Jeffrey Tambor has a story he likes to tell about his role playing trans woman Maura Pfefferman on Transparent.
The first season of the Emmy-winning Amazon series had aired and the actor, previously best known for his comedy work on Arrested Development and The Larry Sanders Show, was on a plane. A male passenger recognized him. The man was coiffed and suited up, "obviously a CEO or hedge fund guy," Tambor remembers. You might call him a bro.
The passenger pointed at Tambor and said, "You. Wait a minute." Tambor immediately recoiled, he remembers, certain that this was going to be it: the moment when the representative of the population that is repulsed by transgender women, who find his involvement in telling that community's stories abhorrent, who aren't open enough to learn about and accept a community that is in the midst of a civil rights crisis, would finally confront him.
He was certain he was about to get punched, Tambor says.
But then the passenger put his hand on Tambor's. He looked the actor in the eye. "I want to thank you for teaching me something I had no idea about," he said. It's one of the most profound examples of what Transparent, which launched its third season on Friday, has accomplished, Tambor says. Proof of its importance.
"But," Tambor says. "That's one story."
The other is the longtime fan Tambor recently encountered on Twitter. "You're taking this too seriously," the fan tweeted after Tambor took a political stance in support of the trans community. "Unfollow."
"Two very different reactions," he says. "But thing is, and what I want to tell you is, that it's been the former much more than the latter."
In truth, Tambor does take his role on Transparent seriously. And some would argue that he couldn't take it seriously enough.
When Tambor won his second consecutive Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series last weekend, he used his speech to, again, take a stance. "I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female," he said, imploring the television industry to see and give more work to worthy and overlooked transgender talent and creatives.
It's a stance that Transparent creator Jill Soloway, who based the show in part on her own Moppa's coming out as trans after age 70 and the effect it had on her family, told The Daily Beast she stands behind. And it's just one example of how Tambor’s self-imposed education about the trans community and trans issues has affected how he sees the world and the industry he has been a part of for five decades.
For four of those decades, he has been close friends with actress Judith Light, who portrays Shelly Pfefferman, Maura's ex-wife and the mother of their children.
The two had never worked together, despite years of friendship, before Transparent and have told The Daily Beast that working together on this show has been the highlight of their storied careers. Light even began tearing up talking about a pivotal scene in a bathtub they shot last year, saying, "It doesn't get any better than this."
The intense connection and support between Shelly and Maura is easily one of the most touching, and in turn sometimes problematic, elements of Transparent. A few weeks before the new season of Transparent was set to debut, we sat down with Light and Tambor to talk about that relationship, their experience talking to their generation about the show's issues, and why, three seasons in, their characters still aren't happy.
Does doing a season three feel different? Looking at show’s the run in stages, there was the surprise of season one, then the cultural moment that it helped inspire when season two came out. What does season three feel like in terms of that evolution?
Jeffrey: It's an evolution. But it doesn't feel any different. I feel the same way about the show that I did the first year when we were all gathering in a little room talking about it. I'm so proud of it and so excited about it.
The season starts in episode one so poignantly for Maura, who says, "I've got everything I need. So why am I so unhappy?" Can you talk about that state of mind and why it might be important to tell that part of the story at this point in the arc?
Jeffrey: I think she's surprised by the fact that she's made a decision and is now living as a woman and yet there's something not fulfilled. She's asking herself, Peggy Lee, is that all there is? She needs to up her game, up her ante.
Judith: And that's what makes it so exciting. None of these characters stay stagnant. They're always in an incredible process. It isn't just this one moment of just saying, "I'm transgender. This is what it is." There's the process that comes off of that that is huge and challenging and very complex. I think the rest of the family has to look at that. Deal with that. And also look at themselves.
Part of this show that surprised people, and probably what makes it so effective, is that no one is sainted in this process. No one is handling this in some sort of perfect, divine way.
Jeffrey: No. Like all of us they are not saints. Maura is not a saint. Maura's selfish. Self-involved.
Judith: Deeply flawed.
Jeffrey: I was thinking about the bathroom scene and how many notes are in there. I don't know who is sitting on the edge of the tub with Shelly, if it's Maura or Mort or what's going on. What is Maura feeling? It's very daunting. It must be a surprise to her that she's made this decision but has so much more to consider. Where do I live? By the way, I'm 71, who are my friends? When I go to the LGBTQ center, these are kids. Where are my peeps? Why the hell am I in Compton looking for this girl when I don't have to be. [Referring to a season three premiere plot point.] I could be in the Palisades. How far do I go? What do I do? What kind of romance do I have? What is it? These are real questions. There's nobody good or bad. They're all flawed. As are we.
