As Season 4 of ‘Transparent’ returns to Amazon, gender-non-binary creator Jill Soloway talks musicals, family conflict and how they are not going anywhere
Transparent won’t be winding down anytime soon. A fifth season of the multiple Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series about a transgender female (Maura Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor) who began a late-in-life gender transition — and her family’s subsequent self-revelations — began pre-production even before Season 4 premieres this week on Amazon Prime Video.
This season, the Jewish-American Pfefferman clan ends up in Israel, where patriarch-turned-matriarch Maura, ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light), and their children Ali (Gaby Hoffman), Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Josh (Jay Duplass) unearth more secrets and discoveries about their family line, sexualities, relationships and identities, all set against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack.
Having based the character Maura on a transgender parent who came out in their 70s, creator/director Jill Soloway has evolved along with Transparent’s Pfeffermans; Soloway currently identifies as gender non-binary (and goes by “they” pronouns). Via telephone, Soloway elaborated on the upcoming season, the show’s other transgender characters, and of course Season 5 (and no, Soloway isn’t leaving the show despite recent, misleading press
— Lawrence Ferber
Dallas Voice: What did Season 4 allow you to do that’s different from the last season?
Jill Soloway: We realized how much we love it when the Pfefferman family is together. Normally in a show, when you start to give people things to do, you create love interests for them and [bring in] new characters. Ali has a crush on lesbian Syd [Carrie Brownstein], Josh is in love with Rabbi Raquel [Kathryn Hahn], and Sarah is choosing between Tammy [Melora Hardin] and Len [Ron Huebel]. But what we wanted to do this season is let the characters turn toward each other and have that comedy and love of being in a family.
What were some of the biggest issues hashed out in the writers’ room for Season 4?
Well, the family goes to Israel, so we wanted to tell that story in a way that resonated differently for each member. A lot of the season has a Jesus
Superstar rock opera — kind of your memories of being a child, and whatever you thought it meant to live in Jesus’ time and come down with Messiah Complex. Those are the kinds of broad, funny stories. But we also wanted to tell the real stories of what’s actually happening right now in the world. For queer people, trans people, for identity. Intersectionality. The question of having to choose between your queerness and your Jewishness, your Jewishness and your trans-ness. You’re being asked to choose but not really able to.
Is there a Dana International cameo?
[Laughs] No! In fact I heard of her but didn’t know enough about her to work her into the season.
Did anyone in Israel recognize the cast while shooting?
We actually didn’t go to Israel. We shot in Los Angeles. We got some B-roll, but we didn’t bring the actors there. It’s a camera trick. We had a fake Dead Sea at Universal Studios and a fake Wailing Wall at Paramount.
I understand that Maura’s HIV-positive mentor and friend, Davina, played by transgender actress Alexandra Billings, has a spotlight episode this season. Yes. Davina is an amazing, really important part of the show. What we do is tell the story of how she got there. The experience is really different for trans women who come up through the gay world and those who come up through the heterosexual cross-dressing world. There are really two different paths on this gender journey, and for trans women who came up through the gay world, the drag world, the pageant world, their story is one of Stonewall, of HIV and AIDS, of moving from the gay world into the straight world. So we really tell that story.
What about new transgender or non-binary characters this season?
Well, we start to tell the stories about Ali Pfefferman’s relationship with their own gender identity. We do Davina’s history, of the women she knew as she was coming up in the trans world. And there are other trans people, actors and characters, that are part of Maura’s world.
Have any ideas proved too loopy or insane and got shot down so far?
Well, when Ali is at the women’s music festival [in Season 2] and has a hallucination and sees Tante Gittel [a transgender character who lived in 1930s Berlin at the Hirschfeld Sex Institute, played by transgender actress Hari Nef] in this modern dance confrontation with the Nazis, at one point that was actually going to be a musical number with singing and dancing. I’m glad we got rid of the actual lyrics. My sister Faith loved musicals, so we are still trying to get a musical aspect in. I just don’t think we necessarily needed to connect it with the Holocaust.
There has been some news about a new showrunner for the fifth season. Can you clarify this, and how the show might be different?
OK, so there is not
a new showrunner. I’m going crazy trying to fix this problematic press issue. I’ve always been the creator of the show, but somebody else has been running the show ever since Season 2. There is a showrunner named Jill Gordon. For the past couple of years, we had a showrunner named Bridget Bedard. I’m not leaving the show, I’m not working any less hard. I direct all the time, I still write all the time. I’m going to be directing a lot of the fifth season and in the writers’ room. The narrative that I’m stepping down and somebody is taking over is bit of a PR blunder we’re working on fixing. Jill Soloway is not stepping down.
What is the most surprising feedback you’ve received to the show so far?
That’s a good question. The shocking thing is I meet people who say they came out [as transgender] because of the show. They didn’t think they could before, but watching the show allowed them to realize they could be trans and be accepted. They use the show to come out to their families, they tell them to watch the show first and then give them a call. They look at the conviviality of the fact they remain family. A show where the trans person is part of the fabric really normalizes trans-ness in a way where coming out doesn’t mean losing your family. That’s a huge effect of the show that I didn’t really prepare for.
Are you familiar with 9-year-old drag queen Lactacia and this trend of adolescents who use social media, like 15-year-old Instagram makeup tutorial diva Jake Warden, to share and celebrate their own style of gender bending, queerness, and fabulousness?
Yeah, I think that’s fantastic and so glad those people are out there.
Would you give any of them an opportunity to do a Transparent walk-on?
I love that idea! Yeah. I think social media is a great place to look for all the up-and-coming trans talent, and I’ll definitely check out who’s doing tutorials on Instagram and see if we can find our next star.
Finally, do you have an endgame for Maura?
No. I need to keep everyone in the family slightly unhappy so that we have more story. I feel the same about Maura as all of the kids and people in the family. Keep frustrated, keep searching, keep dreaming, and trying to become.
Also this week on TV
Transparent isn’t the only notable LGBT show debuting this week. Here are some other premieres (series and season) to look forward to in the next week.
Gotham. The fourth season of the Batman prequel, with a gay-obsessive Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), is back already. Debuted Sept. 21; next episode Sept. 28.
Star Trek Discovery. Yet another reboot of the franchise that started in 1996, this is the first television entry developed by writers and producers who did not work directly with Gene Roddenberry. Gay showrunner Bryan Fuller has cast a black woman at the helm and added at least one gay character (played by out actor Anthony Rapp), although the show is a prequel to all other incarnations, so don’t expect to see Spock. It will premiere on CBS broadcast, but then moved to CBS All Access streaming service for the remainder of the season. Debuts Sept. 24.
The Big Bang Theory. The sitcom without star Jim Parsons returns for an 11th season, followed by Young Sheldon, a new single-camera comedy about Parsons’ character as a tot. Debuts Sept. 25.
Empire. The deliciously gay nighttime soap begins its fourth season. Debuts Sept. 27.
Will & Grace, pictured. Already renewed for two shortened seasons, the groundbreaking gay comedy returns to NBC’s Thursday lineup with Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally recreating their iconic roles. Debuts Sept. 28.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 22, 2017.