Jeffrey Tambor has had a remarkable career in television. He’s played neurotic sidekick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show. He’s played corrupt patriarch George Bluth on Arrested Development. He’s been on seemingly every TV show over the past 40 years, from The Golden Girls to The Good Wife to Archer to, yes, even The Ropers.
But the one role he’s most likely to be remembered for, the one role that has defined his career and has thrust him into the limelight, is that of Maura Pfefferman, a divorced father of three who, in season one of Amazon’s astonishing, critically-acclaimed Transparent, announces to her startled but ultimately supportive family that she is transgender. It has made Tambor a star.
“I get Tweets, still, with people saying, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself,'” says Tambor. “But that is lessening, and lessening, and lessening, and lessening, and lessening. As I look around, everyone’s giving thumbs up.”
Maura Pfefferman’s journey has been both rewarding and frustrating, no more so than in the current third season, in which, despite a budding romance with Vicky (Anjelica Huston) and a decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery, happiness eludes her. “I’ve got everything I need,” she says to her friend Davina (a sublime Alexandra Billings) at the start of the season, “So why am I so unhappy?” Maura comes into her own, but she’s never been more distracted, inward, sorrowful.
Happiness is something the entire Pfefferman family — daughters Ali and Sarah (Gaby Hoffman and Amy Landecker), son Josh (Jay Duplass), and even long-suffering ex-wife Shelley (longtime LGBT advocate Judith Light, who gives a performance of absolute, meticulous precision) — seeks but fails to achieve. They are all striving constantly, desperately for the joy they feel life owes them. The personal journeys in Transparent are deep and involving, and its latest season takes the show down new avenues of exploration. Josh, in particular, falls into a huge downward spiral after a series of emotionally catastrophic events, while Ali, wild and aimless in seasons one and two, achieves grace and maturity on a level that no one else in the family comes close to matching.
And that’s what makes Transparent work: creator Jill Soloway’s insistence on showing these characters — even the people in their periphery, such as Rabbi Raquel Fein (a radiant Kathryn Hahn) — as flawed, selfish, human. They’re more than pawns to shift around in a chessboard narrative. They’re authentic, real people, who say horrible, inappropriate things to each other and those in their orbit, things that cause genuine, lasting hurt.
“Maura’s not a saint,” says Tambor. “She’s flawed, like all of us — like you, me, all of us. That’s what’s so great about her. And she can be very petty. She plays to her kids with the house [in season one]. ‘You’re going to get the house, you’re going to get the house, you’re going to get to the house.’ She says that awful thing to her friend Davina about her boyfriend — ‘You can do better than that.’ Give me a break.”
Tambor has been awarded two Emmys for his rich, riveting portrayal of Maura, the most recent being two weeks ago. During his compelling acceptance speech, he said he wanted to be the last cisgender man to play a transgender role, a sentiment shared a day earlier during a half-hour phone conversation. Warm, congenial, insightful, Tambor opens up easily about what the role of Maura has meant to him, how it’s transformed his way of being. It is the 72-year-old actor’s full, head-on moment in the spotlight and he’s taken it on with a raw, unadulterated courage that has created a performance of such nuance and depth, you can’t imagine anyone playing it better.
It’s Tambor’s moment to shine, his moment to take an already brilliant career and elevate it into something legendary.
METRO WEEKLY: Your character, Maura, is the centerpiece of the show. She’s been on a profound journey of self-discovery over the past three seasons. Playing this role seems like a remarkable opportunity for an actor.
JEFFREY TAMBOR: It is exactly that: a remarkable opportunity. Jill Soloway gave me the role of a lifetime — and the responsibility of a lifetime. A character like Maura changes you, I think, for the better.
There’s a wonderful adage in acting, and it goes like this: You’re stuck with the character, and the character is stuck with you, so everybody has to merge as we progress. And I love watching Maura go where she goes. I’ll be very blunt, I think it’s made me a better person. I think it’s made me more present, certainly more aware. I think it’s made me a better daddy, a better husband, and ultimately, I hope, a better citizen. It certainly has made me an ally.
MW: There’s a key episode in season two, where Maura and her daughters go to the women’s festival. It’s a pivotal experience for Maura in many ways and you really get a full sense of self-realization from her, particularly in the way she reacts to the battle cry of “no man on the land.” It throws her into self-conflict, which seems to lead to expedited decisions in season three.
TAMBOR: I think you can put it under the heading of irony — and Jill and her magnificent writing room really understand irony. It’s a bitter irony: here is a person, a parent, who has made the decision of a lifetime, at the age of 70. She has made a break for her freedom, has made a very courageous decision, and is on her way to where she thinks is a safe haven, a place where she will understand and learn, and is other-ized again. Really hits quite a wall. That scene around the campfire is one of the most interesting scenes I’ve ever had to play as an actor, because there’s no end to it. Ultimately, in television or a movie, there’s an end to it. You go, “Well, that’s the resolution of that scene,” and there was no resolution to that scene. There was just a continual antagonism.
