“Ballet.” Adopting a husky, almost sultry voice, actress Amy Landecker is reenacting the performance that earned her a SAG card… and $10,000.
“One word. $10,000,” Landecker laughs, returning to her more musical, Chi-cah-go cadence. It was a Tampax commercial, and Landecker provided the echo of a voice: “Ballet.” Until her mid-thirties, Landecker made her living working in theatre in the Windy City and doing voiceover for commercials, “probably thousands,” she estimates. (Among other things, she happens to be Julia Roberts's voice double. Really.)
She’s aware of the “pinch-me” cliché that takes over when an actor experiences a “moment” of sorts. But pinch her, dammit, because Landecker doesn’t mind reveling in her recent on-screen success—now that she is, in her opinion, fortunate enough to be in her mid-forties while experiencing it.
Currently, Landecker can be seen in the third season of the award-winning comedy Transparent. Later this fall, she makes her debut in the Marvel universe with a supporting role alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange.
“I think being older and knowing who I am allows me to not lose my mind over it,” Landecker, who has had memorable guest spots on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Louie, and Mad Men, says. “I think if I was like 20 I would turn into Tara Reid or something.”
Though, in a way, that would be perfectly Pfefferman.
We don’t mean to cause a rift in that fictional Transparent family, but for our money the most captivating performance on the phenomenally acted series belongs to Landecker, who plays oldest Pfefferman sister Sarah: a mother of two whose father’s coming out as transgender detonates explosives that had, for years, been popping up all over Sarah’s own life.
A divorce, a lesbian affair, another divorce, and an attempt at a spiritual reawakening later, Sarah darts through narcissism, a possible nervous breakdown, misguided compassion, and a BDSM fetish like her life is a precarious game of minesweeper—though she doesn’t always manage to dodge the landmines.
“I hate when people say they don’t like her,” Landecker admits, discussing Transparent fans’ opinions that the Pfefferman siblings are unlikable, selfish, privileged, and, to quote one person on Twitter, “garbage humans.”
“I do get it,” she says. “I think human beings are funny, tricky things. And I think she’s a really complicated, interesting one of those. She’s just trying to take the circumstances she was given in life and figure out a way to be happy.”
In trying to find herself, Sarah demolishes nearly every relationship she has. But colored with Landecker’s unusual mix of earnestness and wryness, she ticks through each self-sabotage with a viscerally identifiable goodness, albeit one that’s doomed by her lack of self-awareness. No matter how despicable the behavior, there’s a trace in relatability in there—a recognition of ourselves and our own impulses.
It’s terrifying. And it’s what makes the character, and Landecker’s unselfconsciously naked (sometimes literally) performance, one of the most interesting right now on television.
“Families just have so many secrets and dysfunctions,” she says. “It amazes me that anyone can think the Pfeffermans are bad people when, honestly, I challenge anyone to show me a family that doesn’t have that kind of dynamic.”
The Pfeffermans might be a heightened, comedic version of it, she continues. “But they’re certainly not, I don’t think, outliers. We’re kind of representative of what most people are like in a way.”
She had that universality illustrated to her in a powerful way while shooting a pivotal scene in Transparent’s current season in which Sarah, crushed by a piling stack of life disappointments, rages at her children. Full-throated, horrifying, ugly, screaming rage.
“It still gives me a pit in my stomach,” Landecker, who had just finished binging the season herself when we talked, says. “It’s not an easy emotion.”
She was surprised, then, that when the scene was done filming the crew gave her a round of applause, the warmest she’s ever received since joining the show and shooting its countless uncomfortable, revealing scenes. (Including one in which, mid-breakdown, Sarah robotically eats a microwaved Lean Cuisine while standing naked in a dingy kitchen in a rented apartment.)
“I was like, wait a second. Aren’t I being hateful?” she remembers. But individual crew members kept approaching her, saying that they’ve been there, that one of their darkest moments as a parent was just acted out in front of them and that it gave them catharsis.
Of course, that’s the resounding theme, perhaps even purpose, of Transparent.
