Amazon's Transparent Is Great Television in Transition

Amazon's Transparent Is Great Television in Transition

Maura is like a lot of Jewish women her age in her affluent West Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades. At 70, she’s got a creaky knee, impeccably manicured long fingers, an adoring grandchild, and a fascination for the trappings of modern femininity. But Maura has a secret, one betrayed by her receding hairline, one that makes even a trip to Gelson’s supermarket a bit stressful. Her family, and much of the world, has no idea she’s a woman. They still see her as a man named Mort.

In Transparent, Amazon Originals’ highly anticipated new television series, Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura, a transgender woman coming out to the world and her self-absorbed adult children.

The show premieres in late September on Amazon Prime Instant Video — and all 10 episodes are available to binge watch as of the release date, as with Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. It is the first in a string of original series that Amazon announced earlier this year, selected after several pilots were posted online and fans voted on which should be made into full-fledged series. Transparentwas an instant critical darling, and the fervor with which the public embraced the show still surprises creator Jill Soloway.

“Beyond my wildest dreams,” she admits. Soloway — who has a fan base for her work as co–executive producer of Six Feet Under, showrunner for United States of Tara, and writer-director of the Sundance darling Afternoon Delight — is speaking with me in the back of Nick and Stef ’s, a Los Angeles steak house. Transparent is in production, and the steak house is the set for today’s shoot. Soloway is surrounded by extras who strain to hear her talk about the intersections of gender and feminism, why she bought 250 copies of Julia Serano’s trans memoir Whipping Girl (they were distributed to cast and crew), and how nervous she was about the pilot’s reception.

“I think as artists we always hope that there’s going to be that moment where your art hits the public and people go, ‘Yay! You’re good. We love you.’” But Soloway says she wondered about the show’s themes of feminism and queerness, and whether enough people would be interested to support the show. “My expectation was that nothing would happen.”

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Showrunner Jill Soloway (top center) and the trans cast and crew that came from her "transfirmative" action program. Top row (from left): Ali Liebegott, Alexandra Billings, Rhys Ernst, Jill Soloway, Ian Harvie, D’lo, Sam Rypinski, Zackary Drucker. Middle row: Lee Faelnar Te, Maya Jafer, Vick Quezada, Leon Mostovoy, Zoe Van Brunt, Jordyn Serwin, Wyatt Gray. Bottom row: Ada Tinnell, Ezrha Jean Black, Van Barnes (Photo by Luke Gilford)

Even experienced producers can be dead wrong. Amazon posted the episode on Friday, February 7. “Over the course of that first weekend, it was [huge],” she says. Soloway describes reading reactions that called the pilot “the best thing ever,” and “the new House of Cards.”

“It was so overwhelming and so exciting,” she says. “I didn’t get the feeling that it was just gay people, queer people, trans people saying ‘Watch this.’ It was all kinds of people.” She says generations of Jews told her they showed Transparent to their parents, or watched with their kids. “I think our aspirations are really for it to resonate first on that [family] level, and I guess the pilot did.”

And the big factor in the positive response is Tambor, an actor beloved by television audiences as George Bluth, Sr., from Arrested Development. In a year when trans actress Laverne Cox is winning accolades for her role as a trans woman in prison on Orange Is the New Black, Tambor — or really any man — may seem an unlikely choice to play Maura. Trans advocates have complained. Soloway says she knows how few roles trans actresses get cast in and she’s compensated for that elsewhere.

But Tambor is an inspired choice. He’s been entering our home via our TV screens for nearly 40 years. After a debut on Kojak, his offbeat, scowling visage has been a regular fixture since he played the snobby, uptight neighbor on The Ropers. But Transparent is new territory, his first trans role — his first female role as he sees it — and because the character Maura has not had any medical intervention (no hormones, no surgery) she looks exactly as Tambor would if he were to come out and begin transition today.

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He’s not a pretty woman, but he is real. And as Soloway says, “America already loves Jeffrey Tambor. To watch him become Mort and then become Maura, it’s like, here’s somebody you already know and love who is trans.”

Tambor is going to make America understand trans women as much as Laverne Cox has; the experience of many trans women who come out later in life is that they do not fit into conventional beauty narratives. Unlike Cox, they are not, without effort, conventionally beautiful.

This is the topic of today’s scene. Maura is at lunch with two other trans friends: Shae (Trace Lysette) and Davina (Alexandra Billings). Davina and Maura are talking about Shae, a beautiful young woman who was born petite, transitioned early, and has had cosmetic procedures to look the way she does, which is stunning. Maura, who has had no medical intervention thus far and is contending with decades of testosterone’s effects, is melancholy, and envious of Shae’s options in the world. There’s an unexpected realness to the scene that makes it feel like I’m sitting with some of my middle aged trans friends who came out in midlife and feel the frustrations with a culture that deems them “men in dresses” for not looking the way they’re expected to look.

