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Masters of Sex's Nicholas D'Agosto: Ethan Still Carries a Torch for Virginia

"If you were having a contest for the most sexually adventurous girl in the hospital, who would win?" Nicholas D'Agosto, who plays Dr. Ethan Haas on Showtime's Masters of Sex (Sunday, 10/9c), doesn't blame his character for his obsession with trying to find a sexually liberated woman. After all ...

Hanh Nguyen

"If you were having a contest for the most sexually adventurous girl in the hospital, who would win?"
Nicholas D'Agosto, who plays Dr. Ethan Haas on Showtime's Masters of Sex (Sunday, 10/9c), doesn't blame his character for his obsession with trying to find a sexually liberated woman. After all, ever since the first-year resident encountered Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), no woman has been able to compare to her in the bedroom or out.
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"She's smart and funny... and to him, all of that is new and fresh," D'Agosto tells "It's sort of like a cliched thing, 'The day that color entered my black and white universe.' It's absolutely earth-shattering for him, paradigm-shattering because he's never thought about having a woman that fits this mold who is so seemingly outside of the box of that time period."
For a divorced mother of two in 1956, Virginia Johnson is unabashedly single, ambitious and in touch with her sexuality. And while Ethan romanticizes their relationship, to her it's only a friends with benefits situation until he pressures her for more and they split. Her family comes first, and her work as an assistant to sex researcher Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) second. A new relationship doesn't even rank.
D'Agosto says, "She totally opens his eyes to what a different, new kind of relationship could be, and when it's taken away from him, he has a very difficult time handling it." His solution is to find another woman, but Virginia isn't so easily replaced. "He kind of spirals downwards. He does meet another girl and then there's some pretty complex stuff later ... but he's not done with Virginia yet. He carries a torch for Virginia."
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Check out what else D'Agosto has to say about growing up Catholic, Ethan's rivalry with Masters and what's coming up on Masters of Sex:
What kind of man is Ethan professionally in regards to his job?
Nicholas D'Agosto:
Ethan is an exceptional doctor. It's the reason why someone so young in his position would be taken under the wing of Dr. Masters. So he's his protege, he's a first-year resident, but he's entirely different from Masters in personality. Ethan is very gregarious and outgoing and is usually very charming. He has a great deal of self-confidence. He's the doctor that Masters trusts with his own wife, Libby Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald). All of that gets clouded by the personal relationships between all of us. It begins to create this competition between me and Masters, both in love and professionally.
How does Ethan and Masters' relationship evolve?
: Acrimoniously. [Laughs] It becomes a really fun and somewhat bitter and testy relationship between us because Masters is unwilling to show and admit his growing affection for Lizzy's character Virginia and that what he's doing is directly obstructing my chances of being with her. He's toying with the situation, but is acting as if he's outside of it. So all of us are doing dubious things at different times and using subterfuge to screw the other one over. The relationship continues to sour.
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What can you tease about this case of quadruplets in Episode 3 on Sunday?
One of the first things that Ethan tries to do is he starts to try and prove himself professionally to Virginia and stake a claim outside of Masters' umbrella. A patient comes into his office who is having quadruplets. It's a very complex surgery and delivery for that time period. It's a little bit over his head, but he's very confident and is determined that he can be successful in delivery. Masters catches wind of it, and that creates some tension throughout that episode.
Do you think that's typical for the time, Ethan's awakening, since there wasn't that much sexual education at the time?
I think it happens to some and doesn't happen to others. I had that happen. I came from a very conservative Catholic family. My parents are very fun and fun-loving, but they weren't drug users or partiers. They were hard-working people who came from blue-collar families. I have a great kinship with Ethan's character because I really feel like I had that moment when I looked around and I was like, "This is nothing like the family I grew up in. I have all of these things at my fingertips." And it kind of never stopped.
You went to Catholic school? What do you think the nuns or your family would say about Masters of Sex?
I think that they would be very uncomfortable with it. Sex is not something that's talked about in Catholic schools. I remember being told when I was a kid that you're not supposed to masturbate because it's a sin. And so they tell you to play sports. Sure, you can play sports, but I'm like, "You'll get tired one night, but what happens the next day when you wake up?" There's a lot of stuff that they didn't understand how to talk about or they talked about it in the wrong way. And that's what this show just blows the lid off of. It literally destroys all of those classic structures of sin belief. I kind of hated that stuff then and I grew to loathe it as I grew older.
