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"I Think Jeffrey Tambor's Got a Kind of Gender-Queerness"

The Creator of 'Transparent' Talks Amazon, Family Secrets, and TV Sexism

Amazon Studios

If you haven’t yet seen Amazon’s “Transparent,” you have until Sunday night to watch one of the year’s most original half-hours of TV, a comedy-drama hybrid about three adult siblings and their father (Jeffrey Tambor), who has begun to live as a woman and hasn’t figured out how to tell his kids. As Mort/Moira, the family patriarch, Tambor is startlingly gentle and nuanced in his portrayal of a late-in-life transgender character; the three self-absorbed children, played by Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker, are equally complicated. The show is written, directed, and produced by Jill Soloway, an L.A.-based TV veteran—she worked on HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” two brilliant under-rated shows about dysfunctional families—whose work is unusually frank about gender and sexuality. For her first film, Afternoon Delight, which told the story of a bored Silver Lake housewife (Kathryn Hahn) who takes in a young stripper, Soloway won the directing prize at Sundance, but "Transparent" is getting her the best reviews of her career.

Amazon’s TV strategy is an unusual one: order pilots for five series, put them online, and use online feedback to decide what to make more episodes of. (The Amazon ratings for “Transparent” are largely positive, if smaller in number than the other four less-impressive shows.) At the end of this weekend, Amazon is taking offline the five pilot episodes; it’s expected to announce next week which shows will get a full season. As she waited for news of whether the project could go forward, I talked with Soloway about working with Amazon, her plans for the rest of the season, and her beef with “True Detective.”

Esther Breger: So when do you hear from Amazon?

Jill Soloway: Some time in the next few days. It can happen at any moment.

EB: Have you been checking Amazon’s reviews and ratings? 

JS: I did the first few days. Then I moved on to other pursuits, because when you’re cruising through those reviews you find yourself a little bit bored of the good ones, and a little bit obsessed with the bad ones. It’s like when you watch porn—you’re like, I need to see something much worse than this. I can’t get off any more! The good stuff doesn’t work! I need the bad stuff! Who hates me and why?

EB: Has Amazon shared any other feedback?  

JS: No, I wish they would. I would like to look at their infographic of my people. I really wish I could see exactly who watched it and liked it, and what zip code they lived in—I’m thinking Upper West Siders. There’s got to be a concentration there. 

EB: Where did the idea for the show come from?

JS: The idea has always been in my head since “Six Feet Under.” I always wanted to do a family show. I’ve been a fan of “Louie” and of “Girls,” and loved looking at the world through a singular narcissistic, fucked-up, hilarious weirdo, and I thought—what if there were five of them? What if they were all connected through their past, their family. How childhood could look different to different siblings. How parents don’t necessarily stay put once you leave the house. I’ve always been really interested in how people’s identities are shaped by where they come from and how they want to get away from where they come from.

EB: Did you start with the idea of Mort, a father who was transitioning, or did that come later?

JS: I think the family existed first without the trans-ness. I’ve always been really interested in secrets—how people find ways of doing things without telling anyone else in order to keep themselves feeling safe in the world. People who don’t have experience setting healthy boundaries, they have secrets instead. So the trans thing just seemed like a great metaphor for anyone transitioning from who they used to be to who they want to be. 

EB: And what made you think of Jeffrey Tambor for the role?

JS: He was always the guy for this part—the guy or the girl. I think he’s got a kind of gender-queerness. He’s a big tall man, but he’s very feminine and very vulnerable and soft and sweet. He just seemed to embody the contradictions that I wanted Mort to have. Mort/Moira.

EB: Do you have any transgender people working on your staff?

JS: We have one gender-queer writer and three trans consultants. I’d say at this point we’ve had six or so trans people come through the writer’s room and inform how we’re telling the story. I would say the most important person for creating Moira is Jenny Boylan. I’ve always loved her books, and she really had an empathy for the late-in-life transitioner. There’s a certain thing that trans women who are over the age of 50 or 60 go through where the tools for having your gender read as you wish it to be read aren’t as readily available. They [may not] jump into all the surgeries. Some older men are losing their own testosterone a little bit, so they don’t have to [consider] block[ing] testosterone [as, for example an adolescent might]. A lot of them don’t go on estrogen for health reasons. And Jenny was able to help me understand what that meant. And all of our trans consultants helped us be aware of the victim or villain path that most trans characters fall into. So we just wanted to make Moira the most normal person in the family. It felt very natural to make sure that Moira’s stories are about love, about romance, and about board politics at the LGBT center.

EB: So do you have plans to bring on a love interest for Moira? Any ideas for who to cast?

JS: We have a dream of casting Jane Lynch as Moira’s love interest but I have no idea if we could get her off of “Glee.” I think they would be formidable lovers for one another. I have a dream of shooting an episode where Moira and Jane Lynch sing a duet together at the LGBT center talent show. So cross your fingers.

