"Everything is just clearer to me," says Tambor, who was photographed April 16 at Muscoot Tavern in Katonah, New York.
"Everything is just clearer to me," says Tambor, who was photographed April 16 at Muscoot Tavern in Katonah, New York.
Eric Ogden

"Lines Got Blurred": Jeffrey Tambor and an Up-Close Look at Harassment Claims on 'Transparent'

by Seth Abramovitch
May 07, 2018, 6:30am PDT

In his first interview since facing accusations of inappropriate behavior on set, the veteran actor — now back onscreen in 'Arrested Development' — opens up about what he did ("I was mean, I was difficult") and what he claims he didn't do ("the other stuff, absolutely not") in one of the most complex cases of the #MeToo era.

The 10:15 to Katonah arrives from Grand Central Terminal precisely on schedule at 12:03 p.m. Standing across from the train platform on a chilly Monday in April is Jeffrey Tambor, the 73-year-old veteran actor best known for a trio of roles on groundbreaking series: The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development and, most recently, the critically adored and zeitgeisty family dramedy Transparent. It’s in this picturesque suburban hamlet just 47 miles north of the chaos of midtown Manhattan that Tambor and his wife, Kasia, 49, raise their four children who range in age from 8 to 13. And since being fired three months ago from Transparent, it’s here where Tambor has been exiled in what will surely go down as the darkest chapter of his four-decade career.

Moments later, he is in a coffee shop on the town’s main street. “I love diners,” says Tambor, freshly shaven and neatly dressed in a pinstriped shirt and a zippered navy pullover. “I used to live on 100th and Second Avenue, on the Upper East Side. And I practically lived at a diner.”

The conversation continues like this for a few minutes, a stiff exchange of pleasantries, during which Tambor twists a plastic straw, shredding its paper sleeve. He pauses. “I have to tell you something,” he says, his fingers trembling. It’s obvious before he says it: He’s nervous. “This is the first time I’ve talked about this, ever,” he says. “And possibly the last time. I used to teach acting, you know, and I’d always say, ‘Announce where you are.’ So this is me doing that.”

Where Tambor is right now is uncharted territory. He is about to become the first high-profile subject of the sweeping #MeToo movement to sit for an in-depth interview about his alleged sexual harassment scandal. His is a dizzying tale entangled in Rashomon-like perspectives and political trip wires. And at the center of it all stand three figures: Tambor and his two accusers, Van Barnes, Tambor’s former assistant, and Trace Lysette, an actress on the series.

That Barnes and Lysette are both transgender women is not insignificant. After all, Transparent — led by Tambor’s twice Emmy-winning performance as Maura Pfefferman — was only recently being held up as a beacon of social progressivism, lauded by activist groups like GLAAD for igniting a global transgender movement. In the blink of an eye, however, all that has changed, as Tambor — who admits to having lifelong anger issues but denies sexually harassing his accusers — watched his image go from that of LGBTQ folk hero to fugitive.

Tambor learned that he’d been fired in a text message from Jill Soloway on Feb. 15. That was the day Amazon — still reeling from the exit four months earlier of its top content executive, Roy Price, over sexual harassment claims — announced it would not be renewing Tambor’s option after an internal investigation. Soloway, the show’s 52-year-old creator and showrunner — whose father’s transition inspired the story — followed up that text with a phone call a few minutes later. Tambor was at his local gym at the time, sweating on a recumbent stationary bicycle. “I don’t remember the whole conversation,” he says. “But I do remember her last words were: ‘Do you need help with a statement?’” He went into shock: “If you can picture a man outside a gym for forever, in his workout shorts and everything, just staring.” Tambor had been preparing himself for “a slap on the wrist” for what he says were his temperamental outbursts on the set. Never did he think his biggest career triumph would end in such unceremonious disgrace.

The path to the firing began four months earlier, when, inspired by the #MeToo declarations she was seeing on social media, Barnes — a gregarious, 43-year-old blonde who relocated from rural Missouri to Los Angeles for the opportunity of working for Tambor — typed her own #MeToo account on her personal Facebook page. “Oh hell yeah! ME TOO!” Barnes wrote on Oct. 16, 2017. “[I was] even told [by Tambor] that ‘for that kind’a money and after all that time of working for him that I should be sleeping with him if I want a Hollywood-industry-appropriate pay grade.’”

