Amazon Prime’s breakout comedy-drama “Transparent” has won countless awards and earned universal critical acclaim, but the one thing that becomes abundantly clear when you sit down with the show’s cast is that they are easily the biggest “Transparent” fans on the face of the earth. As much as audiences love the complicated dynamics of the Pfefferman family, the main ensemble loves it more. But any praise or congratulations you could possibly lend to their excellent performances — from Jeffrey Tambor’s Emmy-winning turn as Moira to Judith Light’s feisty Jewish matriarch Shelley — is instantly rejected and redirected to its rightful owner: creator-showrunner-writer-director Jill Soloway.
Mention Soloway’s name and the cast instantly lights up, quite eager to talk about her “artistic genius” and “auteur capabilities.” Regardless of how many years each actor had been in the business, when speaking with Indiewire each cited Soloway and her singular process as a unique entity, something that will forever be a highlight of their time as actors. The creator, meanwhile, is just as obsessed with her cast — while she’d never be content with taking the credit, there was a flicker in her eye that suggested she knew how the performances are a result of the freedom she gives them onset.
Talking to Indiewire about working with her cast, Soloway referred to shooting as “playtime” and openly admitted to bringing an indie attitude into the director’s chair. “One of the things we try to do is that I try to bring a feminist style of leadership to directing,” she said. “I don’t show up thinking I need to get this shot, or I need to get this moment or I need to get this joke. We literally show up and throw a wedding, as is the case in the premiere, and cover it like a documentary. Same thing with the scenes in Berlin — we basically just threw a party and we would tell all the background people that they wouldn’t know where the camera would be, so just have fun and always be in the moment.”
“We just want the actors to play and take chances, whether they’re being shot or not,” she continued. “For party scenes, we’re just like, ‘Have fun at this party and figure out your relationships. Who do you know here? Who don’t you know? Don’t worry about the cameras, we’ll find you.’ I think that style developed somewhat from independent film in the 1990s — even Cassavetes — but we just attempt to use the creative freedom we get from Amazon to try and do things that I personally want to try, which are lightness and freedom and a sense that anything can happen. Honestly, it ends up being a short cut to some seriously amazing footage.”
Soloway’s approach here is quite unorthodox in the world of television, but it’s a method the cast has fallen in love with and contributes to the show’s creative success. Below, five of the key cast members from “Transparent” weigh in on the effects of Soloway’s auteur methods and explain just how unique this experience is to this show.
Jeffrey Tambor (Moira Pfefferman): “I can’t think of many actors who would want to do it this way.”
“It used to be a joke when someone on set said, ‘Ok, let’s try one!’ But we actually do that. Jill’s mastery, and I may be speaking out of school here, but it seems to be, ‘Let’s try it and let’s get it up in rough shape,’ and more often than not it’s true. We’ll be refined as we do it and continue to explore it, but it’s so bare bones when we first get together. We don’t do a lot of talking. We do a lot of feeling and pitching, but there’s not a lot of talking, and that’s not my strongest suit honestly. I’ve worked with actors who love to talk about it, but I can’t. I have to be kinetically involved in order for me to even understand it and that seems to be the bones of this cast. Everybody works and operates this way.”
“I can’t think of many actors who would want to do it this way, and I can think of directors who would absolutely yell ‘cut’ on the first scene in the wedding, for instance. The first scene in the wedding is a mistake! The photographer was messing up and Jill just kept rolling. It’s a mistake, and because Jill lets the moment just develop on its own accord we’re able to capture that moment, which is truthful and messy and loud and honest in a way that you couldn’t get in a professional atmosphere. Most directors would have yelled ‘cut’ because it obviously wasn’t working out as planned, but Jill is so different. She lets the moments play out. She didn’t yell ‘cut.’ She was just laughing in video village, just loving it. That’s her genius. That’s why she loves Casavettes.”
Judith Light (Shelley Pfefferman): “It’s this very feminine idea of the womb.”
“We start with the rough shape and it gets tighter and tighter with every take, as we continue to explore the dynamics of the moment. I’ve never really worked that way before and it’s just completely freeing. Because of this, Jill unlocks things in you as a performer that you rarely thought you could explore. And I think that’s why she refers to it as this feminist approach to directing and leading this cast. It’s this very feminine idea of the womb, and letting something develop slowly and on its own accord, not forcing and tampering.”
Amy Landecker (Sarah Pfefferman): “It’s like being on acid.”
