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The third season of Transparent concluded with the Pfefferman family on cruise ship. Shelly (Judith Light) brought her skeptical family to tears with a soul-bearing take on Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In My Pocket” during the debut of her one-woman show, “To Shell and Back.” Josh (Jay Duplass) missed the performance, because he was spreading his former babysitter and lover’s ashes out to sea.
“We all cried. It wasn’t just the family,” Amy Landecker, who plays Sarah Pfefferman, tells The Hollywood Reporter of the Norwegian Cruise Line-goers who signed up as extras for the scene. “If the whole family had been there it could have felt like the end of the series, but luckily there’s still some trauma going on.”
The joyous yet heartbreaking moment sums up the newest season of the Amazon series, which released its 10 episodes on Friday and has already been renewed for a fourth season. Shelly, Sarah, Josh and Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) all struggle to come out of their own shells as their trans parent Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) plans to undergo gender-reassignment surgery. The season tackles death, depression (portrayed by Kathryn Hahn’s Rabbi Raquel), crisis in faith and identity. In the end, Maura finds out that, due to health issues, she can’t get the surgery.
Begging the question: What will Maura’s journey look like in season four?
“There’s a lot of people now who don’t get surgery and there’s so much you can do,” says Landecker. “We’re dealing with issues that the actors and writers are dealing with as we’re going along.”
The critically acclaimed series from Jill Soloway is based on the creator’s own experience of having her parent come out as trans, who, like Maura, was in their 70s. Paving the way for telling stories on what it means to be trans, the series continues to reflect the current conversation, with Tambor telling the 2016 Emmys audience after his best actor win that he hopes to be the last cisgender male cast in a female transgender role. (Aside from Tambor, every trans role on Transparent is filled by a trans person.)
Speaking to THR, Landecker reflects on another groundbreaking season, which featured a romantic storyline between a cisgender male (Josh) and transgender woman (Shea) and a Caitlyn Jenner cameo, while introducing young trans actress Sophia Gianni in the role of 12-year-old Mort Pfefferman (now Maura). Read the full chat below.
How do you compare Sarah’s journey this season to seasons one and two?
Sarah is looking for spiritual fulfillment this year, I feel like she’s on a broader path. A lot of what was driving her in season one and two was fear and lust, and maybe boredom and discontentment. Season three, she’s in some ways finding things that work for her and looking for more fulfillment. Of course, this is Transparent and she is a Pfefferman, so it all falls apart! But it’s deeper. It’s more internal and profound. I even watch myself in season three and I see more smiling, she’s a more content person. Even though there are these moments of rage, sadness and frustration, there’s also a lighter side.
Being a mom yourself, what do you think of Sarah as a mom?
It’s a tough one. In some ways, I think she’s probably good because she’s really organized and driven. But on the other hand, I wonder how present she is to actually being with her kids. Because both her parents are extreme narcissists and Maura was living this life that kept her so detached, Sarah might have inherited some of those qualities of keeping your kids at a distance. I would love to see her connect more with them.
Do you think her parents are why she really wants the arrangement with Len to work?
Yes. She loves her kids, I don’t question that. Part of getting back together with Len is being a family, and I can totally relate to this being a divorced parent and trying to coparent with an ex and wanting as much integration as possible. That’s the best for the kids and that means you don’t have to be away from them. If Sarah and Len can figure out the way to do this, it’s a solution. Not everyone can do it and it doesn’t go totally well, because in the end there’s blurred lines and there’s still some love and attraction between them. So I don’t know how clean the whole situation will end up working. But definitely the attempt is to integrate and be a whole person in my life. To be a sexual person and a mother. A friend, a daughter and true to myself. Sarah’s trying to figure out how to work that puzzle.
Do you think she will get to a place where she eventually figures all that out?
When we are at the end of the series! I don’t want her to get there because I feel like, then what?
Sarah and Len ended in an interesting place, what are her misgivings to fully committing to him? And will Rob Huebel be back for season four?
