“I hate it, it’s like torture,” she gesticulates, the phlegmy bronchitis she’s been plagued by for the last week only making her disgust more vivid. “I don’t think I’ve seen 80 per cent of the things that I’ve done. I used to watch stuff in the early days and now it’s just like, wow – there’s an option to not watch this? And not feel completely uncomfortable and not want to kill myself? Fantastic!”
Caplan, 37, has a gallows humour and a tendency to speak in morbid metaphors. She’s also sat beneath a horrifying poster promoting her latest project, one that depicts a young woman impaled on an enormous spike. It feels appropriate.
In the anthology series Castle Rock, which can be streamed via the StarzPlay app on Amazon Prime, Caplan plays Annie Wilkes, the anti-hero of Stephen King’s Misery. Famously portrayed by an Oscar-winning Kathy Bates in a 1990 film adaptation, Annie is here reimagined as a struggling mother figure to a teenage sister (Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher), who seeks shelter in the spooky town of the title.
Caplan and her husband, the British actor Tom Riley, were fans of the show’s first season, which was also loosely inspired by King’s characters. Her presence in the second season has been a mixed blessing for the pair. “The only bummer about the whole thing is that it’s completely ruined my experience as a viewer,” she jokes.
Castle Rock marks another about-face for Caplan, who made the rare leap out of big and broad comedy and into dramatic work via Masters of Sex. She and Michael Sheen played the real-life sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson for four seasons, with Caplan earning an Emmy nomination for her work. Yet she still can’t believe she got the role in the first place.
“I don’t know how I drew the lucky ticket on that one,” she says. “I have so many friends who are actresses and in the comedy space, but they’re not given the opportunities to do things beyond comedy, and they’re so capable of doing it.”
Like Castle Rock, Masters of Sex was also an example of Caplan’s eagerness to evolve and challenge herself as an actor. It was just a surprise that it worked out, she says, coming after so many years of playing sardonic slacker types in the likes of the pitch-black comedy Bachelorette (2012) and the cult TV hit Party Down – and her iconic role as the uber-cool outsider Janis Ian in Mean Girls.
“My life of being a comedic actress in LA was very satisfying and a lot of fun,” Caplan remembers. “I loved the culture of the comedy world, where everybody bounces onto everybody else’s shows and people do favours for each other. I was probably right at the point where I thought, ‘I’m just gonna be a comedic actress and this is my life and what I should focus on and get better at,’ but there was always this pull to do a variation of things instead.”
When she was younger, and acting in school plays in her native Los Angeles, Caplan’s drive wasn’t as driven by challenging characters as it was by being first on a cast list. She remembers winning the role of Beatrice in a school production of Much Ado About Nothing, and being devastated – so convinced that she should have been the lead in a separate production of Romeo and Juliet instead. “I look at that now like, ‘What the f***?’”
That youthful sense of entitlement, however, evaporated as soon as she was cast in actual film and television. In 1999, she was one of a staggering number of future stars (including Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Shia LaBeouf and Rashida Jones) to appear in Paul Feig’s revered teen series Freaks and Geeks. She says that she feels “f***ing cool as s***” whenever she tells people it was her first job, but recalls being a nervous wreck on set.
“I was going to high school in Los Angeles and then leaving school to shoot bits of that show, so they’re sort of married together,” she explains. “I was just terrified, and while I’m endlessly grateful that I was a part of it, the truth is that I don’t think I contributed much to why that show was so special.”
She references her new co-star Fisher, who, at 16, is the same age Caplan was when she first began professionally acting. She imagines they would have been friends, but adds that “the expectations back then were different”. The goal when she was 16, she recalls, was to get on The WB – the culture-shaping US TV network that broadcast series like Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. She says: “There wasn’t as much room for people more interested in doing things that were left of centre, or identified as something other than either the super popular girl or the dork or whatever.”
“Those archetypes felt a lot stronger back then, and I feel like there’s a shift now,” she adds. “A lot of the actresses that are playing those parts, like Elsie and [Booksmart’s] Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever – all of these girls are doing way more interesting s***, and they’re just way more interesting actresses than the ones that were around when I was that age.”
The expectations of that era also meant that work was difficult to come by, even when she had enormous success under her belt. “I remember after Mean Girls I didn’t work again for a long time,” she says. “For like a year, I couldn’t get a job. The next thing I did, I straight up dyed my hair blonde and got a spray tan.” It was for a short-lived drama series called Related, which happened to be on The WB. “Got that f***ing WB show though!” she laughs.
“If they made Mean Girls now, I think that character would not be so pushed aside for future roles,” she suggests. “There’d be more opportunities for somebody playing the weird goth girl in a movie than there was back then.”
Then again, she admits, opportunities didn’t come flooding in after the end of Masters of Sex, either. “I assumed when our show ended that we’d go out into the marketplace and just have our pick of all the cable shows that were coming out,” she says. “But when we came out the other side, the landscape had already completely changed from when we started. All of a sudden there was streaming and stuff, and the idea of signing on to something for so many years, that’s not going to potentially have the ability to scratch that itch for an extended period of time – it became a little scary.”
Caplan is in a contemplative mood, speaking forcefully, her eyes often locked on the ground. While Castle Rock was a short commitment of just one season, she says she feels excited about finding a long-running TV job in the future. “I dream of being in an ensemble again,” she says. She’s also become somewhat more nurturing of late, and eager for the kind of geographic stability that once seemed unpleasant.
“Until very recently, the notion of just packing up and going somewhere for a bunch of months was the most exciting and fulfilling life I could imagine,” she says. “But all of a sudden the clichés start coming true – where you really do want to stop running around so much and, dare I say, nest.”
She remembers back to Freaks and Geeks, and how she lacked confidence and found little support from the more established, and very close, regular cast members. “None of them were mean at all, but now I see some of these actresses that are close to my age [back then] coming on sets and it not being so intense,” she says. “I see people whose first jobs are made very easy for them and they are very welcomed and able to express their fears and what they don’t know. My situation was much more trial by fire.”
“But now I can be nice to all the shy 15-year-olds!” she grins. “Full circle!”
Castle Rock season two is available via the StarzPlay app on Amazon Prime from today
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