The cast of Transparent is, in true Pfefferman fashion, overwhelmed by feelings. Complicated, often even conflicting feelings.
They are despondent, and a little depressed. They are disheartened, but also hopeful. They are enraged, and full of love, and energized, and confused, and determined. They are exhausted, but they are certainly awake. Their emotions dance all over the room as we talk, mimicking the ballet of mood and uncertainty that Transparent, now in its fourth season, so beautifully creates.
When Jill Soloway’s revolutionary series premiered on Amazon four years ago, it was a watershed moment: a major television series, hailed as Amazon’s House of Cards, with a transgender lead character and a family that accepts her.
Critical raves, Emmy Awards, and a movement followed, with the series thrust to the front of a pop culture trend hailing—perhaps, in hindsight, naively—a “transgender tipping point.”
There was Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black, Caitlyn Jenner on a media blitz, and Jeffrey Tambor’s performance as Maura Pfefferman in Transparent. Maura’s story, orbited by her self-absorbed and often flailing children, became a conversation starter for a long-overdue dialogue about the transgender community, acceptance, love, safety, and rights.
Transparent wasn’t just seen as excellent television, but as a creative catalyst in a burgeoning civil rights movement—a movement that, since the election of Donald Trump in November, has been in peril. Transgender rights have been rolled back. Bathroom bills. Military bans. An uptick in violence against and murders of transgender people.
Four years ago, Transparent seemed groundbreaking. Now it seems necessary.
“There is more immediacy, unfortunately,” says Gaby Hoffman, who plays youngest daughter Aly Pfefferman. “For three years it felt like we were getting closer and closer, still too slowly, and now it feels like we all got whacked in the gut and are stumbling back.”
But that’s where the show’s leader, Soloway, comes in, and sets the tone—not to mention refocuses the mission.
“I think Jill is great about that,” Rob Huebel, who plays Len, ex-husband of oldest daughter Sarah Pfefferman, says about Soloway, who identifies as gender non-binary and goes by “they” pronouns. “Jill is undeterred,” Huebel says. “This show is part of the resistance now.
True to form, Soloway is not weary when we speak, but actually exuberant about what the show can accomplish at a time like this. “I don’t think I would be able to sit here if I didn’t think I was changing the world,” Soloway says. “We use the show so that we can go straight into the places where we want to just set off these little bombs. Kind of being an activist and being a revolutionary.”
When Season 4 of Transparent becomes available for streaming on Friday, the Pfefferman family is on their typical spectrum of chaos.
Sarah (Amy Landecker) and her ex-husband, Len, appear to be reconciled, with the help of a third partner, played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat. (For more on that relationship, click this annotation.)
Josh (Jay Duplass) is suffocating after his mother, Shelly (Judith Light), moves into his bachelor pad. Aly (Gaby Hoffman) is exposed and drifting after her mentor and lover writes a poem for The New Yorker criticizing her.
Maura, would you believe it, is actually the most centered of all of them: a popular professor, successful author, and even in a relationship—light spoiler here—with a man. (For Soloway’s explanation for that decision, click this annotation.)
Since November it seems that every single TV show since the election has been scrutinized for the ways in which it addresses the Trump administration and reflects, or doesn’t reflect, what’s going on in the world and how it’s affecting Americans. The word “Trump” is never said in the new season of Transparent, but the effect he’s had on the Pfeffermans is palpable, even if the show isn’t explicitly political.
“I think Gaby’s character, Aly, is the ultimate response to Trump,” Landecker says, referring to an arc in which Aly questions everything, from her identity to her gender to whether she should even be living in the U.S. anymore. “It’s this, ‘I’m in the wrong place, in the wrong body, and I’m just like, I don’t know what the hell is going on. She’s just walking around with the weight of loss and sense of place.”
Early in the season, Aly decides to join Maura on a trip to Israel. By the end of the season—and after a few shocking revelations about Maura’s past—the entire family joins them there.
