I love the way my relationship with Masters evolves.
: Your exchanges with Allison Janney are even more heated, especially when her character realizes that she’s married to a gay man.
Bridges: What’s really unique about our characters, Allison’s and mine, is that even though they’re dealing with this huge elephant that’s in the room, it does not usurp their love for one another. They continue to get through because there is a basic—albeit platonic— bond that they have, and I think that’s really in the crux of our characters.
: How do you feel about critics saying Mad Men paved the way for period pieces like Masters of Sex? I think the dynamic you have with Allison trumps that theory, especially during recent Mad Men episodes where Bob Benson— one of its closeted gay characters—tries to convince Joan to be his faux wife. You and Allison already covered that ground on Masters of Sex last season—how does it feel to have Mad Men take cues from you?
Bridges: Actually I haven’t seen Mad Men, so I’m not too sure. But it feels good to lift up rocks, and not just with the stories. Once I knew the direction of where my character was going, I felt a real responsibility, especially to my gay friends. And it helped me understand in a more sensitive way what they deal with sometimes. Even today, it’s not quite as bad as it was in the 1950s, but there’s still a lot of big obstacles. Barton’s journey is an interesting one for people of any sexual orientation. But particularly if you’re gay, and especially if you’re a young gay person, to get a glimpse of what it was like for someone back in the 1950s—maybe it can enlighten the experience for everyone in some way.