After creating some of TV’s most memorable supporting characters (including Arrested Development‘s double-trouble twins George and Oscar Bluth), 70-year-old Jeffrey Tambor digs his heels (literally) into the role of his career: a transgender head of household who transitions from Mort to Maura on Amazon’s groundbreaking, critically lauded series Transparent. Tambor chatted with EW about the makings of “Moppa.”
EW: Congrats on the show. I burned through it in a single afternoon.
Jeffrey Tambor: You’re all done? Wow. Someone tweeted that they were on their second time around. When I was a kid, we got up, we walked a number of paces to a television, turned it on, and changed channels. So this is a brave new world. There was one television in the living room, and we all sat around on Sundays and watched Ed Sullivan.
Have you watched it yet?
I’m on it now. I don’t binge. I’m still a two-see and three-see. I love the series and I’m so proud of it. By the time you get to episode 10, you see where this goes in so many directions.
When you first read it, did it strike you as more of a comedy or drama?
I read funny. You know in dance, there’s the plié, and there’s a great plié in [creator Jill Soloway]’s work. It’s all grounded. I didn’t laugh out loud, but I knew it was humorous in a Chekhovian sense. The thing that got me was that it was true.
Did you have a lot of input into what Maura would look like?
I had a lot to say in terms of just bringing my body in, and they had to put whatever they had to put on it. But the look is mostly conversations with Jill and our esteemed costumer, Marie Schley. I remember Marie turning to me in my first fitting, saying, “What do you like?” And I said “I have no idea!” It was an interesting ride. Not unlike the ride Maura would have, because she has to learn, and she’s very new into her transition.
Did you take any existing person into consideration, in terms of the look or gait?
Certainly not on the walk and talk—that’s me, and that’s my arthritic left knee. One of my favorite pleasures of this, besides the whole revolution going on within this TV show, is Maura’s also ‘of age.’ This isn’t Sandra Dee. Do you understand what I just said?
Oh, I know who Sandra Dee is… [laughs]
This is Maura Pfefferman, who’s 70 years old and making a break for her authentic freedom—and that’s courageous. And I think she becomes a true parent because of that, a much better parent than Mort. The interesting question being asked is, “If I do change and must change, will you still be there? Will you still love me?” That’s what the show is about. Those who get to the end realize this is about a modern family where everybody’s in transition.
When you were playing Maura on set, did you pull a Daniel Day-Lewis by staying in character?
My wig person, Marie Larkin, said, “When you get into Maura, you change, almost metabolically.” I do change—not in the sort of diva/method way, but Maura is a new, transformative character for me. So yes, I kept her very close. I was learning Maura, and Maura was learning me. I was very comfortable being Maura. It wasn’t easy, but I really liked it. I remember one day walking on the set with my daughter, and I walked over in shorts and a sweatshirt, and people were treating me different, hardly recognizing me. And I thought, “That’s a little strange.” But then I thought, “Oh good, Maura is real to these people.”
Had you and the creators discussed whether Maura’s look would evolve?
We did, and we knew the gray-haired ponytail would sort of evolve to another level. I was very, very comfortable with that look. I liked it.
You do notice Maura’s attire becoming more thoughtful over the course of the season.
She’s learning! Maura doesn’t even know how to [do] makeup at the beginning, and it’s very true. That’s what’s so real about it.
I love how even though Mort becomes Maura, in many ways they’re the same person. There’s that great scene of Maura responding to the loud party next door in her new apartment complex—she gets frustrated and yells, and even uses a slur. It shows she’s flawed. She’s not a saint.
It would be a huge mistake to make Maura a saint. It sounds glib, but my politics are in my performance. That was tapping on my shoulder incessantly through the making of this: to make Maura human. Not a figurehead, not a saint, but a human being more comfortable being Maura.
You had advisors on the show—Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ersnt—and there are also trans actors working on it, which is just great. What was that like? That’s kind of a breakthrough.
And don’t forget Jenny Boylan [another advisor recently chosen as one of 24 “Amtrak Residency writers]. I met Zackary and Rhys in the making of the pilot, and they led me beautifully. And when we got picked up, I met Jenny and read all her books. I adore her. Jenny’s in her 50s, and she gave me a view that I really needed.
I can’t speak enough about Alexandra Billings [who plays Davina on the show]. She gave me so much courage and light. I’ll never forget to the end of days our act in episode 8. [Ed. note: They perform Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.”] I was shaking like a leaf—that’s a hard song to learn! I was singing that song every waking hour to get right. I was more Maura every time I acted with Alexandra; she just gave me so much, overtly, covertly, just her presence and nice words—I can’t speak enough about it.
We have—I believe—16 transgender performers. And on the set, we had close to 50 transgender [people] in all departments. It was a very evolved trans-firmative set, a great working place. I have never, ever in my life seen a director like Jill treat the background artists in a manner of such deference. There were a few times I actually said, “You’re never going to see this again.” I’m totally in love with this cast, and it’s such an honor to be among them. It’s hitting something. There’s something about the truth of this show and its accessibility that’s connecting. I’m not a social media fanatic, but the things that I’m getting, the comments, it’s hitting some nerve or the zeitgeist. It’s a nice moment.
Have you heard directly from the trans community?
Yesterday, I got a message because I appeared on MSNBC. And right after, I got something from someone who had just come out in their 50s. They thanked me, and it was a really heartfelt note. I responded, and she kept my email, saying she’d keep it forever. I haven’t heard anything derogatory, and probably won’t. I have to say, we are not the answer, but we are part of the answer definitely. And part of moving the “conversation” forward.
With this and Arrested Development, you’re kind of the key player in the streaming series empire.
I like that. I think shows being sent out this way—pressing a button and 10 episodes can go out to the USA, and the UK and Germany, it’s very cool. I’m 70 years old, and the revolution is here and has been for some time. So everybody better hold onto their hats, because things are changing.
Any word on another season of Arrested Development?
If you hear of anything, please give me a call. I actually heard a rumor about Hellboy 3 yesterday; the woods are alive with rumors.
A version of this article appeared in Entertainment Weekly‘s Oct. 17 issue.