Jeffrey Tambor Is One Helluva Woman: Inside His Phenomenal Turn in ‘Transparent’

In “Transparent,” the actor plays a 70-year-old man who decides to live as a transgender woman. He tells us how he found his inner woman—and delivered his finest performance yet.

Just about a year ago in Los Angeles, Jeffrey Tambor put on a shoulder-length wig, did his makeup, straightened his skirt, and went out for a night on the town.

The looks he got from passersby—well, they were about what you might expect from strangers seeing the 70-year-old actor, best known for playing borderline deranged patriarch George Bluth on Arrested Development, strutting around North Hollywood in a dress. The side-eyed gazes, the raised eyebrows, the gaping, shocked, slacked-jaws: they followed Tambor and his two pals, transgender couple Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, as they strutted—they more confidently than he—from his hotel room to a nearby club.

“I remember the terror of walking through the hotel,” Tambor tells me. “And I said to myself, ‘Good. Remember this. Remember this. This is part of what this voyage is. This is what it feels like.'”

The voyage is a new one, certainly for Tambor, but also for Hollywood, in many ways. Tambor is the star of Amazon Studios’ sensational new dramedy Transparent, which is so good it is already being hailed as “Amazon’s House of Cards” for its potential to win the studio the critical accolades and respect the Kevin Spacey political thriller attained for Netflix.

Tambor plays Mort, the head of another Los Angeles family whose development is arrested in their own right, including a trio of self-absorbed children Sarah (Amy Landecker), Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), and Josh (Jay Duplass). The series finds its comedic and dramatic pulses beating in unison as the siblings react to Mort’s big news: he has decided—or, rather, he is finally allowing himself—to live his life as a transgender woman named Maura.

“Are you saying you’re going to start dressing up like a lady all of the time?” Sarah asks him. “No, honey,” Maura replies. “All my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”

All 10 episodes of the series, created by Six Feet Under producer Jill Soloway, will be available on Amazon Prime on Friday, September 26. They are, simply put, astonishing: a fascinating, progressive, and often hilarious examination of identity, sexuality, family, and the limits of unconditional love. “It’s, ‘Will you love me if I change? If I’m different, will you still love me? Will you be there? Am I safe?’” Tambor says. “And that’s what this thing is all about.”

And on a personal level, it’s something even more profound than that. “I’d say that, without a doubt, this is the most transformative role that I have ever done,” he says.

After all, it’s fairly rare that an actor who has been as prolific and as visible for as long as Tambor can say with certainty at age 70 that a performance lives up to the billing: like you’ve never seen him before.

Tambor began his on-screen career with a bit part as a medical examiner in an episode of Kojak in 1977. It was the coldest day of the year in New York City, and, as a glorified extra, he wasn’t given a trailer and he just had to stand in the cold as a camera malfunction was painstakingly fixed. When he finally delivered his five lines, “my mouth had frozen, so this sputtering sort of came out,” Tambor says. “They said, ‘Cut! Break!’ And you can see that performance on TV today. I went home and cried.”

From there, however, came a role on the Three’s Company spinoff The Ropers; regular TV work in shows like Hill Street Blues and The Larry Sanders Show, for which he was nominated for four Emmy Awards; a scene-stealing part in The Hangover franchise; and, of course, his defining work in Arrested Development. And given that resume, he understands why people are so astonished by his casting in a role like Maura in Transparent, let alone his delicate, heartbreaking performance.

“I would be skeptical, too, if someone said, ‘That guy from The Hangover, he’s doing this role,’” Tambor says. “Because there’s been enough vulgarism and misrepresentation [of the trans community] over the years.”

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But sitting with Tambor and hearing the informed, complicated, and, most importantly, correct vocabulary he uses to talk about trans issues, it’s clear he’s not just done his homework, but he’s taken on a cause, of sorts. “I don’t think I’m the answer,” he says, when we discuss the encouraging response the series is already getting from the trans community. “But I think I’m one of the answers. This show is throwing some light on something that needs to be thrown light on, and I’m just hoping we move that conversation along.”

There’s one scene in particular in the pilot that Tambor says he’s gotten the biggest response to because of how brutally and honestly it portrays a reality of the community. Maura is in a support group—this is before Mort comes out to his family as Maura—and she’s recounting a traumatic experience where a cashier needed to see ID to complete a transaction. When Maura hands over her ID, which has Mort pictured, the harsh judgment she received is recounted in a wrenching monologue to the group.

“There was a time when I was wearing nail polish, and some evening after filming I didn’t take it off and went shopping after we wrapped, and I’d get clocked,” Tambor remembers. “People would look at me. I remember one guy just staring at me and shaking his head. And I went, ‘Remember this.’ A lot of that was my way in.”

It also helps that—and it probably also illuminates our collective ignorance and presumptiveness—that there’s a lot of Maura that Tambor has no problem relating to. “There’s an adage in acting: You’re stuck with a character, and the character is also stuck with you. So Maura has a bad knee. Maura has glasses. Maura can’t quite hear. Maura is 70 years old, which I think is a breakthrough, by the way, because she’s not a babe. I think she’s pretty, but there’s no mistaking that she’s 70.”

For all the talk of Transparent being important and progressive, a big question lingers over the project: Will anyone watch? Amazon Studios has not yet reached the same mainstream status with its original programming that Netflix—its most logical competitor—has. Critics are raving about the series, but as we all know, that doesn’t always transfer to tangible viewers.

“My ideal is that this conversation happens at the water cooler,” Tambor says. “The guy who watches ESPN and then maybe watches Modern Family or knows me from Arrested says, “Hey, this is crazy. I just saw this with Jeffrey Tambor. It’s on Amazon. You have to see this show.” (As for rumors of another Arrested revival, Tambor swears he has no information.) “This show is accessible,” he says. “You don’t need a certain IQ or to be in a certain income bracket. If you know what a family is, you know what this is.”

To that regard, one of Tambor’s most nervous days on set was when his 7-year-old daughter came to visit. He was stammering as he attempted to explain who his character was, why he was wearing a dress, and walking in heels. “She just leapt to it and said, ‘So you’re playing a character who’s more happy as a woman,’” he remembers. “She got it immediately. Consider what that is. Consider what that means.”