One day three years ago, writer-director Jill Soloway got a phone call with some life-changing news: Her father was coming out as a transgender woman. "It was a total surprise," she says. But as the elder Soloway, now a retired psychiatrist in her late 70s, explained the transition over the phone, "I reacted like a parent myself," says Jill. "I tried to make sure that the person knows that they're safe and unconditionally loved." (To avoid confusion, Jill uses gender-neutral terms like "parent" and "they.")
The experience became the basis for Transparent, an Amazon Instant series and one of the fall's best new TV shows. It tells the story of the Pfeffermans, whose patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) goes from Papa Mort to "Moppa" Maura. The cast also features Gaby Hoffman as Maura's daughter Ali, Amy Landecker as daughter Sarah, Jay Duplass as son Josh and Judith Light as ex-wife Shelly. Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein plays Ali's friend, Syd, and The Office's Melora Hardin is almost unrecognizable as Sarah's lover, Tammy. Ultimately, it's a family drama with a singular purpose: "I wanted to make something that would make the world safer for my parent," says Soloway.
The prolific Soloway – who has producer credits on Grey's Anatomy and United States of Tara and won a directing award at Sundance last year for her film Afternoon Delight – had wanted to make a "family show" since her two-year stint writing for Six Feet Under ended nine years ago. "Pretty shortly after they came out," she says, referring to her parent, "I was thinking, 'I've got a TV show now.' It just immediately hit me as this is the show I've been waiting my whole life to write."
The show's first season premiered in its entirety on Soloway's birthday and, even though critics were buzzing favorably about the show, she recalls being in a fugue state. As she tells Rolling Stone about all the ways making Transparent had been positive for her and her family, it seems as though the feeling of being stunned has transformed into happiness. "It's exciting to know that it resonates so much with people," she says. "But it's definitely a new feeling."
How long have you had the idea for the show?
Ever since I was working on Six Feet Under, I had an idea of doing a family show. And then the trans aspect made itself clear to me when my own parent came out as trans.
My sister worked on the show — she wrote the seventh episode ["The Symbolic Exemplar"]. She's kind of, like, my other half. But when I imagined this show, there was always a brother. I actually think Ali and Josh are more like my sister and I are. In some ways my sister and I are like Sarah and Ali, and in some ways we're like Josh and Ally. But in imagining the family, there were always three kids.
Who are you most like in the family?
I feel like I'm a lot like Josh. I really relate to the feeling of falling in love 10 times a day and wishing I could never stop falling in love. And then there are parts of me in Ali and parts of my sister in Ali. Faith is the person who would be living on her Price Is Right money for a few years, and I'm more of a Silver Lake mom, so in some ways I'm more like Sarah. And my sister Faith is gay, so in some ways she's more like Sarah. So I think autobiographical stuff is all thrown in a blender and mixed around and evenly distributed amongst all three kids.
How much of the show is autobiographical?
I would say it's almost 98 percent fictionalized. The Pfeffermans are just very real people. The reason I wanted to cast Jeffrey is because he's always reminded me of my parent. They really have a very similar sense of humor and that was just immediate. Other than that, it's not really autobiographical.
My mom had a husband who had frontal temporal dementia, who couldn't speak, similar to the story of Shelly and Ed. He passed away a few years ago, the same summer that my parent was coming out. So I'd say that stuff is all informed by what was going on in my life at the time. A lot of things that I was experiencing and saying to myself, this feels like a TV show and thinking, "Good thing I have a TV show that I'm writing so that I can process all this stuff."
Something to help you work through it.
I was really working through it. I felt kind of lucky actually.
What I like about Ali is she seems like a character you could do almost anything with. Is that why you chose Gaby Hoffman?
I saw her in an episode of Louie, and I just loved the way she was talking the whole time and he's trying to get a word in edgewise and he lets her break up with him. I just loved the way words rolled off her tongue and nothing seemed written. I loved how free she was. I was just like who is this really cool, Jewish lady? And she's not even Jewish.
You might say the opposite of Judith Light.
With her, I knew that even though America knew her as the Who's the Boss blonde person and even as the character that I remembered her from on One Life to Live. She's been playing these Jewish moms on Broadway and that she, herself, was Jewish. When I started to imagine her without blonde hair, I was able to see Shelly in her.
When I was casting her, [actor-filmmaker] Josh Radnor called me to say, "I just hope you realize she's a magical being. She has spiritual power and can understand people's emotional lives in an instant." I was down for that. On one of the early days of the shoot, a bee stung on the top of my head when we were in the park – filming the push-up scene – and then later that afternoon I was shooting a scene with Judith, and she was doing Reiki healing on me and fixed the pain. That and the Vicodin fixed it.
How did you connect with Carrie Brownstein?
Originally, when we were trying to cast Tammy, her name came up. But I always felt Tammy was really tan and blonde, like Lady Diana or someone who spent some time in her childhood on a ranch. And Carrie just seemed too Jewy to play Tammy, but I really, really wanted to work with her, so in the writers' room we created this character of Syd for her.
"This show feels like a tribute to my family but also something else, something so much bigger than us."
You've said you really wanted the show to be five people who were equally lovable as well as unlikable. Is that a hard balance to strike?
I'm always going for truth and honesty. I'm a fan of Louis C.K., I'm a fan of Lena Dunham. I love shows about people that other people would consider unlikable, or like the work of Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. I love a kind of shambling outsider protagonist who always feels like they're "other." And so the challenge was to make five of those people in the family instead of just one. I've written scripts before about a single odd outsider and someone who's trying to make sense of the world. I like that idea that all five of these people would be connected over their common legacy of feeling different, feeling on the outside.
What does your parent think of the show?
They love it. All four of us in our family – my sister, my mother and my, I guess you could use the word "moppa" – were all just kind of standing back and watching this thing that feels a bit like a tribute to our family but mostly like something else entirely, something so much bigger than us. We're just all watching it together and checking in with each other every day. "How are you doing? And what do you think?"
There's this zeitgeisty moment in the trans community, and this show happened to land in the right place, by accident really. It's probably a show that couldn't have been made five years ago, and five years from now [it] wouldn't have that same feeling of "Holy shit, we've never seen this before." It's kind of fun actually to be all experiencing this together.
How much work did you need to do with Jeffrey to create Maura?
I keep saying this weird feeling that Maura Pfefferman existed out in the universe, this whole family did. She was waiting for me to notice her and waiting for me to go get Jeffrey so she could appear through him. Somebody said in an email I was sent that Maura felt spiritual to them. I was feeling that a lot when I was talking to our hair and wardrobe people about her costumes and her hair — that she should be a California hippie, kind of a Wiccan, two spirits, high priestess. It all felt so organic.
Early Maura was a little bit more awkward, who hadn't felt her sense of style...that had one sort of feeling. And I think in the fourth episode when Davina helps her use her own hair on top and use her silver extensions underneath, she really transforms into somebody else. Even the hair and makeup people said that Jeffrey was a certain level of comfort.
I never felt like I was working with Jeffrey to "do" her, I just felt like I was trying to stand back and let her come through.
Do you have ideas for Season Two?
A little bit. I'm starting to see the beginnings of what the characters would do in a second season. But I love the writers' room process so much. I think more of what I'm going to be doing is trying to stop coming up with too much of it so we can all do it together when we all get back together.
Your parent must be very proud of you.
Yeah, they are. They came to the set on Jeffrey's 70th birthday actually. It was a really special day. We gave Jeffrey a big cake. And they came to the premiere as well. It was really cool.