Amazon’s critical darling Transparent won five Emmy Awards its first season, and another three for its second season just last Sunday (including a second consecutive win for both star Jeffrey Tambor and creator Jill Soloway). If the first few episodes of the show’s third season—now streaming on Amazon—are any indication, you can expect that trend to continue next year.
Part of the enduring appeal of the show, apart from Tambor’s stunning lead performance as Maura, is its depiction of an entire family in transition, in all its messy realism. And after three seasons together now, the cast truly does feel like a real family. In sitting down with the three Pfefferman kids—Jay Duplass (Josh), Gaby Hoffmann (Ali), and Amy Landecker (Sarah)—I learned that the trio talk over one another, tease and embarrass each other and finish one another’s sentences. (It’s hell to transcribe, but impossibly charming to watch.)
Paste caught up with the three at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, where the show premiered as part of the fest’s TV-oriented Platform program. We spoke about Transparent’s upcoming season, their characters’ continued evolution, and make the case for co-star Kathryn Hahn as an honorary Pfefferman.
Paste Magazine: Do you feel like you have a better understanding of who these characters are now, after three seasons?
Jay Duplass: I think our job is to not understand them. I genuinely do. I feel like the mystery of the show is who these people are, and what will make them happy, or what will make them peaceful or complete. Or the mystery of figuring out who you are and what the fuck we’re doing here. I think that’s the magic of it, and I think Jill did a good job picking people who are OK sitting in chaos and in the mystery of what is happening. What is family, why am I bound to these people, what do I make of it?
Amy Landecker: I don’t think we approach acting in a typical way on the show, of like, “My character… ” or “How I’m going to play this scene.” It’s way more organic than that. But I think with time, what you get is, I slip into her skin quicker. I just know. Now I know how Sarah moves or talks. I don’t think, I don’t consciously do it. She just shows up. You feel like you’re channeling in a weird way. Especially because these characters are so richly drawn and personal to the writers, you’re just kind of this open vessel and it just comes through. We get with each other and it’s immediate. We know each other as a family now, and that familiarity might be palpable in the performance.
Paste: And that’s one of the themes of the show, right? That everybody’s struggling to figure out who they are, not just Maura.
Gaby Hoffmann: That’s been the only thing that I know to be really true since the get-go, and it continues to be true. How we’re doing it changes. But yeah, it’s the most exciting thing, because it means that anything’s possible. And you can be incredibly open, and you can really play each moment for the truth of it, without worrying about how it makes sense in the long run. (Laughs.) Because these people are really searching, and it’s a desperate search. Everything is at stake. Their lives are at stake, really.
Landecker: And everything is possible. And none of it feels right or wrong. I’m just excited to see what we’re going to do.
Hoffmann: Because the truth is—and this is the beauty of the show—none of it is right or wrong. There is no right or wrong. And the fact that Jill is breaking that down, and people are responding to it I think is a really good sign as to where we’re headed. Because none of us need to be any one thing—because we’re not.
Paste: Have you noticed an evolution in your characters this season? I think Jill has said that they’re starting to become less narcissistic.
Landecker: I know for Sarah, I knew early on that I was going on a spiritual quest this year. I was told I was going to get a storyline with Raquel [Kathryn Hahn’s character] and we were going to open our own temple and I was really excited. I knew that Sarah would feel a higher power in her life and a connection back to her Judaism. So I thought that would probably feel pretty grounding, compared to last year, where she was so lonely, and had caused so much damage. What I love is that I did have a light year and I felt really buoyant through it, and then I reflect and go, “Oh yeah, but I still destroyed so many people’s lives.” (laughs) I still did the most disgusting things. So it’s great, it’s never one-dimensional. It’s like, “Oh yeah, no, I raged on my kids. Oh yeah, I got in Raquel’s head and watched her have sex with somebody else in a dream sequence.” There’s always some crazy stuff. But there is, I think, this year a little bit of a spiritual vibration underneath that’s grounding for people. I hope. I don’t know though—[to Jay] I feel like you had a rough year.
Duplass: Yeah, Josh had a rough year. But he’s more courageous. And definitely, I think, thinking about other people. Trying to do the right thing. In Season One, Josh was just like crushing things left and right. But you could see the kernel of hopefulness in him, wanting to be a good person to his fellow human beings. And I think he is definitely, slowly progressing. He’s trying his best, he just has no skills. And that’s why it’s funny, I think.
Paste: And what about for Ali?
Hoffmann: I think Ali has always been, dare I say, the least [narcissistic]. She’s been the most naturally empathic. Her bullshit was a little bit louder and sillier. But she cut through it quick. So, I think she is realizing that, in her quest for herself, she has to see others more fully.
