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  1. Life & Culture

The transformation of Jeffrey Tambor

Jeffrey Tambor, in his latest role, is not the man you think he is. In Transparent, a new series from Amazon, the actor plays Mort, a person who late in life is ready to be themself — a transgender woman named Maura. The 10-episode, half-hour series has scored high with critics, especially the performance of Tambor, best known for his roles in The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development.

Q: What was it like tackling a character like this at this stage in your career?

A: Well, here I am, I'm 70 years old. Maura is 70 years old. I guess in an actor's life there is about half a dozen times where you go (eyes widen). This is one of those times. This wakes up every cell in my body. I read it. I met with (show creator) Jill Solloway. This is all I ever wanted to do as a young actor. I wanted to have a role this special. I feel very honored to bring this character forward. The secret in our business is to work with people who get you. (Jill) gets me. And then the people she casts, dear God.

Q: How was it finding your way into Mort and Maura — and going back and forth between them in the beginning?

A: The pilot was a little different than the shooting. After we came back, I had to realize that I had to go further and deeper. I received wonderful help and advice from our consultants, Jenny Boylan, who has written three out-of-the-park books that really, really helped me. And then I met with her and we had one of the most special afternoons. Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker were also transgender consultants who helped me so much. They took me out on my first field trip.

Q: What did that entail?

A: They came to the hotel, and we had a long, long talk. They taught me a little bit about makeup and things like that. Then we put on our wardrobe. I put on makeup. I put on a wig. And I can remember my legs were shaking, literally trembling — not so much because we were going to a club, but I was so nervous about the walk through the hotel lobby. And I remember telling myself: "Remember this. Don't forget this. Let this instruct every single one of your shots and your days." And it did. It has nothing to do with the entirety of what being a transgender person is, by any means, but it informed me.

The psychology is what's imperative. The other stuff — hair, wardrobe — is facile. When I went to have my nails painted, I just walked into this manicure place and did it. A couple of people, though, in there had a problem with it and they were looking at me, but I had no problem. The real thing is to look within and find your own, for want of a better word, femininity.

Another thing I wanted to do was go grocery shopping. I wanted to figure out what her life would be like alone, in transition, and what would she buy, how she would interact with strangers. I know it sounds method-y, but actually, it was just a way to get to know her. Afterward, we went to lunch and there were a couple of people who looked at me: And I couldn't figure out — "Are they looking at me because I look odd, or are they recognizing that I'm Jeffrey Tambor?" But I said, it doesn't really matter because whatever I'm feeling and the way I'm being looked at is something that makes me feel judged. Then we went outside and there were no tables available! And so that meant we had to sit with people. We sat with this man. He looked up casually, kept texting, looked up, kept texting. Then he walked away and said, "Have a nice day, ladies." And I beamed.

Q: Did anything surprise you in the process of finding Maura?

A: I found that in a way I get to handshake once again with my mom. We were fierce combatants in our life, but here we have a chance to agree and to have a nice hug. And I find that I'm doing gestures that she does. And she was quicksilver in her humor. And a big surprise to me is that Maura is funny.

Here's the fail-safe built into this role: Maura's very early on in her transition and she makes mistakes. So the mistakes that I, Jeffrey the actor, made sometimes actually helped. And, in a way, Maura was very clear to me. I just had to get to her. I took it day by day. And, I mean, I was very ignorant. And I'm still learning. The basic question of the whole pith of what we're doing is: Will you still love me if I changed? Will you still be there for me? And I think those are the questions that we all have and ask all the time. Around that dinner table, everybody has a secret. We can all relate to this family. Secrets are very powerful and very dangerous.

Q: Okay. People watch the episodes. What do you hope the morning-after conversation to be?

A: My hope is for people to say to someone else, "I saw this show ... Do you have Amazon? I gotta tell you, 'you gotta watch this show,' " That's what I hope happens, on an entertainment-level. On a personal level, I want the conversation to move forward on this very important subject. This show is not the answer, but I hope we're part of the answer in that conversation moving forward. There's a great line from ...And Justice for All when Al Pacino goes, "We're just people. We're just people." And that's the beat.