‘Transparent’ creator Jill Soloway on her great new Amazon series

Senior Television Writer
09.26.14 13 Comments

Amazon

This morning, Amazon released the entire first season of “Transparent,” a great new dramedy starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman coming out to her family and beginning her full gender transition at an advanced age. I already published my review, as well as an interview with Tambor, and now I have an interview with the show”s creator, “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara” veteran Jill Soloway. It”s a deep dive into the world of trans politics – including the question of whether it”s ideal to have a cis male (aka someone born a man) like Tambor playing this role – how Soloway”s professional past and family history shaped the series, the prospect of people watching all 10 episodes at once, and more.

As I said in my review, it may take me a little time to finish the rest of the season, given what a busy time of the TV year this is, but I”ll eventually have a follow-up review looking at all 10 episodes as a unit. Please save plot-specific comments for that post, though if some of you have already started watching the show, feel free to share general opinions here.

What sort of experience, if any, did you really have with the trans community before you started writing this?

Jill Soloway: Not a ton, honestly. So much so that I think I was probably helpfully naive in going into it, including having this very strong vision for Jeffrey Tambor as Maura. Had I known more at the time I conceived of the show, I would have been much more suspicious of that impulse. But Jeffrey Tambor is the perfect person. So as I started working on the show, I realized how much I didn't know and I started to bring in trans consultants in all areas.

Why would you have maybe, after the benefit of research, been averse to having Jeffrey do it?

Jill Soloway: Well, there is this like gigantic problem with representation of trans women. So if it was ten years from now and there had been a whole bunch of trans women already on television and trans women played by trans women, then I think people would go, “Okay, now it's okay for a trans woman to be played by a cis male.” But because trans women have only been played by cis males – or cis females actually, like Felicity Huffman; they've only been played by cis people – it's a big leap to do a show that has the word “trans” in the title, a show that purports to be the voice of the trans movement and have a cis male in the leading role. Luckily, Jeffrey's performance, I think, puts all of that to rest. I think it's almost happening a decade sooner than trans people would have liked. I don't think that anybody is ready to put to rest the question of whether or not cis people can play trans roles because, really, the civil rights movement needs for so many trans people to start acting, getting the job, having the training and then having the kinds of careers where you would point to so-and-so and go, “They deserve this role.” I mean I can't even name the person because the person doesn't exist (now).

There are a handful of notable trans actors at this point, but one of the things I thought about when pondering this question is, given the stage that Maura is at in her transition and how tentative and relatively ignorant she is about a lot of this, could a woman who has been through the full transition easily play that?

Jill Soloway: Right. And I think that's one of the things that even trans people say, “Okay, we have to give you that.” This is a late-transitioning, older person who has not had the benefit of hormones, has not had the benefit of any kind of surgery, who doesn't pass easily and who really doesn't even know how and where they want to express their femininity. They're learning how they want to look and they're clumsy at it. And I'm sure it would have been doable by a trans actress, but the other thing that's so interesting about this show that it is such a subtle sort of part of it is that nobody ever talks about is the difference and the connection between cross-dressers and trans women. And there are so many “heterosexual cis males” who are part of secret cross-dressing communities. There's an organization called Tri-Ess that was founded by a woman named Virginia Prince. These organizations, they're kind of like Shriners, they have them in Orange County, they're all over the country, if not the world, and these are like very conservative family man who cross-dress as a hobby, for pleasure, with their friends, sometimes with their wives. And nobody addresses what these folks have in common with trans women. And if we're telling the story of somebody who moved from identifying as a cross-dresser to identifying as a trans woman, I do think that within that story telling there's a mandate for a cis male to play the role.

Before you did this, you worked on “United States of Tara,” and Buck is something of a transgendered character, not to the degree this is…

Jill Soloway: That is so funny.

Were there any things, when you were writing for Buck, that you realize maybe you would have done differently with all the knowledge you've gained since then, or is it just an apples to oranges thing?

Jill Soloway: No. There are so many things that I look back on now and with the benefit of hindsight seem completely different to me. So my parent came out of trans three years ago. I was working on “United States of Tara” four or five years ago and writing Buck all those years ago. And of course Buck is trans. And I didn't even think about Buck as trans then. I thought of Buck as a man that borrowed Tara's body for a few hours every few days. And because I think Tara suffered from multiple personality disorder and had very little memory of what Buck was using her body to do, it just didn't really occur to me that this was a story about being trans. But it's so absolutely was a metaphor for that.

You mentioned your parent coming out as trans.