Paste: I love watching all your solo arcs develop, but I feel like this show is really at its best when the whole family gets together.
Landecker: We love that. We love when we get together, because everybody really loves each other and enjoys playing off each other. Although it’s always really traumatic. It’s like, “Aw shit, the Pfeffermans are at a dinner table. It’s going to be a long, emotional day.” (laughs)
Duplass: We get to feel the bigness of the show when we’re all together.
Paste: Do you find that the energy changes even when it’s just the three of you sharing scenes?
Hoffmann: Oh yeah.
Duplass: Oh, absolutely. If I act in a scene just with Gaby, it’s a very specific feeling. Or if I have a scene with Amy, it’s unbelievable. Because the characters are so defined. And we have our own personal relationships that sneak in a little bit. It’s so wild, the realness of this universe. And the sets are so full. Like, there’s no half sets. They built the whole fucking house!
Landecker: She just won an Emmy, by the way. Our production designer [Catherine Smith].
Duplass: You’ll just be hanging out in a side room of the house and maybe you’re waiting to go back to set and they’ll call lunch, and you’ll walk off and it’s just so weird that you’re on a [soundstage] all of a sudden. And it has to do with the sets, but it also has to do with the feeling of being there. That it just feels like family, and it feels like a home.
Landecker: We’ve been doing the exteriors at a house in Pasadena, and the interiors are a perfect replica of that house. And I feel like it’s such a part of this show too. It’s like another character. And every time we go to the house, the real house too, it’s become kind of like going home for the holidays.
Paste: But the interior of the house is changing again this season, right?
Landecker: Yes, Tammy’s crappy décor has been taken out. (laughs) And [Josh and Ali] are sort of nesting this year.
Paste: It seems like you two get more screen time together this year.
Hoffmann: Yeah, we do. Throughout the season.
Landecker: [mocking them] Yeah.
Paste: Do you get jealous?
Hoffmann: She does!
Landecker: I do! I do get jealous. And that’s the way it is as an oldest child. You get separated a bit. She’s also the first to get married and have kids, and it separates you. You have a different family. But yeah, the dynamics of the show, there’s a scene where I’m like, “You stole him from me!”—although I would feel equally that he steals her from me—I just want to be with them all the time. (laughs) But that’s family.
Paste: Although you do get more screentime with Kathryn Hahn this season.
Landecker: Yes! Which, honestly, I have been dying and begging for. I was so excited when Jill told me that we were going to be friends and we were going to have this storyline together. She’s so much a part of this group. I mean, she is family. And it’s funny, because I think, especially with this family, the rabbi is family. She’s like our moral compass, our teacher. My dad’s been on this junket with us, and I just keep saying to him, “I don’t want you to think movie stars are like her. Because I don’t want you think people are going to be nice to you like that.” (laughs) The fact that she is so warm and wonderful, and operating on a very high, Hollywood, $100-million-dollar movie level, you would never know it.
Hoffmann: I was like, “Kathryn’s a movie star? …Oh, yeah, Kathryn’s a movie star!” (laughs)
Duplass: We went to a party and people were screaming her name. I was just like, “We’re trying to go in. Stop yelling at our friend.”
Paste: Right, because Bad Moms just took off at the box office.
Landecker: Yeah, $100 million dollars! So I got her. [Gaby] you’ll get her next year, maybe. Maybe she’ll do your bat mitzvah in Israel. That’s what I’m pushing for. I want us to go to Israel, as a group.
Paste: That’s something I was going to ask. Obviously, Judaism plays such a huge role in this show. You had the Yom Kippur episode last season, you’ve got a Passover episode this year. Are there any other holidays you’ve got planned for future seasons?
Landecker: I hope we’re going to do Israel. I pitched that, you know. [Ali’s] bat mitzvah got…
Landecker: So I thought it would be so cool to go to Israel and have us heal that wound as a family. And have Maura wail at the Wailing Wall, and screw up the bat mitzvah again. In Pfefferman style. (laughs)
Duplass: I was just about to say that.
Landecker: But we had so much fun [in the finale]. We should go on more trips. Every year, the Pfeffermans have to go on a holiday. I mean, I want to do the Hawaii Brady Bunch episode.
Hoffmann: We can’t go to Hawaii…
Landecker: I’m telling you, that’s my other idea. We’re going to do that. Brady Bunch in Hawaii, with the Pfeffermans.
Paste: See, I was thinking like a Purim episode, instead of the typical sitcom Halloween episode.
Landecker: Yes! Purim’s a good idea.
Paste: It’s a little goofier than yours, I know.
Landecker: That’s a good idea. I could do like a BDSM Purim episode. [Laughs.]
Duplass: [shaking his head] Oh my God.
Season Three of Transparent is now streaming on Amazon.