There’s some hints that he’s going to try with Sarah. Sometimes we can relate to Sarah where I can be one way with my kids and one way on a date and one way at work, and sometimes it’s hard to be your full authentic self with everybody. So that’s going to take some time. But yes, there’s more Len coming. I love me some Len!
Sarah also spent a lot of time with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), who was going through depression.
Yeah, she was dealing with the loss of her baby and the loss of potentially being married and having this family. Kathryn Hahn will just break your heart. She’s going through depression and what I do, just pretty much destroy her?! Raquel has got to get away from the Pfeffermans, we are just toxic to her. But Kathryn’s not going anywhere, we’re not letting her go anywhere.
Good. Does Sarah realize, finally, what Raquel is going through in that breakdown moment with the cantor?
Yes, she does. I’ve done this myself in life where I’m overstimulated and you don’t realize there are consequences and people are in real pain and aren’t your toy to play with. I just don’t think Sarah really sees what’s going on with Raquel and this is all so exciting and Raquel must be having the same experience she’s having it. It actually happened on set where I’m running around like, “This is so fun!” And Kathryn Hahn and Jay [Duplass] are in this dark place and I’m like, “Why isn’t everyone having a good time?” One of the directors was like, “You’re having a good time. No one else is.” And Sarah does that, too. She isn’t the most aware of other peoples’ feelings. Raquel’s just lost her dream and she’s obviously in real love with Josh. Raquel and Josh are like Ross and Rachel [of Friends], they’re meant to be together, we all know that. But whether they will, I don’t know.
Melora Hardin, who was nominated for an Emmy for Tammy, is absent. Do you think there was any moment this season where Tammy would have fit in, or is Sarah moved on?
I think for now, if Sarah’s going to try to reintegrate with Len she had to be moved on. What she’s trying to do this year is to just have transactional intimacy. To have her needs met without a lot of complex emotions and I think that really appeals to her because she’s trying to repair some of the past. This is a way for her to take care of those needs but still be present in her life, to get a release. To me, Tammy is too wrapped up in the loneliness and the destruction of her life. I think she definitely needed a breathing moment. But I’m always happy to have Tammy to come back if there’s a good way for her to come back. Tammy’s apart of the family — with a P.
As Sarah continues to explore her sexuality. Is there anywhere you, Amy, would be hesitant to go on screen?
I don’t really like hetero-hardcore sex. [Laughs] I choose to keep that to my private life! I don’t have lesbian sex in my real life, so to do that doesn’t feel as scary. But to portray the intimacy of my personal sex life on camera would be really tricky for me. In some ways, it’s freer when it’s out of the realm of your own reality. I’ve actually never done a sex scene that was really intimate and close with a man.
The scene with Len towards the end of the season was pretty intimate.
That’s true. But we’re not naked and we’re not pumping. No pumping and grinding with boys!
Do you have some interesting fan encounters?
I do. People don’t get that I’m not Sarah. It’s funny to compare it to my boyfriend, Bradley Whitford, and what was put on them as the cast of West Wing is that they are actually politicians. So what gets put on an actress that’s playing a BDSM devote is that I’m into BDSM: “No, Bradley was not the Chief of Staff and no, I do not get flogged in my personal life.” It’s sort of funny.
Bradley won an Emmy for his guest-starring role and was nominated again this year, but missing from season three. Will he return?
I hope so. I don’t know. That’s up to Jill. I don’t get to play with him anyway when he’s on the show, but it’s so fun to go through this stuff together. We got to go to the Emmys together this year, and he’s been so great because he’s been through this all before. He helps me to navigate the waters of what is happening, which can kind of be overwhelming. It’s an emotional ride and he’s been very calming and helpful.
How did you two get together?
We actually were both in relationships the first year we were on the show. Then we were single and doing an Emmy panel for season one, and basically talking about our divorces with each other while waiting to go on. We had this real connection about coming through this hardest time in our lives. He made a remark that he has terrible taste in women and then he actually said he was going to ask me out but felt it would have been a terrible insult after saying that! But we connected on some whacky choices in our personal life in the past and our first actual date, he put his hand on my knee and I was done. We’ve been together a year and three months.
Is it nice to not have to give him a warning of what he might see Sarah doing on the show?
