Amy Landecker Almost Turned Down ‘Transparent.’ Imagine.
The actress talks weathering the Jeffrey Tambor scandal, reuniting for a musical finale—she knows it sounds crazy—and how the show changed her life. (And found her a husband.)
Amy Landecker was mortified. In front of her then-11-year-old daughter, a friend began talking about a nude scene she had filmed for Transparent, the Emmy-winning Amazon series on which she plays Sarah Pfefferman, the eldest daughter in a neurotic Los Angeles family. The friend was monologuing her indignation—“Full-frontal, Sarah? How could you do that?”—and her kid was in earshot for the whole thing.
Landecker went into mom mode, calmly explaining the circumstances of the scene, hoping to justify and/or stave off further embarrassment: Her character, at that point, had been divorced, had a lesbian affair, got divorced again, and was on an unsettling chute careening toward rock bottom. She was explaining to her daughter that the moment illustrates how bleak the circumstances were for Sarah, who is filmed naked and alone, cooking and eating a sad meal in the kitchen.
Her daughter interrupted: “Wait, wait, wait. You were cooking?” Landecker erupts into a cackle as she tells the story. “Like, that was what was shocking.”
(Not that Landecker doesn’t still get PTSD remembering the scene anyway. “I didn’t think Bradley would ever touch me again after that,” she laughs, talking about her husband Bradley Whitford, whom she met on the show.)
The incident comes up as we’re talking about all of the scary, horrifying, never-in-a-million-years-thought-she-would-do-this things that her storylines across five seasons of Transparent have tasked her with, not to mention the emotional depths she would be required to explore. Specifically, on the occasion of the Transparent Musicale Finale, a wrap-up movie coming out this Friday, two years after the series was thrust into crisis mode as star Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual misconduct and ultimately fired, we’re talking about the scariest thing she’s had to do yet.
Being naked is one thing. Then there’s singing on TV.
In the Transparent Musicale Finale, Landecker sings. The whole ensemble does, in fact—Judith Light, Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, Kathryn Hahn, Alexandra Billings... everyone.
“I found out we were doing this musical movie finale and I was like, ‘Oh, I won't have any sex scenes! That will be great!’” she says. “Then I was like, ‘Oh wait, now I have to sing,’ which is way scarier.”
We’re talking over the phone a few weeks before the movie’s premiere Sept. 27 on Amazon. She says she’s pacing in the alley outside a Los Angeles gym, “getting some steps in.” That weekend she’s going with Whitford to the Creative Arts Emmy Awards—he won Best Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his work on The Handmaid’s Tale, which Landecker also guested on this past season—and jokes that she’s being the clichéd actress working out like a maniac to fit into her dress.
She tells me the name of the gym—Tighter U, as in University—and starts howling over the silliness of the pun. Amy Landecker doesn’t finish a sentence or a story. You know it’s over usually because she bursts into a fit of laughter. It’s her personal form of punctuation. Even while talking about everything that happened on Transparent, she employs it a lot.
It takes a second to wrap your head around. It’s Transparent, but they’re singing. It took Landecker a minute to grasp the whole thing, too.
In the opening minutes of the film, the Pfefferman family learns that Maura—Tambor's character— has died. They spend the rest of the movie processing their grief and reconciling the traumatic event with all the growth they’ve done in the past years, and how much more they have left to do. Series creator Jill Soloway’s sibling, Faith, wrote the songs, with titles like “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” and “Joyocaust.”
At first, Landecker thought, “What the hell?” Then she thought it was perfect. “There was like no other way to send this show off into the history book of, you know, television without this big sort of bang.”
The cast refers to it as “The Great Rupture of 2017,” a phrase first used by actor Shakina Nayfack, who joins the cast for the film.
Star Tambor faced two allegations of sexual misconduct from members of the Transparent team, former assistant Van Barnes and co-star Trace Lysette. After an investigation, he was officially fired.
Soloway and the Transparent writers and producers were left scrambling, until they finally landed on the idea of a musical that handles Tambor’s absence by killing off his character. Earlier this summer, we asked Soloway about the challenge of writing the storyline without it appearing that the show is dancing on Tambor’s grave in the aftermath of the allegations. (This is, after all, a musical.)
“That occurred to us: Was this going to be taken as a celebration?” Soloway said. “But in fact when you watch the movie, there are so many unbelievably painful, heartfelt moments where our characters are mourning Maura and as actors and as creators we are mourning what has happened with our show.”
