We Are Family: Jeffrey Tambor on His 'Transparent' Transformation

"I loved Maura's sense of humor," the actor says of his role. "I loved her courage"

Jeffrey Tambor Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty

There are secrets in families," Jeffrey Tambor says. "That is the definition of a family."

Most recently, the 70-year-old actor, best known for playing the sheepish Hank "Hey Now" Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show and two elder Bluths on Arrested Development, has taken on a role in a family drama where his character lets go of a secret. On the Amazon Instant dramedy Transparent (the entire binge-worthy first season is available now), Tambor plays Maura Pfefferman, née Mort Pfefferman, who has shocked the family by coming out as transgender. In the show, which was recently renewed for a second season, Tambor offers a touching and at times hilarious portrayal of the hardships a person encounters when making such a drastic and definitive life change in their twilight years.

Although Tambor's character may appear to be the focal point of the show, series creator Jill Soloway has crafted an ensemble-focused show in which Maura is the catalyst that inspires all sorts of changes in her children – played by Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass – and her ex-wife, played by Judith Light, as well as everyone around them. Soloway, whose own father came out as transgender late in life, recently won a directing award at Sundance for her 2013 film Afternoon Delight and who is a TV vet with production and writing credits on outsider-family shows like Six Feet Under and United States of Tara. But overall it's a show that extends beyond escapist TV in the sense that it raises questions, many of which Tambor found himself asking.

"One of the things that has come to me is it answers the question, 'If I change, will you still be there?'" he says. "'If I change, will you still love me? Can I count on you to still be my child? Can I count on you to still be my parent if I change?' There's an adage in acting that I really like and that's, 'You're stuck with the character, but the character is stuck with you.'"

Tambor recently spoke with Rolling Stone about just how Maura Pfefferman has stuck with him and his own family. "What drew me to the show was there was authenticity," he says. "The family was first and foremost. I've never seen a family portrayed like that. It just went, 'Bang!', right on the nose. People seem to be really responding and overtly or covertly pointing to it and saying, 'That's my family.' I think anybody who gathers around a Thanksgiving table, and Uncle Sid has a couple of drinks too many and tells his secrets, will respond to this."

You've said that the character of Maura is stuck with you, as you are with her. What does that mean to you?
She's making a break for her authenticity at the age of 70, which I find sort of valiant and rather brave. And in a sense, I believe she become a true parent at that point, in terms of being a leader. My politics about this character are in my performance. I want to make her as human as possible, as fallible as possible, as petty as possible, as glorious as possible and ultimately as human as possible. She's not a saint, and she's very real to me. I would say it's the most transformative role that I've had to play to date.

Have transgender issues ever affected your life prior to the show?
No. I was ignorant with a capital "ig."

How has the role transformed you?
All roles do that for you. I would say the issues that the role brings up and the fact that I had to literally transform myself physically and interiorally. Is that a word – "interiorally"? Anyway, I was expertly led by three consultants [on playing a transgender role]: the wonderful Jenny Boylan, I read her three books and met with her at the Algonquin Room in New York. She gave me great, great advice. And she has gone on record saying – and it means a lot to me – that she's seeing herself or someone like herself portrayed on television in the correct light. And then Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker: I studied with them and I queried them from everything, from little things to big internal things. The give and take was quite personal and quite revelatory to me and quite helpful. Day by day, I was able to add that to Maura.

There's a fail-safe in Maura that is to my advantage, and that is that Maura is very young into her transition...and Jeffrey is very young into playing the transition. So a lot of the nerves of my playing – and I like to joke "throw-up nervous" – while playing with this because it's a huge responsibility. Also, she has an arthritic knee, I have an arthritic knee. She has reading glasses, I have reading glasses. You get my drift. That was built into the role as well.

What scene were you most nervous about filming?
The scene where I had to come out to my daughter. I think it was maybe the first week of filming, and I was so scared. Not because I wanted to get "four stars" or be believable – I wanted to do it right for all of the people who have come out, for all of the people who have been "otherized" and this. For all of the people in the community. There's a huge responsibility.

How did the transgender actors and crew on set react to that scene?
I don't remember. There wasn't a lot of people on the set that day. But I will tell you that the environment was very favorable and people made me feel very welcome.

I'd like to thank one character, Alexandra Billings, who plays my best friend Davina. I learned so much from her. My confidence just soared in those scenes with her. She was so forthcoming and so confidence-boosting. She's brilliant.