I’m not going to say he’s enjoying what’s happening at work all the time! But he certainly supports it and he loves the show and knows everything about what we’re doing and is a part of it. It’s really helpful to not have jealousy and fear around that stuff.
This season continues to break ground with its storylines. It delivers a real romantic storyline for a trans character played by trans actress Shea (Trace Lysette) and Josh, something we haven’t yet seen much of on TV.
Dirty Sexy Money touched on it [with Candis Cayne’s role], which was groundbreaking at the time. But it feels politically powerful to watch this scene where there’s just this real, low-key everyday intimacy between a cisgender man and a trans woman. One of the things I know from being close to Trace, who is probably one of the most beautiful women on the planet, is that there’s still a lot of difficulty for straight men to come out with trans women as their romantic partner. That sucks and is stupid and I would love for that to end. I think the way things change in the world is when we see them first in movies and TV, we need to see it to understand it. I think this is the first step in hopefully opening up the world to the normalcy of this. But even Josh is going through the challenges of that. She’s a beautiful actress and it’s cool to see her have a real, raw emotional moment of what it’s like to be a trans woman dating in our culture.
Josh brings up the stereotypical reactions you would expect any guy like him might have. He wants to stop and think before jumping in, but then when Shea fires back that she isn’t his toy, it’s heartbreaking. What did you think watching the scene?
You can see both sides. That was a whole episode on the road. I wish I was there the day she stripped because that would just be unbelievable and she’s an incredible dancer. But I heard about it and I knew it was really moving and it was a storyline that was really important to Our Lady J, who is one of our writers. We were asked recently if we were running out of stories and I just wanted to say, “The queer trans community and women, we’ve had the ability to tell our own stories for about five seconds. Give us another thousand years, we’ll still have stories to tell.” So these writers are excited and just chomping at the bit. And we get to learn, it’s incredible. These are the most smartest, funniest, most brilliant people that we get to work with. And what they’ve been through? We were in Washington, D.C. and Trace started talking about her personal experience in the world and you just go, “These are people who have been to hell and back to survive.” If you think of the most basic needs of people in the world, how many times do you go somewhere and see a trans person employed? It’s only now becoming at all common and “common” isn’t even the world. People get fired, you can’t get housing. They had no economic viability and yet we want them to not do sex work. How is that going to work? How are they going to pay their bills? There’s no surprise that there’s such a high HIV rate or that there’s sex work in the history of a lot of peoples’ lives because it’s the only way they could make any money. That needs to change. Anyone who needs to get their basic needs met is probably going to revert to illegal behavior if we can’t get good paying jobs. And that’s true for any disenfranchised group in our culture.
The decision to cast a young trans actress, Sophia Gianni (above, left), as 12-year-old Mort in the episode eight flashback is such a powerful message. Were you blown away by her and that episode?
Absolutely. I met her at a brunch for a Transgender Equality fundraiser and she had come in to shoot her episode. I had no idea she was a trans girl, I thought she was a little girl playing young Maura. Her father told me how they found her, which is how I found out she was trans, is that they had done an outreach to trans youth advocacy programs around the country to find out if they knew any young actors that would be interested in auditioning. She was from Indiana, I believe, and had a YouTube channel and was already out and very comfortable in her own skin and into the genderqueer trans culture she had access to on the Internet. She had very supportive parents and was this gorgeous girl.
I watched the making of that episode and I thought, “This is historic.” I was watching the scene in the bomb shelter and she was so unbelievable and so heartbreaking. This show, since it’s started, has had these weird symmetry-fairydust moments where the world is giving it a blessing and I felt like Jill with this scene, yet again, we are blessed. We found this little girl who is the most stunning actress who is totally ready for this ride at 12. If you can get integrated young, like she is where she’s getting work and getting accepted, she has a real shot at an amazing life. But if you’re rejected by your family and kicked out of the house and no one accepts you, that’s really hard. I’m with people all the time who overcome that, but that’s a tall order. Sophia is surrounded by her parents and is herself, it’s amazing to see what love and acceptance can do. So it’s all perfectly lined up and the episode is the best you’ll see on television.
