Jeffrey Tambor: Transparent is much bigger than me

Jeffrey Tambor is living proof that your most rewarding work can happen in your 70s. As Transparent returns for a third series, the actor tells Gemma Dunn why representing the transgender community is the 'responsibility of a lifetime'

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in award-winning Amazon Prime series Transparent

WHEN Jeffrey Tambor accepted a Best Actor Golden Globe for his role in Amazon Prime's Transparent last year, he dedicate the win to the transgender community.

"Thank you for your patience, thank you for your courage, thank you for your stories, thank you for your inspiration, thank you for letting us be part of the change," the 72-year-old announced, his speech laced with emotion over the support for his transgender character, Maura Pfefferman. "This is big. Much bigger than me."

Catching up with him prior to the launch of Transparent's third series, his passion – and dedication to the transgender movement – reads exactly the same.

"Jill Solloway has given me the role and responsibility of my lifetime," he says of the show's creator. "It's a joy to go to work every day.

"I'm not a teenager and this was a big moment in my life," he adds, beaming. "I'm like a little kid – I love it."

For those yet to catch up on the Emmy and Bafta-winning series, Transparent, which first hit the streaming service in 2014, centres on the Pferrermans, a Los Angeles family coming to terms with their father Mort's revelation that he now identifies as a transgender woman called Maura.

At the end of season two, Maura had forged a relationship with Vicki (Anjelica Huston); eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) had succumbed to exploring her Jewish roots after delving into BDSM; youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) was sexually involved with Leslie (Cherry Jones); ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) had found new love with Buzzy (Richard Masur); and son Josh (Jay Duplass) was confronting his own childhood demons having broken up with Raquel (Kathryn Hahn).

So what's next? Other than a cameo from arguably the world's most famous trans woman, Caitlyn Jenner...

"I can't give too much away, but I can tell you that Maura is changing rapidly," teases California-born Tambor, who's just scooped another Emmy for Lead Actor In A Comedy Series and is also known for roles in The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development.

"I always say, 'Once you look through Maura's eyes, your gaze never really changes', and I'm grateful for that. I love being an actor; that's all I've ever wanted to be, so to get a role like this in my seventh decade is quite a gift."

But while the versatile star may have embraced his on-screen transformation (Tambor admits he even took a "field trip" to a nightclub dressed in full costume at the outset), he's only too aware it comes with much responsibility.

"I'm a cisgender male, so I don't take it lightly," he says, adding that transgender hasn't "always been characterised well on TV".

"Sometimes the lines of drawing have been almost caricature, and I always say, 'Lives are at stake, this is very important'. Look at my character, look at my project. I'm all about freedom and freedom of speech," he enthuses. "People know I'm an ally of the community.

"I think we've earned a bit of trust; people are watching it and saying, 'Oh, they're doing it well'.

"There's the odd negative remark," he reveals with a sigh. "I received a tweet saying, 'You should be ashamed of yourself', but I guess we're still changing.

"This is moving very fast," he quickly adds. "Generation Y and Generation X have no tolerance for any bigotry."

Holed up in a London hotel suite, Tambor is warm and engaging – younger than his years and full of fun and enthusiasm. This, I suspect, may be down to his latest mandate: "My kids travel with me," he chirps, affectionately calling to them.

"I don't do well alone and so they come too. They're my teachers, they put the 'wow' back in. That's what little kids do: they go, 'Wow', and we old guys have to be taught to say 'wow' every day. Also the whole spirit of play. They're just so excited, so I get that from osmosis."

But it's not all starry treatment for Tambor's offspring – he has an 11-year-old, nine-year-old and six-year-old twins from his marriage to actress Kasia Ostlun, as well as a 41-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

"I mostly drive them to events," he quips. "That's actually what I really do for a living. I drive my son to Cub Scouts, I drive my daughter to Girl Scouts and I drive my kids to their French lessons."

With plenty of work in the pipeline, including an upcoming stint opposite Helena Bonham Carter in 55 Steps (a film based on the true story of a lawyer defending a schizophrenic patient), downtime sounds like a rarity.

"I don't do well idly. It's always nice to have something, but after the next two movies, I think I'm going to take a breather and stare into the sky for a bit," Tambor muses. "I want to travel more, I want to revisit all these places because I'm sitting here talking to you and I'm looking at St Paul's, and I'm thinking, 'I need to redo this and re-look at that'.

"Does that sound boring?" he adds with a glint. "I want to go back to Asia and I want to take my kids; I want to do a walking tour of this city..." he continues, before being interrupted by his children clubbing him with pillows.

Wherever he is in the world, there are certain things he refuses to shake, however.

"You know that thing of, 'just putting things down?" he asks, referring to his past roles. "Well they're just like levels of dermis; they add to your character every day.

"Certainly Maura does... I take off my costume, put on my cisgender clothes and go home, but I never put Maura down ever, ever. She has changed my life," Tambor finishes with a smile. "That sounds terribly 'interviewy', but that's the truth."

:: Brand new Transparent is available on Amazon Prime Video from today, with new episodes following weekly.

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