Big, bald, with a booming voice and expressive features that have made him a familiar face on TV and in movies for the better part of five decades, Jeffrey Tambor has made supporting roles memorable and lead ones—like his Emmy-nominated performances in The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development—sublime.
But at age 70, the consummate character actor may have found his best role yet. The dark comedy Transparent, streaming on Amazon Prime beginning this week, casts him as Maura (né Morton) Pfefferman, the patriarch of a dysfunctional family who is in the process of becoming a woman.
And if what we have seen so far is any indication, the wily vet may win an Emmy yet…
“I’m not a heel-y person. That was brand new. It’s the first time I’ve gone to Hair in 40 years.”
You have a résumé full of career highlights. Where does Transparent fit in?
I think this is one of the best roles I’ve ever had in my life, and to have this happen in, shall we say, the back nine, is, well, there’s not an hour that goes by that I don’t say I’m very lucky.
What do you like best about this character?
I like her. I believe in her. This is going to sound weird, but I believe she’s already created and I just have to get to her, and that’s sort of fun. She’s very real to me and I just like to go to the set every day and just keep trying to get close to her. I find her very comforting.
Playing Maura, do you have a new appreciation for the grooming rituals of women?
Yes I do. That’s not what the whole role is about, but I do. I have said to my wife, “How the heck do you…?” I mean, there’s a lot of that. I’m not a heel-y person. That was brand new. It’s the first time I’ve gone to Hair in 40 years.
How much time did you have to spend in the hair and makeup trailer?
An hour and a half, got it down to an hour. I have to do the eye thing and be still. But I actually like when Maura appears. I really do like looking at Maura. I think she’s pretty. I don’t think I’m pretty, but I think Maura’s pretty.
For research, did you talk to any women or men who have changed genders?
Yes. We have trans consultants. It’s tremendously helpful. They took me out and they showed me, and they talked to me and I asked very personal questions. And sometimes I would just say, “Well, what was it like when…?” They’re often on the set and just them being around gives me a lot of confidence, because I get very nervous. I get very nervous about doing it right. This is important to me and I do want to do it right. This is a lot of responsibility. When we did the pilot it was just like, well, it’s just a pilot. But now, there are people looking and there are people expecting.
You turned 70 this year. What does that mean to you and what’s on your to-do list now?
I have a daughter in her thirties. I have a nine, a seven, and two four-year-olds. So I am sort of making sure the world is safe and right for them, and this is part of that. I want to do works that have to do with connection, and that’s very important to me.