Until a little show called "Transparent" came along, Jeffrey Tambor was primarily known for his roles on "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Arrested Development."
But "Transparent," a show about a retired father of three transitioning to life as a woman, has garnered critical and commercial success on the way to 11 Emmy nominations, including an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series nod for Tambor.
I want to hear about your initial conversations with Jill about this part.
There were no initial conversations, because she kept trying to talk and I kept saying, "I'm in! I'm in! I'm in!" I was so taken with this, and my wonderful agents, Leslie Siebert and Joannie Burstein, sent me this script, and I read it and went, "Oh, this is really special."
And Jill is really special in her authenticity, her originality, and that humor. It's very reminiscent of the Tambor humor, I grew up in that humor. I think it's a little glib to say "West Coast Jewish," but I know these people. And you don't turn down Lear — this is a great role. It's so enriched my life.
There are certain measures of validation that most people in Hollywood take, be they awards or ratings, but I'm curious about the people that you have random conversations with, people that might come up to you on the street and talk about how this show has affected them. Are there certain kinds of conversations that you remember that are meaningful and prove that "Transparent" is accomplishing what Jill intended?
This is a little banal, but it's so emblematic of what you're asking. I was on a plane and this man started to walk toward me, in a very bespoke suit and silver hair, with much watch, much ring, everything. He's coming toward me and I think, Oh, here we go.
He extended his hand and he said, "I want to thank you for introducing me to a subject I had no idea about." I can tell you much more emotional stories of people who have cried, but that story seems to be the one that shows that this show is going over to a community that doesn't know about this, and that access really excites me.
Was there one scene from the first season that was harder to do than others? What kind of physical, sexual, or personal intimacy might it have involved?
The hardest scene that I had to do last year was when I had to come out — or, Maura had to come out — to Sarah. I was throw-up nervous. I mean, when they knocked on the door to my dressing room, I all but threw up. I was really nervous, not because I wanted all the praise, but because I wanted to do it right. Because lives are at stake, and integrity's at stake, and there's a community that needs for me to do that right.
Let me tell you an NPR story. We were driving my son Gabriel, who's 10, up to a Boy Scout thing in upper New York. We're driving, and all of a sudden the NPR review for the episode came out. I'm going to cry. I remember looking in the rearview mirror and Gabriel had a big, big smile on his face, and we had a big, big proud moment. You're going to cry too. Isn't that something? What a moment. And that's how things have gone with this show — everything just clicks. I'm looking around the table today, going, That's the perfect casting.
Were you able to find part of Maura through your own life experiences or yourself? How do those things intersect?
I believe that Maura is like an old friend and she just keeps coming. I'm very comfortable, and she keeps telling me what to do. The first night that we dressed up was the first time that I met Maura, and I met her right in the looking glass.
There she was, and she looked exactly like what I thought she was. Not pretty, just... it was something where I said, "There you are." And always, when I come to L.A., I go to that particular hotel room. I call it the Maura suite. That's where Maura was invented.
We went out dancing at a club in West Hollywood and I just wanted to try it on. I even took her shopping to Gelson's, of all places. I wanted to take her shopping, and I said, "Would she dress up?" It was great, but yeah, I got the stares and I got "clocked," as they say.
What does "clocked" mean?
"Clocked" means someone sees you for being transgender. I didn't know if I was clocked as being Maura or clocked as Jeffrey Tambor, but I went, Don't ever forget that, and don't ever forget how nervous you are.
I'm going to bend that a bit. Evie, my youngest daughter who's now 8 1/2, came to the set. She's come to the set twice and loves it, but the first time she came to the set, my wife and I were kind of going, "Hmmm, well, Daddy is..." And she said, "Daddy, I get it. Your character is more comfortable as a woman."
So there it is, from the mouth of babes — they get it. She came to the set and I think I'm the only actor recently who's had a mani-pedi with his daughter in the makeup trailer. Do they get all of it? Not quite, but they get the human part of it. And they have no problem with it!
I don't take off my nail polish when I go home because I'm too lazy, and they're fine with it. Maybe the checkout at the grocery store's not so great with it, but they're fine with it. The distrust, the phobias, those are learned, those are taught. But the natural grace is to understand and to love.