Jeffrey Tambor didn't know how to ask for breasts. As he was preparing for a scene for the TV series Transparent — in which his transgender character Maura Pfefferman is asked by a doctor whether she wants surgery — he realized his character didn't know how to ask either.
"The sequence in the new season where I'm talking back and forth with the doctor about gender reassignment ... that one got to me," says the Emmy-winning actor, reclining in the corner of a couch in a SoHo hotel room. "There was something about the ordinariness of it that was chilling to me, because these are just simple words, but they have such fathoms. In their ordinariness, you get the whole deal. That's what I like about the show."
When Transparent premiered last year and quickly became Amazon's breakout hit – earning Emmys for Tambor and its creator, Jill Soloway, as well as the Golden Globe and GLAAD Media Award both for Best Comedy Series – it presented LGBTQ issues in a way that could appeal to anyone since, at its heart, it's about a family. When Maura told her adult children that she was transitioning, each struggled to adapt to the change, albeit in a supportive way. With the show's second season, which premieres in full on Friday, December 11th, Soloway and her writers have made the Pfefferman clan as a whole the series' centerpiece. That they've broadened the show's scope without sacrificing any of the show's carefully constructed social messages or character is nothing short of a miracle.
The season begins with a wedding – the perfect setting for family dysfunction – and within the half-hour, each character's crisis comes into focus. Eldest Pfefferman daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) has left her husband and kids behind for a constricting relationship with her college love Tammy (Melora Hardin). Son Josh (Jay Duplass) has fallen for a rabbi (Kathryn Hahn) but their love strains when his surprise teenage son shows up. Younger daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) remains a wandering spirit despite pursuing Josh's ex (Carrie Brownstein). And Maura, who is finally beginning to know herself at age 71, navigates her feelings for ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) and a surprise, upending role by Anjelica Huston.
The Pfeffermans all want happiness, but none of them will make the sacrifices necessary to get there. That innate familial stubbornness sets up the intricately woven generational odyssey that showrunner Soloway, who previously worked on offbeat family-driven shows like Six Feet Under and United States of Tara, promised when she first described Transparent as a dark comedy about a clan with "boundary issues." The shift in focus, she says, came in part from an interesting inspiration: Caitlyn Jenner.
In the months that followed the premiere of Transparent's first season, transgender rights became part of the national conversation. As had been depicted on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, the mistreatment of trans people in prison made headlines and drew derision from stars like Elton John and Michael Stipe. And a number of television documentary series on the subject came out, including the Ryan Seacrest-produced Becoming Us (originally My Transparent Life), Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word and singer Laura Jane Grace's True Trans. Then, this past April, Caitlyn Jenner – now the most prominent transgender celebrity – came out in a 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer.
"Watching Caitlyn Jenner, we don't have to worry so much about the educational aspect of transitioning now." – Jill Soloway
"When we were watching the special, my writers and I realized that they answered a lot of the basic questions that we had felt were our responsibility," Soloway says in a different room of the hotel, where she speaks in rapid-fire bursts. "We don't have to worry so much about the educational aspect of transitioning now. Because there were so few trans story lines, I really wanted to protect Maura in the first season. Now we were free to do more things.
"The truth of queer journeys and trans journeys and coming-out narratives," she adds, "is that it's a continual thing, and it's not just the trans person who transitions, it's the whole family. We wanted to tell that story."
Individually, the show's actors had all felt the effect Transparent's story had on people, so the idea to expand it made sense. "Every time I left my house, somebody would thank me or people would come up to me in the coffee shop with tears in their eyes and hug me," Hoffmann says. "Parents will say, 'I don't do much with my teenage kids anymore, but we all watch the show together and we had conversations that we never had before.' Young people said the same thing"
"I have people coming up to me and telling me how it changed their lives," says Light, leaning forward to gesticulate as she talks. "Parents with transgender kids say what a relief it is for them to have something like this that their children can look at and have a model on television."
To do so, Soloway sent the cast to a workshop with writer-actress-director Joan Scheckel, who helps inspire the cast and crew to stay emotionally open with one another. "It's a very immersive process," Brownstein says a few days later as she preps to hit the road with her recently reactivated punk band Sleater-Kinney. "You have to immerse yourself in the world of Transparent in order to make the performances believable and authentic."
"It helps us make sure that we stay connected," Light says of the process. "If we keep doing that then the truth will evolve."
That "truth" lies at the heart of Transparent, where Soloway encourages spontaneity. "Where most people would say, 'cut,' she says 'action,'" Tambor says. A scene where the wedding photographer called Maura "sir" was a surprise to him — and his disgust was genuine. By his estimate, everyone in the cast and crew felt more settled and comfortable this time. Soloway, who practices what she describes as "method directing," in which she and the cinematographer move around with the cast, encouraged the actors to surprise each other. ("I'm trying to invent a style of filmmaking that takes a little bit from John Cassavetes and from Robert Altman and says to the actors, 'Be free,'" she says. "We're going to cover this like a documentary.")
One of the most shocking moments occurred when the characters got together for Yom Kippur dinner and Light's character learned of some traumatizing news about a family-related death. She reacts with a blood-curdling yowl.
"Judith had to bring up all this angst and Jill whispered in her ear," Tambor says.
"She said, 'Bring grief and sadness into the room,'" Light recalls.
"You could say that to anybody, and he might go, 'Hey,' but you say that to Judith Light, and she brought this sound … it was from another planet," he rejoins. "It was take after take, after take. I remember saying, 'I can't do that.'"
"Yes, you could," Light says.
