‘Transparent’ star Jeffrey Tambor on finding his inner woman

Jeffrey Tambor has been to the comedy mountaintop twice with “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Arrested Development,” and has had a long and productive career that's seen him working pretty much non-stop since 1979. So he knows from professional fulfillment.

But he's never had a role as challenging, or as potentially rewarding, as his current job on “Transparent,” the new Amazon dramedy that will premiere on Friday morning. (Amazon will make all 10 episodes of the first season available at once.)

As Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman known to her family and the world at large as Mort, Tambor has to play another gender – even in scenes set in the past where we get glimpses of Maura peeking out from under Mort's clothes – and do the kind of small, precise dramatic work that he's rarely been called upon to do in his career, let alone as the lead of a show.

It's a job that made the 70-year-old Tambor sound positively giddy at times – and very sincere and earnest at others – when we got on the phone last week to discuss the show and its role in the growing trans rights movement, the challenges of finding his femininity, and more.

(Look for an interview with Jill Soloway, plus my review of the show, closer to the premiere.)

What was it about Jill's script that made you want to play this part?

Jeffrey Tambor: Well, it's brilliant! I got off the plane, coming from New York to LA, my agents said this is a groundbreaking show. Jill had just directed and won best director at Sundance for “Afternoon Delight,” and by the time I got to my hotel, I was screaming, “You must get me a meeting with her!” And then I saw “Afternoon Delight” by that afternoon, and I called her and said, “This movie is blow-away. The script is so singular, the family is so singular, the characters of Mort and Maura are so interesting.” In the pilot, I didn't have all that much to do, but there was something about that family that just drew me. It was just authentic and so real. It was something that was relatable; the Pfeffermans of Los Angeles drew me to them.

It's interesting that you referred to Mort and Maura as separate characters. As I've watched and taken notes, I find myself wondering about pronoun and name usage, particularly in the flashbacks to before the transition begins.

Jeffrey Tambor: I go with Maura. I think Maura's been there all along. Maura's just been dressing up all along as Mort. Maura is the character. That's how I approach it and how I've done it.

So in those flashbacks, how do you approach Maura being so far away from the transition you're at now? 

Jeffrey Tambor: I wish I could say, “I had a drawing board, and I did this and then I added this and then I took away that,” but it was more intuitional. I just felt, in the flashbacks – which we call “the herstory,” which I love – I felt Maura was very constrained, and very secretive, and very bothered. Maura, for as young as she is into her transition and making mistakes, finally finds herself in almost this metabolic change. But it's more intuition than anything. I wish I could say I was more a designer of that, but Maura led me more than I led her. When I read her, when I saw her, she was always very real to me. All my work with consultants, Jenny Boylan and Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker led me to her. That was my concern: not so much at getting good reviews or saying, “Oh, wow,” but making her right. Doing it right. When I came out to (one of the characters) in the second episode, I haven't been that nervous since, I don't know, I opened on Broadway. I was shaking. I was throw-up nervous. Because I wanted to do it right. It's important.

Where did the research into the role begin? What did you find yourself learning and being interested in? 

Jeffrey Tambor: I thought the revolution was going to be in the accoutrements, the en femme part of it, and that was actually the easy part. I had such great guides: the great Marie Schley, my makeup and hair people were brilliant. But just in talking to Jenny and Rhys and Zackary, and reading books and watching, I found the real hard part was the internal part. I found out the real loneliness of living in secret, the real horror of being unloved if you declare your authentic self, and the errors that we make. It's very risky, what Maura does. I wanted to tell it right. I like the phrase “to come out.” It's a very beautiful phrase. And she needs to come out. And, in fact, the rest of her family needs to come out. And there are many, many secrets at this table. And there's this question of “Will you still love me if I change? Will you still be there?” And that, to me, that's a big one.

You and I spoke briefly back at TCA, and you were wearing nail polish at the time.

Jeffrey Tambor: The reason I was wearing nail polish is that I have no technique in playing Maura. It was all new. Every day was a revelation. Every scene was a revelation. And so even on the time off from the set, I just wanted to keep that character close.

Beyond the nail polish, were there any things you did to hang onto the character in that early stage?

Jeffrey Tambor: I know when I started doing this role, I was in Los Angeles by myself. I went out one night with friends, and I found myself saying, 'Oh, I'm just going to have to knock off the social stuff, because I can't concentrate on anything but Maura.' I found myself losing track when people were talking to me. I kept very very close, and my family was still in New York. So that first month was a very very interesting time of becoming, and just thinking and walking and talking and reading. It was a very introspective and wonderful.

Was there a point at which you felt you and the costume and makeup and hair people really started to make Maura look good?

