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Television has seen its share of prescient storytelling in the wake of the 2016 election, but Transparent will be living in Trump’s America when it returns with its fourth season next month.
Jill Soloway’s Emmy-nominated Amazon series began filming about one month after President Trump’s inauguration, setting Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), who came out as transgender in her 70s, and the Pfefferman family on a politically charged spiritual journey when the season releases Sept. 22.
“It’s part of the fabric of the show and you can feel it,” Tambor, who is Emmy-nominated for his third consecutive year as best actor in a comedy, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “This is the Pfefferman family in 2017. There’s just been an election and here we go.”
Soloway and the Transparent team made that clear when they released the first look at season four two days after Trump’s proposed transgender military ban. “At Transparent we believe in the integrity of the trans community, which we know firsthand because we are all either trans or allies to the trans community,” read the statement, in part, that came along with the trailer. “We hope that you’ll enjoy the trailer for season four because our visibility and our stories are more important than ever.”
The groundbreaking series has blazed a path for LGBTQ representation on TV. Tambor says Soloway and her team “put it all on the table this year” when Maura heads to Israel and makes a startling family discovery, prompting the rest of the Pfefferman clan — kids Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Josh (Jay Duplass), and ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) — to join her in the Holy Land.
Speaking to THR below, Tambor previews the growth Maura sees this season after unearthing a “deep secret” and unraveling more young Mort flashback scenes. He also details the post-election days on their inclusive set and shares his long-term plans for playing Maura: “You open the New York Times and you get another story. I hope it goes on forever.”
This isn’t your first Emmy nomination. [Tambor has been nominated nine times overall and took home the trophy the last two years for Transparent.] Does the pressure to win ever go away?
You know what, I get to go to work on Transparent. I thought I was going to go out as King Lear, but I get to go out as Maura Pfefferman and I couldn’t be happier. I’m very grateful, and that’s the real deal. There’s genius everywhere the eye rests, so I’m a pretty lucky guy. I love that talking about Transparent gives me the opportunity to talk about something where it’s not just me anymore. It’s about something that is much more important than me. I’m so proud of this show, of Jill and company and our set. Behind the scenes, it’s one of the most transformative sets. It reminds me of when I used to daydream about being an actor as a young boy in San Francisco. “Oh, this is how it feels.” It does every much feel like home, in a way.
How does the recognition feel different this year, that a show like Transparent is honored amid the current political climate?
As an actor, I feel like we have a mission statement every day we go to work. I don’t think comedy and satire have ever been more important. Comedy sheds light on issues and satire makes people learn, and our show is all about that. What I love about our show and playing Maura is that we get to live these wonderful lives as these people, and we don’t wag our fingers and say, “Listen here, listen here.” We’re the family that laughs at funerals and cries when we’re eating coleslaw. What I get from people who come up to me — and this is just a field test from me going to the market and people taking me aside and saying how much they really appreciate the show — there’s always a “thank you” in there. So I think we’ve graduated above, “Hey, I love your work,” to something that I always thought acting would be. I’ve always thought comedy was important. I’ve always thought of it to be much more than just a bunch of yuks.
You guys dropped the season four trailer with a powerful statement just two days after Trump announced his proposed transgender military ban. Behind the scenes, what were some of the conversations you had?
I don’t think anyone just sat down and said, “Look here, look here.” But there’s no doubt that season four takes place after the election. It’s part of the fabric of the show and you can feel it. I can feel it when I go out driving in Los Angeles. I can feel it, so you can feel it in our show and therefore — again, there’s no finger-wagging and no political figures or Pew statistics — it’s just lives being lived with yet another pressure when we wake up and have our Cream of Wheat.
How did it feel returning to set after Trump’s election?
It felt differently, everything does. Going to the market feels differently. I’ve seen people honking at people on the Hollywood freeway more than I’ve ever noticed. People are driving more tensely now, it’s everywhere. That is part of our season, but this family knows how to laugh and they know how to laugh hard. They are survivors and they live their lives. But it’s part of the undertone.
How did working on such an inclusive set inspire you during the post-election months?
Every day there is something. This year, just the growth of everyone personally and professionally is so great to see. I always go back to that one time in the first season when we’re all smearing our faces with barbecue sauce and I was looking at Jay Duplass — and I didn’t know who Jay was, Amy I knew a little bit, and Gaby and Judith. I just went, “This family, this talented family.” I remember thinking, “Oh, this thing is going to be big. This is thing is going to go.” And it did.
The show’s statement spoke about the importance of giving the transgender community visibility. In what ways will season four continue to do that? What are you most proud of about the upcoming season?
