It’s not every day that a showrunner throws a gleeful “topple the patriarchy!” into their Emmys acceptance speech, but then again, it’s not every day that a show so roguishly boundless as Transparent makes it way onto the airwaves. Jill Soloway, who previously made her name on similarly idiosyncratic series like Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara, has more recently developed her own brand of self-acceptance and open-hearted comedy with projects like Afternoon Delight and Transparent in less than half a decade. As her Amazon series, which has a glowing public profile that nearly precedes it (don’t be put off by the hype, the show is really that good) rolls into its third season, you might imagine a certain amount of cool, detached ownership of a series that so clearly emanates from Soloway’s own being. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
To hear Soloway talk about the series – both what she thinks it is and what she hopes it will yet become – is to hear notes of warm, familial intensity so earnest they feel almost out of place at a press junket. For Soloway, it seems the Pfeffermans are real; though that’s not so surprising considering Transparent was in part inspired by her experience with her own trans parent. Referring to the series’ cast as “my whole gang” with tender affection, and consciously crafting an environment on the series that’s both diverse and inclusive, Soloway seems well on her way to creating a television empire founded on compassion and sincerity even as she attempts to spearhead a revolution.
Collider had the chance to attend Transparent’s Season 3 press day, during which Soloway opened up about hiring trans talent, the pressure of Peak TV, the central arc of the upcoming season, and when she imagines the series will end.
QUESTION: The second season, one of the overarching themes was of familial trauma and resilience, and I know in this season there are flashbacks to Moira’s past, where there are neuroses about the bomb scare. And I was wondering what made you want to excavate the historical as well as the familial?
SOLOWAY: In Season 2, we started talking about epigenetic memory, which I very simply phrase as, “why Jews get so nervous at airports,” at the checkpoints. Even if you didn’t have parents who first-hand experienced the Holocaust, there’s some epigenetic memory that, “we’re in trouble, we’re being caught, we’re being chased.” And actually, I don’t think you have to be Jewish to have that constant feeling of being in trouble. And fear of checkpoints and fear of lining up, and being an immigrant and being kept out. It’s so personal, it’s inside everybody’s body, and it’s so political right now. This feeling in this country, what’s happening right now is connected to what was happening in World War II in Berlin. So when we got to Season 3 and we asked the questions of Moira coming to this country – she more or less mirrors the age of my parent who came to this country, my trans parent is ten years older than Moira. We just really wanted to get that 12-year-old Moira, that age of that child who’s not a kid, and who’s not a teenager yet. And for me when I look at the sort of YouTube videos of trans kids, I feel like they’re these kind of undeniable ambassadors, and even people who have a lot of prejudice, drop their prejudice when they see a 12-year-old trans kid saying, “this is who I am.”
So we were really excited to find that trans actor and show Moira’s life at that age, and when we looked back to see what was happening in the country, it was duck and cover, drills, bomb shelters, hiding. Children with the feeling that a nuclear explosion could happen at any time. Kids at that age were being told, “when you go to school, the entire world might blow up.” And I actually think a lot of kids feel that way right now in terms of the mass shootings. There’s a constant feeling of “we’re in danger.” So for us it emanates straight into that familial feeling.
With the show going from little known at the beginning to –
SOLOWAY: A gigantic billboard in time square! I saw that last night and I was like, “it’s huge!”
I see this with Mr. Robot where, you’re a rookie of the year, people love you, and I know you’re going into Season 3 not two, but do you feel this pressure that suddenly people will hold the show to a higher standard and you’ve gotta hit a much higher bar?
SOLOWAY: Yeah, I love the pressure, and I love the challenge of the crowded landscape because I think it inspires me on the day of shooting to be like, “what can I make happen in this scene that’s going to make people go, ‘you have to see this episode.’” I don’t think any of us can get away with just going to work and making a TV show anymore. I’m always asking the question of myself and the other writers, “what can we do that’s never been done and is going to change the world?” And that makes us show up at work every day. So for me, I’m always attempting to go for the realest possible thing when we’re shooting. I want it to feel like a documentary. I want the actors to feel like the characters, I want the shooting to feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen until we start rolling. So I’m always attempting to create this friction of the unknown to make the show feel unlike anything else. So I kind of appreciate the pressure.
How much do the actors know in advance? Because so much of Transparent is being in the moment, and not so much premeditated.
SOLOWAY: They know what the script is, but we are like completely willing to change it when we get there. And not necessarily just change it but maybe push it forward maybe more than we thought. So, it’s not like we’ll throw something in entirely, but the moment we start acting and rolling and shooting, we’re looking for things that are surprises. So, as Jeffrey [Tambor] says, on most shows you do five takes, and then the director will say, “now do one for you,” or “let’s screw it up.” And we take that “let’s screw it up” and we bring that to the very first take. And then trying to figure out, what are we seeing? What’s happening between these characters that we didn’t realize? I feel like it is definitely scripted, but people like Christopher Guest or Mike Leigh are people who are trying to find the comedy in the friction and in the unknown and in the improv. We are totally into and then we just try to add the emotional realness in the family as well.