"Jeffrey has this way of vacillating between intensity and levity," Brownstein says, recalling that scene. "In every take we did, Judith would get there and we were really stunned by it. He was as in awe of her as we all were, but he'd joke, 'She's such an amateur.' It was his way of complimenting her immense ability."
Another moment that got to Tambor and Light was a particularly intimate and arresting scene they shared in a bathroom, where – upon rekindling their relationship – Light's character asks Maura to use her fingers to perform a sex act on her called "flickety-flicky-thump-thump." Shelly moans in ecstasy during the act while Maura frowns quizzically. "There was just something about Judith in that bathtub, asking for something that was so primal, so simple, that goes way beyond the ordinary," Tambor says. "He wrote me a text after we finished that scene: 'This is as good as it gets,'" Light offers. "That was true for me as well."
Then there were scenes that Soloway had to push Tambor to do. At the end of the same episode as her encounter with Shelly, Maura seeks escape by going to a queer club with some friends. They encourage her to get up and dance when Sia's "Chandelier" comes on and Maura demurs until literally being pulled from her chair. She dances coyly before stepping away and putting her hands against a mirror ("I'm just holding on for tonight," Sia sings) and gets lost in the song.
"I didn't want to do what I thought was stereotypical," the actor says. "I said, 'She is 71 years old. I'm not quite sure she is going to go dancing.' But Jill was very persistent: 'Just trust it. If you want to dance, fine.' Now if you would have told me at the end of the day that I would have been dancing in the mirror. … " He pauses. "There is stuff that was cut. I apparently wrapped myself around a pole. I mean, I got going, and Jill was right: That scene is the beauty."
"I'm not a prudish person, but there's just something completely absurd about having a regular conversation while somebody's wearing a sex toy." – Carrie Brownstein
Some of the other actors found themselves improvising in other ways. After Hoffmann and Brownstein's characters accepted that they were in love, the actresses found themselves in a surprising situation, as Ali startles Syd by walking into the room flossing while wearing a strap-on dildo. "You're violating the code, which is that it is in the dark only," Syd says. "It's a nighttime only thing; that's never seen the light of day." She does not take it off, and Syd bunches up her shoulders and moves. "I'm going to do everything with this now," Ali says in a teasing way.
"I'm not a prudish person, but there's just something completely absurd about having a regular conversation while somebody's wearing a sex toy," Brownstein says with a laugh. "The fact that she had to wear it allowed for my own discomfort to play into the scene. And Gaby, of course, is comfortable with basically anything. So it played into our dynamic. My overriding feeling was total relief: 'Oh, good. You can walk around in this for an hour.'"
"It's funny, because I was heading to work that morning, and our wardrobe supervisor emailed me about something saying, 'I don't know if that's going to work with the strap-on,' and I was like, 'What?!'" Hoffmann says. "I turned to my boyfriend and said, 'Well, I guess I have a sex scene with a dildo this morning.' And he was like, 'They really should tell you these things before you go to work.' I got to set and was like, 'So, I'm fucking you with a dildo today?' And Carrie said, 'What?!' Everybody was like, 'What are you talking about?' I read the scene and I was like, "Oh, all right, just playing around with it.' But I did have this moment where I was like, 'OK, I wasn't prepared for that today.'"
Aside from presenting the talent with frightful new feats, Soloway also challenged her writers. The first season had included a storyline set in the Eighties, in which Mort Pfefferman experimented with cross-dressing with a friend (an Emmy-winning performance by Bradley Whitford) and learned that inside he was Maura. She wanted the new season to have a historical through-line, too, so she built up the story of Tante Gittel, tangentially mentioned in the first season and is revealed here to have been transgender in Germany at the time of the Holocaust.
The idea came from Soloway's own "moppa," a term used on Transparent for Maura after her transition. "My own moppa sent me an article about a gay, Jewish doctor named Magnus Hirschfeld who was kind of like a 'Papa Bear Earnest Hemingway' to the whole community of queer and trans people in Berlin in the Thirties," she says. "There was a place called the Institute for Sexual Research, where they learned together about being gender nonconforming. He was experimenting with hormones and surgery, and Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, was hanging out. It was thinkers and doctors and artists from all over the world.
"I was like, 'How did we not know this?'" she says. "It's crazy. So we did research and thought, 'What if Gittel was there.' … Here, Maura was having a legacy of being gender queer and gender nonconforming that she didn't even know about."
To play Tante Gittel in the past, Soloway took a tip from her sister and cast Hari Nef, a 23-year-old transgender actress and model from Philly. "We're giving a trans history lesson, representing a queer and trans history that has rarely been represented in the past, but were contextualizing it within the family," Nef says of her role. "Ali looks into the story and she is really experiencing something in her emotional genetic memory. That's my emotional interpretation of those scenes anyway."
For as much as Soloway refocused the show this season, at its core remains a responsibility to the trans community. The producers hired their first-ever trans director, Silas Howard, and trans staff writer, Lady J, this season. It's something they were reminded of when Soloway and some of the cast had dinner with Caitlyn Jenner before making the second season.
"Jenny Boylan, who worked on Caitlyn's show as well as our show, said Caitlyn was happy to see a show where somebody in the family came out and everybody didn't die," the showrunner says. "Ours is a story where the trans woman is not a prostitute or the victim of a murder. It's just an American family and I think it helped Caitlyn to be able to say, 'Yeah, it's OK.'"
"She loves the show," says Light, who knows Jenner. "The show was very important to her and her family. Meeting Jeffrey was profoundly and deeply important for her. This is her life. She's really grateful and we're grateful to her. We're all part of the same thing."