Jeffrey Tambor of ‘Transparent:’ The gay interview

Posted on 16 Dec 2014 at 8:17am

Our Hollywood Issue comes out Friday, so we thought we’d do a lead-up with celebrity interviews from the world of entertainment. Kicking everything off? Our Chris Azzopardi‘s piece on the controversial new streaming series Transparent, where he talks to star Jeffrey Tambor and associate producer Zackary Drucker (herself MTF). 

When a show makes its mark on society, it’s more than just TV — it’s history.

In 2014, we met Maura, the protagonist of the brazen, boundary-breaking Transparent, a dramedy centered on a 70-something male-to-female’s journey in coming out to her family. Written by Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under) and produced by Amazon with a standout lead performance from Jeffrey Tambor, the show is being heralded as an Emmy contender for its authentic look at trans life.

Dallas Voice: Jeffrey, what drew you to the Maura character?  Jeffrey Tambor: I was coming into Los Angeles from my home in New York, and I was doing a talk show and my representatives, who are tremendous, are always on the lookout for really good things. They sent me this script by Jill Soloway, and I got off the plane — I had about a 15-minute drive to my hotel — and by the time I got to the hotel, I had read this. I called them and I said, “I’m in, I’m in, I’m in. Let me meet Jill.”

Jill and I met the next day — we had a great meeting — and then that afternoon I saw her movie Afternoon Delight, and I called her again. You know, in the pilot, I don’t have that big of a role, but you could just see how beautiful that family and their dynamic was. You could see that Jill was after big themes, but the people were so real, so authentic and so accessible, and so I just said, “I’m in.”

Even though your role is slight during the pilot, your presence is massive.  Tambor: Thank you. The key scene, I think, in that pilot is around that table. That barbecue scene — I could watch that on a loop for the rest of my life. I remember when we were filming that and every face I looked into was just filled with genius and light and quicksilver moods. It’s really a real coup of casting.

With so few representations of transgender people in the media, and trans visibility being at the forefront culturally, what kind of responsibility did you feel to Maura and to the trans community?  Tambor: A huge responsibility. I had nervous self-tappings on my shoulder the whole time. I don’t think I have been as nervous as when I did the scene when I had to come out to my daughter Sarah [Amy Landecker]. I was shaking, and not because I was nervous about being good, or nervous about being talented, or nervous about learning the lines — I wanted to do it right. I turned to Jill many times during the making of this, and to Zackary and [co-producer] Rhys Ernst many times, and said, “This is big. This is huge.” You would feel it at times and think, “This is so much more than all of us put together. This is a big movement.”

Zackary Drucker: Jeffrey brings a tremendous amount of humanity to this role, and from a very internal place without falling into stereotypes or tropes of other representations of trans people that we’ve seen. I think that this show is a huge step in the right direction, and as a trans person, I have a lot of hope, actually, that there are many more to come. This is one big step for bringing trans people into pop culture and into television and film.

What’s been problematic about the way transgender people are portrayed in the media?   Drucker: First of all, trans people have been relegated to victims or villains. Then, outside of that, there are a few more recent examples, but they’re still being written by cisgender people. The bigger problem in our representation is that it’s not inclusive to the trans community; [there’s a lack of] collaboration with the trans community to create a more authentic portrait. But this production, from the bottom up, was very inclusive. I mean, one of the first things we implemented was a “trans-affirmative” action program to hire as many trans people in as many departments as possible, which created a certain amount of spontaneous authenticity. I think that Jeffrey was really able to immerse himself in our community as an incredible cisgender ally. We’re lucky to have Jeffrey Tambor on our side.

Jeffrey, how did working with three consultants from the trans community, including Zackary, affect your performance?  Tambor: The humanness. The authenticity. The vulnerability. You know, I had a real awakening, because I thought the exteriorization actually took care of itself. Zackary and Rhys were very helpful in that area, but most of the work was, as Zackary mentioned, interior. I had to really plum them of their [experiences]. I would ask very deep questions, and then I had to ask myself deep questions. I had to go within.

This is not a walk in the park. You either have to go into yourself or you don’t. I mean, I had to find out where the Maura was in me, and there is a Maura in me and I love her. It’s been one of the most incredible experiences.

This was not in my technical bag of tricks. I had to dig a bit. But I had such wonderful help and such allies, and there was no one on the set with crossed arms and raised eyebrows. People were really in my corner and that meant a lot. I was scared with a capital “S,” I gotta tell you, especially the first week or so.

By the way, I have to give kudos to a splendid actress, Alexandra Billings, who plays my friend Davina — a great actress and also a member of the trans community. We had so many scenes together and she helped me so much — not by anything she said overtly, but by just playing together in the scene. Everything was so delightful and I learned so much. Her stamp of approval meant so, so much to me. One of the most generous performers I’ve ever worked with.

Were there any concerns, Jeffrey, that people would have trouble taking you seriously as transgender after dealing with gender identity issues in a more comical setting during Arrested Development? Tambor: I don’t mean to be glib about this, but I was so protected by Jill and Jill’s direction, but mostly her writing, which is so authentic. People’s first sentence to me is, “I didn’t know what to expect,” and the second sentence has some praise, like, “… but I thought it was so fantastic.” So I am sure there is skepticism from some people, or, “Oh, that’s the guy from Arrested Development and he’s gonna be a [trans person],” but we just keep saying, “Take a look at it.” And people are really [finding it] praise-worthy.

When we opened Transparent in Los Angeles, that line where Maura says, “All my life I’ve been dressing up as a man,” the audience broke out into applause. It was unbelievable. So I didn’t have that [concern]. I felt very protected by the writing. That’s some good writing. I mean, there’s good writing and there’s good writing, but this is off the charts.

What do you hope non-trans people take away from TransparentTambor: I would like for them to take away something Jenny Boylan [a consultant to the production] said to me the other day — to all of us, rather. She said, “For the first time, I’m looking at the television screen and I’m seeing myself represented.” I hope that is what people feel. But I also hope that we go away and play our part in the dispelling of ignorance, prejudice and phobias. I hope we shed light on a subject that needs light, love and warmth.

Drucker: One of the amazing things about the trans community is how diverse it is. It’s a tremendous challenge because we’re starting from zero and creating representation, and it may be impossible to truly represent everybody, but we hope that this show expands everyone’s notion of difference. We all have trans people in our extended families — that’s increasingly something I hear in conversation — and this show has the power to really change everyone’s perceptions of trans people. We’ve been so invisible, and I think America’s ready.

— Chris Azzopardi

 

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