Speaking Pfefferman with Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light and Kathryn Hahn

TV Features Transparent
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Speaking Pfefferman with <i>Transparent</i>'s Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light and Kathryn Hahn

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”—Martin Mull

If you’ve ever attempted to explain to someone what Transparent is about, and why they should be watching it, you’ve likely run into a variety of problems. It’s one thing to describe the plot and the characters who make up the series, but how, for example, do you put into words the feeling that you get when Shelly and Maura kiss? Or the way you always close your eyes, just briefly, at some point during the opening credits? How do you explain that you’re not from LA, you’re not from a wealthy family and you don’t have a father who came out as trans in his 70s, but that the show is absolutely for you and about you? It’s like writing about music, or dancing about architecture. What linguistic tools can really capture the visceral reaction you have watching the Yom Kippur breaking-the-fast dinner, or the unbelievably simplistic hilarity of Season Two’s opening shot: the camera, watching the cameras, watching the Pfefferman clan (which, of course, never consists of just the Pfeffermans)?

You’re not alone. The mysteries of language and translation and the distances between emotion, speech and writing have always plagued our great thinkers. In fact, Jewish theorist Jacques Derrida attempts to get to the bottom of the inherent loss we experience with language in one of his loveliest works, Cinders—like language, cinders signify presence and absence; where the cinders are present, a fire is absent. Where writing is present, speech has been lost. Nothing ever fully translates over and there’s some tragedy in this—in not being able to capture a thing as it is.

Members of the cast of Transparent know this feeling all too well, as they each try to put into words what happens on the set of this show, and how it all comes together. After the first season, Amy Landecker (Sarah Pfefferman) described it as “some utopian TV fantasy,” and this season her fellow castmates echo those sentiments. But, more importantly, in separate conversations, at one point or another, they each ask me the same question: “Is this making any sense?” Like fans of the show, they too struggle to explain how powerful the experience is, and how much they stand in constant awe of creator Jill Soloway. Struggling, at times, to find the right words, they express concern over being indiscernible, but I understand completely, because we’re all speaking the same language when we talk about Transparent. We’re all speaking Pfefferman.

Tambor remembers that it was this very particular language of the script that made him immediately want to be a part of the series. He was somewhere around page eight when he called his agent and said, simply, “I’m in.” But he also says that it wasn’t until they started filming one scene in particular that he became aware of the world he’d entered, upon agreeing to become Maura Pfefferman: “We were filming that BBQ scene [from the pilot], and we were all there, smeared with BBQ sauce,” he says. “And I look down, and there’s this Gaby Hoffmann. And there’s this Amy Landecker, and there’s this Jay Duplass and then [cinematographer] James Frohna. And there’s Jill Soloway.”

Tambor’s voice is like a camera lens, resting on each face as he remembers this turning point. “And the moment was golden. I just said, ‘I get this. This is powerful. This is a family. And it’s a family that’s about to have its moorings shifted.’”

Judith Light (Shelly Pfefferman), a longtime LGBTQ activist (and also a longtime friend of Tambor’s), came aboard without having even read the script.

“I felt so connected to [Soloway] and to what she was wanting to do,” Light says. “I just knew that she had the capability to do it.” What Soloway eventually did, however, still managed to shock and delight everyone. Light is most impressed with Season Two, an incredible feat that she says manages to somehow delve deeper into these characters we already thought we knew so well.

“The deepening of everyone’s psychology, and the deepening of everyone’s sexuality and the particular attention paid to mature people and their sexuality”—these are the things Light hopes audiences really tuned in to. The history of the Pfeffermans, the beginnings of their very specific language, also broadened the story in a way that serves the show’s message about the complexities within familial bonds.

“We all carry within us the history of our people,” Light says. “We have in our DNA and at our cellular level the memory of our ‘people.’ The fact that Jill was able to interweave the beginning of the Pfefferman story and the work of Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin is incredibly powerful. It reminds us all that we all have these histories that we don’t investigate.”

