[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran in December 2014 when Mr. Tambor was nominated for a Golden Globe — an award he went on to win. Now the talented thespian is nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, hence the article’s redistribution.]
Like a fine wine Maura might be found sipping with her family, Jeffrey Tambor keeps getting better with age.
The veteran actor and acting teacher is no stranger to TV: While he did consistent character work in the medium through the ’70s and ’80s, including repeated appearances on “Three’s Company,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Hill Street Blues,” Tambor truly broke out in the early ’90s on “The Larry Sanders Show.” The HBO comedy earned him four Emmy nominations, and then “Arrested Development” nabbed him two more in 2004 and 2005.
Now, though, the 70-year-old California native may have snagged his best, most important part to date as Maura, the transgender parent of three adult children on Amazon’s first major awards contender, “Transparent.” A few days before Thanksgiving, Tambor took some time to speak with Indiewire about the importance of the role he calls “bigger than me,” what it would mean to him to snag his first Golden Globe nomination, and whether or not Maura would like to attend the ceremony herself.
The reviews for “Transparent” have been through the roof, but the traditional public feedback has to be more sporadic, considering the show was released all at once. How have you been hearing from fans?
Well, not only do we send out the show in a new and revolutionary way, the revolution is here. I am on social media, and I do enjoy social media a bit. But, just based on that, I can tell that very nice things have been said. Mostly, I’m getting people shouting out nice things and saying “hi” and “how are you,” which is very nice and is not the way—when I first began, it wasn’t that way. It’s a new world. You know what people tell you and people come up to you in the market and say nice things or I saw this and things like that. […] You’re aware that your show is being received and not only in the media and things like that, but also being received by people, which is very important. Somebody came up to me recently and grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you.” And I said [to myself], “Well, that’s nice.” I hope they were thanking me about “Transparent” instead of just thank you!
[laughs] Yeah, you might have just given them your parking spot.
I know, they might have thought I was their dentist.
It always seemed fun to me, for actors with shows on traditional platforms, that when an episode would air, they would be walking around and somebody would come up to them saying, “I can’t wait to see next week’s episode.”
When you get a good review, people will tell you. When you get a bad review, people will tell you. It’s just the nature of the deal. None of this was on our mind when we were doing this. We were pinning it down, full joy ahead, and I do know that it’s a pretty ubiquitous comment amongst the cast and we all say that we’re in this dream because it’s very, very nice. I don’t mean to sound glib and all actor-y, but it’s very nice when what you’re sending out is being received the same way. I don’t know if that makes sense. Well, you’re a writer. You understand that. And that’s very pleasing. It’s very nice. I’m very proud to be in this show, and I think Jill Soloway is just a genius and a fabulous creator. Everywhere you look on this set at Gaby [Hoffman] and Jay [Duplass] and Amy [Landecker] and Judith [Light] and Bradley [Whitford] and Kathryn [Hahn]—everywhere you look, the role is being held down by such an authenticity and such a verve. It’s just really nice.
I was lucky to speak with Ms. Soloway a couple of times. It’s really inspiring to listen to her talk and knowing that this story was inspired by her own life. Is that something that you discussed with her to help craft Maura? Or was that something more independent?
I think she mentioned it at our meeting. I feel, and I think Jill feels the same way, that I’ve known Jill for centuries and there is so much—first of all, she wrote this part and this script beautifully. So, basically, you have to follow the beautiful map that’s in there. Did we talk about that? No. I think it was the spark, and I think she did it in her individualistic way and Maura is very clear in the pages. So, there wasn’t a great deal involved, but I did know. I did know of that, yes.
When I was on set watching you work, I got the impression that you might be a little protective of Maura, or just very proud of Maura, and wanting to make sure that every little bit of it was right.
I don’t know if I was protective of Maura, but I am very aware of my responsibility to do Maura right. Not for reviews. Not for huzzahs. Not for memorization, but to do it right and that’s very important for the transgender community, for people, people with families. I like to say, and again it sounds glib, but I put all my politics in my performance to make her human.
But I don’t think I was protective of her on set. I was plenty nervous shooting this, especially the first weeks. I thought they were gonna have to carry me off after doing the scene coming out to Sarah, which was the second episode and the first week. My hands were shaking so much, and not from Jeffrey’s perspective and not as an actor, but as a responsible person. I just wanted to do that scene right because it is so important. That self-awareness pretty much through the whole 10 episodes, I was very—because it’s a privilege and it’s a big responsibility and it’s bigger than me.
