I first remember seeing Jeffrey Tambor on the Three’s Company spinoff The Ropers, where he played the snooty neighbor Jeffrey P. Brookes III. You might remember him later as sidekick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, or as criminal patriarch George Bluth (and twin brother Oscar) on Arrested Development or in dozens of other film and TV roles.
But Sept. 26, he’ll debut in what could be a career-defining role, neither in a film or on a TV network per se, as Amazon Prime Video releases the entire ten-episode season of Transparent. As Maura Pfefferman, nee Mort Pfefferman, Tambor plays the parent of three grown children who is about to tell them that their father is transitioning to life as a woman. Tambor is a revelation as Maura–soulful, fearful, yet also blossoming as she begins a brand-new life, in her senior years, as a newly minted L.A. earth mother. This Amazon gig may just ensure Tambor next-day delivery of an Emmy.
Last month, before I wrote about Transparent in TIME’s fall arts preview, I interviewed Tambor by phone. Below is an edited excerpt:
In the first episode we’re introduced to the character as Mort, and then learn that Mort is transitioning to Maura. In your mind, as you play the role, was the character always Maura?
The character in my mind is Maura. We did a thing that we would call we call “hirstories.” H – I – R – S – T – O – R – Y. I would enact a young Mort. And that always felt – it was so funny – it felt more difficult than playing Maura. I really got used to playing Maura.
What were some of the important things that you needed to learn in order to play a woman who is going through transition?
The short and long of it was that I had everything to learn and that was the real joy of it. It was the labor and the joy of it. I remember my first costume fitting where [the costume designer] Marie Schley said, “Well what do you like?” And I said, “I have no idea what I like!” I didn’t know anything. And rather than that being daunting, for some reason in my seventies I just said this is terribly exciting. Everything is brand new and I sort of welcomed it.
I was enabled by [stylist] Marie Larkin, and Emma Burton who did makeup, and Marie Schley. They created the case or the outside of Maura. It was my duty to create the inside. I didn’t know that I would have to do as much as I did. But at a certain point you have to put all those books down and you have to go inside and find your connection. And that was truly interesting and very rewarding work. Maura is new. And all the mistakes that Maura makes in life, Jeffrey was making in life. And all of the mistakes that Jeffrey was making, Maura was making.
She’s begun transitioning fairly recently, right?
Maura’s very young in her arc and that helped me. You had to go to a certain place of access and you had to ask some very basic questions. When I did the pilot, Mort was very real to me. When I got through with the ten weeks, Maura is even more real to me.
It sounds so trite, you know, to say I had to get in touch with my feminine side. But I mean there’s really no other way to say it. That’s what you have to do. It was so exciting every single day. I got to go to [the hair department] for the first time in 40 years!
Whatever issues the Pfeffermans have, the family also seems very close, when we see them eating takeout dinner together and Mort is trying to work up the nerve to come out as Maura. Can you describe their relationship?
This family seems to be very wonderful around food. Someone dies in the series and we have sort of a mini shiva, and we all sit around and have deli. There’s something very, very strong when this family sits around the table. That, to me, was so signal, that scene in the pilot. You look at the likes of Amy [Landecker] and Gaby [Hoffmann] and Judith [Light] and Jay [Duplass] – these are some very, very strong characters and some brilliant artistic killers sitting around the table. I remember sitting there and remember saying anybody who has ever had a fractious Thanksgiving will understand this family. And yes, they are very, very close and they are a bit dysfunctional. There’s a lot of secrets around that table, which is very interesting. I’m not the only one holding.
And then you know, Jill [Soloway, the creator] is very real and has an incredible Jewish sense of identity and humor. And the Pfeffermans of Los Angeles are very real.
You referred earlier to the production taking about ten weeks. Was shooting a show for Amazon in any way different from making a series in the past for a TV network?
We have been treated gorgeously by Amazon. Our production was shot with great care and alacrity. Personally I love that we’re sending this out on Amazon because — it’s just sort of cool. I mean this is not an anti-network statement. I just like the way we’re making it and I like the way we’re sending it.You know, I’m not 20 years old. It’s wonderful. I feel like I’m in an off-Broadway production.
And not many people get a role like this in their lifetime. So it was very exciting to get up every day and work with this caliber of writers and actors, and find out so much about the transgender issues, and meet people in the community who are actually working on our show in the front of the scenes and back of the scenes. I mean it’s like a brave new world that has such people in it.
It’s truly the most transformative, no pun intended – the most transformative role I’ve ever had. I can’t wait for it to open. Don’t I sound like a little kid?