Take Two with Lizzy Caplan
In the past year, Lizzy Caplan took on back-to-back roles — in Fleishman Is in Trouble and Fatal Attraction — acquiring a devoted cadre of colleagues at every turn.
As actress Lizzy Caplan Zooms from her Los Angeles living room, a massive fiddle-leaf fig tree looms behind her. She takes no credit for its Seymour-like size. "I don't know anything about plants, and we don't even live here half the time," she says giving props to the woman who takes care of such things when Caplan decamps to London for the other half with her husband, British actor Tom Riley, and their toddler, Alfie.
Last year, a few months after Alfie's birth, that schedule was disrupted by a six-month residency in New York while she played the pivotal role of Libby in Fleishman Is in Trouble. After wrapping, Caplan had a few weeks to move the family back to Los Angeles and begin shooting the Paramount+ series Fatal Attraction for the next four months. And aside from coming down with Covid between jobs, she loved every intense minute of it.
"I had Alfie without either of these roles being locked in, and then when he was just a few weeks old I decided to do both of them back to back, which is such a rare occurrence: to know what I'm doing for a full calendar year," she says. "It was a godsend, honestly, to know just where we would be in the world with this new baby. It was a very strange year, and the challenge was everything that I hoped it would be. It's a moment where your identity is in such flux, and you don't know where it's going to land, and for me, figuring out how to be a mother alongside getting to feel creatively fulfilled in the job that I love was incredible."
First came Fleishman. The FX on Hulu limited series from showrunner Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who adapted it from her novel, is ostensibly about Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a put-upon Manhattan doctor whose wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), disappears, leaving him with their two kids and a mountain of questions. He tries to navigate his new normal with help from two college friends, Seth (Adam Brody) and Libby, who also narrates the story.
But as the eight episodes progress, the focus shifts to Rachel and Libby. "What's impressive about it is that it fully works as that fake-out, Upper East Side of New York story on its own," Caplan says. "You think that Libby's telling you a story about her friend going through a divorce, but the reality is, she is facing down her feelings about her own life and middle age and getting older and all of it, and then it makes you cry."
She doesn't usually watch her own work, but in this case, she rewatched it. "I'm in awe of all my castmates," she says, beginning with Eisenberg, with whom she starred in the 2016 film Now You See Me 2. "I give Jesse credit for shouldering it all, only to recede into the background for the quote-unquote 'important' parts. It's an egoless performance, as well as being my favorite performance of his; he's so exceptionally wonderful in it. I'm impressed by Claire, who sat on the sidelines and let everybody think about her [character] in a certain way, only to have this one episode to try to change everybody's minds. That's a scary idea for many actresses: 'You're going to be reviled for six weeks.' Adam Brody played a character that could have been two-dimensional, and he infused it with so much. Everybody showed up trying to make the piece better and nobody was looking out for themselves."
Caplan isn't on social media but became aware of the show's buzz in her own way. "It's been a while since I've done something that got so much feedback from friends and family. And they all felt exactly how Taffy wanted them to feel, every step of the way. What she's done is masterful."
Reached by phone in New York, Brodesser-Akner is equally effusive. "People in my life tell me to shut up about Lizzy Caplan," she says immediately. "I won't stop talking about how wonderful she is. When she is part of your project, she feels so wholly in — intellectually, physically — that she changes the nature of the project. Literally, this was a character based on me, and after day one, it no longer was. It was this wholly new creation."
Caplan was the only actress the first-time showrunner had in mind for the role. "The entire role of Libby is that you never see her coming, and with Lizzy Caplan, you never see her coming." Meanwhile, the actress had written to her friend and Masters of Sex executive producer Sarah Timberman, who was working on Fleishman, to tell her how much she loved the book — and that she wanted to play Libby. When Brodesser-Akner heard that, "I felt like I had manifested it," she says. "She's a very famous person that we all think is our great secret."
Ever since Caplan's first role, at the age of fifteen, in the NBC cult series Freaks and Geeks, her career has had a slow build. She won acclaim as the goth outsider Janis Ian in the hit film Mean Girls, while feeling like a Hollywood outsider in real life. She dyed her hair blonde and sprayed on a tan in an effort to fit in, but it was her 2009 role in Party Down that was the turning point. She shone as the sardonic (brunette) comedian Casey in the Starz series, along with a murderer's row of actors on the rise. But the show couldn't find an audience and was canceled after two seasons — until this year's reboot. (Heartbroken she couldn't join season three, which conflicted with the Fleishman shoot, Caplan did manage a surprise cameo in the finale, and hopes a fourth season will allow her return. Starz has yet to announce a renewal.)
Even with the greater attention (and Emmy nomination) for her turn as Virginia Johnson in Showtime's drama series Masters of Sex (2013–16), she has somehow remained an under-the-radar fan favorite. "It's the best version of doing this," she notes. "It's not toxic, it's very loving and people are very respectful." She adds that with Masters of Sex, "I did get an influx of women of a certain age stopping me on the street to tell me about their sex lives, which I really enjoyed."
