Actor Jeffrey Tambor On 'Transparent': 'I Loved It From The Very Beginning'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're continuing our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year with Jeffrey Tambor. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as a transgender woman making her transition from male to female late in life. Tambor won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance. Tambor also co-starred in the TV series "Arrested Development" and "The Larry Sanders Show." "Transparent" was created by Jill Soloway and was inspired by watching one of her own parents come out at the age of 75 as a transgender woman. In season one of "Transparent," Tambor's character, Mort, started transitioning to Maura, revealed her female identity to her three adult children and ex-wife and started appearing in public in women's clothes. Our interview was first broadcast December 10, just before season two went up on Amazon. We started with this clip from season one's first episode. Maura is at her transgender support group and is describing how she just started testing out appearing in public wearing women's clothes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Well, I went to Target, and I just - I took her out. You know what I mean? And I got into, you know, the checkout line. And the girl at the cash register said, I need to see some ID with that credit card of yours. And, well, you know what that's like, right? And I just knew. I said, this is going to not be good, this is going to get ugly. And so she just kept looking at me. And then she said oh - like that, you know? And she rung up the batteries or something. That was a - and that was a big victory. And I didn't - I was like, do not cry in front of this woman, do not cry in front of this woman.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Thank you for your share, Maura. Thanks for being vulnerable with us.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) One more thing. I made a commitment here last week that I was going to come out to my kids, and I didn't do it because it just wasn't time, you know? But I will, and it will be soon.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) And I promise you. I promise you. I promise you.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) They are so selfish. I don't know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Jeffrey Tambor, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you find the part within yourself that could identify as a woman 'cause you need to identify as woman to play this part?
TAMBOR: Well, one of the things that I am amazed at is I thought that the hardest part would be the external - would be the - oh, nails and the hair and the makeup and the dress and the heels and the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And actually, that wasn't the hardest. That was very, very, very easy for me, and I liked it. I mean, who doesn't like a good mani-pedi? I - and so that came all very easy. What's interesting about playing Maura is that I get to use more of Jeffrey that I've ever used in any role, and I think that's the remarkable part about it and truly the most surprising part about doing this role.
GROSS: Can you give me an example of something you have to play as Maura that you never had a chance to do before or that you learned about yourself?
TAMBOR: Well, I do notice that when I'm playing Maura, I'm much more - and I want to be - I'm sort of careful of the words because they're so stereotypical - but I do find myself much more sensitive. And I find myself much more vulnerable. Less protective and less protection and less armor. That's a real - that's a real surprise to me.
GROSS: Now, your character isn't glamorous and fashionable in the way that, for instance, Laverne Cox, one of the stars of "Orange Is The New Black," is. When your character, Maura, dresses in more formal attire, like, a long purple dress with, like, sequin-y, spangly things all over it, I am reminded of what my parents' generation - the women of my parents' generation used to wear to, like, weddings and bar mitzvahs (laughter). And I'm wondering when you dress in that women's formal attire, who do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you see people that you know, relatives that you know, friends?
TAMBOR: No, I don't. I actually see - as I said, I do see Maura. I remember when we were just preparing, and we sort of did our first sort of field trip. And we were going to take Maura out for her - for the first time. And I was going to meet Maura for the first time. And so we went into the bathroom after a long, long talk, and I was scared stiff. And we began the makeup. And I did the hair - or they did the hair. And I remember Maura just - you know, just appearing on my face. And I'm like, well, that's exactly how she looks. And we dressed her up. And we went to a - we went out dancing at a place called the Oxwood. And I remember walking through the lobby of that hotel. My legs were just shaking. And I said to myself, never, never, never, never forget this moment because this is exactly how it is to live as Maura. And the odd thing is, no one was looking at me.
GROSS: So what was it like for you to feel like you passed?
TAMBOR: I don't know if I passed. I think I got through the night.
GROSS: Were people staring at you?
TAMBOR: Not at the Oxwood and not at the hotel. That was what was very odd. I did go on another field trip where I did have that, where I went to a grocery store. And I was in the middle of the aisle, and I was just, like, doing what if Maura went shopping and I wanted to find out what Maura would wear and what she would buy and things like that - you know? Just, not to sound too actor-y, but that's how you research and that's how you find. And one person did stare at me in the aisle and had somewhat of a sneer on their face. And I also said, do not forget this 'cause this is what it looks like to get clucked. And I don't know if they were looking at me and saying, well, that's Jeffrey Tambor or that's a trans woman. I have no idea. But I do remember - I remember the sneer on the face, and it wasn't pretty.
GROSS: Maura's in the position of having recently started appearing in public as a woman, in women's clothes with a woman's wig. And sometimes she kind of passes, you know, unnoticed and just blends in. And other times, people stare at her with kind of, you know, confusion or anger, hostility. And I'm wondering, like, in your own life, as you, as Jeffrey Tambor, if you were ever in a similar position where people were just - based on how you looked, that you got, you know, hostile or mocking looks from people.
