Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor reveals how playing a woman helped him find himself
It is no wonder that The Paley Center — which is focused on discussion of the cultural, creative and social significance of television — hosted a Transparent panel at this year’s PaleyFest in New York. Transparent is one of the most culturally significant television shows currently… not on television, streaming on Amazon. The show won six Emmys this year and has became a part of the cultural zeitgeist after only one season. Jeffrey Tambor and the cast discussed how the behind-the-scenes dynamic facilitated his iconic performance.
As soon as they stepped onstage, the cast of Transparent — Gaby Hoffmann (Alexandra), Jay Duplass (Joshua), Amy Landecker (Sarah), Judith Light (Shelly) and Jeffrey Tambor (Maura) — and director Jill Soloway quickly dispensed a few spoilers for the first episode of Season 2: Josh and Raquel are pregnant, and Sarah and Tammy are getting married! The episode will also explore the Pfefferman family’s roots by depicting how a family heirloom was recovered after the Holocaust. When asked how the show would change now that the public has seen more trans people's stories on TV, like Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait, Soloway hinted that the next season will have more trans characters and depict experiences that differ from Maura and Caitlyn’s as upper-class white women who transitioned later in life.
Tambor balked at being referred to as “later in life.” He also discussed how, even at 71 years old, he has learned so much about himself from playing a woman. He revealed that he initially thought he would have a hard time with the “exterior” of the character, but he found that he liked getting mani-pedis and looking into the mirror and seeing Maura. He noted that the real challenge of the role was the “interior” and exploring different parts of himself.
"I found I was able to plug in more Jeffrey than I ever thought I would ever be able to... you get to use all of yourself rather than just the male part, or the part that is accepted… I get to learn about myself... and she gets to teach me.”
He also said that when he plays Maura, he finds his physicality changing. He humorously compared it to the feeling of having an itchy tag on your shirt, "I get a little funny, I get very sensitive..."
Tambor and the rest of the cast attributed their ability to be vulnerable and brave on camera to the leadership of director Jill Soloway. Each actor spoke at length about the love the cast has for each other behind the scenes and how comfortable and loving the environment is onset. An audience member who is involved in the entertainment industry remarked that the environment they were describing sounded very different from a typical movie or TV show set and the cast joked that they were in a cult that “cried and groped each other.” Soloway took it to a serious place when she said that it wasn’t cult magic that made their set feel different, it was the power of feminine leadership.
“The unspoken thing that we are experiencing at work is the power of feminism. I bring to work feminine leadership where I’m not trying to get a shot, I’m not trying to get my words said right, I’m not trying to capture something… what’s most important is that we have fun and treat each other well… that to me is bringing feminism to work.”
She compared her directing style to what a mom would do if her kids were going to have friends over and they were going to put on a play outside. She would make sure they had enough snacks, treated each other well and that they knew that whatever kind of play they put on was “the right play.”
She went on to talk about one of her directing influences, Mick Napier from Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre, who taught her to value process over product, saying, “If you prioritize process, you will get a better product.” The cast talked about how the entire Transparent cast and crew, even the extras and the guys who drive the vans full of equipment, have embraced that ethos and created an environment that allows Tambor and the other actors to explore themselves and their characters more deeply than on most television shows.
Tambor had the best line of the night when he responded, “And there is no reason it has to be otherwise. Except for fear, male superiority and horse shit.”