“I like that our reaction to Trump was to get the fuck out of America,” Huebel laughs.
“Everyone wants to know what the Pfeffermans’ reaction is. It’s to fucking leave,” Landecker says.
Soloway had always wanted to take the Pfeffermans to Israel at some point, but actually found that timing the trip after Trump’s election amidst the violent sociopolitical climate was poignant, and even said something about how many Americans have dealt with their own aggressive emotions since November.
For Aly, that meant going to Israel. “She was like, I have to put my body where my mouth is,” Soloway says. “People are like, ‘I have to put my body in the streets. I can’t just be angry. I have to feel something with my body.’ So the boundaries become around, ‘How am I going to feel safe? What am I going to keep out so I can just get through this day? How am I going to feel alive? Where do I need to go march so I can feel like I’m doing something?’”
The new season of the series, which has already been renewed for a fifth season, began shooting in February, a month after Trump’s inauguration.
“I think we all felt when February came around after the inauguration and after the election, ‘Thank god we get to go back to work, because we don’t know what the fuck to do with ourselves,’” Hoffman says. “I think we brought all the energy plus the energy of the country and the world and the fear and anxiety and chaos and disappointment and hope and still beauty into the season through just our own bodies and psyches. The stakes certainly feel higher.”
Tambor has never shied away from using his position as No. 1 on the show’s call sheet and its most visible performer to speak out about trans rights, and has continued to do so in the wake of Trump’s transgender military ban.
“I am, Jeffrey, furious about what’s happening politically with the military and the transgender community, as would be Maura,” he says. “So every day to me, going to the set, now I drive a little faster to work and I have more of a mission statement. There’s fear and there’s hatred, but the biggest danger of all is ignorance.”
He mentions a scene in the new season in which Maura is humiliated by TSA security guards at the airport who debate whether a male or female agent should pat her down after the X-ray detected a “groin anomaly,” and all the scenes in which Maura and Donald are intimate and happy, like any other couple would be.
“When you see the word transgender as a visual, it looks like a block of letters,” he says. “But when you show a scene of just Maura at her makeup table putting on sunglasses, the world changes, and you get it. Being a small part of it makes me happy.”
There’s a recurring chorus of appreciation from the cast when talking about the meaningfulness of their work and the spirit of their work place at a time when so many people who feel the weight of anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness over the state of the world don’t have the privilege of engaging in those feelings at their offices.
“It’s such a privilege to have a place of work that expresses what you want your life to be about,” says Landecker. “We get to be in basically a daily march at work.”
There’s a ritual that Soloway began a few seasons ago called The Box, in which everyone, crew and cast, gathers and anyone who wants to get anything off their chest can literally stand on a box and share their feelings. Sometimes a P.A. will get up and tearfully read a letter she received by a friend who transitioned and whose life has been changed by the show, leading to a group cry. Sometimes, it’s the day that Prince died and someone starts a company-wide Prince dance party.
“I feel like we’re lovers of humans,” says Duplass, who plays Josh, of the cast. “That sense of empathy, I feel like that’s why Jill picked us for the show.”
“The beauty of the show is that instead of being empathic, compassionate people who are sensitive to the world and the human beings around us and then going to work and having to do other things, it can integrate and unify,” agrees Hoffman. “It means that we are able to not just express that but use it in our daily lives, instead of having to suppress it or manage it because our job is demanding something else, or insisting that we shut that down to get the fucking work done and get through the day.”
It’s Alexandra Billings, a trans actress who plays Maura’s friend Davina on the series, who has the best summation of what it means to do this show now, at this time. She’s been fighting the good fight for decades. There might be more soldiers and a more visible battlefield now, she says, but it’s the same fight.
“The political climate is hot,” she says. “But for trans people, the political climate is always hot. It’s always toasty. We’re always being silenced in some kind of way. We’re always being disenfranchised and moved to the side and told to get out of the way. That’s always been true. Now, since the Trump administration, certainly there’s a bigger spotlight on it.”