A daughter who’s just unexpectedly encountered her father dressed in women’s clothing is sitting with him trying to make sense of what she’s seeing.
“Just help me out here,” she says. “Are you saying that you’re going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?”
The father laughs and shakes his head. “All my life, my whole life I’ve been dressing up like a man.”
Rewind. Repeat. Try not to cry.
That gut-punching encounter caps off the trailer for Transparent, Amazon Studios’ latest original offering. The moment doesn’t happen until the second episode, but it’s far from a spoiler. The series, which deals with a father’s late-life transition to living as a woman named Maura, wasn’t intended to be about secrecy at all.
“Jill [Soloway, the show’s creator, writer and director] didn’t want to launch the show with a long process of secrecy,” explained Amy Landecker, who plays Sarah, the daughter coming to terms with her father’s identity. “She wanted to launch the show with the truth. There’s something about that moment that makes everybody tear up. We all have that thing—when it’s said the right way, you get it. There’s an understanding. It’s so moving and so eloquently put.”
“You’re watching two beautiful actors, but you forget that they’re actors,” said Judith Light, who plays Maura’s ex-wife Shelly in the series. “They’re having this intimate experience between the two of them. They’re just so tender and truthful. Everybody knows universally what it means for their parent to tell you a truth about themselves that’s so infrequent and so rare; you are wide open. I think that happens between the two of them in that scene.”
Transparent follows Maura, played by Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor, as she opens up to her family about her female identity. While the show may hinge on Tambor as Maura and Maura’s journey to an authentic self, the rest of the family isn’t played simply for laughs or background moments. Each of their characters is crafted intricately and has his or her own individual complexities that contributes to the overall complexities of the entire ensemble.
“It is Jeffrey’s character that is the catalyst for this story,” explained Light. “His performance is beyond compare. What’s interesting to me about it is there’s a lot of what happens when someone does something that changes the entire dynamic of an entire family. But that’s just the content … of the story. Jeffery’s character chooses to live his authentic life as Maura, and in doing so goes through a process. Her process is something that we watch and follow. I think it’s the same for the rest of [the characters], except we’re not in as authentic of a process as she is. “I think that’s what makes for the humor, and I think that’s what makes for the complexities. I can say that the overall context is this family that loves each other deeply is in a great deal of shift and change.”
For some of the casting, Soloway took nontraditional routes. For the role of Josh, Maura’s only son, she first connected with fellow director Jay Duplass to see if he had any ideas. Over the course of a dinner, she realized Duplass might be the perfect person for the role himself and eventually cast him. Carrie Brownstein had her role created when Soloway began reshoots on the pilot and realized there was space for a character, Syd, whom Brownstein describes as having a triangulated relationship between Josh and his sister Ali, played by Gaby Hoffmann.
“I think her journey is both as an observer of the family, which she has been for many years, but also kind of figuring out her own agency in her own life,” said Brownstein. “Trying to figure out who she is away from these people who have taken up a lot of her time and energy.”
Light, who has a storied television career, told the Daily Dot she fell in love with Soloway’s Sundance film Afternoon Delight and “no pun intended, was delighted.”
“I was just really consumed with wanting to be in this project,” she continued. “I’d been involved in the LGBT community for so long, and I knew where she was coming from … She wanted to change the culture in a powerful way, and I believe that she was going to do it with this show. And I believe that she is doing it.”
Landecker, whose Sarah is going through her own coming out during the series as she reunited with her former college-era lesbian lover while still married to her husband, said she too was affected by Afternoon Delight in accepting her role.
“It’s in my top 10 films I’ve ever seen,” said Landecker. “I’ve never seen my personal identity as a single mother [and] sexual being represented so well. I thought, ‘Whatever she did to make all of that happen, if she’s going to use those powers, I will do anything to be a part of that.’”
The series, which premieres Sept. 26 on Amazon, will follow the Netflix route of releasing all episodes at once, allowing for the audience to binge-watch the whole season. That’s a thrilling but also scary prospect for some of the cast.
“For me it’s exciting and a little overwhelming that we just finished shooting six weeks ago and in a week everyone is going to see everything we did,” said Duplass. “A lot of times you end up waiting a very long time having your stuff come out, but this is so fast and immediate.”
“A couple of my friends have offered to have viewing parties with me and I was like, ‘No!,’ explained Landecker. “I don’t want to watch the whole thing with people. It’s very personal. But I do binge-watch things, I watched House of Cards and I watched Scandal during a flu epidemic where I spent 14 hours in bed.”
Her costar Light claims to never have binge-watched anything, but she says aside from that technological advantage, there are other benefits to working with a digital-based network like Amazon.
“I remember being on the set and a whole bunch of the executives from Amazon came over,” Light said. “For those of us who’ve been on network television for a long time, you start wondering, ‘Why are you here, did we do something wrong?’ And they go, ‘Hey, we love the show, we just wanted to come hang out!’ It’s not just our story; it’s everybody’s baby.”
Landecker explained that the unique position of a well-funded network that only needs to please a small group of people in order to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish was important to her.
“You get this incredibly niche art that’s produced with the budget of a network television show,” she said. “There’s not a mandate on it that there is on network television, where something wonderful can get canceled when there’s not enough eyes on it. This whole experience started three years ago with [Soloway’s] own father, and in three years she’s written, produced, directed and will be releasing an entire television show based on this life experience. That’s unheard of in Hollywood.”
For some cast members, like Duplass, the lines between digital and mainstream have already blurred for his personal consumption of media.
“For me, I watch Amazon on my TV,” he explained. “I watch HBO on HBO Go. It all comes through my TV, whether it’s Web-based content or TV-based content, or usually movie content because I have young kids right now. In a weird way, to me, there’s really no difference between watching an HBO show or an Amazon show. I don’t know how many people are doing that, but it’s already at a point to me where I don’t perceive the difference.”
Amazon is banking on the propensity for viewers to expect TV-quality art from their digital shows with this week’s premiere, but Landecker stressed that the unique delivery system gives the show a chance to both make a splash and take its time to gain an audience if needed.
“What’s great about a show like this is if it doesn’t catch fire in September, you have plenty of time,” she said. “It’s out there and word of mouth can spread.”
If the trailer and the reviews from early viewers are any indication, Transparent is poised to become an Amazon success story.
It just has to come out first.
Photo via Amazon Studios