No one would argue that it’s not a very exciting time to be a television fan. As our definitions on what is or is not TV expands — allowing for a slew of small screen auteurs to take up arms — it allows for greater rumination on what’s happening in our world, socially, told through beautiful, complicated, exciting stories. Such is the case of Transparent, Amazon Prime’s latest series.
And if we’ve said it once we’ve said it a million times: this series is special.
Following the Pfefferman Family on the heels of the announcement that their parent — played by the immeasurably talented Jeffrey Tambor — was transitioning to become Maura, her true self, after 60 years of living as a man, a veritable smorgasbord of societal issues, and intimate family moments, help bring a new clarity to this family and what it means, to each of them, to be present within themselves.
And it makes for funny, poignant, dramatic, emotional, and truly riveting television. Jill Soloway’s series is Amazon Prime’s first must-see project, and so when offered the opportunity to speak with Jeffrey Tambor at an excruciatingly early hour — 6am PST — we jumped at the chance, even if we are the polar opposite of a morning person.
And it was worth it — Tambor’s love of Maura and this story was evident from second one, and the thoughtful way in which he answered our questions only further proves that television can change things. Perceptions, acceptances, and even how we understand ourselves. Here’s our conversation.
Jeffrey Tambor: Hello, Alicia!
N: Hi Jeffrey. How are you?
JT: Oh I’m good, just drinking my morning coffee. Where are you?
N: Los Angeles.
JT: Oh god! It’s so early there, I’m so sorry!
N: Do not apologize! I’m just so excited to speak with you — I’m head over heels for Transparent.
JT: I am, too, we’re in the same camp. I’m very proud of it.
N: It’s a very exciting series, if for nothing else than the raw intimacy we get to see play out on screen between these characters.
JT: Yeah, you know, as I talk about it I get more revelations about it. I can’t imagine any family that has gathered for Thanksgiving or Rosh Hashanah or Christmas, looking at that barbecue scene — where they’re all talking over one another — and not say “that’s my family.” I think the very kernel of this thing is “what does a family do when someone changes?” What happens to everyone else’s story when the parent decides to change? And makes a break for freedom in her ’60s? I think that’s a very interesting question.
N: It’s an act of bravery.
JT: I agree with you, I think it’s an act of bravery; I think it takes courage. Dressing up all these years as a man and then finally saying, you know, “I can’t live that way.” And I was saying earlier that, ironically, she’d finally become the true parent that she wasn’t before. She becomes a good parent.
N: It feels very relatable to the times. This idea of really being true to yourself.
JT: Not to be glib and sound-bitey but it’s in the zeitgeist.
N: Well, what’s it like? Playing a character that’s going through something that’s so on the cutting edge of what we’re talking about socially?
JT: This matters. This is important and I didn’t take it lightly. Later, in episode 2, I come out to my daughter and I remember being throw-up nervous. I was so scared, not because I wanted a good review, but because I wanted to do it right, because it’s important that it’s done right. And that consideration was upon my shoulders through the whole of making [this show].
But the challenge was great and exciting. I had great, great help. The great Jennifer Boylan helped me — I read all her books I got to meet her and talk with her in New York — and Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker were consultants to the production as well. They’re from the transgender community and I came to them with questions and asked them things. They were very forthcoming and they really, really helped me and supported me.
The fail-safe in this character, fortunately, is that Maura — whom I love — is going through a transition, but she’s very early into her transition and she makes a lot of mistakes. Maura doesn’t know how to do make-up yet, and I love that vulnerability about her. She was very, very real to me and I liked her very much. And I even liked the way she looked when we finally got midway to the 10. I just like her so much. There’s an adage in acting that you’re stuck with the character and the character’s stuck with you. So now Maura has an arthritic knee and she’s a tiny bit heard of hearing in her left ear. But it all makes her a human. Human. Real. A person who cannot live with this secret and cannot lie any more.
N: Shifting gears slightly, but still talking about the edge so to speak: what’s it like working in this new world of content creators like Amazon Prime and Netflix? You’ve done a few shows outside of the traditional TV format now with Arrested Development and now this.
JT: Well, I like the new media because it’s new — the revolution is here and it has been here for some time. I’m all about communication and content and Amazon and the other messengers allow you much more content and much more freedom. But I like the edge, I’ve always gone to the edge. One of the things I like about acting you really see here — I like the off-Broadway feel. It thrills me and — this is going to make me sound ancient, yes I know there’s no button — but this is going to go all over the joint, including England and then we’re going to go all over the world. And I just love that idea.
As I was watching it the other night I was thinking, “Oh this is a film.” And you’re allowed to think filmic-ly, and there’s nothing like this on television. Nothing. And I’m very excited about that. I like that risk. And I think the audience appreciates that, too.
N: So you’re pro this new binge-watching culture, I take it?
JT: I like that everyone’s going to binge. I don’t binge — I can do one and a half to two. I’m still a little tried and true in my viewing methods. But I love that people take to it like a novel with nine or ten breaks, I think that’s wonderful.
N: And what they’re doing is forcing the hand of regular in-the-box TV.
JT: We have thrown the gauntlet down! This is something. When we have our table reads — everyone is very, very excited, they know we have something wonderful here. Somebody said to me the other night, “This is a game-changer,” and it is! It’s a game-changer.
N: Has playing a trans woman given you any new perspective or challenged your opinions in any way?
JT: I have access to something — I don’t know what it is — I don’t want to do an easy catch-all like it’s a femininity or self thing, but with Maura I have access to another part of myself that I have censored. And it’s not sexual, but it has to do with the vulnerability and a world view. I don’t know what it is. I don’t want to get into the male/female binary thing but it is something over and above that I feel. And I find that very, very expansive and I like that.
I thought it was going to be the accoutrement — the external — and that, actually, was the easiest and most facile part. And I had no, no stop-ups on that. I mean I didn’t know what I looked good in — I mean my costumers said “what do you like?” and I had no idea what I liked. How could I possibly know that? But she and I worked together and we finally found what works for Maura.
But the real transition is not external. It’s not about that. The real transition was internal and that was the delightful recognition that I came to.
N: Now more than ever, it feels like society is mulling over these old ideas we have about the duality of our own existence and gender binaries — at length.
JT: And I think that’s the revolution as well. The binary is going to be reconsidered and rethought. It needs to be
N: Absolutely! When you go into reading scripts like this, with material that’s going to give people a LOT of feelings across a variety of topics happening within the series, do you think about audience reaction and response?
JT: No, not really. That stuff happens at a later stage. It usually happens after you make it. As you’re sending it, you’re just sending it.
But Jill Soloway is the consummate filmmaker and consummate artist and just when you think you’re going to laugh you cry and just when you think you’re going to cry you laugh and she’s exploring the many manifestations of sexuality, I mean — there are things in here when you go “oh my goodness!” but they’re so grounded and so real, it’s not done for any other type of thing. These are people desperately trying to find themselves. Desperately trying to come awake and be present with themselves. And sometimes they go to extreme means but freedom and finding yourself is a very important journey and it takes a lot of roads.
All ten episodes of Transparent will be released Friday, September 26, 2014 on Amazon Prime. Will you be tuning in? Let us know in the comments.