TAMBOR: I have two things I can point to. But what's dangerous about me pointing them out is that I could never say that either one of them even equals what it is to be a transgender...
GROSS: Oh, of course not.
TAMBOR: ...Woman or a man.
TAMBOR: However, I do know what it is to be other-ized in the community. When I was a young boy in San Francisco, I remember being sent home - I was playing with a friend. And I remember the mother saying, tell Jeffrey to go home. And I said to the girl, I said, why? She goes, my mother says that you're the people who killed Christ. And I got home. And what was the worst part of that was when I - this is really getting me as I'm saying it. I remember when I told that at dinner to my parents. And I remember them looking up into each other's eyes. And I will never forget that because it was - it wasn't even fear. It was like, there it is. So I kind of know what that was. And also, I remember - I grew up - and I don't think I've ever talked about this. I grew up with a lisp. (Speaking with lisp) I talked like this because I had braces. And so my name was Jeff.
So everyone in my school called me Cliff, unfortunately. And I'd say, no, (speaking with lisp) Jeff, Jeff.
And so they called me Cliff Cliff. People would make fun of me because I had this lisp.
GROSS: How did you lose the lisp? Was taking off the braces sufficient?
TAMBOR: No. I went to - I went to so many people. And at San Francisco State College, I still had it. And there was a man named Dr. Joe Mitzak (ph) who one day said, have you ever heard your lisp? And I said, no. So he recorded it. And he said, that's - you're saying (speaking with lisp) F. And I went, oh. He said, this is how you say S - S. And I went, oh, S? And he went, that's correct. And that's what it took.
TAMBOR: I had to hear it. I had to hear it.
GROSS: That's so smart.
TAMBOR: Is it? Isn't it amazing? Yes.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Tambor, who stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk about some of your other roles.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Jeffrey Tambor. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as a transgender woman who is transitioning late in life. When we left off, Tambor had told a story from his childhood about an anti-Semitic insult directed at him.
So after somebody accused you of killing Christ because you're Jewish...
GROSS: ...And you told your parents, did that lead to things that they had never told you before about anti-Semitism either they or your grandparents had experienced?
TAMBOR: No because we were in that generation that - they were second-generation. And that was the thing where everyone was trying so hard to blend and so hard to fit in. So, no, they never talked about it. They absolutely never talked about it. Yeah, I was bar mitzvahed at gunpoint, by the way.
GROSS: (Laughter). OK so this walks us right to a clip I want to play from the first season. So there's a flashback in the first season where we see that as you're starting to figure out that, you know, you really want to dress as a woman and that there are other men who are that way too, you find out that there's this, like, weekend getaway - this kind of camp for men who dress as women and you very much want to go. Problem is, it coincides with the bat mitzvah of your daughter. And so one weekend, she comes to you and says - and this is all in flashback - she comes to you and says, I don't want to do my bat mitzvah. I don't believe in God. What's the point of this? I don't want to do it. And you kind of say, OK, (laughter) fine.
GROSS: And then you use that as an opportunity to cancel the bat mitzvah and then kind of sneak off to this camp where you can dress as a woman with other men.
TAMBOR: Right, Camp Camellia. Yeah.
GROSS: So flashing forward to the present, in the final episode of the first season, your daughter has just found out that that's why you agreed to cancel her bat mitzvah. And on that day, she's left totally alone. You're at this camp, so she finds out that you really went to this camp and now she's going to confront you about that. Here it goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
GABY HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) So mom tells me that you canceled my bat mitzvah so you could go to some dress-up camp in the woods. Is that true?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) No, no, not at all. No. I - it was a - I let you cancel it.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I was 13.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Honey, you canceled your bat mitzvah.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) 13-year-olds don't get to cancel bat mitzvahs.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Honey...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) ...You canceled your mat mitzvah...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman): Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman): ...We made an agreement, I respected your mind. I can't get you to do your haftorah. What do you want me to do, point a gun at your head? So don't be so self-centered. There's another world out there.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) OK.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) It's not all me...
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Right.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) ...All Ali, all my feelings.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) In this room, I'm the one who's self-centered. That's...
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Well, I believe so.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) ...That's good. That's rich because I don't need Judaism. Who wants to be Jewish, you know? Who needs guidance in life? I mean, what on earth would I do with God, you know? So thank you.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) You can keep your voice down, all right?
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Oh, keep my voice down? Because that's our family religion, right, secrecy?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) You're being just a little bit too much, I mean, even for you.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Here's some money to go to college, but don't tell anybody. Don't tell Josh and Sarah.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Oh, my God, Ali.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Why are you always pushing money on me?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Because, my beautiful girl, you cannot do anything. You know, you have so much more to say now than when I was writing your checks, giving you loans, which by the way, aren't actually loans because you don't pay back [expletive]. Do you understand? Not one cent - I'm paying for your life.
HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I don't need or want or give a [expletive] about your money. You can't [expletive] scream at me anymore 'cause I'm an adult, OK? So there we go, it's settled - done.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) I have a question - now that you're not on the payroll anymore - do you like me? If I didn't give you any money, would you even talk to me?
GROSS: A great scene from "Transparent" from the first season with my guest Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, and Gaby Hoffmann as his daughter, Ali. So he says to her in that scene about the bat mitzvah when she says, what did you want me to do, point a gun at your head? And you said that you were bar mitzvahed...
TAMBOR: At gunpoint.
GROSS: ...At gunpoint.
TAMBOR: And I was being euphemistic.
GROSS: So what happened at your bar mitzvah?
TAMBOR: I was bar mitzvahed at Beth Shalom, and I had trouble. I didn't quite get it all. Part of it was I had a teacher - a wonderful teacher, but he could be very strict. And I remember I asked him - he said - I said, can I ask any question? And he said, yes. And he said, take your time. Questions take a long time. What is it? And I said, how do we know there's a God? And he said, get out.
TAMBOR: So he threw me out of Sunday school.
GROSS: That's an answer?
TAMBOR: And I sort of...
TAMBOR: And I had a little problem with it. And also, I just wasn't into it. Anyhow, I had a bar mitzvah. I learned it from Cantor Bornstein. Actually, I think I was a little dazed during it. Do you remember there used to be a drug called Miltown? Do you know that drug?
GROSS: Yeah, it was, like, one of the early anti-anxiety pills.
TAMBOR: Yeah, yeah. And so my mother - we got out of the car and my mother said - my mother was really interesting - and she said, are you nervous? I said, yeah, I'm really nervous. She goes, here. And she gave me a Miltown.
GROSS: So you were drugged, basically (laughter)...
TAMBOR: Basically drugged...
GROSS: ...To do your bar mitzvah.
TAMBOR: Drugged at my bar mitzvah, yes. But I gave a great speech.
GROSS: (Laughter). What did you say?
TAMBOR: A great - I just - I kind of went off script and just started thanking anybody that was in the synagogue.
GROSS: You were feeling good (laughter).
TAMBOR: I was feeling good. I was in the moment.
GROSS: You've said in other interviews that your father gave you the advice, don't celebrate, they'll take it away from you. And this is - this is the kind of advice from, you know, like, long periods of suffering and persecution that Jewish people, you know, faced through the centuries. But were there times in your family where it was an official celebration, it was your duty to celebrate - like, you're not supposed to be too happy, but on these days, it's your job to be happy?
TAMBOR: Well, my dad's thing was - I mean, we practically had don't celebrate printed on the napkins.
TAMBOR: It was serious business. But his big thing is - I would say, Dad, Dad, Dad, I'm on Broadway with George C. Scott. And he would say sh-sh-sh-sh, don't say anything. Don't tell anybody. Dad, Dad, I'm getting married. Sh-sh, don't say it. Nothing, nothing. Don't do anything. So he honestly - 'cause he was taught don't celebrate, they'll take it away from you. And his parents were taught that, and his parents and parents' parents. Because if you did celebrate and you were visible, it could be very, very dangerous.
TAMBOR: So part of it is just trauma, but part of it is fact.
GROSS: You grew up in San Francisco. Your father was a flooring contractor, but I think he'd been a boxer before that. Is that right?
TAMBOR: Yeah. He was a light heavyweight. Legend has it - legend is that he sparred with Joe Lewis. And again, let me really reiterate - legend. And his mom made him give it up because she was so worried about it. But I do remember once when he was selling tile out in the front of the store - he was a very big man. He was about 6-foot-1 - and he was stooped over in this position. It was very odd. It was very submissive position. He was talking to this guy - this short guy - and I later found out that was his boxing trainer and he was assuming the position that you do in the corner listening to his trainer. And it was a very memorable thing. I also remember once when I was - after he'd passed away - and I really - I really loved my dad. I was very, very close to my dad. He - you know, he was very, very nervous about my being an actor. And I went to clean out his office. I never knew that - he just never really - he just worried, worried, worried about me being an actor. He didn't say much. He didn't - you know, in other words. And I went to get his trophies and his stuff out of his office, and I opened his office door, and there wasn't a single piece of wall space that did not have my picture or reviews on it. It was unbelievable. He had saved every review, but he'd never said anything.
GROSS: So that's great. He was kind of proud and kind of bragging to himself in a space that no one would see (laughter).
TAMBOR: Exactly - which is exactly right, and exactly what...
GROSS: It fits perfectly.