It’s very funny because I am just reading this article in the New York Times about people going home for Thanksgiving and what they should do and [laughs] and I thought that’s just like our show because our show is very much about family. Our show asks a very important question: If someone in the family changes, will you still be there? If I change, will you be there? If I change, will you love me? If I change my direction, will you still be there? That’s a lot of chips to throw into the pot. The lives of the Pfeffermans are at stake, but I think—and I’m not overstating [even though] we’re a comedy and a dramedy—but this is about human lives. They always say, of acting, that you should act as if your life depended on it. That’s, I think, how I sort of “felt” about this.
It doesn’t feel political. It feels like the human stakes you talked about are right on the mark. It’s scary to reveal something about yourself to your family because if they don’t accept you, then what is the rest of the world going to think? They’re the most important people in your life.
It’s funny because people come up to me and they will say three things usually. Typically, not all the time. The first sentence is usually, “I didn’t know what to think,” which I find really interesting as a comment. The second thing is “I really liked it,” or something to that effect. The third thing is usually a story about their family. Somewhere in their family. Either a story like Maura’s, different ages, or even something just about their family or a friend. And that’s how you know. Those are the reviews that really mean a lot to me. Those “reviews.” Because you know something is going in. That’s why Jill and I and the cast would look at each other during different moments and go, “This is big.” I’m very proud of it. I’m not a teenager. Although you think I am! To get a role like this, give me a break. I’m one-fifth of this drama. The kids go their way. Kids are very interesting. Their first reaction—I’ve heard everything but the kids have gone through a great journey. They’re in shock at what has happened in their family and they’re in shock at Maura’s transformation and they act how people act. Then, they go on their own journey. They go on their own authenticity. I actually think, by the way, Maura is a better parent now than she was then.
Well, that makes sense. She’s very honest.
I think she’s in a better place to parent.
Yeah, she’s finally being honest with herself.
Did you talk about what kind of arc she was going to go on during this first season, past coming out?
No, I didn’t. I trust Jill with my personal and artistic life. No, I really didn’t participate in that. I just have to follow the yellow brick road. I’m sure there are things that you do as a person or you do or you are that elicit a reaction, but this writer and this writer’s room were genius.
You have to trust it.
I also love—and this is like my family and probably like your family—that at the point you think you’re gonna cry, you laugh. And at the point you think you’re gonna laugh, you cry! That’s exactly like it. And in just a few days, we’re all going to be sitting around the Thanksgiving table, and it’s all gonna be just like this. I do get that comment a lot, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before, that this seems like a real family. The pivotal scene for me when I was like ‘I get this’ [was] in the pilot in the barbecue scene, and we’re all eating barbecue and it’s all over our faces. I went, “Oh, I get this family. I get this.” I remember how powerful that was. I remember just saying, “Be still and just listen to the genius that is coming your way and Maura will take off.” And that was just looking into Jay Duplass’s eyes and Gaby’s and Amy’s and then out the window, I could see Jill and our wonderful DP Jim Frohna […] That was the singular moment for me when I said this is some kind of family.
You’ve received six Emmy nominations but you haven’t gotten anything from the Golden Globes. What would it mean to you to be recognized for the first time for this role in particular?
It would be very meaningful. If it means recognition for the show and if it means recognition for—no actor does anything alone and no writer does anything alone. I’ll be very succinct because if it causes more people to be aware of us, I’m for it, because that is the question that people have been coming up with. “I’ve heard so much about your show. How do I watch?” I want that bridge to be cemented. Am I making any sense?
Yes, because I get the same question.
I would love to stand on the stage and talk about the genius and greatness of the cast and this project. I would be honored.
This might be a silly question, but what do you think Maura would think of awards season? What would her take be on going to something like the Golden Globes?
I think Maura would love it. Maura may be 70 years old, but she still has teenager in her. She’s down for a party. Her life has started again. I would guess that she would be for it. What do you think?
I think she would love the red carpet and being at the party—having dinner and walking around greeting everyone. I think she’d enjoy it.
[laughs] Walking around! That’s so funny.
She’d have her own table. It’d be great.
Yes. Yes. As long as she was with friends, I think. As long as she felt secure and probably she would have to be with her family because when anything good happens—wow this is a good thing, I just had a realization—when anything good happens to Maura or anything sort of venturesome, she has to have her family around her as witnessed by Episode 8 in the talent show. I know what you’re gonna say…We do our best.
I think the dream would be seeing the whole family sitting around the table at the Golden Globes like they were sitting around the table eating the barbecue.
True. And that’s probably where they would end up after the awards season. They would just go “Let’s get the barbecue,” and they would go back to the house and all sit around.