[Spoiler alert: This interview contains minor plot details for the first few episodes of “Transparent’s” Season 3 and a few hints for later episodes. Proceed with caution!]
“Transparent’s” third season, which debuts on Sept. 23, returns with typical grace and a few more awards under its belt — creator Jill Soloway and star Jeffrey Tambor each won Emmys this past Sunday for the dramedy’s second season. The half-hour series continues to be one of television’s finest shows, even if the third season lacks some of the lyrical, dramatic quality that made Season 2 so arresting.
One of the most complex relationships on the show is between Tambor’s Maura and Judith Light’s Shelly, teenage sweethearts who have weathered marriage, separation, reuniting, and co-parenting, with many ups and downs along the way. Season 3 digs further into the evolution of their relationship. Variety spoke to Tambor and Light about what Season 3 of “Transparent” has in store for their characters — and along the way got an earful about the best hospitals in New York City.
Could you describe where Shelly and Maura are, with regards to each other, at the beginning of this season? There’s always this ongoing love/hate tension and attraction between your characters.
Tambor: I don’t think there’s any hate, ever.
Well, maybe that’s not the right word. But certainly in the third episode, there’s a dinner scene and you are sitting at opposite ends of the table, and it was like you were facing off. There’s something there in the room between the two of you.
Tambor: Well, there’s a big secret that’s being revealed in the room. That’s what’s going on, but actually we have each other. I mean, I don’t care about Buzzy (Shelly’s boyfriend), or anything like that, but some secret is coming out — a big, big family secret.
Judith Light: Hate is really not the dynamic between us at all. There’s tension, absolutely — confusion, loss, poking or proving or at each other in some way. More Shelly at Maura. For all intents and purposes, Maura is the person that she wants to be. Shelly’s not the person she wants to be. Jeffrey said something earlier that I think is true, which is that Maura and Shelly are always clocking each other. They always have each other, and they’re on each other’s radar all the time.
And there’s something about to be revealed between these two?
Tambor: Yes. There’s a secret with Josh and there’s a secret in our history, but that’s to be revealed. Even though these two seemingly are moving away. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think it’s going to be one of the largest concentric circles going.
Light: I do too, and wisely so.
Tell me about Shelly’s decision to come out as a personal brand in the third episode — which made me laugh out loud.
Light: It’s so incredibly absurd. It’s also what you watch people do when they’re overcompensating, and trying so hard to be okay, and showing everybody that they’re on top of it — they’re superior, and they’re all right, and their life is going well. There’s a need to prove so hard at somebody, to show somebody, and of course it ends up … Nobody’s going to listen to her. Everybody’s going to write her off. Nobody’s going to take her seriously. But that’s because of some of the things that Jeffrey said will be revealed later, and you will understand why that has come about.
Shelly appears to be going through this arc where she’s discovering herself outside of her identities as a wife and mother — and that’s interesting because it’s a kind of dated theme, one that we’ve seen for many years now.
Light: That’s right. You only come to things when you come to them. That’s what I think has been so profound, in terms of the story and the way the writers have written it and the way Jill has talked about it. That it’s what her role was — and the hope of being able to be with Maura was going to be, “Okay, this is going to be all right. We’re going to go off into the sunset together. I love you, not for your gender, I love you for your soul, your person-hood.” That doesn’t happen, so there is a need, a forcing of a new kind of life, or trying so hard to grasp at something to turn it into a something because there is a nothing when there’s that hole there. You can’t fill it up and you don’t know how to fill it up, you do things that are often not successful.
There’s a lot of sadness that comes into your relationship, too.
Tambor: There’s everything. I mean, there’s just everything. There’s joy, there’s sadness, there’s recrimination, there’s …
Tambor: Yeah, a lot of humor.
Light: Oh, my god.
Tambor: And Jill loves the off-note. The unexpected note. I always talk about the time that I learned about comedy. [It] was when my dad came home from the hospital and he’d lost so much weight that his pants fell around his ankles. We started laughing. We couldn’t stop laughing. We were pounding the car. But if you saw that scene, you might cry. That’s the odd mixture that [Jill] knows very well. She always turns it that way. That’s what the Pfeffermans are. I mean, Maura and Alexandra’s character walking up to the funeral with those hats on. I mean, Lordy, mercy. It’s just ridiculous. It’s so funny.
Light: It’s just brilliant, and it’s never, never caricature. The way that Jill sees it, the way that she focuses, it isn’t anything but this incredibly earnest person dressing, finally, the way that she wants to. It’s just beautiful. It’s beautiful, and it’s touching, and it’s heartbreaking.
Speaking of off-notes, in the first episode, Maura ends up in the emergency room. Everyone ends up making jokes about the farting patient in the next cubicle, but also, I think, she’s having a real moment of fearing death. What was it like to play that scene?
Tambor: [Laughs.] At the age of, being 72, at that age? Well, I mean, how will I possibly relate to that? Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. Yeah, that’s implied and never explicit, but it’s implied. It’s very heavy in that moment. Time’s a wasting, got to get on with it.
The whole premiere emphasizes how scared and confused Maura is.
Tambor: [She’s] alone. On the other hand, she’s proud, and she is determined to go to the Jewish hospital, so you’re laughing. It’s just hysterical.
I’m unfamiliar with L.A. hospital politics, but that was very intriguing.
Tambor: She’s a Jew, and she will only go to a Jewish hospital. That’s what she’s saying. “Cedars. I can only go to Cedars.”
Do you feel similarly about Cedars?
Tambor: Well, Cedars’ a great hospital, but … I go to New York Presbyterian.
Light: Love it.
Tambor: Love New York Presbyterian. I will do anything for them.
Do you guys just trade hospital recommendations?
[simultaneously] Light: We’re of that age! / Tambor: We’re both from New York!
Tambor: They are really …
Light: They’re remarkable.
Tambor:… a gifted organization.
Light: Yeah, and they have a great emergency room. And that’s another story for another time.
Tambor: I can’t believe it! You don’t get more Jewish than where we are right now.
Light: This, right here.
Tambor: “I tell you, that emergency room’s coffee … The coffee there …”
Light: They’re wonderful!
Tambor: “… is so good. The French roast!”