Season Two feels like writer’s room gold, but Kathryn Hahn (Rabbi Raquel Fein) is quick to point out that these storylines have an organic way of coming into being—that it’s quite the opposite of what we might imagine when trying to make sense of a particularly powerful narrative thread.

“It’s just so not over-thought,” she insists. “The writers aren’t going mad trying to come up with some brilliant new twist. Like, no we have to go to Berlin. [Because], what happens after your parent transitions? It echoes, and we have to see the rest of the family transition. It’s simple.”

Hahn worked with Soloway previously on the Sundance hit that earned Soloway the Best Directing award for a drama at the 2013 festival, Afternoon Delight. Hahn says that the transition to TV has not felt like a transition at all—not with Soloway at the helm.

“It’s no different from being on a film set with her,” she says. “[Transparent] feels like a five-hour film. It’s kind of shot that way. There’s no definitive episode end—everything kind of bleeds into everything else. Her DP from Afternoon Delight, Jim Frohna, they see through the same lens! They hardly have to speak, they just look through the same eyeballs, and they constantly surprise each other. Their relationship is so beautiful.”

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“What did we used to call it? It’s the flicky-flicky, thump thump.”—Shelly

“Flickety-flicky. Flickety-flickety. Don’t make me do this.”—Maura

Jim Frohna is another name you must know, if you’re going to speak Pfefferman. Along with the “Am I making any sense?” refrain, he comes up in all three conversations, as Hahn, Tambor and Light all attempt to put their fingers on the magic.

“There were only four people in that entire building when we filmed that scene,” Judith Light says, when I ask her about one of the most surprising and most important things I saw on TV in 2015—her character’s orgasmic “bathy time” event with Maura.

“I told Jill that I was wildly nervous, and that I didn’t think I could do it. And my manager said, ‘You must do this. It’s essential.’ I told Jill exactly how I felt, and Jeffrey was very vulnerable about it too. And we talked about everything. Jill sent everyone out of the building. There were four people left [Soloway, Light, Tambor and Frohna].”

Light paints an important picture for those of us still trying to make sense of the authenticity at the heart of Transparent. It feels like an intimate experience because it is one, whether the cameras are rolling or not.

“And Jeffrey reminded me recently, Jill was the one who went out and got the bubbles for the bath, and covered me with them,” Light goes on to say. “The four of us stood and held hands before we started, just in gratitude for being able to do this, and in hope that it would be received the way it was intended to be received. It wasn’t an intellectual experience—it was at an emotional level.”

It’s the perfect image to understand Jill Soloway’s role in all of this. In another story about a show with Jewish characters, I’d be hesitant to bring up a story from the New Testament, but speaking Pfefferman means breaking these kinds of rules sometimes (and, after all, as Colton’s adoptive father hilariously put it in one episode this season, “Jesus was a Jew”). So I’ll take the risk and liken this image of Jill to a notable scene in the Book of John, when Jesus does the unthinkable and washes the feet of his disciples—because that’s what comes to mind when I envision her, as Light describes the scene, bent down by the bathtub and covering Light with the bubbles. It’s a small, intimate act that works to collapse certain distinctions between people.

Tambor also speaks about how the experience shooting “Flicky-flicky, Thump-thump” brought him closer to his co-star.

“Judith is incredible—I trust her with my life, and with my acting life,” he says firmly. “At the end of that day, I was thinking about the scene. I got home and I texted her, ‘This is as good as it gets.’ That’s how I feel about that scene. It was a wonderful, wonderful day of filming. It was a very intimate experience—sort of what I think acting is.”

Kathryn Hahn is also responsible for some of the most compelling, difficult and intimate scenes of the season. She talks about her own experience as Rabbi Raquel, learning to speak the Pfefferman language, and realizing just how difficult that can be, considering their very flawed and selfish ways.