TAMBOR: And exactly what that generation did. He did - he did see me on Broadway. I was with Robert Preston in "Sly Fox." And then he saw me just before he passed away in my first film role, with Al Pacino, in "...And Justice For All," so that's - that was good. I later found out - somebody came up to me and said, you know, your dad supered at the Met. And I said what? They said, yeah, your dad held a spear at the Met on Saturday. Supernumerary - in other words, an extra. And...
GROSS: Oh, so the Metropolitan Opera.
TAMBOR: Yeah, yeah. And so I went - so maybe - I think there was a grudging sort of - there was a lot more to be said about Barney Tambor than he was letting on to.
GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Tambor. He stars as a transgender woman in the Amazon series "Transparent." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jeffrey Tambor. He stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." He also co-starred on "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Arrested Development."
So one of the great roles that you played was on "The Larry Sanders Show." And Larry Sanders was played by Garry Shandling. And Larry was this late-night "Tonight Show"-style host. And you played the sidekick, Hank. And your catchphrase was - you want to do it for us?
TAMBOR: Hey, now.
GROSS: Yeah. And so I want to play a scene from "The Larry Sanders Show" in which Larry Sanders tells you that maybe it's time to drop your catchphrase, hey, now. So here's my guest, Jeffrey Tambor, with Garry Shandling, on "The Larry Sanders Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")
GARRY SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know, Hank, this isn't easy for me, but would you mind not doing it on the show anymore? 'Cause frankly, I'll you the truth...
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Well, wait a minute. Are you telling me that when you...
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) ...Do your - you do this...
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Yeah.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) ...That isn't the same affectation? That isn't the same as my hey, now?
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) There, you just said it again. And, you know, I asked you not to say it.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) I can't say it offstage, either?
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) It doesn't even exist. Use hey, now in a sentence, Hank.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Hey, now, that was real funny.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know what, Hank? It's not even in the dictionary, hey, now.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) OK, this is - this is how I use hey, now in a sentence, OK? You say, and of course, my sidekick, Hank.
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) And of course, my sidekick, Hank.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Hey, now...
SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Hank.
TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) That's a sentence.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's a scene from "The Larry Sanders Show" with Garry Shandling and my guest, Jeffrey Tambor.
TAMBOR: Everything - when I watched Garry Shandling, I said, whatever he's doing is what I believe in. That's what I believe comedy is. It's not pat, it's not automatic. It's not super performed. It's sort of messy and very, very funny. And he goes past the laugh to get something else.
GROSS: So this final question - this might be heading into territory that's too personal.
TAMBOR: I kind of want - I want - I kind of want to talk to you for the rest of my life.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's so sweet. I would enjoy that too (laughter).
TAMBOR: Yes, yes. Go ahead.
GROSS: So - so you've been sober for, I don't know, more than a decade. I don't know how many years exactly.
TAMBOR: Sixteen - 15.
GROSS: I'm wondering if it's liberating to be sober in the sense that - you know, an actor has to be kind of naked in a lot of ways. Like, you're inhabiting somebody else but you have to feel free to go to uncomfortable places and everything and to not be - to be open to feeling things. And if you have a secret, like if you have been secretly drinking or something, that has to kind of close you off in some way so - I would assume. So I'm wondering if it's easier to be open in a way that you must as an actor when you're sober?
TAMBOR: Well, being sober...
GROSS: Even though people think it's more freeing to - you know, to be high.
TAMBOR: Yeah. Actually, I can only speak for me. In my life, I find that in sobriety, I feel much more. And I have much more depth. I also feel - not to segue - but as being a parent of five kids, I can bring much more to my acting. And so I'm all about anything that gives you more feeling and more depth. You also feel more. And in feeling more, there are - the waters can get rough. But so what? Let the waters be rough. I don't think if I had - if I hadn't been sober, I don't think I would have been around for "Transparent."
GROSS: All right. Thank you for that.
TAMBOR: Yeah. I think your resources are feeling. Your resources are depth. Your resources are learning. Your resources are touching and feeling. And for me, sobriety helps and aids all of that.
GROSS: Jeffrey Tambor, I enjoyed our talk immensely. Thank you so...
TAMBOR: Me too.
GROSS: ...Much for doing this.
TAMBOR: Me too. Thank you. OK, so we do - we talk every 10 years. Is that correct?
GROSS: (Laughter) That's true.
GROSS: We could speed it up a little bit.
TAMBOR: I think we're going to have to.
GROSS: We're going to have to.
GROSS: Jeffrey Tambor stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." Our interview was originally broadcast December 10, just before all of season two went up. Tomorrow, we continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. We'll hear from Mark Ronson, whose record "Uptown Funk" featuring Bruno Mars was one of this year's biggest hits. Ronson also produced Amy Winehouse's hit, "Rehab." And we'll hear from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, co-creators of the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." They previously worked together on "Parks And Recreation." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.