Jeffrey Tambor: Oh, yeah, we got that. That came 3 or 4 episodes into the series. Maura's hair grew out, and it got very very nice and relaxed, and we found the right silhouette, and the right shoes, everything like that. I loved it. I had no problem with any of that. You have to understand – and this is going to sound very vain, so I want to say this correctly to you – but I've looked at this mug enough for 70 years, and to sit in the makeup department, and just see this other face become (Maura) was very nice for me. I really liked it. I liked Maura. I liked Maura's looks. She's not a Donna Karan model, but she's attractive to me, and I liked her. The ease of that was really easy. This transition from Jeffrey to Maura was a very nice ride, and I was aided beautifully by the consultants, and by Jill's expert direction. And the cast! I must tell you how beautifully Gaby (Hoffmann) and Amy (Landecker) and Jay (Duplass) and Judith (Light) were to me and Maura. They were so welcoming and so supportive and so wonderful. I was throw-up nervous, really. I'd hear, “We're ready for you, Mr. Tambor” and (mimes vomit sound).

Beyond your co-stars, what was the experience like on the set, being Maura for so much of the time when you're interacting with the cast and crew? Was it a different experience than other parts you've had?

Jeffrey Tambor: (laughs) Yes, undoubtedly. My wig lady Marie Larkin said something to me. We did a photo session for a magazine, and she just said, “I've been wanting to tell you all year that when I put this wig on you, your metabolism, something happens to you. You change.” And I was aware of that. It is one of the more affectionate sets that I've ever been on. People really extending themselves, and gracious. And the crew and everybody. I don't want to say it was Woodstock, we weren't all going “La la la.” This was really hard work, but I have never been on a set like this. My daughter Molly visited the set and said, “I've never seen anything like this, the warmth and the grace and the humanity of that set.” Everybody knew this was a game-changer. Jill Soloway is impeccable. I have never – and I hope you write this, because it's so important to me – heard a director talk to the background artists the way Jill did, with the respect and the individuality. It was amazing, some of the phrases. I remember just tapping somebody and saying, “Listen to this, because you'll never hear this again.” She is the real deal, and I am so excited about this moment for all of us, but especially for her. She's an alchemist of a high order.

You talk about a game-changer, and you've done it all in this business, and now you're at Amazon. Has the experience of doing it for them been notably different than other things you've done?

Jeffrey Tambor: I will say this: when you're at a table read, and you have (Amazon execs) Joe Lewis and Sarah Babineau sitting there, they are the most benign presences. Joe talked about going to Jill's house and working around the dining room table. It's a very personal experience. There's not the arms crossed at you. And we're not building to sell a product. We're building to make a family and to make this dramedy. It was a very personal experience. It was like the parents saying, “Go go go!” They're the most benign presences, and I'm all for them. You just felt the hand under you, all the way protected and nourished and great.

You've done dramatic work before, but never in such a prominent central role of a show. At 70, how does it feel to have this opportunity to be able to show people this side of you as a performer in this kind of vehicle?

Jeffrey Tambor: It's a gift that I keep blinking at and saying, “I'm so blessed.” At 70 years old, I've done “The Larry Sanders Show,” I've done “Arrested Development.” You don't usually get one, but I got two. And then to get this thing, this little tap tap on my shoulder, this is the most transformative experience that I've had. And I'm at 70. I'm blessed, I'm elated, I'm giggling with joy!

You're going through this transformation at the same age as Maura is, but you're playing this exciting role in your career. And when you go through a gender transition at that age, there's a sense of melancholy in the show that it took this long for her to get here. Whereas there's no downside on the Tambor side of things.

Jeffrey Tambor: I don't even see the melancholy. I think the melancholy's in the not making of it. There's a beautiful scene in the pilot where she doesn't come out and says she couldn't do it, and then relaxes in her bedroom and takes a book and stretches out to that beautiful song. I find that melancholy. I think for her to make this break at this time, she finally becomes the true leader of that family, and the true parent that she could only be as Maura. She wasn't a good parent before.

There are a lot of parallels between what she's going through and what the kids are going through, and also questions of how the kids wound up as spoiled and confused as they maybe have. Do you think that comes out of what their father was going through?

Jeffrey Tambor: While they're not the most sensitive at that moment – nor should they be – there are moments. You'll see in series that, as George Elliot says, they're going to have their thwackings, but they're going to come out the other side, and they're going to come out human.

You've done drag several times in your career, including on “Hill Street Blues” and on “Arrested.” This is obviously a very different thing Maura is going through as a character, but you're still a male actor putting on the accoutrements of a woman. How has that part of things been different for you in this role than in those other contexts? 

Jeffrey Tambor: I did it in other things, but the whole aspect of depicting the transition and depicting people going through this has grown up, changed and particularized. And that clarity and that light and that understanding and that love is needed, and being done in this show. That's not to denigrate (the others), but the revolution is here. This is nothing less than the civil rights movement. And I'm glad to be a small part of that. I'm not the answer, but I think the way of telling this story has finally had truth to it. 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com