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Q&A: Transparent Creator Jill Soloway on Transgender Stories and Indie TV

11 minute read

On Sept. 26, Amazon Prime Video premieres the ten-episode first season of Transparent, in which Jeffrey Tambor stars as Maura Pfefferman, a senior citizen with three grown kids who’s transitioning from the identity of Mort Pfefferman. I wrote about Transparent for TIME’s fall arts preview after seeing the pilot and called it the best new show of the fall. I’ve now seen four episodes, and it might be the best new show, or best show period, of the year. It’s every bit as powerful and moving as the pilot–a funny-but-melancholy story of family members going through their own identity crises even as they, one by one, learn the big news about their father’s identity.

In August I spoke to Transparent‘s creator, Jill Soloway (previously a producer and writer on Six Feet Under and United States of Tara) about the themes of the show and the process of making TV not for a TV network. Below is an edited excerpt:

Having made other shows for cable, has the process for Amazon been different? Was the turnaround faster?

Soloway: It’s absolutely been faster. As a point of comparison one of our lead actors, Jay Duplass, had this show called Togetherness and it’s [going to be] on HBO. It’s a similar size and style. I think he did eight episodes. From the moment that the idea was first pitched until the moment the series airs, in the case of Togetherness I think it’s going to end up being something like three or four years. With Transparent it’s going to end up being about a year and a half.

You had met with networks other than Amazon before, right, or around the same time?

I wrote the script and my agent sent it to the eight usual suspects. My dream was that HBO would say we love it, we’ll shoot it right now. But they said, we like it, we’ll develop it. We might shoot it one day. Which is completely par for the course for HBO and a completely respectable way to respond. The processes at a larger network that’s more established involve, you know, needing to get people on board with an idea from the pitch stage to: okay, let’s buy it. These are all the ways that people, you know, slowly but surely allow a project to rise through the ranks so that they do get to the place where they say let’s order the pilot.

And there really aren’t ranks at Amazon. There’s a guy named Joe Lewis who reports to a guy named Roy Price and that’s it. [On a TV network] you’re getting notes from the studio or from the network saying “It’s not quite right for our network president yet. They don’t like it yet. Change this. Cast that person. You know, this person isn’t attractive enough or this person is too… these moments are too weird. This is too odd. This doesn’t sit right with the person above you.” There is no person above me that I’m trying to make things sit right with. It’s just myself. And that feels like unprecedented and amazing and I feel like I have – like I’m in Renaissance Italy and I have a patron or something.

You’ve said that you’ve been thinking of Transparent as a five-hour movie. Have you planned for the possibility of future seasons?

Yeah, we’re crossing our fingers that we’re going to get a second season. Even though I see it as a five hour movie it doesn’t feel like it stands alone. It feels like it’s sort of a novel, and there’s another novel coming. The characters are definitely already telling me what happens next. I already see into episodes one and two of season two.

You made this show just after you’d done Afternoon Delight. And it made me think that, in the same way that Girls has some of the same sort of themes and point of view as Tiny Furniture did for Lena Dunham, Transparent shares some settings and themes with Afternoon Delight. Is TV becoming a more hospitable place to tell the kinds of stories people used to in indie film?

A hundred percent. After our films show on the big screen [at Sundance], for the most part most of the filmmakers are thinking about distribution, and for the most part that means day and date or VOD. It’s a real understanding as a filmmaker right now that your biggest audience is gonna come from iTunes or Netflix. With a click of an icon you have people all over the country if not the world watching it where they want to, at home.

So as filmmakers I think I was part of a community of people who really were, really, talking each other out of even being interested in the theatrical experience over the past few years. There was that Steven Soderbergh state of the union thing that he did at the San Francisco Film Festival, where he basically said that unless you’re making content that can be translated into foreign languages–you know, action sequences, crazy explosions–it can’t survive theatrically. So yeah, independent filmmakers already have their heads around people on their couches watching their movies. For me coming out of Sundance and having Amazon offer this opportunity, it felt like I was gonna get to make a movie and I already had distribution.

