Jeffrey Tambor on TransparentOnce in a lifetime, if you are lucky, you may find the perfect role. For Jeffrey Tambor this role includes putting on a wig and a beautiful dress to transform into a woman. Welcome to the weird world of Transparent’s Maura Pfefferman.
We met up with the star of Amazon Prime’s hit series Transparent at the TV Festival in Monte Carlo.
THE RED BULLETIN: You mentioned in interviews that you learned a lot about yourself by playing this character. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
JEFFREY TAMBOR: You are stuck with the character and the character is stuck with you. You can’t help but touch a person like Maura [Pfefferman] and not be affected. In a way she is teaching me. The thing about Maura is that I don’t always know how to play the scene. I have to play the scene to find out what is in the scene, and I have to live the life to find out what is in the life. You can’t help but be effected by that. So she has changed me. I think she has improved my acting, honestly. I had to use more “Jeffrey” than I have ever been able to use. And it is still a learning experience. I seem to be more present. I seem to be a better dad. I seem to be a better husband and I seem to be more grateful, because this is the part of a lifetime. And the education goes on.
Do you remember when you put on Maura’s outfit for the first time?
I can tell you exactly. It was a very significant evening in my life. I was staying in a hotel in Los Angeles, because we live in New York. My consultants Reese Ernst and Zachary Drucker – who are my teachers – came to the hotel as did Transparent creator Jill Solloway. We ordered food, talked a long time and then we decided we were going to take a field trip. We decided to take Maura out and go dancing. We went in front of a mirror and we put on Maura’s makeup for the first time, and her wig and her cloth.
How did it feel?
It was like greeting a new friend. And I liked the way she looked. But I was very nervous about walking through the lobby. I was very scared and I remember my legs were shaking. We had to wait a long time for the car and I said to myself: “Never forget this because this is how Maura feels every day of her life.” It was a very awakening moment for me.
And that beat still goes on. I mean I am comfortable, but I am nervous too, because there is a part of me that says: “Do it right! Lives depend on it.” And as we know lives do depend on it. Maura is very young. She doesn’t know how to put on makeup. I had trouble navigating in her shoes. We are both in the same place a little bit. That is what is interesting and it helps my performance. I did not know how ignorant a man can be.
Is it something perhaps that all men should go through?
I think so. It is an awareness. This cannot be the take away of my experience, but one of the little things I learned, is how much preparation there is to be a woman. And that sounds reductive and simplistic but I had no idea. I had no idea. I mean, just amazing. Amazing!
How did you prepare for the character?
I read a lot. And the very first movie I did with Al Pacino, called …And Justice for All, there is a line that Pacino’s character says: “They are just people, Warden. They are people.” And it got reduced to that. These are people. These are not things. They are not types. We are talking about people. The victims in Orlando are people. They are not things. They are not types. They are sons. They are daughters. They are people. And that is my mission. Make sure it is people.
Why do you think people like Transparent so much?
I think people are relating to the fact that we are bringing a family forward, a modern family. It drives me probably a little too much, but I am really adamant that we do an accurate representation of this community. This is not a red carpet issue. Maura has a lot of money. Most of these people don’t. And they can’t afford all of their treatments and all their fineries.
(Pauses.) Oh gosh, I am getting emotional. It takes guts to be authentic. It takes guts to declare who you are. And that’s what this show is about. And that’s what drives the kids mad. Because Maura just says: “I am leaving the building. You kids fend for yourselves.” And that’s why they kind of spin. And they have taken a bit of a beating in the press, because people think they are selfish. They are just scared, because papa has left. Papa is now mama. It is a long way of answering your question. I just had a Mars candy bar. I’m on a sugar high.
Have you gotten a positive response from the community?
More positive than I could ever imagine. And I think as time went on we gained the trust. Because this community has been both maligned by representation and misrepresentation, and caricature and sloppy writing. I think that happened. There was an incident where a woman stood up and said: “You know, you shouldn’t be playing this role.” And I understood it and I actually agree. But for right now this is what we are doing. Let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s keep the revolution going. You can trust me. You are in good hands. This is part of the revolution. All I want is the conversation to just keep going - whether it’s pro or con. I want there to be light on the subject. Something that was dark and hidden has come into the light. And that is good. And you have to understand that I am an actor. I play a role and that’s what I am. I am not a spokesman. All I can be in the best of days is an ally.
Were you afraid at the beginning about the negative comments?
No, I don’t do that. I like a high diving board and I like risk. There are walls, you know. The heart beats a little faster. I just knew it was a big responsibility and I knew every day, like Maura, I had to learn. But what is life for except for learning? I tell you, it is certainly exciting to go to work every day, because most people don’t have that. I am excited to go to work and find out.
How did you check yourself during scenes to make sure the performance was authentic and didn’t go overboard?
Well, this is the safest set I have ever been on. When we do scenes my advisers Zachary and Reese are on the set. I can ask them anything. Sometimes they tell me to put my legs closer together. (Laughs.) They are wonderful. But again the fail safe is that Maura is learning, too. There was a little accident in season 2. We start with the wedding and the photographer called me “Sir”. He wasn’t supposed to do that. And I said in an improvisational way: “Did he just call me Sir?” And Shelly (Pfefferman) said “Yes”. And I said: “We are going.” And we all left. That was totally unscripted. We just decided to do that. The genius of that moment is not us. The genius was Jill (Soloway), who filmed it. And they used that. Several critics wrote about that scene as being sort of the matrix of the entire Pfefferman journey. Most people would say “Cut”. On our set everything goes. It is very actor-friendly. We can go overboard. And life is overboard.
You changing into Maura provokes many changes in the Pfefferman family. Do you feel that the whole family is transitioning?
Yes, as one person leaves the circle, everything spins out of control. And the kids have gotten a bad wrap. Everyone thinks they are selfish. But can you imagine your parent leaving like that? Of course you are going to spin out. Wait until you see Season 3 and 4 because they are really on a path. And my issue is just one of the issues. I mean look at all the issues that they are facing. You know, we are going back to Berlin. We are going back to the foundation of this. Is Ali (Pfefferman) in a lesbian relationship, or not? People are searching for identity.
How relevant is it that Transparent is an Amazon show? Could you take more risks? Could this have been done on a cable or network show?
I don’t think this could have existed on any other venue than streaming. As a 70 year old, I like to be allied with the kids that are walking to the bus watching their shows on a mobile device. I am with that. And I think those who are not with that, better get with that. Because that’s where it’s going. This is how our kids are going to watch TV. This is going to be the new TV. And it is going to happen very fast.
Is it easier to tell stories on streaming media?
Novelistically it is wonderful that you can write an arc and you don’t have to worry about commercials breaking it up. The people who are already watching it are already on board because they have already gone through a process to find you. It is like going to a library and searching for a book. I think old people - like me - are a little bit worried that they have to get there through a PC. But they will come on board and it’s going to get easier. Here is what is happening: Stories are becoming king again. Characters are becoming king again. And the stories that are being written now are just fabulous.