Jeffrey Tambor has had plenty of experience playing a member of a fictional dysfunctional family (see: Arrested Development), but he's never tackled anyone quite like Maura Pfefferman, the transgender character he plays on Amazon's new series Transparent.
It's a double role, of sorts. In flashbacks, and in the show's pilot episode,Tambor appears as Mort Pfefferman, who announces his plan to start living openly as a woman, Maura.
Though the transgender movement is experiencing a watershed moment, with celebrity spokespeople like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock appearing on talk shows and gracing magazine covers, Tambor says he was aware of the potential backlash his casting and portrayal of Maura might receive. During awards season earlier this year, Jared Leto (who is, like Tambor, a straight cisgender male) drew criticism from some circles for taking on the role of trans woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club and for his Golden Globesacceptance speech.
"I felt a great responsibility, because I'm cisgender male and I'm playing this role. And I knew that," Tambor says. "I understand skepticism. 'You mean the guy in The Hangover is ... ?' I get that. And I'm actually excited about that. I'm excited about the debate. I think it's needed and wanted."
To prepare for the part, Tambor "started reading like crazy," he tells TVGuide.com. He also spoke with trans consultants who work on the show, as well as trans author and activist Jennifer Boylan. Transparent creator Jill Soloway, whose inspiration for the show came partially from her own experience as the child of a transgender parent, also provided insight. "They led me gently but beautifully through this each day, and I'm still learning," Tambor says humbly. "As is Maura."
As opposed to the blustering gruffness of Arrested Development's George Bluth Sr., Tambor's performance here is anchored by lovely, understated moments. With small glances and gestures, he captures Maura's discomfort, frustration and amazement as she tentatively, and clumsily at times, explores her new appearance — and the range of positive and negative repercussions that come with it.
But finding common ground with Maura was easier than he expected. "Maura's my age," Tambor, 70, says with a small grin. "Maura has arthritis in her left knee, as I do. Maura wears glasses, as I do. You're getting the drift. ... And that was a revelation for me. My adage is, you're stuck with the character but the character's also stuck with you. So I had to find the Maura within myself as well. I know that's all ooey, ooey, but I did. And that was daunting."
And it's not just emotional exposure that Maura endures on screen. The pilot features a scene with Tambor in his underwear — something he says he initially balked at, but then embraced as something that would allow him to relate to Maura on another level. "It allowed me to enter [the character]," he explains. "I went, 'Oh,' and got the human part of it. It allowed me to participate. ... Sometimes you just go, 'Oh, I know who this is,' and I just every day tried to get to her. She was very real to me, and still is. I really like her."
All 10 episodes of Transparent are available via Amazon Prime.