EB: Any other dream casting?

JS: I really want Kathryn Hahn [who starred in Afternoon Delight] to be in it. We have a role for her if all works. There’s a trans comedian whose name is Ian Harvey who’s really blown our minds. He’s so political and so funny and so adorable. He’d be an amazing person to cast if we can pull that off. 

EB: Both “Transparent” and Afternoon Delight are very rooted in this Los Angeles world you live in, right?

JS: It’s 100% exactly the world that I know. And if you must know, I am Jewish. 

EB: The Tu B’shvat joke [in the pilot] kind of gave it way. 

JS: If you’re half-Jewish you can’t even pull that off. I do a lot of random Jewish holiday jokes.

EB: I loved how well you just captured the way siblings talk to each other.

JS: At that moment when Josh and Ali [the characters played by Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffman] are sitting on the floor paging through these records— that’s a total snapshot of my childhood with my sister. That’s what I’m always trying to get back to: that place of my sister and I sitting on the floor in my parents living room trying to crack each other up and creating our own little bubble to live in.

EB: If you do get picked up, when will you and your team be ready to get going?

JS: We’re on top of it. If things work quickly, we could be shooting as early as June, and on the air in August. 

EB: How has the Amazon process differed from making Afternoon Delight and your TV experience with “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara”?

JS: I feel like I’m in this other world that has nothing to do with traditional TV or even movies. And both Afternoon Delight and “Transparent” are completely different from “United States of Tara” and “Six Feet Under” since those were other people’s shows. On “Six Feet Under” I was trying to fulfill Alan Ball’s vision, and on “United States of Tara” I was trying to fulfill Diablo Cody’s vision. With Afternoon Delight and “Transparent” I was in the beginning, middle, and end of every discussion. I wrote it, I directed it, I produced it, cast it. Somebody just sent me an email about the font in “Transparent”’s credit. And I was like, I know! The font! I love the font. Just the fact that I got to pick the font and pick the colors and pick the music.

EB: The opening credits, with the font and the jazz music, actually gave me a Woody Allen vibe. Was that something you were thinking of?

JS: A little Woody Allen. Somebody else was like “Are you trying to channel Paul Mazursky?” I don’t know. I think I naturally channeled title sequences from “Family,” and “Eight is Enough,” Woody Allen, “Alice,” “One Day at a Time.” It’s a kind of warm cursive. 

EB: You’ve spoken in the past about sexism in the industry, and the small percentage of female-helmed works on TV and at film festivals. How has that informed what you do?

JS: There’s not a cabal of men trying to stop women from getting directing work. But there is a history of most content having male protagonists, and so that’s what’s people are used to seeing. I mean, if you just take one popular show and imagine it gender-switched. Lets take “True Detective.” Imagine that’s a show about two fucked-up raunchy women investigating the murder of all kinds of naked men. Just naked tortured men all over the place. Even if that aired only once, people would be like, “what?!”

I was so glad that Emily Nussbaum wrote what she did on “True Detective” because I was able to hand it to my husband and be like, you know that fight we got into in the car? When I said I won’t be watching it because it was too misogynistic and you said my feminism was getting in the way of me being able to just enjoy regular life? Here, read this. So thank god for Emily Nussbaum. 

I look at the Oscars and the five male directors who were nominated and the five screenwriters who were nominated. And I think about what I went through to get Afternoon Delight made, to have my voice heard and to look up and see that it doesn’t really matter. The kind of films that I would make and have access to, or the kinds of films that Nicole Holofcener would make or have access to are never going to be the films that Weinstein makes. How in the world can women get ahead when there are opportunities for people like Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner to just put on wigs and dress up and pretend they’re in the ‘70s. How am I going to get ahead when there are opportunities for George Clooney to pretend he’s a Nazi hunter—what’s that thing called?

EB: Monuments Men.

JS: I mean, how in the world? That’s like eight guys who get to go and play Nazi hunter. 

EB: You could write a female Nazi hunter.

JS: But you know what? You can’t just switch women and men, and put women in male storylines. I think that’s what Kathryn Bigelow did. She was like, I’m a director and I’m going to do a war movie and now I have my Oscar. I hate to say that women are different than men and we’re interested in different stories, but I think we are. For me, all my directing comes from an internal emotional place where I’m trying to find something that feels true and authentic and never before said for people who feel other. These are small interests, tiny interests, the moments in between awkward moments, the uncomfortable comedy of food and sex. I think Woody Allen pulled off movies about those things, about the neurotic mind.

Its just crazy when you start to reimagine what the purpose of a TV show is. Sometimes I just look at shows and its like this is a guy writing a script of a reality he wishes he could live in, and taking the camera to document the reality he wishes he could live in, and then showing it to people.

This interview has been condensed and edited. This post has been updated.