“When Sarah is sitting on the toilet post-wedding [in the first episode], I realize in that moment just how deep in it she is with this family that doesn’t care about the things that she cares about—at all,” she says. “She’s a rabbi, there’s a child growing in her belly and this is a family where there’s no care that there’s a wedding.”

Hahn’s character represents the many of us watching these Pfeffermans, and witnessing, in spite of many heartfelt moments, what Hahn describes as a real “lack of faith and integrity.” These experiences, along with the miscarriage Raquel suffers this season, cause, in turn, a rift in her own faith, which she believes Raquel has lost in a way.

And it’s an important loss, because if you’re going to speak Pfefferman, you’ll have to understand the language of grief, in all its strange nuances. In Transparent, grief is not, for example, the opposite of happiness or satisfaction; they’re feelings that can be experienced in the exact same breath—not because Jill Soloway and her writers say so, but because that’s how human emotions work. No scene encompasses this tragicomic blend more than Shelly’s breakdown at the Yom Kippur breaking-the-fast feast in “The Book of Life.” For Judith Light, this was yet another unforgettable day of filming.

“There was this one moment when Jill came and just whispered in my ear—and it still makes me emotional when I think about it,” she says. “I don’t know how she knows what to say, it’s just her gift. But she said to me, ‘Bring grief into the room.’ And I knew just what she wanted, so I went there.”

What’s captivating, and unforgivable in a way, is that Shelly goes there, and then turns on a dime. Light compares acting on Transparent to skiing, where “you always have to have your knees bent; you have to be flexible emotionally.” This is how Shelly’s grief morphed, almost effortlessly, into something else right before our eyes, when Richard Mazur’s character Buzz says that he drives at night.

“It took me out of it!” she says, laughing and explaining that the switch is not forced, but a natural reaction, when you’re given permission to get out of your head so you can work from an emotional body. Hahn captures this same idea as well, when she cracks a joke about her character’s tragic miscarriage in a conversation about the heartbreaking moment when Colton finally leaves the house in one of the most difficult episodes of the season, “Mee-Maw.”

“The whole thing was a mess!” she begins. “Raquel’s heart was with Colton through all of that, even more so than for the baby in her belly. Josh was in lala-land playing Dad-bro. And it was also very hard for her to ask for what she needed—and then that baby died. So, that’ll teach her,” she says with a laugh. With this crack, it’s easy to see how she and Soloway get along—it’s a crass, wonderful and uncomfortable joke that makes perfect sense coming from her.

And of course, Maura is experiencing loss as well in Season Two. All of the confidence and self-assuredness she had as Mort has yet to fully translate over.

“Maura’s being very glib, but she’s scared out of her wits,” Tambor explains, drawing comparisons between the character’s experience at the doctor’s office, where she’s asked what type of body she wants to have (and how she wants to use it), and another scene where she attempts to flirt with a woman at a bar.

“This season she’s a little more grounded, but now she’s trying to figure out how to put this together. Where does she live? Who are her friends? Who does she talk to? Who does she trust? Will she ever have a relationship? We’ve taken the bubble wrap off, but she still has a lot to do.”

And it’s important to understand that watching Maura unfold, as we watch the other characters do the same, is meant to be a communal experience. It’s much more complicated than a single viewer, watching a single show and following its linear narrative, because Transparent is so very concerned with the experience of dialogue, or interconnectedness through a common language.

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“Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.”—Toni Morrison, Jazz

Toni Morrison wasn’t the first person to suggest that the audience is in constant conversation with the art, but her words come to mind when Tambor and Light begin talking about the relationships between all of the players involved in the creation of this series. For Tambor, his role as a player is most thrilling when he doesn’t know exactly how he’s going to complete the task of becoming Maura at a particular moment.