“I feel like I’m always talking about Jill, because it’s sort of like being in a Vince Gilligan show or being in a show like Matt Weiner makes or Louis C.K. or Larry David. When you have a creator who is given the budget and the freedom creatively to just execute their vision, no one is going to muddy it or dilute it, it’s this auteur approach. Jill is an auteur. That’s why people relate to it, because it’s not diluted. When things aren’t diluted, the humanity is so intense and felt. Jill is this tap root that we’re all spreading out from — the costume, lighting, music, there is not one part of this show that doesn’t come out of her aesthetic. I think that’s why people respond to it the way they do.”
“Jill’s big thing as a director is emotional truth over all. If the writing needs to go, fine. She is so flexible. There is no wrong on this set. I’ve never been told by her, ‘No, that is wrong, let’s do this.’ I’ve only been told, ‘Yes, I love that, and let’s also do this…’ She never makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong, and she never shuts you down. She gives you the freedom to explore any way you want. I can’t tell you how amazing it is as a performer. Shooting it this way makes it this revelry. It’s like being on acid because everyone’s in the moment all the time and not worrying about their coverage or angles or blocking. She forces you to open yourself up in the freest way possible. As long as you don’t challenge it, you let it in and trust the editors, every scene you will end up getting a great performance.”
Melora Hardin (Tammy Cashman): “It inspires everyone to be on, all the time.”
“It inspires everyone to be on, all the time. When they start rolling camera, you have no idea where they are or who is getting what, so everybody just has to go and do it the way they would do it. They might not be filming me, but I’m constantly thinking about what Tammy would be doing in that precise moment if she was being filmed. It becomes this world, this living and breathing world where everyone is just alive and existing in it. It’s a really sort of surreal experience to just have every member of the cast in a scene all just existing as their characters, but that’s what you get at some points on this show. AND what’s even better is that nobody cares about coverage, because even if you aren’t ‘in the shot,’ you being in character creates the world in which whoever is in the shot, and allows it to be authentic.
Gaby Hoffman (Ali Pfefferman): “There’s not even a formula for how it breaks the formula.”
“Jill is a genius at what she does. She’s been given this freedom and allowance and support. It’s so well done and it’s supported in being the best version of itself by a huge fucking company. That rarely happens. It’s like we’re making a really good independent film with the backing of a major fucking studio. Even when you’re making a really good independent film, it’s really hard to get the best version of that because you don’t have that much time and money and resources, but we have what feels like all the time and money in the world to make the best version of this thing that has all the potential in the world.”
“I made this movie ‘Crystal Fairy’ and the entire thing was improvised. It was just 12 of us in a van driving around Chile, and there was a lot of freedom there, but there were still these boundaries. We knew what we wanted to achieve and Sebastian Silva had his vision and we just followed our brave leader. ‘Crystal Fairy’ was 10 days and brilliant, but with ‘Transparent’ we are constantly finding out what it means to be making this show. Nothing about the way we make this show is traditional. There’s not even a formula for how it breaks the formula. On any given day Jill will be like, ‘Let me do it this way,’ and we’ve never done it that way!”
“It’s so collaborative, too. Jill has no ego; she is not attached to anything that has come before or that she has written or thought. If you have a better idea, she wastes no time in scrapping hers. It’s unprecedented.”
Kathryn Hahn (Rabbi Raquel): “What Jill has taught me is that it’s more time-effective to let there be more time.”
“The series feels so lived in and rich because so many of the little scenes that you see have been shot as much longer. What makes it into the final product is usually like three minutes of a 20-minute take that Jill has found the heart and soul of it. You might just be seeing a little part of it, but because we’ve explored each moment so thoroughly and so long, each little moment carries the emotional weight of an entire experience. Every rich little moment smells like history. You don’t need exposition at all because of that, and it’s great as an actress because you can’t just turn on the camera and expect to shoot a three-minute scene and find that emotional history in the performance. What Jill has taught me is that it’s more time-effective to let there be more time.”
“As for filming, you just never know when the camera is on you in some scenes, which can be scary I guess, but it really forces you to engage with a selfless form of working. You can’t get caught up in your own vanity, you just have to be in it all the time. You always have to be throwing the ball to your scene partner, receiving the ball from your scene partner, and that’s whether the focus is on you or not at all. You have to be helping them, they have to be helping you; you have to keep constantly raising the thing up like a balloon or else it will deflate.”
“Transparent” Season 2 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
READ MORE: Review: ‘Transparent’ Season 2 Surpasses Its Predecessor With Time-Jumping Transcendency