Jill Soloway: Their coming out, I think, really was a turning point for me in my career, in that I had the 10 or 15 years of experience working in television and understanding what a scene needed to have to be a scene, what a story point was, how to put together a writers room, how to go down to the set with the script and make sure it's happening.  So it was really such perfect timing for me to be able to take everything that I had learned and say, “This is why I never got my shows made before.”

Beyond this issue, the Pfefferman family seems very, very specific. They're loaded with all of this rich almost throwaway detail. Is the bulk of that invented, is some of that being borrowed from your own experience, from the experience of someone you know?

Jill Soloway: My sister and I used to sit on the floor in front of my parent's record collection and look through the albums. And so the feeling of Josh and Ally looking at the Jim Croce records, that's directly from my childhood. And then when I talk to friends from my generation about their parent's record collection, they all remember the same thing. Like, everybody had the Herb Alpert record with the woman covered in whipped cream and everybody had the Broadway Cast Recording of “Hair,” and Croce. And somehow that really resonates with a lot of people. Just understanding what adult life was going to look like through your parent's record collection. What else?

Are the home videos in the opening credits yours?

Jill Soloway: They're a little bit of everybody's. Rhys Ernst, who's one of our trans producers/consultants, is also an artist, and he created that opening title sequence. So some of those are from a movie called “The Queen,” some of those are from stock footage companies, some are from a call I put out on Facebook asking people to send me their bar mitzvah videos re-created.

The very first image people are going to see of this series is that flickering VCR image scanning itself, on this show that's only going to be available via broadband streaming. Was that an intentional nod to the shifting technology, or it's just a thing that happened?

Jill Soloway: I love that it's got the VCR lines on there. To me, it's a very nostalgic love letter to trying to find your identity as mediated through television. The whole show is. I think people who love television see pieces of “Family” and “Eight is Enough” in there – I think “Family” is a really good reference for this show. There was something about some of those shows that just felt so cozy and yet soapy and so homey that we're trying to salute.

Was Jeffrey the face you had in your head as you were writing this, or at what point did you come to him?

Jill Soloway: My parent and Jeffrey are almost exactly alike. Jeffrey has the exact same sense of humor. I feel like I've known Jeffrey forever and there's an absolute connection between my parent and Jeffrey. It was always Jeffrey.

When I interviewed Jeffrey, he told me that one of the things he found remarkable about working with you was watching you speak to the extras and give them direction in a way that he had never really seen or heard another director do that.

Jill Soloway: The sort of headline that I recognize as covering all of this stuff is something I like to call “privileging the other,” meaning that normally if there was a trans person in a TV show, they would be the object. People would be like, “Oh my god, can you believe that they're trans?” And of course there is a little bit of that (attitude) with the kids towards Maura, because everybody gets it equally so nobody's super protected, but Maura has her own voice. She would normally be otherized, instead she's the subject instead of the object. And then the same thing with the kinds of women that Amy and Gaby play. Amy plays a mom who would be a villain and Gaby plays someone who would be a villain. Some of the things that Ally is doing, you've never seen women on TV do this, you've certainly never seen a woman arrange a three-way with two guys before. I've never seen it. That would be somebody who would be probably on “CSI” getting ready to be in a body bag. These things that are normally objects in stories become subject.

So, similarly, by just reversing the polarity of everything onset and taking the people who are normally otherized the most, which are extras – they're just humiliated and they're treated like shit. It's like you guys go stand over there and don't make eye contact with any of the actors. They're really the whipping people of production. I just think my first impulse, and this is something that I learned on “Afternoon Delight,” is that if the extras aren't good, it ruins things. I noticed that about “Argo.” I was like one of the things that's making “Argo” so good is I think all of these extras are actors. Like, everybody who is in the background is actually acting. So when I was doing “Afternoon Delight,” I would give speeches to the extras welcoming them to spend the day making art together and for them to see themselves as living art, as pieces of a painting and inspiring them to come alive when the camera rolled, as opposed to striking fear in the heart that they were going to do something wrong, the way they were normally treated. So yeah, it was selfish at first because I really wanted the whole scene to feel alive, but then I recognized when I looked around that there's like people like, “Oh, you're not allowed to be mean to the extras?” You could really feel that it changes the chemistry. Like there's nobody here that we're allowed to be mean to. So the privileging of the other became this sort of mantra for the mood.

I want to get back to the notion of this show as being something for the standard bearer for this movement, whether you intended it to be that way or not. It is in some ways a comedy, and yet the formula in Hollywood for decades and decades is “man in dress = funny.” You're not doing that, so how do you try to find the comedy in Maura's story and the story of her family around her without actually making fun of Maura?

