Interview: 'Transparent' stars Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light
Transparent really is ‘the little show that could’ – a low-budget, streaming-only gem about one trans woman’s late-life coming out that’s garnered rave reviews and a heap of Hollywood awards since it debuted late last year. With season two premiering on Amazon this week, we spoke to lead actor Jeffrey Tambor about the role that’s changed his life - and his on-screen wife Judith Light about one particular scene that she says is 'the most important' of her career...
This new season of the show takes a wider look at the Pfefferman family. Do you feel Maura’s transition story is settling in as one element of a wider story? Jeffrey: I think that’s very much the case. Maura has made her change, and it’s affected everybody in the family – the lynchpin is out, and so everybody is trying to find their centre and trying to find ‘home’. Maura’s the gateway character to everyone’s journey, and that was very much in [creator Jill Soloway’s] mind when she wrote it.
There is such a wide array of sexuality and gender on display in Transparent – your children in the show are quite fluid sexually, and without giving too much away, there's a bath scene between the two of you in the new season that comes as quite a surprise to viewers. Are you ever shocked by what you read in the scripts?Judith: I’m never shocked, because Jill has made it a point to talk about gender and sexuality. But when I read the [bath scene], it made me very, very nervous, because I didn’t know that I could do it. But Jeffrey and I are longtime friends, and he made me feel so incredibly safe and protected that I knew I had to go for it – I was terrified, but with that support, it turned into one of the most important moments of my life and career.
Judith, your character Shelley has an interesting development this season in that she makes an attempt to re-embrace her ex-husband as a trans woman - and potentially, as a spouse once more. Was that a surprising turn of events for you? Judith: No, not at all. If you remember the end of last season, it was Maura who was always there for Shelley. As for Shelley: she loves this person. You don’t fall in love with a gender, you fall in love with a human – with this particular soul. They know each other well – they have three children together. There is potential for this to be a new lease on their relationship, and that’s very exciting for Shelley – she is not a woman who does well alone. Her longing for connection is very understandable to me, but her desperate need for it actually ends up pushing people away, giving her the exact opposite result. It’s so fascinating to watch the dynamic between the two of them.
The reaction to season one was huge, especially considering this is a little show on Amazon, a new streaming service...
Judith: We didn’t think that would happen – we certainly hoped it would happen. When Jill started talking to us about the show, she said that she wanted to change the culture, she wanted to make a mark and talk about a prejudice towards a part of the LGBT community that has long not been spoken about. Of course, for her it’s a personal story with her parent.
Jeffrey, did you have any initial hesitations about taking on the role?Jeffrey: I think was on page eight of the script, in a car being driven to my hotel in LA, and I just called my agent and said, ‘I’m in. I’m in.’ There was just something so authentic about it.
I love Maura. I love that she’s my age, I love that she’s new into her transition, I love her guts and her courage. In some ways she’s like a teenager – she doesn’t know how to make herself up, she doesn’t quite know how to dress herself yet… there was something that really connected to me. I get to use more of Jeffrey than I’ve ever used in my entire career.
And it has never left me, the huge responsibility of doing this: I’m a cisgender man who’s been given a huge responsibility, as well as a very toothsome, laboursome, great role. I was very scared at the start about taking it on, but I’ve tried to be aware and present through it all. That’s helped Maura.
It’s interesting you say you’re using more of Jeffrey than you have in past roles, considering you’re playing a trans woman. What do you mean?Jeffrey: Just that whole gender thing, the male / female binary – I reject that. I just think I get to use more of me [in this role], and I can’t be any more gender-specific than that. Maura is Maura, and she’s a huge teaching instrument for me as a person, a parent, a citizen.
Judith: And certainly for the rest of the world, too. The transgender community is really educating us about gender fluidity, and with Transparent there’s a way in for people to understand this without being didactic.
It is remarkable just how messed up Maura and Shelley’s three adult kids can be - in the first episode of season two, Sarah gets married, and by the end of the reception, the marriage is over. Do you think there’ll be redemption for them?Judith: I don’t think we ever think about like that. This is a moving, flowing organism, this show – it’s not traditional. It’s more like life, where you don’t necessarily have a happy ending. These kids have a not particularly good mother, and really the better mother to them now is Maura, so they never really had the parents you’d expect. A ‘happy ending’ feels like something from another framework for them.
Transparent was already renewed for a third season before the second had premiered – does that feel like a vote of confidence?
Jeffrey: Usually [on a TV show] you go from week to week and you watch the ratings and you see if you still have a parking space in the lot. Now we have people who’ve said, ‘We really believe in you – here’s two years.’ Not one year, but two! It’s a wonderful feeling. We are very supported by Amazon.
And I love that we’re streaming; I couldn’t think of another way to send [the show out]. We’ve gotten glowing reviews and Jill’s hit it out of the park, but we’re always the little engine that could, y’know? It’s very nice when people come up to us on the street and say ‘I found you! I did it! I went on Amazon Prime and I found you!’ That’s very rewarding.
Transparent season two is now available on Amazon.