When she comes across a project she loves, as with Fleishman, she reaches out to let the creators know. The first season of Hulu's Castle Rock moved her to email cocreator Sam Shaw, a writer on Masters of Sex, to tell him she was a huge fan. "I'll assume that's what led to the next season coming my way." The horror series was populated with characters from Stephen King's oeuvre; for season two she was tapped to play psychopathic nurse Annie Wilkes.
That role was first played to an Oscar win by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film Misery, which almost deterred Caplan. "But since somebody's choosing to believe that I can pull that off, well before I believe that myself, I'll swing the bat." Playing Annie, in turn, gave her the courage to take on the role Glenn Close embodied so memorably in the original Fatal Attraction feature. "Annie Wilkes loomed as large in my brain as Alex Forrest did."
Fatal Attraction showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, who developed the series with Kevin J. Hynes, first met Caplan six years ago. Caplan, a fan of Cunningham's series Dirty John, asked if they could meet up for lunch, which turned into a four-hour chat. "She's genuine and she's smart and she's funny and she's interested and she's lively, and she's got great stories, but she wants to hear your stories, and that really sticks with you," Cunningham says. "When somebody who's really good at acting is also just the greatest hang, I'm immediately like, selfishly, 'I've got to figure out how I can capitalize on this.'"
When Paramount reached out years later with the concept of reimagining Fatal Attraction, Cunningham thought the role of Alex would be perfect for Caplan. "She was always in the back of my mind, but you've got to come correct to Lizzy. It's got to be something that really checks a lot of boxes. This is a person that anybody would kill to work with, even if they don't know how great she is to be around." She had no doubt Caplan could take on the iconic part and make it her own. "The more Lizzy does, the more she can do. I believe nothing more fervently than that."
Updating the 1987 erotic thriller meant reimagining Alex. Despite Close's great efforts to portray her as a deeply complex woman who suffered from mental illness, the film made her much more malevolent; the ending was reshot to suit test audiences' desire for vengeance. Close has been open about her regret with how the role and outcome were changed, and Cunningham was determined to rectify that in the series.
Caplan was fully on board. "We were instantly on the same page about the kind of story we were setting out to tell," Caplan says, adding she still loves the film. But watching it, "I feel an unbelievable amount of compassion for Alex. All of the work Glenn Close did is right there on the screen, and Alex deserved the ending that Glenn Close wanted her to have; it was just a different time."
That compassion informs her performance. "It's not my job description to label somebody evil or crazy. It's my job to figure out how to make this person feel like the decisions she is making are the only sane decisions — that everybody else is crazy." The series reveals a shift not entirely unlike Fleishman's. We initially see the affair and its repercussions from Dan's perspective (as played by Joshua Jackson). As we pivot to Alex's version of events, the reframing is eye-popping.
For all the reassessing, Caplan notes that the film was a wild ride, "So this should also feel fun and scary." And Jackson (The Affair) was the perfect partner. "I adore Josh. I'm so happy that it was him," she says. "Both of us have done shows with a lot of sex and nudity and we know how to navigate that without it being weird, and find the humor, which is everything when you have to shoot scenes like that." Their fight scenes were another story. "I felt far more terrified and vulnerable with those, and they were horrible to shoot, but I always felt really safe with Josh." The two also bonded over being new parents.
Speaking by phone from London, Jackson is heartened to hear of Caplan's trust in him. "We had some deeply uncomfortable days, and to allow yourself as a woman and a stranger to be that vulnerable to a man, and being excellent all the time, I'm just super impressed with her," he says. Those scenes were so painful, he adds, "There were definitely some nights when I went home and it took some time to shake off what we were putting on camera," a feeling exacerbated by being away from his family for the shoot.
Caplan used to have a hard time letting go of her characters, but since having her baby, she says, "It was weirdly easy to slip into that mindset while at work and very easy to slip out of it when we were finished. That made doing Fatal Attraction a very different experience than it would have been had I done it years ago."
She has no projects ahead of her at the moment, beyond flying back to London in a few weeks. "I'm just chillin'."
Brodesser-Akner would be happy to remedy that. "Lizzy told me about having lunch with another producer, and I wanted to throw myself on her like a grenade and say, 'No, stay with me!' I want her to enact everything I write for the rest of my life." Caplan's portrayal of Libby, the apparent supporting role that turns out to be the center of the story, still astonishes her.
"Lizzy figured out how to slow her roll and then pull it out in the end," Brodesser-Akner says. "I've been to a lot of opera, and I have not seen anyone pull off an aria like she did." But that's Caplan's forte — a star in stealth mode.
Created for television by executive producer-showrunner Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is in Trouble is also executive-produced by Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly and Susannah Grant, along with codirectors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The series is produced by ABC Signature.
Alexandra Cunningham serves as codeveloper, writer, showrunner and executive producer on Fatal Attraction, alongside executive producer and codeveloper Kevin J. Hynes, and executive producers Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey for Amblin Television. Silver Tree also serves as executive producer and directed five episodes. The series is produced by Paramount Television Studios.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2023, under the title, "Take Two."