Playing transgender Maura has made Jeffrey Tambor a better man and person


The actor in “Transparent”

LOS ANGELES—“I am glad that they have a father who plays Maura,” said Jeffrey Tambor, who plays the transgender lead role in “Transparent.” At 73, he is dad to five children whose ages range from 41, 12, 10 to 7 (twins).

“They are my teachers and inspirers,” he added about his brood. The four younger children are with Kasia Ostlun, his wife since 2001.

A palm reader correctly predicted that Jeffrey will attain major success later in his life. While he received acting nominations for “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Arrested Development,” the San Francisco native scored big-time with “Transparent.”

The web series created by Jill Solloway for Amazon Studios centers around a family in LA who discovers that the person they knew as their dad Mort is transgender. Jeffrey portrays the retired college professor who opens up to her family about always identifying as a woman, Maura Pfefferman.

Jeffrey’s portrayal has won him a Golden Globe and two Emmys (he became the first actor to garner an Emmy for playing a transgender character). “Transparent’s” Golden Globe win as best TV series-musical or comedy is the first show by a streaming media service to win a Globe for best series.

Excerpts from our talk:

What kind of feedback are you getting from regular viewers and the transgender community? I have said this over and over, but it’s the truth. Jill Solloway, in offering me Maura, has changed my life. But more to the point, my responsibility in living my life. It isn’t only the community that is learning at large, but I learn every day, every season, script and scene. The learning curve is vast.

I will tell you an incident that typifies my life right now. There was a man on American Airlines. We were deplaning, and he went, “Hold it right there!” I went, this is it, I’m going to be knocked out (laughs). He was coming right to me, saying “Hold on!” He grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you for teaching me about something I had no idea of.”

That’s the revolution because he is a powerful CEO who probably, until he saw the show, was predisposed to have another mindset.

Or a mother and father who came up to me at a film festival and said it was their viewing of the show that gave them more inspiration and determination when handling their son who said, “Mommy, daddy, I don’t want to go back to baseball practice.” They said, “Why?” He said, “Because I am not a boy boy.” They said, “What do you mean?” He said, “When I grow up, I want to be like Katy Perry.”

That they did not laugh or dismiss him, and they knew what to do, was part and parcel of our experience. That is what my life is. But there is [also] the text that says, “How dare you?” I want to be real clear—I still get those. The most recent one was, “Don’t you care what your grandchildren and great-grandchildren think?”


This is a show about finding a home. What was your own journey finding your home? I am 73, so there’s been a number of homes. I had my palm read when I was in school at Wayne State University. The guy who played Cassius was a mystic, and he read my palm. He said, “It’s going to happen.” I didn’t even ask him. He said, “But it’s going to happen very late.”

He was dead on because look at this. I wanted this at 35, and I would have been ready for it. So home is finding your purpose. I didn’t know this was going to be my purpose when I met Jill at the restaurant, Le Pan Quotidien. This is amazing.

Do you believe that the movement toward more representation of the transgender community in TV will keep going ahead? At the Emmys last year, I quieted the orchestra, which was funny, because the orchestra stopped when I said, “Sheket Bevakashah!” which is Hebrew for “quiet please.” I didn’t even know I knew “Sheket Bevakashah.” They must have been an all-Jewish orchestra, because they stopped (laughs).

I said that I wouldn’t be unhappy were I to be the last cisgender actor to play a transgender role. That’s true. I’m all about the creation of employment and opportunities for the transgender community. We are doing that. When I say we, “Transparent” is doing that.

But someone has to write the roles, put his bet down and say, I’m going with you. Affirmative action? You bet. I’ve been honored enough to teach performance classes at the LA LGBT Center. I am telling you, there’s trans talent out there that is unbelievable.

I want my students to have roles that are worthy of their talent. I want them to be more than the court stenographer, the barista. I’m also all about having them create their own production companies and making their own material. That’s how the revolution will happen.

Another bold thing that you did was becoming a father late in life. How does it feel to have those little ones? I have a 41-year-old genius who wrote a book. Then, I have children who are 12, 10 and two in their 7s.

I don’t think they know what I do for a living. They think I eat sandwiches, because they come to the set and we eat (laughs). They give me courage, they break the rules. They are all about—may I be profane, may I say the F word (laughs)? Not “F U,” but like, this is the way it goes.

There’s another element that I know. They know more in the writing room than I do, but Maura is 70. She’s a 70-year-old transwoman walking into the LGBT Center, who is older than the people there. That’s another thing because the light is dimming, but I’m being reborn at 70. That is Lear. And that’s a great opportunity.

Did it make you a better man? I think so. It spurs me to be a better actor. It has urged me to be a better citizen, and to be more present. I hope it has made me a better father. I love talking about “Transparent,” because I get to talk and it’s not about me. It’s about something bigger than me. So, I will talk forever.

There is never a better time where you can go, this is great and I feel good now. I am the Jewish son of Russian-Hungarian parents. What am I going to do (laughs)? That’s not in the menu. I’m living a dream—and I know it. This is what I have wanted all my life.

Are you one of the actors who feel like the last role they did is the last one ever? Do you feel secure now? Did you say the word “secure” to me (laughs)? I thought it was going to be Lear, but I can only do Maura for 20 more years, then I’m going to have to say no. That’s funny what I just said. I will do Maura till I literally stop.

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