So in terms of the ethics of telling this story, do you feel responsibility? Do you feel like you can be creative in this landscape?
SOLOWAY: I feel like I can be creative. I’m always 100% welcoming to feedback, even feedback some people would say is about political correctness, which is something I don’t think too much about because when you think about people who have been marginalized, let’s say trans people, they haven’t grown up with parents that say, “I’m going to send you to acting school, what is your dream, child? Conservatory? Let’s learn how to direct.” These are people, up until the first generation who are saying, “mom, dad, I’m trans,” and people are actually going, “great.” But up until that, people were in the closet, they were hiding, they were suicidal, they were transitioning without any medical help or therapists. So they weren’t doing all the things that straight white guys, or wealthy white people, to move ahead in the business. Like go to NYU and major in film, come out and be a director. So when you look around and say, “where are the trans directors? Where are the trans producers? Where are the trans actors?” They’re just now getting into the business. So we have an unbelievable responsibility to pull them. Identify them, train them, teach them, give them multiple chances when they don’t necessarily get it right the first time.
And I feel like this is true of all intersectionally otherized people – I keep it as simple as women, people of color, and queer people, all are completely underrepresented in all media across the board. Not just film and television, but writing. And for me, as someone with access because of my class, because of my race, I just, anything anybody can do to remind me to help other people get to the place where they’re representing themselves. Oprah and Ava DuVernay had a talk where they talked about the difference between interpretation and reflection. So, if I’m not a trans woman and I’m telling Moira’s story, I’m interpreting. Even as the daughter of a trans woman, I’m still interpreting. And reflection would be people being able to tell their own story. So I recognize, as a woman, being able to reflect my own story. And when I imagine for trans people to be saying, “why are cis people telling our stories only,” it’s like how I would feel if only men ever wrote stories about women. How heartbreaking it would be for me, if there were staffs and staffs of men that would go, “well, we have a woman consultant, leave us alone.” And I’m like, “you’re going to sit in your writer’s room as ten men and write a story about me?” It would just be shattering. So I take all of the criticism, and I do all I can to evangelize on behalf of attempting to spread the point of view to other people who haven’t had it.
You address race this season in a way Transparent hasn’t before, the Pfeffermans sort of exist in this world that feels almost exclusively white-passing and Jewish, but you open that world up. How do you deal with, in terms of needing to interpret that kind of story, not minimizing the differences between people in terms of class, race, whatever?
SOLOWAY: It’s a total tightrope and we saw it as a total tightrope and said, “we’re going to try to walk this tightrope.” To me, it’s a question of intersectionality. Which is the term being used academically about whether or not women, people of color, queer people, have things in common or don’t have things in common. Whether or not they have these shared oppressions, and whether or not putting these oppressions together ends up erasing other oppressions. So we wanted to just ask that question in story. So episode 1, you get to this place: do these two people have more in common because they’re both trans, or less in common because one is black and one is white? That is the story point in episode one. Do they align through their transness, beyond their racial differences? We don’t answer it, we kind of leave this question. We love just like exploding these incredibly political questions and putting them into story without answers to kind of just try to evoke conversations afterwards. But it is a tightrope, because I’m interpreting these stories, I’m not reflecting.
If Season 1 was Moira coming out and Season 2 was kind of exploring her ancestral heritage, what would you say Season 3 is?
SOLOWAY: I think she’s really becoming. I think a lot of us experienced the feeling over the past few years about what happens when you get everything you want. And Moira pretty much says that in the first scene of this season. “My kids love me, I have a great job, I have everything I want, how come I’m still not happy?” And I think the dream of becoming, that dream of coming out, is kind of an antidepressant to people as you start to think, “I’m going to name myself,” and then you come out, and you’re kind of back to square one. You have your new self but now you have to actually deal with yourself. I think that could be a name for Moira’s story, of just, “what now?” It’s not enough to just identify as trans. She now has to have a life, she now has to love and be loved. She and Vicki (Anjelica Huston) are attempting to have a relationship, and sort of the movement – I’m trans, again, it’s like confronted by the personal which is like, “how do I get through the day? How do I love somebody and be loved?” I think they’re all trying to address their narcissism a little bit. I think the dream of it is after six years, everybody would go, “oh, they’re finally better.” That they aren’t just falling into total narcissistic accidents of encounters and start to see themselves and other people and care for other people.
Congrats on a fourth season! Do you have a time frame for when you want the family story to end?
SOLOWAY: I think they’re going to tell us. In my mind, it’s always kind of been like six seasons, but not for any reason. I do feel like, when I look at each episode, each season they’re like a whole movie. Season 3 would be like the beginning of the second act. Page thirty in a movie, they’re just really beginning the major part of their journey now. Seasons 1 and 2 were like the first act. So I think we could do four and five as the middle of the whole saga and then one more season to say goodbye. But remind me about that when I see you after the 10th season, and I’m like, “no, they still have stories to tell.” [laughs]
Transparent Season 3 premieres on Amazon Friday, September 23rd.