Exclusive Interview: Jeffrey Tambor


PREMIUM: Jeffrey Tambor, the star of Transparent, speaks to World Screen about his experience working on the Amazon series.

Like all great fiction, today’s nuanced TV series, featuring multi-dimensional characters, have the capacity to help us better understand others and ourselves. Some shows are also able to raise awareness of complex issues or unfamiliar lifestyles—none, perhaps, as much as Transparent, created by Jill Soloway and starring Jeffrey Tambor as Mort Pfefferman, who at age 75 announces to his family that he is Maura, a transgender woman. The ensuing emotional upheaval experienced by Maura and the Pfefferman family is the focus of the series, which has won critical acclaim, including a Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe for Tambor. But more than the awards, Tambor is proud of the quality of the show and the light it sheds on human relationships and the continuous struggles of the transgender community.

Jeffrey TamborWS: How is working on a Jill Soloway set different from any other filming experience you’ve had before? Is there more improvisation than on other shows you have worked on?
TAMBOR: Improvisation would be too glib a thing. I will tell you this; the most important thing is to get the truth in the scene. A lot happens when you’re on the set. I’m thinking of one scene especially, the first year, where Len [Novak, played by Rob Huebel] sort of crashed the Sabbath scene and we did a great number of takes and then Jill came up to me and gave me a totally different spin on it. Literally, we were doing A, A, A, and she whispered in my ear Z, Z, Z, Z, and it just turned the performance and the scene on its head. She has the clarity and the alacrity to move on a dime to find the scene. That’s true creation and that’s writing as well. And I love that. It’s a very special time. It’s a very safe set [because] you’re always after the truth of the scene. It’s not about the correctness of the scene, it’s not about getting all the lines right—it’s about what is really happening. And sometimes, as in life, the scene can change as you’re doing it. And Jill is on top of that.

WS: You told me that the theme of the first season was, If I change, will you still love me? What are the themes in season two? Am I correct in saying Maura’s transition has catapulted the rest of her family into examining themselves?
TAMBOR: You’d be very right in that. As you can see, one cog has moved in the family. The oldest one, Maura, has led and the other ones are now at sea and they’re trying to find how they navigate this. It’s through Maura’s prism that they now see their own waters that they have to navigate. I would say in season two [the themes are], Where is home and where do I belong? Because the irony is, Maura made this huge transition, [but since she’s made it, she’s left asking] Now how do I do it? What do I eat, what do I wear, what do I know? She doesn’t even have a home. She doesn’t know where to live. She doesn’t really know who her new friends are. She goes to the LGBT center but who does she know at the LGBT center? She’s not a young person. All of that is very intriguing to me.

WS: And what does that pull out in you?
TAMBOR: It’s so interesting—I’m a person who likes to know where everything is, where my book is, where my jacket is, and Maura is so much about not knowing. The “not knowing” is very scary to me personally, too, but it’s also very exciting as an actor to not know exactly what’s going to happen in the scene because I’ve never done it before. There are scenes that I’ve done this season that I’ve never had to experience in my life or in my art. So you don’t even know how to do it right, which is in a way scary but very freeing, because you go, Well, I don’t know what mark to hit because there’s no mark for it.

WS: The show has shed light on transgender issues and has started to create awareness. But the path ahead is still long, isn’t it? Look what happened with bathrooms in schools and other public places, the tragedy in Orlando…
TAMBOR: [Which bathrooms students can use in] schools is not only a transgender issue but a homophobic issue. The fact is [we need] more knowledge, more love, more education. That bill in North Carolina was not about bathrooms. That was about ignorance and fear. And that it got reduced to bathrooms is so wrong; it’s about hatred and not knowing. And so any part that we are playing in [creating awareness] is important, but there are many, many parts to that. Maybe it’s me just being hopeful, but I do believe that people are climbing on board and saying, Wait a minute, I have to take stock here. There was a very important member of the government who just had his eyes opened by the tragedy in Orlando and he said, Wait a minute, this has to stop. And so any part that we play in that is so meaningful.