I mean, honestly I hate to keep saying this because I’m afraid that it’s going to go away, but it really feels like a dream come true creatively, artistically and financially to have the kind of budget to make work that feels, for me, exactly like Afternoon Delight. I have my same cinematographer, my same editor, my same hair person, my same makeup person. Normally I think the people you would use on your first film, it would be a real struggle to bring them with you onto your television show. I just brought every single person with and expanded my little indie film world.

And in the way I find Hannah Horvath to be somewhat like the character that Lena played in Tiny Furniture, I think the story of Sarah and Len [in Transparent], the couple who live in Silver Lake with small kids, you know, are very much the story of Rachel and Jeff [in Afternoon Delight]. I would just use that as shorthand, Sarah is Rachel. Same wardrobe, same world, same struggles, same luck.

There’s this great line in the pilot where Maura is in her group and wonders aloud, “They’re so selfish. How did I raise three people who are incapable of seeing beyond themselves?” It feels like really, really key because it’s – the pilot seems very unsparing of these characters but also not judgmental of them.

I think what’s underneath Maura’s asking of that question–to me part of the absurdness of the question is that Maura is sitting in a group revealing her true self, unaware of why her kids are selfish, but they have no idea who she is and they grew up in the shadow of this secret. And growing up in a house with a secret creates a certain environment that could potentially cause – I don’t know. I don’t know if the narcissism is personal, if it’s psychological, if it’s familial or if it’s societal. I think it’s a little bit of everything. We’re a whole culture of people who have a really hard time seeing beyond themselves.

A story about a transgender character raises all sorts of questions about pronouns, names, who identifies as what and when. Have you thought of the character as “Maura” from the beginning, or as “Mort” who becomes “Maura,” or…?

Yeah, it’s been a process that’s emerged for me over the course of the past year as I’ve become more educated about trans politics. And it’s still quite a sticky subject for many people because there’s so much that’s unspoken about transness. In season one we weighed into some incredibly murky waters that even active trans thinkers sort of urged us to stay away from, and that is the connection or disconnection between cross-dressers and trans women.

You know, under the so-called transbrella, a lot of people in America don’t even know the difference between trans women, cross-dressers and drag queens. But those are three distinctly different ways of expressing femininity. Cross-dressers and drag queens share the notion that they do it part time, and trans women are amidst a civil rights struggle to be accepted for having their gender not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth. I think most people would like to just sort of very simply say well, you know, that is the difference, part-time versus full-time. Do you put it on for expression purposes or is it who you are?

So we’re asking that question to ourselves. When does Mort become Maura? Is Mort changing into Maura? Is Maura allowing herself to finally be seen and pushing aside the character or the costume of Mort? That’s really exactly what we’re exploring season one, and we’re doing a lot of flashbacks so that we see Mort in the past cross dressing, with the feeling of secrecy and a certain amount of shame and hiding out.

Did you feel from the get go that Maura should be played by a cisgender man rather than a woman or a trans woman?

There’s always been something about Jeffrey Tambor not only as an actor but as a person, where his ability to embody a sort of very dignified feminine way of being just – this was just very clear to me. I could just see Maura in Jeffrey. It is, again, a touchy subject, casting a cis man in a role of a trans woman. Beyond the identities of trans women and trans men, there’s the identify of genderqueer, people who don’t necessarily fit into either categorization – that could be where Maura ends up identifying at the end of five seasons. She might identify as third gender or genderqueer. I think in this particular situation I had to just cast the best actor.

We did take great pains to be sure that there were other trans actors playing the rest of the trans characters, and we’re doing a sort of trans affirmative action program on our show. We’re getting a lot of trans folk on the crew as extras. Maura has a best friend named Divina played by Alexandra Billings, a trans woman actress. And Ali has a love interest named Dale who’s played by – probably one of the largest roles every played by a trans man because there’s so little trans men visibility on TV — a comedian named Ian Harvie. We have two producers named Reese Ernst and Zachary Drucker who are just super awesome trans activists, writers, producers, directors – they’re kind of all around trans superstars. And then there’s a woman named Jenny Boylan who was a great inspiration to me. She wrote a book called She’s Not There and a bunch of other books about being trans. She also came and spent a bunch of time in the writer’s room with us.

But I had to cast the person who embodies Maura’s soul. And hopefully in the future these kinds of questions will be moot, because gender will be less of a dividing factor and maybe more of a unifying one.

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