TV Writer Jill Soloway Talks to DAME About Getting More ‘Transparent’

We talk with the creator of our favorite Amazon pilot about critical love, sisterly bonds, Jim Croce, and casting Jeffrey Tambor as a patriarch in transition.

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A rare and wonderful thing happened to a rare and wonderful project: On February 6, Amazon Studios premiered ten new pilots, asking consumers to weigh in—for the second time in ten months—on which shows should be made into a series. That wonderful project is called Transparentand its creator Jill Soloway, a veteran writer and showrunner (Six Feet Under, United States of Tara), hoped her friends and family would watch and vote, and launch a word-of-mouth campaign. What she hadn’t expected—because it was unprecedented—was for all of the major TV critics (e.g., Vulture, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, The New Republic, among many others) to get in on the action, and single out hers as not only as the best of the bunch, but also as the best pilot they’d seen in years. And on March 11 Variety reported that Amazon Studios had given the green light to her half-hour family drama, starring the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor as a divorced father struggling to come out to his three self-absorbed adult children (Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker, and Jay Duplass) as a trans person—Transparent being one of only four pilots they’re ordering to series. DAME spoke with Soloway—who also wrote and directed the excellent film, Afternoon Delight, which premiered at Sundance last year and earned her a Best Director award—about the moment she’s long been waiting for: having the opportunity to create her own show, after years of running other people’s works. And better still, she launches a series with an audience who is already enamored of it.

You must have been overwhelmed with joy that the critics singled out ‘Transparent,’ not only as the Amazon pilot to watch, but also as the one they can’t wait to see in series. Clearly Jeff Bezos listened.

It feels great, in some ways it feels a little bit like I’m protected by a group of the older kids on the street. To have this very delicate child, which is a piece of art that you made that is 28 minutes long that comes from your heart, to have it be surrounded so quickly by people who say, “We love this,” makes me feel like I have this ally, or safety net around me.

Was Amazon only looking to consumers, or did they also factor the media into their decision?

We never talked about the press in this way. We just assumed that we were going to be exposing it through friends and family, that people who had Amazon Prime were going to get the announcement and would form a focus group and maybe word would get out to drive some people to watch the pilot, as opposed to what really happened. That we never even bothered to contemplate hoping to get. We just didn’t even think about it.

In light of the controversy over Jared Leto playing a transwoman in ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ were you nervous about casting a cisgender man in the role of Mort?

I was definitely aware of the controversies and I had to think long and hard about what it meant to look for somebody to play the patriarch/matriarch of a family on a TV show that you hope to run for many years. And somebody who not only has the experience as an actor, but was also beloved by America to say, “This is the parent. This is really the focus.” Is there somebody of Jeffrey’s age and experience who’s transgender out there right now who allows everybody to go: Here’s your star? If that person existed, I would absolutely, positively have explored that. But the political touchiness of it really exploded even more after we shot the pilot because of Jared Leto. We have trans consultants. I was able to do enough thinking and researching and talking to people that I came to a place where I feel that I can defend the idea of a cis man in the part of a transwoman. And that’s because there’s so much that is discussed in the world of transitioning. In particular, older transwomen—women who are over the age of 50 or 60, who are in transition from their maleness—often don’t medically transition. There’s also a whole other subculture within the trans community of heterosexual crossdressers—Eddie Izzard identifies himself this way. There’s kind of a giant gulf between crossdressers and transwomen. One of the things the show is going to explore is how Mort identifies: Does she identify as a crossdresser or as a transwoman? That’s a title that can really shift over the course of seasons. As we’re doing a show about someone who is going to be discovering all the different possibilities, I think we’ll be safe having Tambor.

What moved you to write a family story about a patriarch in transition?

I really see the way that people transitioning their gender works as a beautiful metaphor for the ways that we all feel uncomfortable in our bodies, for the ways everybody doesn’t stay put in their family of origin: Your dad marries somebody nobody likes. Mom starts gambling. Your sister comes out. Everybody gets up from that childhood dinner table, parents and kids alike, and goes into their life and becomes who they want to be, and everybody is forced to match or unmatch who they want to be with who their family of origin wants them to be. So it just seems like a perfect metaphor for all kinds of transitions for all kinds of people, for parents who don’t really know their children that well, for children who don’t really know their parents that well, and whether or not having “blood ties,” whether or not there’s a soul connection, whether those things work to keep people together in the name of family, when people’s individual urge to become someone can often be in conflict with those ties.

And then there’s Mort’s oldest daughter, Sarah, whose own sexuality is in flux after running into an ex-girlfriend at her kids’ school. Sarah’s marriage to a man isn’t in the best place. The ex-girlfriend has a same-sex partner and kids. I know a number of lesbians who thought it’d just be easier to have a family with a man. And, ten, fifteen years ago, it probably was. But that didn’t mean you didn’t still have feelings for women. And so here we are with Sarah. What’s her story?

We’re working on the first season, and the question of whether or not Sarah really is a lesbian or bi or straight, that’s something we want to be able to play with over the course our dream five seasons. Identifying and naming. We had this really awesome trans guy with us yesterday, Ian Harvie, a standup comic, and he’s supermacho, a cowboy type guy who has a vagina—and that’s part of his whole act. So for him, the question of transman and types, if you really get down to the bits and pieces of people’s bodies, and you recognize that no matter whether you’re gay, straight, trans, butch, femme, it’s still negotiating, whether you’re comfortable with your body. You’re still negotiating with body parts you will or won’t want to have at any part of any sexual encounter. Do you fall in love with a person or do you fall in love with a body? I think it’s an interesting question to pose for Sarah, if she claims the word “lesbian” for season one.

What shows have inspired you?

I love Louis C.K. His show, I watch with my mouth open. I can’t believe how much I love every moment. It really inspires me to raise my game and push myself to be as honest as he is. And I also love ‘Girls.’ And I am also really into reality: I love all the ‘Real Housewives’ shows. I love shows about groups of women. There is so little real television about women, by women. So many things that women watch are watching other people, particularly men mediate how women should be. And as fucked up as all the women on ‘Real Housewives’ are, I really love watching the space in between who they think they are and how they appear. That to me is the part that I really like watching. Trying to see their truth through their job—they’re bad actors.

Tell me about that Jim Croce song, “Operator,” in the pilot.

My husband is a music supervisor and he works on everything I do and so while I was writing the script, I knew I wanted a cool song at the end, I didn’t know what. And he suggested, Jim Croce’s “Operator.” I wrote it into the script and never gave it a second thought. But it was a magical moment because there are so many lines in it that work so well with what the show is about. And the relationship between Josh and Ali reminds me a little bit of the relationship between my sister Faith, who I’ve hired to write for the show. We’ve been best friends our whole life—we are so close that I think probably quite a few years ago, it was hard to get into a relationship with other people because we felt so known and seen by each other. We are 18 months apart, she’s my older sister. That scene of them sitting on the floor [of Mort’s house—their childhood home] going through the records, that’s a real tribute to a ton of childhood memories, the ‘Hair’ cast recording, Herb Albert, Jim Croce—those are burnt into my memory.

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