MW: One thing I find interesting is the multifaceted quality of the show, in that it’s not solely about transgender issues. It’s about a lot of journeys, but utilizing Maura as a central focus.
TAMBOR: What has happened is the parent has left the building, and it’s almost like Newtonian physics. There was an experiment we used to have in physics where the teacher would clack one ball, and all the other steel balls would clack, and go off in their separate directions. Indeed, that’s what happens here. Because of Maura’s journey, everybody goes on their journey. The question that we answer is endemical to every family: If I change, will you still love me? Will you be there?
Everybody takes off and finds their place, and that is still going on, big time, in season three. Everybody is off looking for their place to rest and place to be safe.
MW: The show is strongly character-driven, and yet it still informs. It instructs without sledgehammering.
TAMBOR: There’s not a finger-wagging moment. Jill doesn’t know of that. These are lives being played out. This is a family. I must tell you that people come up to me, and sometimes they’ll talk about transgender issues, or something like that, but mostly they talk about family. More and more people say, “I’m a Pfefferman,” and so there’s something that’s coming across on some subconscious level. People really get the pull of the family.
MW: Are you alarmed at how self-absorbed the Pfefferman children are?
TAMBOR: I think they’ve taken a bad rap. They weren’t raised by the greatest mom and pop, so they don’t have great models. Mort was a lousy parent, and Shelly’s not the best. That sort of translated to the children. People have been saying they’re selfish and self-absorbed. They’re in shock. Look what has happened in their family dynamic. I don’t think they’re self-absorbed. I think they get an excuse slip. Do you think they’re self-absorbed?
MW: Intensely self-absorbed. They’re intensely dislikable people. But that’s fine by me. I don’t need all characters to be likable. Sometimes dislikable characters are far more interesting.
TAMBOR: Yeah. I think they’re doing things that are fear-based, and they’re disoriented. Fear is an ugly traveler, and it makes monsters of us all.
MW: I’m Jewish, and I find that some of my non-Jewish friends who have watched the show aren’t quite tapping into the added cultural depth of it. There’s clearly an extra layer of icing here for Jews.
TAMBOR: There’s an extra patina, no doubt. I’m a West Coast Jew — San Francisco — and I think the Pfeffermans are right on target. When we’re sitting around eating the coleslaw, and then passing the schmear, I’m thinking, “That was every Sunday morning in San Francisco.” My dad would go out and get the bagels, the schmear, the lox, the whitefish, and we would sit around. People are getting the family part of it, but yes, there’s an extra added bonus for Jewish people.
MW: The first episode of season three offers a slightly different vibe. It’s an interesting first episode to say the least, very non-traditional in its expression.
TAMBOR: It’s almost like a poem, and it leads beautifully, I think, into the second episode. We’ve not done anything like that first episode. That’s a thing about Jill I love. Some people, when they’re picked up to do season two or season three, they sort of do season two plus ten percent. She doesn’t know that. She just throws it right at the wall, and she’s so courageous. She brings this incredible life and journey.
I can only speak for Maura, but Maura’s on a journey trying to find out who is Maura, what is Maura? Where does she live? Who are her friends? What are her duties? Not only how do you do this, but how far do you go? You have to understand that even when she goes to the LGBTQ center, most of the kids she works with are not of her age. She’s just trying to find home base. That’s what she’s trying to do. She’s trying to find her community. She’s trying to find her friends. Who can you trust? She wants to know if she can ever have romantic love, and what gender will that romantic love be, and will her heart ever have that again?
MW: It seems to be edging there with the Anjelica Huston character.
TAMBOR: More shall be revealed.
MW: Speaking of revealed, the opening shot in season three was the first time we’ve seen Maura with her shirt open. I don’t know of a subtle way to ask this.
TAMBOR: [Laughs.] Just ask.
MW: Were you enhanced with prosthetics or makeup? It looks like — at least from the way it’s shot — that the hormones Maura is taking are forming breasts.
TAMBOR: [Laughs.] Oh, my god. That’s so funny. No, that’s me, my friend!
MW: It must be the way they shot it.
TAMBOR: Absolutely! Absolutely! I think what you’re saying is funny, because I’m so body dysmorphic anyway.
MW: I just thought — I’m just going to be completely frank with you — I thought, “Well, the nipples are very large.” I thought either that’s makeup….
TAMBOR: Oh. Oh. I see. Now, I’m looking. Hold on. Let me look at my nipples. Hold on. Well, they’re not small.
MW: I think it’s the angle.
TAMBOR: It is totally the angle, and we have a master cinematographer. You know what? I think that’s probably where people are going. I’ll bet you’re not the only person who’s thinking that. That’s great. I love that.
MW: Well, then, may I say that you have a very nice set of nipples.
TAMBOR: Is that the first time you’ve ever said that in your life to anybody?
MW: Pretty much, I think.
TAMBOR: [Laughs.] Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever received it!
MW: Moving right along, you’ve spent much of your career in the television landscape. You’re in a unique position, I think, to have seen television evolve to the sophisticated point it’s at now.