The post, which never mentions Tambor by name, referred to an employer who gave her “butt pats,” made “‘why aren’t I taking care of him sexually’ comments” and subjected her to “listening to his porno.” Wrote Barnes: “I was depressed and thought about suicide when I left that job.” The post rapidly circulated among the transgender community and beyond. On Nov. 8, 2017, Amazon Studios confirmed that an investigation into Barnes’ claims was in its “early stages.” Tambor released a statement that day dismissing Barnes as a “former disgruntled assistant ... I am appalled and distressed at this baseless allegation.”

One person who read Barnes’ post with interest was Lysette. A striking brunette with fair skin and aquamarine eyes, Lysette, who prefers not to disclose her age, grew up in Dayton, Ohio — she choreographed a dance routine for her high school cheerleading squad — then moved to New York City, where she began transitioning to female. She later found work at a Manhattan strip club, where she never let on to the clientele that she was transgender. After a bad breakup led to a suicide attempt — she slit her wrists on a side street walking home from the strip club one night — Lysette was admitted to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. After her release, inspired by the success of the transgender actress Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black, she continued to pursue her acting dreams. By 2013, she was flying to Los Angeles to audition for the role of Davina on Transparent, a trans woman who takes Maura under her wing. “We met with many, many trans actresses and writers in our outreach,” says Soloway of that early hiring sweep. (Since creating Transparent, Soloway has started self-identifying as “gender non-binary”; the pronoun “they” is preferred instead of “she.”) The part ended up going to another actress, Alexandra Billings, but Lysette impressed Soloway enough to have her own character written into the show — a yoga teacher and stripper named Shea.

According to Lysette, then a Hollywood neophyte, the unsolicited advances from Tambor started early on. “They began as flirtation — kisses on the forehead, which was awkward,” she tells THR. “But part of me was like, ‘OK, maybe he just thinks of me as a daughter figure or something.’" Lysette says the unwanted affection spilled onto red carpets. “I would kiss him on the cheek and it would land on my lips,” she recalls.

It wasn’t until the filming of the third episode of season two, “New World Coming,” that Lysette felt Tambor had crossed a clear line. While shooting a breakfast scene in skimpy pajamas, Lysette says she was told by Tambor, “My God, Trace, I want to attack you sexually.” (Billings, who was also in the scene, confirms her account to THR). Recalls Lysette, “We were like, ‘What? Who says that?’” A few minutes later, she says, Tambor “waddled over to me in his pajamas and put his feet on top of mine, and started these little, like, thrusts on my hip. They were discreet and insidious and creepy. I felt his genitals on me. And I pushed him off.”

On Nov. 16, Lysette detailed that incident in a statement to THR. “Given the circumstances of my life,” she wrote, “I was used to being treated as a sexual object by men — this one just happened to be famous.” She went on to express her hope that Amazon would “find good in this, and use this as an opportunity to re-center the other trans characters in this show. Don’t let the trans community suffer for the actions of one cis male actor. Remove the problem and let the show go on.”

That Tambor is cisgender, or identifies as his birth sex, was a sticking point for many in the trans community from the start. At a season one screening at the Directors Guild of America, an audience member said Tambor’s performance was “like watching blackface” and that he should be replaced by a trans actress. The suggestion mortified Tambor, literally. “I just made like a possum and played dead,” he recalls. “I remember turning to my right and Jill was in tears.” As the show grew in popularity and acclaim, so did the “elephant in the room,” as Tambor puts it. “Because the revolution got bigger. So the very thing we were doing, the awakening to this movement, made the disparity [of my non-transness] more apparent.”

After Lysette’s claims went public, Tambor convened an emergency meeting with his wife, Poland-born actress Kasia Ostlun, and his reps, including Gersh’s Leslie Siebert, his agent of 30 years. “My advice to him was be truthful,” Siebert recalls. “Tell people your understanding and your truth. That’s all you can do.”

They crafted a second statement, this one taking on a measure of culpability. “I find myself accused of behavior that any civilized person would condemn unreservedly,” it read. “I know I haven’t always been the easiest person to work with. I can be volatile and ill-tempered, and too often I express my opinions harshly and without tact. But I have never been a predator — ever.”