Landecker likened the period of “The Great Rupture” to going through the five stages of grief. There were a lot of tears, and a lot of talks in private. She says it’s almost impossible to articulate all the feelings in an interview, which is why she hasn’t said much about the ordeal publicly. By the time the cast got back together to film the Transparent Musicale Finale, they sobbed on set, happy to have the opportunity to finish telling their story.
“It was trying to create something that would let the show have a legacy that moved beyond the controversy,” she says. “There was an earthquake that took place, and we didn’t know if we would be rebuilding at all. We got to really come back, process it and, like, literally go sing and dance. It was a perfect way to kind of exorcise all our emotions about it.”
Yes, the singing was scary. But so has much of the experience of working on Transparent. That’s why she gets so emotional about its end.
“It's incredible to walk through fear,” she says. “To be challenged like that, you just feel so alive. Even if it's not pleasant.”
She laughs thinking about a screening of Fleabag and onstage conversation with Phoebe Waller-Bridge she once attended. Someone told the writer and actress that they never could do all the nudity that she does in the series, and asked her how she’s comfortable enough to do it. The thing is, though, Waller-Bridge is never naked in Fleabag. Not once.
Landecker has that experience a lot. She has the one nude scene by the microwave, and it’s not even sexual. Yet she’s constantly asked about the bravery it takes to be constantly nude.
She and Gaby Hoffmann used to giggle together every time it happened, or every time she was told she’s “courageous” for baring her body. Hoffman would tell her that it’s something they say if they think you’re not young and hot. “Nobody says that if you're the classically, like, what we consider beautiful,” Landecker says. “It’s not courageous, unless they think you're not that great.”
Landecker actually turned down the audition for Transparent. At the time, that was not something she ever did. She once even declined the opportunity to have drinks with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm after an awards show in 2009 because she had an audition the next morning.
Back then, she was best known for a breakout turn in the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man. She had memorable guest spots on Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Prior to that, she had a fruitful career doing voiceover work. She earned her SAG card saying the word “ballet” in a Tampax commercial while living in Chicago. Famously, she was the go-to voice actress for dubbing Julia Roberts’ dialogue.
When the breakdown for Transparent came through, her first sitcom leading role, on NBC’s The Paul Reiser Show, had just ended with the low-rated show’s cancellation. She was in the habit of auditioning for anything and everything, but the Transparent breakdown said that nudity and sexual activity would be required, and she wasn’t interested in that.
Unbeknownst to her, Soloway was already thinking about Landecker for the role and was disappointed she didn’t audition. Soloway asked her out to lunch; Landecker was surprised she was even on the writer-director’s radar at all. They talked about what Landecker would and wouldn’t be comfortable doing. The rest is history: five seasons and a movie.
“I almost missed out on the greatest job of my life,” she says.
She’s been feeling incredibly nostalgic. Not only is Transparent the most fulfilling job of her career, it’s also where she met Bradley Whitford, when he guest-starred in the first season as a character named Marcy. Earlier this summer, the two got married.
“There’s a real emotional sentimentality about it for me,” Landecker says.”I got so many gifts from that show. We’re going to the Emmys on Sunday, because Bradley got nominated for The Handmaid’s Tale. One of our first dates was the Emmys for Transparent cause he got nominated and won for Marcy in season one. So I’m very much aware of the beginning and thinking about that stuff a lot.”
(If you follow Landecker on Instagram, you’ve been privy to her frequent posts of Whitford stretching and showing off his remarkable flexibility. “I've never met a man as flexible as Bradley!” she laughs when I ask her about it. “Maybe I’ll start my own Instagram account just with, you know, like flexible Bradley.”)
The whole ride of these last five years has caught her completely by surprise. The success of the show. The success of her career, later than she’d ever expected. Falling in love through it all. She laughs remembering that when the whole thing started, she wasn’t sure if anyone would even know how to find the show on Amazon. Hell, she didn’t even know.
But within four months of shooting, the series was winning Golden Globe awards. She remembers that the cast was so unknown that, on the awards show red carpet, no one wanted to take their photos. She was embarrassed, then finally heard one photographer shout, “Amy! Look here!” She got excited—until she realized Amy Adams was standing next to her.
“It was a humble beginning,” she laughs. “Now I’m an obnoxious demanding actress. Now they just go, ‘Amy! Amy! Amy!’ and they mean Amy Brenneman. So there’s that now. They sort of recognize me but they have the wrong one.”