Jill Soloway: The comedy comes from a technique, which I think comes from the independent film world. So for me it's a perfect moment because I'm marrying a sensibility that I was able to develop by being part of the world of Sundance, with the experience of really understanding what it means to break a half hour of television. I had the 15 years of learning, “Okay, this is the story point, this is the scene,” but the sensibility is really one from the independent film world, which is take some really, really funny actors and have them play it straight. So that's why people like Kathryn Hahn or Jeffrey or Judith (Light) – these are hilarious people, but I don't really write jokes for them and I don't really tell them to say the jokes if they are on the page. I just show up at work knowing that I've got these really funny people in a room and our intention – as grand as it may be on a large scale, changing the world, starting a movement – on a small scale, moment to moment, we're actually like in the business of like Carol Burnett trying to crack up Harvey Korman. We try to make each other break. I'm trying to whisper a line in Jeffery's ear that will change what Jeffrey”s doing, and then trying to make Alexandra Billings laugh. Like, I'm trying to make it so Alexandra Billings can't hold a straight face when Jeffrey says a line about dungarees.

You have Jay Duplass in your show as an actor, but obviously he has a lot of background in the same independent filmmaking world you're coming from. Have you talked much, if at all with him about the non-acting side of the show?

Jill Soloway: Well, I definitely talked about – when I first met him that night at the party, I met him at a party and I was like, “Oh I want you to play this character, do you act?” And he's like, “not really.” And I was like, “would you consider it?” “Not really.” But the conversation we were having that night was about cameras, because I'm always trying to get a lighter camera. I always want the camera to be invisible in the room. I want my cinematographer to be sitting on the couch with Jay and Gaby and not really notice that the camera is there. So that's something that the Duplass brothers have practically invented. I remember listening to a WTF interview with Mark and Jay talking about what they do and knowing that Jay would be holding the camera and Mark would be kneeling next to the camera and they're in this kind of circle with the actors where they're right there, privileging the moment of discovery as opposed to the machinery, which normally is privileged in production.

The kid's stories, to a degree in the four episodes I've seen, start to parallel what Maura's going through. How far can you push that before it just becomes everyone dealing with the exact same thematic problem?

Jill Soloway: I think the thematic problem is, “Will you still love me if… ” I think it's less “I have a secret,” which I think is on the surface what everybody's dealing with. But it's more a question of identity, of they're all recognizing that the move from male to female is less interesting than the move from living in secret to living in public and telling your truth. The show is about the fact that as these kids grew up, the secret was the boundary. In a family with no boundaries, the secret became the thing that allowed them to keep their distance from each other. Shelley is the kind of mom who would just want to eat you the second you walk in the door, and so what do you do? You keep secrets to get your space. I think a lot of people relate to keeping secrets within their family of origin, or even their families of choice – the husbands and their wives and the kids that they make, not just the families they come from. The secrets allow you to separate yourself and feel okay. Whether it's stopping at the bar for a drink on the way home or having a secret online life or having your work wife or whatever, it is that separate place where you can feel like you have the safety of boundaries, a secret stand-in for that. That's really what the show is about. And to me, boundaries are just an unending source of story. That little boundary question, I feel like those are in every family across America all the time, if not the world. And those are the kinds of stories that I think the show can generate.

Did you find yourself ultimately feeling as if you were structuring these episodes in the season any differently than when you were on “Six Feet” or on “Tara” or anything else given that you knew that Amazon was going to release them all at once? Or does it, in terms of structure in the way episodes move and the way they interact with each other, does it feel roughly the same to you?

Jill Soloway: We didn't know actually it was going to be a binge when we started writing. And so there was a slight shift when I found out about a binge release and I was really, really excited about it. I think I look at it more as how to make the show stand out in such a crowded landscape, and because I love soap operas, it comes from a place where “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” are my touch points. I just knew that the show had to have that kind of intrigue and sexy soapy drama that would make people say, “I have to go to the next one, I have to go to the next one, I have to go to the next one.” Yeah, that was definitely on the table for me just what will grab people in an ADD world. And even though the show wasn't necessarily going to be released as a binge, when it is an online show like that, at some point it's always available there as a binge. I still see in my feed people going, “I just watched all of ‘Six Feet Under” in two days. Oh my God!” Now all of these shows are being looked at as this kind of immersive experience that could take hours or days. I always imagined that people could really experience it in that deep dive way.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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