WS: As you get more into Maura and the family members get more into discovering who they are, is the show becoming less about gender and more about just being human?
TAMBOR: Yes. It’s about being authentic, it’s about freedom, it’s about being yourself. It seems that Generation Z knows this; they’re way ahead of us on this in that we’re almost fossilized in our non-acceptance of [being yourself]. On the other hand, I will tell you something that is not known enough. It’s hard to talk about, but I remember going to a trans-pride celebration. We were there posing for pictures and signing autographs and meeting people. I met so many young people who were in various stages of their transition, and they weren’t Maura, they weren’t from the Palisades, they weren’t rich, and some of them couldn’t even afford their hormone treatments. It was very moving, because I thought, this [issue] is about people, this is not a red carpet item. Sometimes [transgender awareness] gets identified as a red carpet item and it’s not, it’s about people. I met a person that day who told me about just having come out and how difficult that was for his parents and things like that, and these are real human stories, this is real. It’s not about rich people in the Palisades. Maura is not the example and that to me is very meaningful. That changed my life. I’ve often said lives depend on [transgender awareness], but now I really understand that.

WS: And the problems transgender people have in getting healthcare. So many doctors won’t even treat them.
TAMBOR: Absolutely. And [there are] the suicides, attacks, murders and hatred. And just the stuff that happens in the business world of being passed over or not being hired or being asked to do things. It’s amazing.

WS: To that point, Jill has hired many transgender people to work on the show.
TAMBOR: Yes. She’s a true leader; she’s amazing. It’s absolutely one of the most exciting sets behind the cameras and there’s a vast array of trans talent in front of the cameras and in the production offices. It is one of the most exciting workplaces that I have ever been a part of.

WS: What can you tell us about Maura and her journey in season three?
TAMBOR: I think she’s learning how much more Maura can be. How do I want to present myself in the world? How do I want to live as Maura? Who are my friends? What do I look like? Who am I, literally? Right to the existential—who the heck am I? Now that I’ve made this [transition], who am I?

WS: Maura’s relationship with ex-wife Shelly is so fraught with conflict, but they really love each other, don’t they?
TAMBOR: Yes, but I think they have to go away to come back. By the way, I don’t know, because I don’t know where Jill’s going.

WS: So you don’t know ahead of time?
TAMBOR: No. Sometimes she’ll say, Do you want to know? And I go, Don’t tell me.

WS: So you learn it as you read each script?
TAMBOR: Yeah, because I find that actors sometimes get like those dogs that point if you tell them where they’re going, they’ll go. But what I love about not knowing is that you never point. You never know you’re in a tragedy until someone tells you you’re in one.

WS: In the first season, Maura and Shelly’s kids drove me crazy because I thought they were so self-involved.
TAMBOR: I think the kids have got a bad rap. Can you imagine being raised by Maura and Shelly? I mean really? Talk about absent. But they have gotten a bad rap. People think they’re self-involved but they were neglected. First of all, when Mort was Mort, he had a furious temper and was not even at home in his body. And Shelly, you know where Shelly is; Shelly’s just Shelly.

WS: There is a scene in season two when, at the Yom Kippur dinner, the Pfeffermans discovered that Raquel had lost her baby, and Shelly starts moaning at the table—that was hilarious.
TAMBOR: I will tell you about that moment. Judith [Light, who plays Shelly] was doing it and doing it beautifully, but I remember watching that scene and I remember Jill coming [on set] and whispering in Judith’s ear—it’s one of my favorite stories. In the next take—Jill hadn’t told us—there was this moan that came out of Judith. I don’t know what Jill said into her ear that produced it, but that’s what I’m talking about, that’s the magic. First of all, there was the inspiration from Jill, and then there was the actress who could bring that about and transfer that. That, in a sense, is the collaborative magic of that show.

WS: Because Transparent only shoots ten episodes, it allows you to do other things. How else will we enjoy your performances?
TAMBOR: Well I did two movies during the break [from shooting Transparent]. I did 55 Steps with Bille August and The Death of Stalin with Armando Iannucci. And then back to Maura in January. I know, I’m the luckiest. If I dare even complain, there are a thousand actors who are going to slap me at once across the face!