And in that first scene at the LGBT support group where Maura is telling her story, I remember these wonderful actors nodding to the truth of what Maura was saying, and I was so moved by it. A lot of this confidence comes from people just acting with you and reacting with you within the scene.

Maura got very, very real and then when i had to go back into mort, it was harder. I don't know why that was.

What is Jill Soloway like as a director?
There are the whisperings of [John] Cassavetes and [Robert] Altman, the real geniuses. Jill Soloway is her own. I've never seen anything quite like her. She will let a moment go on and on and on. Her angles, the performances, the whole gestalt is so singular and so modern and so "Jill Soloway." In our show, there's laughter in the most awkward of places and there's tears in the most unheard of places.

What did she ask you for from your performance?
I think she's a catalyst. There's no asking. She literally says, "You can say these words or not." And she means it. I kept waiting for the wink in that one. But she's all there. She's great. Directing is not just, "Move over there or speak faster." In fact, Jill is the first director of note who I've worked with who has said, "Slow down guys." I'm a huge fan.

How much preparation did you do before scenes?
I like to prepare very, very, very, very, very much. My kids say, "Oh, daddy's mumbling": They know when I'm mumbling lines that daddy's working on a role. But I like to throw it away as well. The day before I work, I don't like to even look at the script and let whatever happens happen on the set. But I do prepare a lot. I'm a big believer in that.

Jill and all of us used to have a thing like, "Let's wreck one." And we would wreck it and see where it would go.

Did anything stick from that?
There's a dinner scene where I sing the Chanukah melody instead of the blessing over the wine. And we made that part of the scene, that Maura's actually singing the wrong song. People make mistakes in life. Life is mistakes.

You said in another interview that when you started, Mort was very real to you but by the end, Maura was even more real to you.
Yeah, that happened. Maura became much more real. I've played maybe half a dozen characters where I could say, "I see that character." And Maura got very, very real and then when I had to go back into Mort, it was harder. I don't know why that was.

I also liked Maura a lot. It was like an old friend saying, "Welcome. Hello. How are you?" And I loved Maura's sense of humor. I loved her courage.

You have your own unique sense of humor Where did that come from?
I'm a Jewish son of Russian-Hungarian heritage parents. Humor was very important. My whole goal was to make my parents laugh. And my whole strategy as a young man was, if I could make them laugh, I could have enough time to figure out what to do next. That was my whole survival technique in life. It was sort of Darwinian. And of course the less effort that you used to make them laugh, the better the laugh, which is actually an axiom of humor. When I was young kid, I used to watch Jack Benny and I thought the minimal aspect of what he did was revelatory. I loved Jack Benny.

What did you draw from your own life to play Maura?
I identified at the beginning. I remember how resonant that first scene in the pilot was, in front of the LGBT group, with me. I don't know why. There was just something that I empathized with and understood.

You've called this a role that you couldn't reach into the "Tambor technique bag." You've played so many different roles, what does that mean?
Well, I had to investigate. Every day they knocked on the door, I went, "OK, here it goes." And that's exciting for me. I like that degree of difficulty. I had to use my powers. I had to borrow power. I had to learn power. I had to fail at it. I had to succeed at it. It's the very reason I went into being an actor.

Another role that you've identified as being "very real" to you was that of Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show.
I like the vulnerability of both characters. I love the vulnerability of Hank. I love the vulnerability of Maura. I like the singularity of both.

You have a daughter around the same age as one of the daughters on Transparent.
I have a daughter in her late 30s and then at home I have a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old and two 4-year-olds.

What did your eldest daughter think of the role?
Both of my daughters came to the set. My oldest daughter, Molly, came on the very last day. I was a bit nervous about what she would think, because she's very bright and her eye is a very good eye. And she sat in my dressing room for a long, long time. I was getting ready and she looked at me and said very simply, "You're pretty." And then after we did a scene, she turned to me and said, "Dad, I'm so glad you're doing this show." That meant the world to me.

Cut to about three weeks into the making of the show, my 7-year-old Evie came to the set and – life moment – get this: Daddy is getting his mani-pedi done for his character, and I thought Evie should come to the set, too, so she should get her nails done and I would show her what daddy is doing. And that morning, my wife and I were hemming and hawing, going, "Er, uh, well, uh," trying to find the right words to explain the character, showing pictures. And Evie just turned to me and said, "Oh, I understand. Your character is happier as a woman." There it is. From the mouths of babes.