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Ethan is Libby Masters' doctor for fertility treatments.
Mostly because Masters uses the excuse that it's against protocol to be a doctor of a family member as a patient. But the truth is that Masters could probably get away with something like that. He has such power in the hospital, but he does trust me to take care of her. Through that Libby and I kind of forge our own partnership. We take solace in each other.
But Ethan knows the real reason Libby isn't getting pregnant is Masters' low sperm count. Is he in a quandary about knowing that truth and yet still doing the fertility treatments?
Right, Ethan knows the truth about his sperm count, and yes, he is. I'm not sure he necessarily acts in the most ethical ways, but ethics are thrown out the window.No one's entirely being truthful at one point to everyone else about what their motives are. Ethan has a card to play.
What are Ethan's best and worst qualities?
Ethan has strong self-confidence and is very good at what he does. He's incredibly smart, he's hardworking. Those are all a part of a strong and healthy ego. But it's also like he has a sense of entitlement. He feels vindictive when he's undercut by Virginia and Masters, so that's a trait of a scorned, strong ego. He has an incredibly strong sense of self, but it masks sometimes his ability to see things from another perspective. He feels like he sometimes wants revenge more than to offer forgiveness.
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We came across a little film you did called Fired Up! ... Was that semi-nude scene with Eric Christian Olsen (where you're running through the Quad) prepare you for doing nudity on Masters of Sex? Was it your first nude scene?
In acting class I'd done naked on stage and stuff. The Quad scene was actually really funny, but wasn't a really nudie thing. We were in little skin-colored "junk protectors." [Laughs] That's what they called them, that's the industry term. But I had never done anything like I had done in Masters of Sex. Those are some very adventurous scenes. They're very bare, obviously literally, but also emotionally they're very bare. You feel like you're taking a risk and you're showing obviously something very personal. There is a lot of freedom in that as an actor, especially on a show like this where the subject matter is so highbrow that you feel comfortable doing that kind of stuff.
Do you have a dialogue with your scene partners beforehand?
I'm incredibly, overly conscious about talking through the scene ahead of time, discussing with the person what's going on, talk about your personal lives, understand that "I'm dating someone." It's really important to, especially for some of these people who come on and only do one episode or one scene. So it's like, "Let's make sure we know what the boundaries are. What do you feel comfortable with? What do I feel comfortable with? Let's be very clear." And then you discuss from there and then you don't cross any lines.
Is it uncomfortable for you to watch those scenes?
I think it's more uncomfortable for my family than it is for me. I might [watch with them] at some point. They're all excited about the show and they'll of course make jokes. "The last thing I ever want is to see my brother naked. Thank you for this." It can be a touchy subject with the people in your lives. You have to be respectful.
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Since this is set in the 1950s, is there anything you love about that era or playing someone from that period?
The clothes were amazing. I don't love to shop, but I got suits tailored for me in this show. Doctors [then] wore suits all day long, so they'd put their lab coat on [over], but the minute they'd take that off, they're in a shirt and tie and would put their suit jacket back on. So I was constantly in these beautiful, art-like artifacts.
I also drove this '55 Hudson Rambler. It has no power steering and no turn radius. It's impossible to move, but once it starts moving it's impossible to stop. It was really fun. We also walked around set where there was no plastic. Plastic is just finally being introduced after World War II. They're just starting to get it out in the real world. At this time, everything is glass and metal. So all the hospital rooms are full of glass and metal instruments. It's just fascinating to see that world.
And also, the show is fascinating because it wasn't really that long ago.
I think that's the heart of this show. This is something that my parents' generation experienced while they were young. This was influencing them. We are one or two generations removed from how important the study was of what these people were doing, how they affect our everyday life. You look at how sex is talked about today, with the ease which we talk about things, with the way information is shared about how to do it: What to do, what people like. All of that is so hidden at this time period. It was just 60 years ago. It's fascinating.
Do you feel that this show is continuing the dialogue that Masters and Johnson started?
In my heart of hearts I hope it creates a dialogue, that there will be somebody who watches this and feels more comfortable with whatever they're feeling because they're watching how people in the '50s were dealing with this sort of thing. It's comforting to watch someone in this time period pinpointing these problems and that I'm benefiting from all that. The vast majority of us have a much healthier life because of what Masters and Johnson did.
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10/9c on Showtime.
Additional reporting by Liz Raftery