Lizzy Caplan returns to her dark comedy roots in 'Ill Behavior'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Lizzy Caplan stars in Ill Behavior (Photo: Showtime)

When Lizzy Caplan ventured across the pond last fall to film her first British TV series, Ill Behavior, it was supposed to be a fun way to spend her between-seasons hiatus on the Showtime series Masters of Sex. But that hiatus became permanent when Showtime announced the cancellation of the period drama, which featured Caplan and Michael Sheen as world-famous sexperts Virginia Johnson and William Masters.

“I found out about the cancellation while I was shooting Ill Behavior — so that was a fun day,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment with a rueful chuckle. “I would have liked to have done one more season, just because that final chapter of their lives is so fascinating. The two of them had gotten married at the end of Season 4, and stayed married in real life for close to 20 years before Masters left Johnson for his high school sweetheart. It’s such a twisted tragedy, and I really wanted to tell the rest of the story.”

Even though Showtime declined to bring Masters of Sex to Caplan’s desired conclusion, it has kept her in the family by becoming the U.S. home for Ill Behavior, which spins a twisted yarn in its own right.

The brainchild of Sam Bain, one of the co-creators of the cult comedy Peep Show, the limited series — which premiered as three episodes in Britain this past summer, and airs in six half-hour installments on Showtime starting Nov. 13 — follows a cancer patient named Charlie (Tom Riley, Caplan’s real-life husband) who purposely declines treatment for his condition.

This decision infuriates his best mate, Joel (You’re the Worst star Chris Geere), and spurs him to forcibly medicate his pal with the help of Tess (Jessica Regan) and perpetually drunk oncologist Nadia (Caplan). The actress says that the idea grew out of Bain’s own real-life experience watching a good friend succumb to cancer. “He decided not to pursue treatment and subsequently passed away,” she said. “Sam couldn’t do anything about it, so he wanted to write a TV show where he did carry out his darkest fantasies about saving his friend.”

Although Caplan hadn’t seen Peep Show prior to joining Ill Behavior, Riley made her aware of Bain’s exalted status within the British television world, an industry she’s more than a casual fan of. “We spend a lot of time in London, and it’s always raining there so you end up watching a ton of TV. I’ve become an expert in British TV shows, both reality and scripted.”

Still, watching British television is very different from making British television — at least in terms of perks — as Caplan quickly learned. In place of the lavish craft service tables that are an essential ingredient on most U.S. shows, there was only a “tea kettle and maybe some cookies” for snacking. And the actors, rather than their stand-ins, remain on set while each scene is being lit. “The working conditions are crazy!” she jokes. “But it’s a BBC show, and it’s publicly funded, so it’s not about the perks — it’s about the work. How about that?”

Real-life husband and wife Tom Riley and Lizzy Caplan in Ill Behavior. (Photo: Showtime)

Playing Nadia allowed Caplan to revisit the kind of work she was doing before Masters of Sex came along, slinging tart-tongued witticisms around in darkly funny shows like Party Down and such films as Bachelorette. “There was something exciting about returning to that kind of comedy,” she admits. “Boiled down to one line, this is a cancer comedy, and reconciling those two words seemed like it was going to be a challenge. But that fear slipped away as soon as I read the scripts: At no point are we trying to make a show that makes fun of cancer. I don’t know how one would pull that off! It’s about bigger issues, like can you control other people?”

Caplan also sees Ill Behavior as a jumping-off point to discussing right-to-die legislation, a hot-button issue in both the U.S. and Europe. “I personally am all for people making the choices they want to make with their own lives, but for the characters in the show, it’s a trickier situation. The right-to-die legislation tends to refer more to people who have incurable diseases and going through treatment would prolong their lives, but it would ruin the quality of their lives and not cure them. If Charlie did do chemotherapy, chances are he would be completely fine. So it’s a way to explore these themes in a bit of a safer place, because it is a bit more black and white. If he takes the chemo, he’s cured. If he doesn’t, he dies. In reality there’s a lot more gray area.”

With no Masters of Sex to return home for, Caplan opted to remain abroad for her next TV assignment, an eight-episode retelling of Wolfgang Petersen’s World War II-era submarine epic, Das Boot. Where the movie version stayed largely on a German U-boat, the series ventures onto dry land, where Caplan’s American resistance fighter is aiding French troops. “It’s very different from what I’ve worked on before — a massive production and huge scope. We have an Austrian director and a Czech crew; it’s like a little United Nations making this show.”

Ill Behavior premieres Nov. 13 at 10:30 p.m. on Showtime.

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