TAMBOR: When I was a young actor, I would call my mother and father in San Francisco — we had three channels, we didn’t even have a CW yet — and I would say, “Mom, Dad, I’m on M*A*S*H with Alan Alda.” They would say, “What number?” I’d say, “Two.” They would say, “Oh, yeah. We get two.” We’ve come a far piece, as they say, and now we have this streaming. I was just having a conversation last night with a producer who said, “This is where the stories are being told.” No commercials. The writer has a free hand. Very few notes, if any, and carte blanche, and you don’t have to build to a commercial, or write down from a commercial. There is not a laugh track to be heard, and the actors that are coming are legion. I was at a party last night, and I was looking around at all the careers that have been made from streaming. The one thing that people don’t understand, and don’t know, and I’m a huge advocate, there are really some fine, fine actors in this land. Now they’re being seen, because there’s a lot of product.
MW: I loved you on Arrested Development. I loved you on Larry Sanders. You’ve been on three of the shows that are seen as groundbreaking, that helped to alter the landscape in their respective genres. Both Sanders and Development are essential in the way television comedy changed. You are a significant part of that.
TAMBOR: I think at the beginning of my career, I would’ve been happy with one thirty-second of that. That I have these three — this trifecta, this brilliant trifecta. And I get to go out with Transparent. Some people get to do Lear, but I’m lucky I get to do Maura. And I will keep doing it until they ask me to sit down and just be quiet.
MW: I did happen to catch you on a Ropers episode. The comedy is so different. We’ve changed as an audience.
TAMBOR: Those shows were fun, and they were of a certain ilk. They’re fun to look at now. People still talk to me about The Ropers, and last night somebody talked to me about Three’s Company. I think the one thing that has changed is that the audience is being given more. They’re being given more of a hand on how they want to react to the pieces, and comedy and drama are starting to play in the same hand. The weave is getting much more nuanced. The audience isn’t being told what to do with a baton. The audience gets to respond to it the way they want to respond to it. Getting commercials out of there on streaming is really, really important. It changes the writing, and it becomes more novelistic, and you get to breathe. There’s more breathing room now.
MW: Let’s talk Emmys. How did it feel to win for Maura?
TAMBOR: It felt great. It just felt wonderful. Personally, it’s huge to get an Emmy, to have such a thing awarded to you by your peers, but also, and more important, for our show, and what it represents, and for this groundbreaking material. Amazon is the little engine that could, and I love that this might inspire people to watch it, and say, “Oh, I hear it’s good. I want to watch that.” I would like that. That would make me feel very good. It’s a brilliant cast. I think it helps people. I think laughter has always been a part of health, and shining a light onto laughter, and good writing, and good performing. I think it’s very important, so it makes me very proud, and it helps our show. It helps the conversation.
MW: As a cisgender man, has being part of Transparent made you more aware of the problems faced with regard to issues such as public restrooms?
TAMBOR: Oh, absolutely. I grew up in San Francisco, in a very liberal environment, but with this, I have learned so much, and continue to learn. Every single scene is a learning curve, and the gratitude I have to be a cisgender male acting the role of Maura… I hope that I will be the last cisgender male to play a female transgender role on TV. I think we need to hire transgender talent in transgender roles.
MW: There are already a considerable amount on Transparent.
TAMBOR: Yes, but we have to have more. I heard Trace Lysette, one of our actresses, talk to a group in Washington, D.C. When she talked about her life, and what she does, and her auditioning, in that room you could’ve heard a pin drop. We have Trace Lysette, and we have Alexandra Billings, we have great actresses. There’s great, great talent out there, and I’m all for it. I think it’s important. I think that more roles need to be written.
I am so happy, and I tweeted it the other day, that the NCAA has pulled out of North Carolina. I thought that was so just, and so terrific, but that’s not about bathrooms, that law. That law is about hatred and ignorance.
MW: How do we fix the intolerance that defines part of America?
TAMBOR: Education. People speaking in the schools, in the churches, in the centers. Auden said, “Love one another or die,” and that’s it. I don’t have an easy answer to that, and I would be a great pretender if I did, but whatever they’re doing right now, they have to educate. This is not about bathroom stalls. This is about non-education. This is about fear. The younger generation, my kids — I have kids who are 11, nine, and two sixes — they’re not going to tolerate this nonsense. They’re not. We’ve got to get these older people who have been taught other things in other rooms, because the new kids are coming. The Xers, the Zs. They’re not going to take this nonsense.
MW: How would you respond if one of your kids later came out as transgender?
TAMBOR: I hope I’d respond like the two people who came up to me in Washington and took me aside. They told me about their young son — I’m not sure I have the right gender here, so let me think — who knew at the age of four that he wanted to transition and has done so since. They know about our show. That night, I was able to put them together with another person I knew who had the same situation, and they traded information. So I would hope that I would act in kind. I know I would. It’s about love. It’s about understanding. It’s a new world.
All three seasons of Transparent are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Watch the full first episode of Transparent here;
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