“I was an actor who would underline certain lines 10 times,” he says. “I would go over the lines even after I’d filmed them. What’s really delightful is to actually do scenes like the bar scene, or the scene when [Maura] goes to the LGBT center for the first time—and not really knowing how to do the scene. The actor and the character are really conjoined. That’s very powerful.” Tambor is learning to play Maura—and to speak her specific brand of Pfefferman—just as the character herself is learning to be Maura. The two are in dialogue, and Tambor doesn’t always know how the conversation will play out.

For Light, the critics are a part of that conversation as well. While Shelly (who Light aptly describes as “the one who loves Maura, unconditionally—the definition of ‘you fall in love with a person, you don’t fall in love with a gender’”), is becoming Shelly, critics and viewers are becoming more invested in her story. And Light insists that their experiences shape Transparent just as much as her performance does.

“Without [the critics], I can’t talk about it in the way that I’m talking about. Because you have the incorporation of both sides [emotional and analytical], it’s essential that we talk about it this way. You are as much a part of Transparent as we are. Anyone who views this show is a part of the team.”

It’s all very Synecdoche, New York , which becomes even more apparent when you read Eileen Myles’ beautiful reflection on watching Cherry Jones as Leslie play “her,” and then ending up on the show as well:

It’s not like sitting on a train and seeing a reflection of the person you’re sitting across from and thinking there are two of you or seeing a tree reflected in the pond or taking a picture of what you see out a window and what you get are the lights in the room. No I guess it was sort of like me, some version.

And the whole thing also puts a new spin on Tammy’s somewhat hilarious and tragic neck tattoo: “Becoming,” which she gets after Sarah heartlessly dumps her. We are all becoming, and helping to create Transparent in the process, which speaks directly to Jill Soloway’s original intention of creating a series where labels like “director,” “writer,” “DP,” and “actor” wouldn’t carry the same weight. “Intention” is probably too strong of a word; this is really just how it is in her world. In the same way that Morrison’s book asks you to “make and remake” the story, Soloway’s show asks you to help it become, which is as much a spiritual act as it is an act of play.

“That word spiritual,” Tambor says. “It all depends on how it lands. Acting, for me, has always been that. To me ‘spiritual’ and ‘play’ are very much aligned. I have young kids and I watch them play, and it evokes the spiritual because it is so above.”

And it’s that playfulness that makes the actors fall so deeply in love with this world. For Hahn, it’s something that didn’t hit her until she started working with Soloway on the series.

“On Afternoon Delight I thought there were so many beautiful accidents that just happened,” she says. “And I didn’t realize until working on the show that those can’t happen unless the environment is fertile. Because they’re not accidents—because those accidents don’t happen on ‘normal’ shows.”

What those precise accidents are, or how they occur—as much as we’ve talked around it—it seems that none of us are actually positive as to how it all goes down. But each time Jeffrey Tambor, Kathryn Hahn, and Judith Light ask, “Is this making any sense?” I smile and reply, “Yes.” It’s not the words, but the feelings that I hear them trying to express, that make perfect sense to me.

“There’s something that happens, and I don’t know what it is,” Tambor says in the final minutes of our dialogue. “But something connects for people when they watch this show. It’s something unconscious, playful, spiritual—you choose the word, because they morph—but there is something. When a man comes up to me on a plane, and he’s in his Zegna suit, and he’s coiffed and he grabs my hand and says, ‘Thank you for teaching me about an area I didn’t know about.’ That fulfills me. Whatever that is. Or when people come up to me and just start talking about their family. Or a transgender experience. Or about their mother. Or their father.”

Or the time when I finally got the father of my own three children to sit down and watch Transparent. I’d never tried to tell him what the show was “about,” in part because I knew I couldn’t do it justice, but also because I feared he’d immediately write it off. He’d openly admitted to not understanding trans people—and not really wanting to. A Harlem native and practically the last guy in the world who I thought would be converted to this universe—he made it through two whole episodes before finally breathing out quietly, “This is powerful.”

I didn’t have to ask him if it was making any sense. By episode three he was already speaking Pfefferman.



Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.

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