The season ends with Maura finding out she can’t get the gender-reassignment surgery. Where do we go from here?
It’s a good question. It’s interesting. Maura this season goes into super femme mode with the hair and the clothes, and then at the end of the season, she kind of finds this genderqueer place. No one wants to wear Spanx! I think that might be where we’re going. This story is also inspired and based on Jill’s personal experience with her parent, so I think we also mirror the journey that her parent is on. We’re a very live show. We’re dealing with issues that the actors and writers are dealing with as we’re going along, so we’ll have to see.
How did the Caitlyn Jenner flashback cameo come about?
The year that we were shooting season one, our trans producers were like, “Bruce Jenner is transitioning.” Everyone was questioning it and they said, “This is what transitioning looks like.” By the time we released, she was coming out publicly and she actually quotes a moment on our show in the Diane Sawyer interview. When she takes her hair out of her ponytail and kind of frees herself, it’s the same moment Maura has. We were also told that the Kardashians were watching the show, and we have some of the producers who were on I Am Cait, including Zackery Drucker, and share some personnel. We’ve always felt kind of like a family so it was kind of like kismet.
It’s weird that Jill’s parent was going through what Caitlyn was going through at the same time, and this reality show was happening at the same time a fictional narrative was happening. And of course we had Laverne Cox blazing the trail before us to open up the subject, she had already been on the cover of TIME. There really was this weird confluence of events that was saying we were meant to talk about trans issues right now and to go through a new level of civil rights for people. Of course there’s pushback to that, like there is in any civil rights movement, but I know we’re moving in the right direction. You can feel it, you can see it.
Jeffrey Tambor’s speech at the Emmys was one of the night’s highlights, which shows the reach Transparent is having. What has it been like to watch the trans conversation reach a broader audience because of the show?
What it proves to me is that the best way to be happy in the world is to be of service. As an actor, it feels very self-serving. And what this show has given me is a real sense of joy because I feel like I am apart of something that is of service. Jeffrey and Judith are two people who have spent a lot of their lives in service. They’ve always been involved in community outreach. Judith has been involved in the Point Foundation and Jeffrey teaches trans actors how to act for free. The fact that he uses an opportunity like an Emmys speech to say something like that, it’s so typical of him and that’s what’s amazing about him. I know it’s so meaningful to the people he’s worked with, because he’s worked so close to the people in the trans community to get it right. We know all these actors now that should be leads in shows and movies and we’re starting to say, “You don’t really have an excuse. They’re here, they’re trained and available.” I know Alexandra Billings can be a lead on any TV show and on any film, and there’s no excuse for not casting her if you want a trans woman.
Judith’s finale performance of her one-woman show To Shell And Back [where she covered Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket”] on the cruise really brought the season full circle. Were those real tears from all of you?
God yes. There’s no fake tears, we don’t use glycerin drops — we’re always crying! We’re so moved by each other, it’s a profound journey both on and off the show. We’ve all been through a lot in our lives and we’re all so grateful to be where we are. Judith Light is the light. She’s an exquisite human being. To sit on that ship and watch her have that moment with all these background artists who are all Judith Light fans. They basically said to the ship, “Judith Light will be performing, if you are a fan come.” We were on an incredible cruise to Puerto Vallarta with a regular cruise crowd. They would come sign a waiver and be background artists. There were so many people crying in the audience, and laughing. She’s that good, to do that scene over and over. And she had the same emotional response every time. Every time, we were blown away. We would have watched her do it 50 times. Jill was there, with her sister Faith who wrote the episode, and we all danced on the boat all night after. It was a really joyous night.
What do you want for Sarah next season?
I would love a genuinely, good, decent moment for her where she really cares for someone else in a way that matters. I would like her to really connect with someone. I don’t care if it’s her kid, if it’s her turtle. But in a real healthy way. It doesn’t have to last, but I would love to play Sarah truly connected and happy in a moment without ego.
The third season of Transparent is streaming now on Amazon. Watch Amy Landecker’s Facebook Live chat with THR on the new season here.
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