The following day, Tambor received an email from Faith Soloway, 54, Jill’s older sister and a writing producer on Transparent. “I can quote it verbatim because I’ve looked at it for five months,” Tambor insists. He would not show the email to THR, but a source confirms its content. “It said, ‘We are in a coup. You are fucking fantastic. You have changed the world. We have changed the world. We will get through this. Love, love, love, Faith.'”

Faith Soloway confirms having sent the email. "Things were happening so quickly, with people being accused and held accountable by the #MeToo movement," she says. "In the moment I felt that Jill and Jeffrey were under attack. I knew that some people disapproved of Jeffrey, a cisgender actor, playing Maura and I was upset that Jill, as the show's creator, hadn't had the opportunity to address the issue privately [before it went public]. As the story broke, I also sent messages of support to Trace and Van, and after the allegations were presented, I never disbelieved them. I still, hope everyone can learn and heal from this.”

The message sent a “shock wave” through him because it led him to believe that “something was up, over and above me. Some dots were not connecting.” Suspecting he was being set up to be ousted because he is cisgender, Tambor released a third, more pointed statement on Nov. 19. “What has become clear over the past weeks,” he wrote, “is that this is no longer the job I signed up for four years ago ... Given the politicized atmosphere that seems to have afflicted our set, I don’t see how I can return to Transparent.”

Despite having been widely interpreted as such, the statement was never meant to be a definitive resignation letter, Tambor maintains, adding he “chose those words exactly to be a little abstract.” That evening, he says, he received an email from Jill Soloway (which Soloway confirms she sent). “She wrote these words: ‘They have been after Maura from the beginning.’”

Soloway responds: “While much of the trans community immediately embraced the show, some vocally opposed the casting of a cis man, Jeffrey, in the lead role. This sentiment has persisted in parts of the community — coming up again on social media in the wake of these allegations. It was a text I wrote in frustration after pouring my heart into this show for years. I wanted to tell a story that brought power and visibility to trans people, and to my own family’s journey into understanding, acceptance, and pride.”

Over the phone, they discussed how to proceed, which for Tambor would be “one of the top-five difficult phone calls of my life.”

In it, Soloway — frantic and highly emotional over the beloved series’ implosion — asked Tambor if he would be “open to a third way.” Soloway suggested that, going forward, Tambor appear in the series only in flashback, as Mort Pfefferman, Maura’s pre-transition self. It was a not ideal but potentially workable concession to those who felt Tambor’s performance was an offensive example of “transface,” as some critics referred to it. Of course, the plan did nothing to address the Pandora’s box of sexual misconduct allegations that had just spilled into headlines. For the sake of the show, Tambor tentatively agreed to play the pre-trans character, just as soon as he was cleared by Amazon of the more ominous charges.

But that would not happen. Tambor was interviewed for nearly 10 hours during the inquiry, in two marathon sessions. “My lawyer was present,” he says, obviously reluctant to get into the details. “They asked me questions, and I responded to the questions. And that’s pretty much what I want to say about that.” Others were interviewed, as well. Staffers were asked whether Tambor had ever kissed them on the lips — which was something he often felt comfortable enough to do in their cozy work environment. “It’s a really loose set,” says one high-ranking producer who asked not to be identified. “Everybody behaves in a sensual manner because it’s a show about sex. Everyone says things like, ‘You’re so hot, oh my God. I had a dream about you last night.’” As Jay Duplass, who plays Maura’s music producer son, Josh, on the show, once put it, “Your job as an actor is to be emotionally present ... Or in the case of Transparent, have a ton of sex.”

Lysette never wavered on her story, telling investigators that she reported the thrusting incident promptly and that no action was taken. "I told plenty of people," she says. "I told people outside of Transparent, I told people inside Transparent.” One of those people was her roommate, Zackary Drucker, a 35-year-old producer on the show, who is also a trans woman. Drucker did not pass on the information.

“Trace and I shared many, many conversations during our time as roommates,” says Drucker. “Since I don’t have a clear memory of this conversation, it didn’t register to me as something I was meant to, or needed to, report in the context of our professional relationship.”