When Maura transitions and comes out to her family, it’s with the fear of asking “will you still love me if…?” If I was different. If I let myself be happy. If I took this journey. It’s a question that echoed in each of the Pfefferman children.
Season 3 evolved that question into a statement: “Here I am.” It was no longer about worrying if people like you. It was no longer about trying to please. It led to profound changes for characters on the show, including for Sarah. As someone who lived in the character and contemplated these questions and statements, this shift had just as profound an effect on Landecker as she settles into her personal identity and professional success.
“Season 1 I was like, ‘Oh I need to get this publicist and this stylist and wear these heels,’” she says. She was in so much pain in the shoes she agreed to wear to the Golden Globes that she couldn’t even enjoy herself. “I was always in outfits that I felt like weren’t me,” she says. “I just felt like I wasn’t myself.”
She turned to co-stars Gaby Hoffmann and Judith Light, two women who have undeniably found and project who they are and how they want to be in the world, as mentors. They’re different, Landecker says. Light likes having her team and her poised, polished, curated look. Hoffmann is the opposite, and just as happy for it.
“I had people tell me to not eat before events,” she says. “No carbs leading up. And I was like what am I trying to do? And I’m on a show that does not care if I want to go grey, or if I want to gain 15 pounds. It would be bad on my show to get Botox. It would be bad on my show to wear a ton of makeup to look good, unless that’s what I want to do.”
She laughs again. (She does that a lot). “I’m somewhere in the middle of all that,” she says. “I’m not Kim Kardashian and I’m not Gaby Hoffman. This show has helped me figure out who I want to be in that spectrum. But also in my personal life, what’s appropriate for me.”
Landecker happened to be going through a divorce from journalist Jackson Lynch when she began production on Transparent, a life-imitating-art experience that forced her into intense self-evaluation. She’s since begun dating co-star Bradley Whitford, gushing about their relationship to People magazine at last year’s Golden Globes.
“I learned about not just being with someone because I don’t want to be alone,” she says. “Being willing to be alone, and then find something that feels right and just reaching for companionship for companionship’s sake. Not letting drama lead my life.”
That’s very much Sarah’s journey, too, she says, quick to point out the parallels she knows are obvious. “And…” she continues, “like Sarah, I’m still a mess most of the time. I don’t have the golden keys, you know?”
It’s then that we return to “ballet,” and the accolades and opportunities she’s managed to manifest for herself. She doesn’t consider herself a Hollywood veteran, saying that because she stayed in Chicago to do theatre for so long she considers herself still very new to regular on-screen success.
To those who know her, the hot streak shouldn’t be surprising, given her hustle.
There’s a pseudo-famous story in which, after attending the AFI Awards for her breakthrough role in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, she passed up cocktails with Jon Hamm and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who had cast her on an early episode of the series, in order to go to an audition. She booked the job—a pilot that didn’t air—but also squeezed in a chemistry read with Paul Reiser for the female lead in his NBC sitcom The Paul Reiser Show, which she also landed.
The big break, in true Hollywood fashion, was actually heartbreaking. Due to dismal ratings, her splashy network regular debut came to a crashing halt after only two episodes had aired.
That kind of high-stakes world, the one she’s seeing the payoff for now, took some getting used to. Before this, she was a Chicago theatre actress who counted herself lucky if a couple thousand people saw her in a play. That’s not to mention her voiceover work, for which she never heard any public or commercial feedback about—which might be why she ventures that she’s always been most comfortable behind the microphone.
“The hardest adjustment is just being a physical presence, like my body, my looks, just figuring out how to be vulnerable in that way,” she says of her on-screen success. “There’s no hiding, you know? You’re really out there. I mean my butt’s out there this year. My wrinkles. My dark circles. I’m exposed. That’s been really cool and liberating to do in my forties.
“The fact that it came to me late allowed me to be freer, because I never got held up to a standard of a 20-year-old version of myself,” she continues. “I’m not someone who had to worry about aging on camera. I was already aged when I got there.” After all, it’s been a long journey from the “ballet.”