Q&A:  Jeffrey Tambor translates his transformative role in ‘Transparent’

Actor Jeffrey Tambor
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Jeffrey Tambor, in his latest role, is not the man you think he is. In “Transparent,” the latest original series from Amazon, the actor plays Mort, a person who late in life is ready to be themself ,--a transgender woman named Maura. The 10-episode, half-hour series scored high with critics, especially the performance of Tambor, best known for his roles in cult-favorites “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Arrested Development.”

In more ways than one, this is a transformative role for you. What was it like tackling a character like this at this stage in your career?

Well, here I am, I’m 70 years old. Maura is 70 years old. I guess in an actor’s life there is about half a dozen times where you go [eyes widen]. This is one of those times. This wakes up every cell in my body. I read it. I met with [show creator] Jill Solloway. I went and watched “Afternoon Delight,” which she directed, after we met. This is all I ever wanted to do as a young actor. I wanted to have a role this special. I feel very honored to bring this character forward. The secret in our business is to work with people who get you. [Jill] gets me. And then the people she casts, dear God. I remember I was doing this dinner scene and I remember just listening and falling into their magic. In the making of that scene, I found my family.


How was it finding your way into Mort and Maura — and going back and forth between them in the beginning?

The pilot was a little different than the shooting. After we came back, I had to realize that I had to go further and deeper. I received wonderful help and advice from our consultants, Jenny Boylan, who has written three out-of-the-park books that really, really helped me. And then I met with her and we had one of the most special afternoons. Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker were also transgender consultants who helped me so much. They took me out on my first field trip. They indoctrinated me into this.

What did that entail?

They came to the hotel, and we had a long, long talk. They taught me a little bit about makeup and things like that. Then we put on our wardrobe. I put on makeup. I put on a wig. And I can remember my legs were shaking, literally trembling — not so much because we were going to a club, but I was so nervous about the walk through the hotel lobby. And I remember telling myself: “Remember this. Don’t forget this. Let this instruct every single one of your shots and your days.” And it did. It has nothing to do with the entirety of what being a transgender person is, by any means, but it informed me.

The psychology is what’s imperative. The other stuff — hair, wardrobe — is facile. When I went to have my nails painted, I just walked into this manicure place and did it. A couple of people, though, in there had a problem with it and they were looking at me, but I had no problem. And maybe that was odd, I don’t know. But the real thing is to look within and find your own, for want of a better word, femininity.

Another thing I wanted to do was go grocery shopping at Gelson’s. I wanted to figure out what her life would be like alone, in transition, and what would she buy, how she would interact with strangers. I know it sounds method-y, but actually, it was just a way to get to know her. Afterward, we went to lunch and there were a couple of people who looked at me: And I couldn’t figure out — “Are they looking at me because I look odd, or are they recognizing that I’m Jeffrey Tambor?” But I said, it doesn’t really matter because whatever I’m feeling and the way I’m being looked at is something that makes me feel judged. Then we went outside and there were no tables available! And so that meant we had to sit with people. We sat with this man. He looked up casually, kept texting, looked up, kept texting. Then he walked away and said, “Have a nice day, ladies.” And I beamed.


Did anything surprise you in the process of finding Maura?

I found that in a way I get to handshake once again with my mom. We were fierce combatants in our life, but here we have a chance to agree and to have a nice hug. And I find that I’m doing gestures that she does. And she was quicksilver in her humor. And a big surprise to me is that Maura is funny. I didn’t know that. I don’t know if we knew that. She’s very funny. She’s very quick. I don’t know if that sounds artsy-fartsy. But it’s been such a pleasure. Being where I am in my career and being my age, I’m able to put down a certain amount of luggage and just invest. I’m really having the time of my life.

Here’s the fail-safe built into this role: Maura, the beautiful Maura, is in transition. She’s very early on in her transition and she makes mistakes. So the mistakes that I, Jeffrey the actor, made sometimes actually helped. And, in a way, Maura was very clear to me. I just had to get to her. I took it day by day. And, I mean, I was very ignorant, especially politically. I had a lot to learn. And I’m still learning.

Given that you saw her more clearly, did that make her almost easier to play than Mort?

I can’t say about easier, and I can’t say more difficult. What I was surprised at — and I had a conversation with my wife about it — was how much access I did have. I don’t have an ounce of prejudice. This is an area where there’s a lot of transphobia and transprejudice. I mean, just plain ignorance. But into this area, I was able to have access. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the clarity of what Jill wrote.

The basic question of the whole pith of what we’re doing is: Will you still love me if I changed? Will you still be there for me? And I think those are the questions that we all have and ask all the time. Around that dinner table, everybody has a secret. We can all relate to this family. Secrets are very powerful and very dangerous.

What was your education like as you took on this role? Amazon, in sending out the screeners to media, sent a long a sort of guide as to the correct terms to use, what’s appropriate, what’s offensive.

That’s important. That has to do with respect. That has to with specificity. It has to do with just clarity. Being able to delve into someone — and I don’t know what the proper word is, ‘cause I kind of want to shy away from the binary — but there is something kind of powerful in Maura that has liberated me a little bit. And I like that. It’s a part of me that I don’t normally access. And I decided that that was a very good thing.

OK. People watch the episodes — maybe a few, maybe all. What do you hope the morning-after conversation to be?

My hope is for people to say to someone else, “I saw this show … Do you have Amazon? I saw this show last night, and that guy is in it. You know, that guy — you’ll know him when you see him? I gotta tell you, ‘you gotta watch this show,’” That’s what I hope happens, on an entertainment-level.

On a personal level, I want the conversation to move forward on this very, very important subject. It has to move forward. It has to. This show is not the answer, but I hope we’re part of the answer in that conversation moving forward. There’s a great line from “...And Justice for All” when Al Pacino goes, “We’re just people. We’re just people.” And that’s the beat.

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