Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor

ImageOne of Hollywood’s most versatile and prolific actors, Jeffrey Tambor has specialized in characters that blend opposing traits. Among his most famous are the despicable yet all too human Hank Kingsley in The Larry Sanders Show; and the evil and vulnerable George/Oscar Bluth in Arrested Development. None has represented more of a contrast than Maura Pfefferman, the transgender woman in Transparent, with which Tambor ventures into uncharted territory for scripted programming.

WS: How was your preparation for the role of Maura different from how you’ve prepared for other roles?
TAMBOR: Every role has its own set of [characteristics], externally and internally, that you have to bring into yourself. There is a wonderful adage in acting: You’re stuck with your character but your character is also stuck with you. With Maura what’s interesting is that she is transitioning. She is a transgender woman and so there was a whole other set, externally and internally, that I had to adopt, adapt to, acquire and learn about and it’s been one of the most thrilling rides of my career! I continue to learn every day. Just the other day, with Zackary Drucker, who is one of my trans consultants on the show and one of our producers, I had one of the most incredible conversations. I keep asking what is, how is, what about this, what about that, and new avenues and explorations happen every day. I don’t know if that answers your question. I will tell you this, I thought that the external part would be more daunting than the internal part, whereas indeed the internal part seems to be the one that has the most—for want of better words—gravy and guts. The outside was very easy and I adapted to it very easily and love it.

WS: Did you take on the role of Mort who transitioned into Maura, or did you feel like Maura from the very beginning?
TAMBOR: That’s an excellent question! No, I’ve always felt that Maura was within my grasp. I don’t mean to sound all actor-y when I answer, so please use that as a preface, but I feel that Maura is a friend; a friend I have rediscovered again. She has allowed me to use more Jeffrey than I’ve ever used in my roles.

WS: I imagine you can tap into more vulnerable, softer, more humane parts of you for Maura than for George Bluth or Hank Kingsley.
TAMBOR: Certainly George Bluth; he is the original Darwinian! But Oscar Bluth had a bit of vulnerability, as did Hank, poor Hank! It’s glib of me to say that because Maura is a woman she is more vulnerable. We are all vulnerable. The more I find out about Maura and her voyage, the less meaning any term has for me. I don’t know if that makes sense, it’s just my purview on it. It sure is thrilling, I did a scene the other day with the wonderful Alexandra Billings, who plays my transgender friend Davina, and she is a transgender artist of great talent. I remember as we were doing this particular scene for season two I said, this has never been done on television before. Stay tuned!

WS: Besides Maura’s journey from man to woman, what other important themes does Transparent explore?
TAMBOR: From male to female the journey is incredible, but Maura’s journey sparks and ignites everyone else’s journey in the Pfefferman family and that is what we are fast upon in season two. When people ask me what is the bare, bare, nub of this series I say, If I change, will you still love me? That is indigenous to every family. Every family can relate to it. When people stop and talk to me on the street about this show there are usually three strands: One, they will say I didn’t know what to expect from the show, which I think is code for their comfort or discomfort about the subject. Two, I say this in all humility, they will talk about their idea of me playing this role without actually having seen it. Three, often they will start talking about their families—the transgender experience they’ve had with their families or friends of families, but they will also just talk about family. So something about the Pfeffermans is coming through on some level.

WS: Maura’s adult children are just a wee bit self-involved! When she was dealing with her children I wasn’t seeing her as transgender I was just relating to her as a parent…
TAMBOR: Beautiful!

WS: And seeing her just as a person…
TAMBOR: Oh, I love that!

WS: How is she evolving as a parent?
TAMBOR: I think she is a better parent, certainly better than Mort. Mort is angry. Do you remember after the scene I did with the great Bradley Whitford [who plays Mark/Marcy] where we get into the car and Mort starts shouting at his kids? I thought that was emblematic of how he was. He is struggling as Mort. Maura seems to be more present. She seems to have more of a maternal grasp of things. And she handles the Shabbat service quite well.

I know for sure that [Transparent creator and showrunner] Jill Soloway and the writers are taking the bubble wrap off in season two. We are seeing the more flawed and less saintly Maura. For instance, in the first season, she plays the kids off one another a lot by telling them, Don’t tell the others I said this. My father used to say that, Don’t tell your mother. That’s so human, I love that about Maura. I think she’s more affectionate; more touchy feely. She is less conflicted. A lot of people do say that about the kids—even Maura says that—they are so selfish. But the kids are in shock [to see their father transform into a woman]. That’s not easy, either on a conscious or a subconscious level. As kids, we all knew when there was tension in the house and it scared us. Can you imagine the ebb and flow of what they are feeling about what Mort is exhibiting? They redeem themselves beautifully in season two. They are good kids. The scene I am thinking about right now is poor Josh, sitting in front of Maura, as Maura takes down her hair on the couch and Josh can’t do it, he can’t [accept her] yet; he doesn’t have the equipment.

WS: Does comedy have the ability to reveal a character’s humanity, at times even more effectively than a drama?
TAMBOR: Yes, that is the function of comedy. You know that Chekhov calls his plays comedies? In The Three Sisters [their dreams of living in] Moscow [has you] dissolved in tears. I have always believed that laughter is curative and laughter teaches on so many levels. And that is really emblematic about this show and what Jill does, she zigs when you think she is going to zag, and zags when you think she is going to zig. That funeral scene is hysterical and then you are crying when the family is eating coleslaw—there you are! We laughed, God rest his soul, at my dad’s funeral because the Rabbi had no idea who my dad was. The cantor was playing on the guitar and I thought, Oh my God! This is so Pfefferman-y!

WS: Is the set a welcoming one? You are a super-seasoned actor, but do you feel comfortable enough to try different things?
TAMBOR: I like the word super-seasoned and how that replaces old!

WS: No, I don’t mean old, I mean experienced!
TAMBOR: I’m 70 years old. On Jill’s set there is no wrong, there is just the next take and the next take and the next take. It’s not Woodstock, do whatever you want. It’s very hard work and very meticulous work. We did a scene last year, Bradley and I, where we went to Camp Camellia [a camp for cross-dressers]. We broke for lunch and we had hundreds of background players dressed beautifully, some transgender artists, some cisgender, and everyone dressed up gorgeously for the event in the evening. I remember walking around with our dinner plates as the sun was setting, we were out in Malibu, and I said this is the most extraordinary thing I have ever done. It was so beautiful and everyone was so revved and we danced till two or three in the morning. Everyone was so happy. I remember Jill dressing the background artists and I turned to somebody and said, you will never see this again; this is not how it’s done. Jill asked people to do whatever they wanted to do that night, bring your power, your beauty, your love and how important you are not only to the scene but to what we are saying and what this is all about, which goes all the way back to Jill’s first sentence on the set at the very first table read. The very first thing she said is that she wants to make this world safer. There it is. That’s the whole deal. I could talk forever about this.

WS: Someone very close to me came out this year, so I am trying not to pay attention to words or labels, but to see people as human beings as opposed to seeing gender. Do you think there is a perfect storm right now between Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner and other shows that have transgender story lines?
TAMBOR: Yes, we always talk about, even though it’s an overused word, the zeitgeist. It’s zeitgeist-y! You made my day just now telling me about the person close to you. I hear the word authentic in the community and on the set so much. It’s about being your authentic self and you’re right, it goes beyond words and terms. That is also what our show is about. Transparent can be seen a lot of different ways, a trans parent or transparent—be your authentic self.