You’ve played a lot of memorable roles, and they all have a certain edge. How would you describe your niche?
The quippy, sardonic girl who has commitment issues. That was my bread and butter. I didn’t want to play the one who has all her s— together, even though there are lots more roles for girls who have their s— together. I like the angrier characters.
Perhaps your angriest character was Janis, Lindsay Lohan’s acerbic outcast friend in Mean Girls. What was that experience like?
The hotel felt like a dorm, and we just made each other laugh all day long. It felt very high school-y, but in an idealized, not so s—ty way. I dug it.
Your hair was so wild in that movie.
They dyed it so many times! Afterwards I decided that I needed to change my look, so I went from black hair to blond — which apparently you’re not supposed to do. I used to have thick, beautiful Jewish-girl hair. Nope, gone forever.
Your first major forays into series TV were Fox’s Tru Calling in 2005 and CBS’ The Class the next year. CBS really thought the sitcom, on which you played a sarcastic photographer, would be the next Friends. But then it was canceled after 19 episodes.
The producers took the cast to Las Vegas on a private jet. The whole purpose was for them to sit us all down and say, ”Enjoy it now, because this is the last time you will be able to go out in public together without getting mobbed.” I remember asking [exec producer] James Burrows, ”How many times have you been wrong?”
Masters’ Virginia Johnson is certainly a departure for you.
I thought that my chances of getting the role were very slim. I had to do a fair amount of convincing myself that I would be capable of pulling this off.
Did you meet the real Virginia Johnson before she passed away in July?
No. It’s really a very odd thing to have spent so much time thinking about this person but having never met her.
The show is, in a word, explicit.
You see a lot of sex, there’s a lot of nudity, but what we’re trying to do, and the story we’re trying to tell, has to do with themes that are much deeper than boobs on camera.
Is it intimidating to star opposite a Royal Academy-trained actor like Michael Sheen [William Masters]?
The parallels between us and Masters and Johnson are insane. He had all the degrees, and she used her personality and charm. It echoes in our relationship. Like, I am the scrappy one who showed up without the nine acting degrees and without doing Macbeth, or whatever else Michael has done.
Your eyes are so big and gorgeous. What’s the craziest comment you’ve ever received about them?
When I was backpacking through Europe when I was 19, this guy at a hostel said that I had cow eyes, which wasn’t great.