Soloway that's all tied up in transphobia and misogyny, the politics of passing, and the pressure for women to be beautiful, whether they’re transgender or cisgender (non-transgender). “In some ways it’s just cis privilege,” Soloway says, to go without makeup or having one’s hair styled and not be “va-va-voom sexy.”

“That’s something I want to get into as soon as possible — being a trans woman but saying, you know, ‘I’m not going to put on a huge face of makeup and a bunch of hair, and you may not see a beautiful woman when you see me.’ In fact, there’s a line in this episode where Davina says to Maura, ‘There’s a big difference between being a woman and being a beautiful woman.’ And that’s what I think transitioners have to deal with. Sometimes they’re not beautiful, and a lot of people think [reactions to them] might be about transphobia, but when you look closer, it’s really about transmisogyny because it’s about trans women looking the way men want women to look.”

The thing is, Jeffrey Tambor says he suddenly feels pretty. His 8-year-old daughter, Evie, came to the set recently and the duo got matching manicures while he explained Maura to her. He snaps his fingers to show how amazingly fast Evie got it. “She just understood that I was playing a character that’s more comfortable being a woman,” he says, smiling.

Right now he’s mostly out of his makeup, but he’s still wearing that nail polish, a lovely dark taupe that gives him flair each time he emotes with his hands, which he does often while we talk. Is that Maura, or is that Jeffrey? I wonder frequently. 

Tambor says he's suddenly experiencing feelings he’s never encountered before. “I’m going to say this — I mean, it’s the truth, but I haven’t admitted this to you yet, but being 70 is odd. Looking in the mirror is very, very different, because I go, ‘Oh, my dear.’ But I love looking in the mirror and looking at Maura.” He pauses. “I think she’s very, very pretty, and it’s been a while since I’ve looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh, that looks good.’ That sounds terribly vain, I don’t mean to.”

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t terrified when he had to disrobe in a scene, a moment he says was very scary. “I was beside myself,” he admits, shuddering a bit and pulling his arms around his chest as we talk. “I thought they were going to have to give me a shot. And they just told me that I’m doing a scene next week where I’ll have to be under the covers, and I went ‘Eeew.’ I don’t know if I’m just vain or old. That’s why Maura is so interesting to me, because she’s so pretty and I get another chance to be attractive.”

Tambor looks to artist and consultant Rhys Ernst and his partner Zackary Drucker, both of whom are transgender, as the show’s official guides to the transgender experience. They became so instrumental to the show that both were named associate producers in August. Ernst has helped Tambor become Maura. With Ernst by his side and dressed in Maura’s clothes, Tambor went first to a trans-friendly bar in California’s San Fernando Valley, then to a grocery store, then to a valet station. “I remember I was just a nervous wreck, and that was the toughest part of the evening. I’m so glad I did it because I now know what the ‘clock’ is all about and that whole experience of not fitting in.” (The clock, for those who don't know, is when someone recognizes and outs you as a transgender person, rather than just seeing you for the gender you are.)

Tambor is astounded by the affinity he feels for Maura. “I find that there is a gesture that I do, where I go, Oh my God, that’s my mother.”

People often tell Tambor they assume it’s difficult to play a woman, but no, it's not, he says. “That's what's so wonderful about it. She's easily accessible to me. I don’t say it’s easy to do, but she’s just right there. And she’s right here,” he says, motioning to his heart. “I read all the [trans] books, we did all the meetings, but she’s also inside and has been there for a while. I find that in these scenes, I’d think, Oh, that’s an aspect of you that you don’t even touch. So it’s allowing me to touch something that’s really meaningful to me. And I love it.”

He says that as an artist — especially someone who has been acting for four decades — “it is very, very exciting to get up in the morning and go to the set where there’s not many footprints before you and everything is new. That’s very exciting. I get kind of nervous and jittery anew. I have to throw my technique out the window … I broke down and I don’t know if you saw that in one of the scenes when I can’t stop crying. It’s very satisfying, very — and then Jill I trust with my life.”

Soloway, who came to fame working on Six Feet Under, wanted to do “a show that was about a family where the sex and love were more on the surface.” Rather than a parent dying in the first few minutes, Transparent would feature a parent being born. It would ask what it feels like to have a family member that the family never knew was there all along.