What's It Like to Play an Aging Jewish Transgender Woman?

‘I think she’s a beauty not because of the make-up but because of her spirit,’ says actor Jeffrey Tambor of ‘Maura,’ his character on ‘Transparent.’

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A shot from Transparent
A shot from Transparent

Jeffrey Tambor is such a versatile actor that he has no problem portraying two characters in the same television series. In “Arrested Development,” he played both George Bluth, Sr. and Oscar Bluth, identical twins, one of whom was bald while the other had long hair. Now, in “Transparent,” he’s also portraying two characters, one bald and one with long hair: Mort Pfefferman, who decides at age 70 to come out of the closet as a transgender and become a woman whose name is Maura.

Before these two well-regarded series, Tambor stole the show on “The Larry Sanders Show,” a brilliant HBO comedy in the 1990s, portraying Hank Kingsley, sidekick and foil of Larry, (played by Garry Shandling), who also coined the catchphrase, “Hey, now!”

Speaking with Tambor, who was in Los Angeles, I ask him how he feels about being in “Transparent.”

Hitting the lottery

"Oh I am over the moon! My Gosh I’m over the moon!” he said. “I am just so grateful, it is the best, it is the best. First and foremost, I am honored to be in this company. I am very humble at that and then you know I’m 70 years old and roles like Maura – they don’t come along in a career and so I am very happy. After ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ and ‘Arrested Development’ there is this, it’s like I hit the lottery.”

You also have to sense that a series is going to be brilliant before it’s made.

In this July 12, 2014 file photo, Jeffrey Tambor, left, and Jill Soloway appear during the "Transparent" panel at the Amazon 2014 Summer TCA in Beverly Hills, Calif. Credit: AP

“I was out to Los Angeles from my home in New York to do a talk show and my wonderful representatives sent me this script and said ‘you must read this.’ By the time I got to my hotel, which is 15 minutes away from Los Angeles International, I called them and I said, ‘I’m in,’ And they said you have to make sure, and I said, ‘I’m in, I’m in, I’m in.’

“I met Jill Soloway [the creator of the series]. She was great and I saw her movie ‘Afternoon Delight.’ But I agree with you. I read this and I knew from the beginning that this was it, this is that kind of writing, this is that kind of family, this is that kind of role.”

Tambor was born and raised in San Francisco in a Jewish family whose roots are in Hungary and Ukraine. His mother, Eileen Salzberg, was a housewife, and his father, Michael Bernard Tambor, a building contractor. Tambor has been married three times and has five children.

The family in “Transparent” is also Jewish, and the series is full of Jewish references, whether it be a ring from Treblinka, candle-lighting with a blessing, or marking Tu Bishvat. In an interview with the Hitfix website in February, series creator Soloway said she wanted the series to be “super Jewy.”

“There’s a lot of Jewish writers, but the old adage is ‘write Jewish, cast British,’ Soloway said. “You’re supposed to write the Jewish anxieties, but then take out any references to Tu Bishvat and make sure that the actors look WASP-y. So I think I’m gonna subvert that and write Jewish, cast Jewish, act Jewish, fall apart Jewish, make mistakes Jewish, cry Jewish.”

Tambor confirms: “This family is very authentic, it felt really wonderfully Jewish to me.”

Can you explain how the Jewishness plays out?

“I can’t. It’s a way of humor, it’s a flavor, it’s the difference when you read Philip Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It’s West Coast Jewy, which I love,” he said.
Once he brought his eldest daughter to the set of “Transparent.” “She said first of all, ‘Dad, I am very proud that you are doing this,’ and that just made me so happy. She is my first born and she is my college professor and you know I was very proud. And then she said, ‘And by the way, you know you are pretty.’ And I think Maura is pretty. It’s always a pleasure to look at Maura’s beauty. And I think she’s a beauty not because of the make-up but because of her spirit.”

It’s clear you’ve gotten very into the character.

“There is an advantage in acting that you’re stuck with the character and the character is stuck with you. I have an arthritic left knee, so that means Maura has an arthritic left knee. I have reading glasses, so Maura has reading glasses – if you get my drift. You know there is another breakthrough here that I don’t even think was intended, but is a part of it, that – she’s ‘of age,’ you know. Maura is 70.

“I so loved Maura and she was so real to me, and I so loved sitting in the makeup chair and having her appear real to me every morning. I know I sound terrible but Maura was very beautiful and real to me and I would say that I was Maura, I always do that. She was very comfortable and would come and let me say hello to her each morning.”

There aren’t too many series that portray sexuality in people that age.

“It is very courageous and the way she leads the family she becomes a true parent because she is basically saying, ‘You know you must have your freedom, you must have your authenticity, you must follow your dream,’ and she makes a break for her freedom at 70 years old. Some people never do it! That, to me, is very moving.”

While preparing for the role, he worked with three consultants from the transgender community, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, whom he would pepper constantly with questions, big and small. His look as Maura is the work of Johnston Burton, who did the makeup, and Marie Larkin, who did the hair.

“I learned that I was ignorant with a capital ‘IG,” he says. “I learned that most people are highly ignorant of this entire question. There is phobia, fear and prejudice and these are human lives. I believe it’s no less than a revolution what’s going on, and the subject needs to have light, it needs to have warmth, because rights are at stake here. I felt the huge responsibility of that and my hands shook every day. I was nervous during all episodes. Not because I wanted to be good or get good marks, but I really thought that this was much bigger than Jeffrey Tambor.”

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