When we talked about the bathtub scene last year, you got tearful talking about the gift that was given. Judith, how has doing that scene altered you?
Judith: It gave me another step in terms of freedom from my own thoughts about how something should be done or played. It's its own coming out in a way. I would never want to be that vulnerable or be seen in that way. And what our job is as actors is to be seen, and to create a person that people can look at. I think we're in the service business. I've said that a lot. We are there to give something, and you are the force that takes it out in the world, to remind people to be watching us.
That scene made people talk about sexuality, particularly female sexuality after a certain age and the sexuality of a mother, in a way that no one had done before.
Judith: We went through this whole process together talking about what each of us was afraid of, and also what it's like to talk about that in the world. Also what it's like to know that you can let yourself do that and go there and talk about 67- and 71-year-old people who are alive and sexual beings. We don't talk about mature people and their sexuality, particularly in the press. A lot of people say, "Who cares? They're old. They must be dead." I found out that that there's a whole world out there of people who do want to talk about it, who do want to see it. So it altered me in many, many ways, and for me it made my relationship with Jeffrey deeper. Safer. More intimate. We've known each other for 45 years. That's a long time.
Gender confirmation surgery is talked about this year. Jeffrey, you've always done a profound amount of research for this role. What kind of research did you do when it came time to tackle that storyline?
Jeffrey: It's interesting that you say that, because it's still to the point where I had to go and take one of my counselors aside and go, "How did you do this?" We're not talking philosophy now. I need to know nuts and bolts. "What do you do?" And I have three of the most remarkable consultants in Van Barnes, Rhys Ernst, and Zachary Drucker. They will go from philosophy to actual anatomy lessons. There's a lot I don't know still. I just want to cabal at how profound my knowledge is. Because it's not profound.
To be digging into these issues is dialing the show up a whole other level in terms of how it's educating us about the trans community.
Jeffrey: I'll turn to Van, and I'll just say, "Tell me from your life." You get the specifics. You get the daylight kicked out of you. You go, "My goodness. This is amazing!"
Judith: And what's required of a human being to know their truth and live their truth openly, and what the trans community has had to go through, and still the kind of divisiveness and cruelty and hate crimes. What was so interesting, we were talking to our agent last night and they said something about how their daughter had just started college. And they said the person who oversees the dorm is more concerned as to how comfortable the transgender people are in the space and in the bathrooms than they are with kids drinking. That their care and concern for that is huge. And that's a change. That's really big. It's an important change, and it's one that we hope—one that we have been participating in. I don't want to be coy about it. We have had a piece in that, and that is what Jill's always wanted. She wants us to change the culture. Change the conversation. Change the way people are perceived, so that the world is no longer living in the kind of bigotry and hatred that it has been for so long.
There are certain challenges and frustrations that people of a younger generation have in promoting openness and acceptance and educating about trans rights and issues. What has been your experience among your peers as people in your 60s and 70s, a generation that, to speak in broad generalizations, is thought of to be less progressive?
Jeffrey: I'll give you two stories that parallel. I talk about this a lot because it's so interesting. I met this man on a plane who was coiffed and cuffed and he went, "You! Wait a minute." Obviously CEO, hedge fund, whatever. And I thought, "Here it is." I'm going to get laid low. And he put his hand in mine and said, "I want to thank you for teaching me something I had no idea about." That's one part of it. I do social media and somebody the other day said, "You're taking this too seriously." What do you do? "Unfollow." They unfollowed me. Two very different reactions. But the thing is, and what I want to tell you, is that it's been the former much more than the latter. And that's what I noticed. That noise has gone way down, either because somebody's own ethics have gotten involved, or because that's just not cool anymore. You can't get away with it. They just won't let you. And you guys are responsible for that.
Judith: Because you guys are really active putting it out.
Jeffrey: It's not cool.
Judith: There's something to be said for if you are a person who wants to be conscious in your life. I believe that's so for Jeffrey as well as myself. Then you look at what your bigotries have been or where you have lived and the wisdom that comes with that and being able to be out having those conversations. Doing this show we get to have those conversations. Some friends have very different opinions about it. But we also have people in our lives who have transgender children and are our age and are dealing with what that actually means. The complexities, the difficulties, and the joys of all that. So hopefully with the age comes the wisdom and the willingness to be more open to talk about things. It's not always the case. But hopefully that is the case. In many aspects of my life, that happens to be true.