Barnes, meanwhile, had been laying low from the press; she’d signed a nondisclosure agreement with Tambor as part of her employment. But, on Feb. 26, a few weeks after Tambor was fired, Barnes’ lawyer told her the NDA was no longer in effect, and she gave an interview to THR. “I was barely at minimum wage, which was a clear abuse,” Barnes said, claiming she had to endure Tambor’s severe mood swings and round-the-clock demands. Despite Barnes’ reputation for having a raunchy sense of humor — “She’s the dirtiest fucking talker in the world,” is how one staffer puts it — Tambor’s alleged offensive talk and occasional “butt pats” made Barnes increasingly uncomfortable. “Toward the end, he had proposed to me that I be his mistress,” she said. “His actions have jeopardized many people’s jobs, especially many transgender people struggling to find work in Hollywood. ... He has done this to himself.”

Barnes continued speaking out on March 7, when she appeared on Megyn Kelly Today to add a startling new detail to her accusation: that Tambor had once watched her sleeping naked. She said it happened, bizarrely, when Barnes, Lysette and Tambor were living together under the same roof in Drucker’s parents’ home in Highland Park, northeast of downtown L.A., where Barnes was house-sitting over the summer. Lysette, still based in New York at the time, was occupying one of the bedrooms. Before production on the second season began, there was a two-week window until Tambor’s Pacific Palisades rental home would be ready. “He said, ‘You’re house-sitting, aren’t you? Do you mind if I stay with you?’” Barnes recalls. “I thought it was really weird. Here’s a guy of means, but he can’t afford a hotel for two weeks?”

Tambor confirms sharing living quarters with Barnes and Lysette — “My arrangements hadn’t come together. In retrospect, I should not have stayed there and just waited for my house to become ready” — but insists Barnes’ claims that he observed her sleeping naked are completely fabricated. Asked to address other specific allegations, including the propositioning and physical touching, he grows reticent. “I don’t want to characterize them,” he says. “What I said was that she was a disgruntled assistant. I think that was generous of me. I dispute her account. I did raise my voice at times, I was moody at times, there were times when I was tactless. But as for the other stuff, absolutely not.”

Siebert admits to having been aware of her client’s mercurial reputation. “He’s guilty of being an asshole at times, and being, you know, temperamental and moody,” she says. “And he feels awful about it and apologizes, and he’s working on himself. But in the 30 years I’ve worked with him, I’ve never been told about any behavior like what these women are accusing him of.” Tambor acknowledges the occasional outburst on previous shows — he references one “blowup” with actress Jessica Walter on Arrested Development for which he later “profusely apologized” (a rep for Walter says, “Jessica does not wish to talk about Jeffrey Tambor”) — but that something about Maura, his obsessive determination to make her as authentic as possible, brought out the worst in him.

“I drove myself and my castmates crazy,” he says. “Lines got blurred. I was difficult. I was mean. I yelled at Jill — she told me recently she was afraid of me. I yelled at the wonderful [executive producer] Bridget Bedard in front of everybody. I made her cry. And I apologized and everything, but still, I yelled at her. The assistant directors. I was rude to my assistant. I was moody. Sometimes I didn’t talk at all. And this is where the reader says, ‘So what?’ You know? ‘You’re coming in from the Palisades, you drive in, you get a good paycheck, you get to play one of the best roles in the world. So. What.’” He stares down at his barely touched lunch, a grilled ham and cheese sandwich propping up a pile of french fries. “But I was scared, because I was a cisgender male playing Maura Pfefferman. And my whole thing was, ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing it right? Am I doing it right?’ To the point that I worried myself to death.”

Soloway and Tambor have not spoken since Feb. 15. That’s the day Soloway issued a statement expressing “great respect and admiration for Van Barnes and Trace Lysette, whose courage in speaking out about their experience on Transparent is an example of the leadership this moment in our culture requires.” Tambor issued his own rebuttal, saying he was “profoundly disappointed” in the “deeply flawed and biased” investigation’s outcome and “even more disappointed in Jill Soloway’s unfair characterization of me as someone who would ever cause harm to my fellow castmates.”

Tambor is still wounded by what he characterizes as his abandonment by Soloway. “I said to her, ‘Since you know the truth, would you make a public statement on my behalf?’ It’s my biggest disappointment that she hasn’t.” To that, Soloway responds: “I never told him I was going to accuse Van or Trace of being liars. He knew that nobody could do that. And I was really working with him to help him understand that a simple apology would go a really long way. I was hoping to get him there.”