There is something with Trump’s little tweet about the transgender and the military, where I said to myself that I couldn’t be happier to be coming back with season four. So, there is that. Because we are about freedom and information and we are opposed to otherization. And the other thing that makes me very proud. In physics class, they would take this steel ball and hit it against these other steel balls and everything would just go into disarray. To see what the steel ball, Maura, has done to this whole family — everyone in season four is going off in so many different ways. What Jill has done, she doesn’t do season four plus 10 percent. It’s all on the table this year. It is something. I’m very impressed. It’s not all warm and fuzzy, but funny as heck.
What has surprised you the most about how Maura has been received?
This one fella when I was on a plane and about to deplane was charging up the aisle. This man was saying, “You stay right there! Don’t you move!” He was all cuffed with a perfect tie and suit and very CEO-like and I thought, “I’m going to get it. This guy is just going to nail me to the wall.” He got up to me and grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you. Thank you for teaching me something I did not know about.” I remember thinking, “This is the revolution. It’s right here.” In the four years of doing this show, I get no flack. People seem to get it. I think what Jill and company and Amazon have done is that the viewers say, “Oh.” And they trust us. They see their own families, whether there are transgender or political issues or not. I think we represent that family that’s around the Thanksgiving table bickering, and laughing.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about Maura?
One of the interesting things about playing Maura is that she is not a thirty-something. She is a 70-year-old and life is going tick-tock, tick-tock and she’s searching for home base. But it keeps her young in her life. She is, in a way, a teenager, I think. I have not talked about this and no one has talked to me about that, but I see her as someone who is just learning stuff. And that’s the joy. So you have the old part of her, which is in years, and then you have this young, new spirit that is just trying to find home base and where the love is. It’s a much-used word but it’s a perfect word: She’s trying to find her authenticity.
How would you describe the journey that Maura goes on this season, and how she evolves, compared to seasons past?
She finds out something about her family, she goes all the way back and she finds out a deep secret about her family. Jill and company have done a little backstory this year that’s filled in that I didn’t even know. That’s the delight of doing this, that you open a script at a table read and you go, “Oh my goodness.” But I did find out something about my family that is quite startling, and I think people will really relate to it.
I spoke with Molly Bernard, who plays young Shelly (Light), about how there are more flashbacks that season. Did you learn about your character after going back and seeing more of young Mort?
Yes, and also about Gaby [Hoffmann]’s character. It all makes sense. Really, I am just a product of that writers room. When they hunker down and they write, once in a while you’ll see the board and all the arrows and details. They work their tails off, and I’m the product of that. They really delve down and investigate and they bring the sad and the funny and a truth. I really think people trust the show because there’s no laugh track, there’s no dumbing down. Play along, you know what’s going on and here it is: This is the Pfefferman family in 2017. There’s just been an election and here we go.
Maura has been hesitant about exploring romantic relationships. Will we see more of that this season?
She gets two hits this year, she gets to find something out about her family and she gets to find out where she can find love. She is looking and she’s adamant.
At the end of the trailer, Maura tells Ali (Hoffmann) that she is dating Donald. We met Donald at the end of last season, though the name now bears a coincidence… Where will things go for Maura and Donald?
I didn’t even think about that. I met [Transparent‘s] Donald at the end of season three, on my wild night. Who, by the way, is a wonderful actor and person and it’s been a great acting experience. Where does it go? It goes. Stay tuned.
If Maura were to join another show, which would it be and why?
I think Maura would very much enjoy the Emmys — even more than Jeffrey. Maura loves the red carpet. It would be very exciting to see what she would wear. She would spend days and days just trying on outfits.
How many years do you hope to play Maura?
Until they lock that stage door and I’m not kidding. I’m going to go out playing Maura. There’s no end of stories, every day is a different story. You open the New York Times and you get another story. I hope it goes on forever. I’ve made it known to Amazon and to anybody who will listen! [After this interview, Transparent was renewed for a fifth season.]
What has been your strangest fan interaction of late?
I did have someone in an elevator the other day say, “How’s Raymond?” I couldn’t convince that guy that I was not that actor on Everybody Loves Raymond. We still have some more work to do.
Will your other show Arrested Development, which is coming back for a fifth season, get political?
It’s a very wonderful time for me, it’s very busy. I just wish everybody could have done this when I was 35. (Laughs.) It scares me. I did have my fortune read when I was in Julius Caesar by an actor who played Cassius. He said, “Things are going to happen for you, but they’re going to happen for you very late.” He wasn’t kidding around. I don’t know anything about what’s ahead for Arrested. All I know is that we just got through Transparent and I know nothing about Arrested except that I’m supposed to show up on a certain date.
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