Soloway’s own thinking on Tambor has evolved since the controversy broke. “I was hoping, in those early days, before Trace’s initial statement came out, that it all could have been a big misinterpretation — that one person’s harassment is another person’s dirty joke.” Eventually, Soloway realized the #MeToo movement was a “global tsunami — there’s nothing I could have done to stop it.” As for the allegations, Soloway contends that “it’s not a simple case of did he do it or didn’t he do it. Nobody said he was a predator — they said he sexually harassed people. He made enemies, and I don’t think he realized he was making enemies. You have to be very, very careful if you’re a person in power and treat people very appropriately.”

As for the future of Transparent, Soloway has begun to feel “a tiny bit like we are going to be OK.” The writing staff has begun discussions on how to tackle the show’s fifth — and, Soloway reveals, final — season. “Hopefully it sets the Pfeffermans up with some sort of beautiful reclaiming,” Soloway says. “I think we’re going to get there with some time.”

Since going public, Lysette and Barnes have taken different paths: Lysette is still pursuing acting in L.A. and has become politically active, speaking at events like the Las Vegas Women’s March and attending Time’s Up meetings. Barnes has returned to Missouri and enrolled in cosmetology school. “I have turned a new leaf!” Barnes wrote in an April 26 Facebook post. “This did not come with any assistance from my previous employer Transparent, nor Amazon or the fake feminist Jill Soloway, who found reason to fire our perpetrator, & instead of offering me financial reparations to upright myself again, offered me a Go Fund Me.”

As for Tambor, he has only just begun to emerge from what he calls a “fugue state.” When speaking about Maura, he almost exclusively uses the terminology of death and grieving. He’s currently reading two books on the subject, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully and The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying. He breaks down in tears five separate times over the course of this interview, making note of it each time he does. “She was like a friend,” he says of Maura. “That may trigger eye rolls, but she was very real to me. And I think in many ways much more awake than I.” He says he still has regular conversations out loud with Maura and is deeply disappointed that she won’t ever get “to find her significant other.”

Despite his troubles, he still has a job on Arrested Development, the Netflix comedy in which Tambor plays the patriarch of another dysfunctional California clan, the Bluths. Its fifth season premieres on the streaming service May 29 in order to qualify it for the Emmy voting window. The scandal provided an unwelcome distraction during the final months of production, which began in August 2017 and wrapped in December. Nevertheless, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos tells THR that it was a smooth shoot and Tambor will be in attendance at upcoming media appearances, including a May 17 premiere event in Hollywood. “In making and promoting seasons four and five of Arrested Development,” Sarandos says, “Jeffrey has always been totally professional.” So far, Tambor has earned support from fellow castmember David Cross (“A number of us stand behind him, ... and I am one of them,” Cross told amNew York in an interview) while another, Alia Shawkat, who also appeared on Transparent, told IndieWire she was “surprised” by the allegations but “supports the voice of the victims.”

Later that afternoon, after mixing with the locals at a nearby bookstore cafe — he offers one young man, an aspiring actor, some advice about an upcoming audition — Tambor turns back to the matter at hand, pledging the lessons he needed to learn have been learned. “People change,” he insists. “It’s already changed my behavior on set. Just walking in here today, into this cafe, I hadn’t seen the owner in a long time. I mean, do you hug? Do you not hug? When you see fans ...” He trails off. “You know what I do feel? More present. Everything’s just clearer to me.”

Tambor spends as much time as he can with his children, whom he’s attempted to shield from his ordeal. His favorite activity is reading bedtime stories to his 8-year-old twins Hugo and Eli. “I know Goodnight Moon pretty well,” he says. “And there’s this other book about a bear hunt. I’ve read it to every generation of child. They go on a bear hunt and they say, ‘Uh-oh, there’s mud! You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it. Got to go through it.’ And I can’t think of anything more typical in my life right now.”

May 7, 3:45 p.m. Updated to clarify that Trace Lysette was not a member of her high school cheerleading squad, but did choreograph a dance with the team for a halftime show.

This story also appears in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.